Arno Marsh, a big band tenor saxophonist who recorded almost exclusively with Woody Herman's Third Herd in the 1950s and cited Chu Berry and Stan Getz among his major influences, died on July 12. He was 91.
In addition to his work with Herman, Arno led a band in his home town of Grand Rapids, Mich., between 1951 and '53, but the ensemble isn't known to have recorded. Arno began playing in Las Vegas starting in the late 1950s and worked continuously there until the lengthy musicians strike of 1989, which lasted nearly 8 months. The strike began over a move by hotels to use taped music instead of live musicians in large production shows.
Resolved in 1990, the strike gave the hotels unfettered power to use recorded music in exchange for a one-time payment to displaced musicians. In many ways, the strike broke the musicians union's hold over orchestra work in Vegas and left many older players sidelined after decades of residence and steady work.
Arno recorded just four leadership albums, all for Woofy Productions. We have Bob Lorenz to thank for those recordings. Bob, the founder of Woofy, had the good sense to record Arno at Capozzoli's and at the Lighthouse Cafe. The superb albums are Arno Marsh Quintet with Carl Fontana Live at Capozzoli's, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (1997) and The Arno Marsh Quintet: Sunday Afternoons at the Lighthouse Cafe (2004). You'll find them here, here, here and here.
In tribute to Arno, here is my entire 2012 interview:
If you were a superb musician back in the 1940s and lived in a city or moved to one, you were likely going to find yourself auditioning for a name band pretty quickly. But for every great musician who wound up in a major orchestra, there were hundreds of others who remained in their smaller home towns and earned a decent living playing in territory bands. Tenor saxophonist Arno Marsh was one of those regional musicians—until he ran into Urbie Green in 1951.
Green brought him into Woody Herman's band. Unlike many of the tenor saxophonists who worshiped Lester Young and adapted his cooler, linear sound, Arno favored Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins—saxophonists with more bite. In the '50s, Marsh played mostly in Woody Herman's Third Herd, with stints in the '56 orchestras of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson before settling in Las Vegas for the weather and steady work.
Arno talks about growing up in the Midwest, his early career on local bands that toured neighboring states and his later years:
JazzWax: What did your father do in Grand Rapids?
Arno Marsh: My dad played banjo, before the guitar became popular. Then he was a professional guitarist. He also copied music for the Grand Rapids Symphony. And in his spare time he was a painter and mechanical draftsman. Later in life he built a lake resort in Northern Michigan.
JW: Your dad was quite something.
AM: He was. My mother was a pianist and flutist. But back in the early days when they met, she played piano in silent movies. Unfortunately my mom became ill early.
JW: What happened?
AM: Schizophrenia. She was in and out of institutions when I was young. As a result, I hardly knew her. I only saw her maybe three or four times in my life.
JW: Who raised you?
AM: My grandparents. My dad, my brother and I lived all with them in their house. At least we had the influence of one female.
JW: Is your brother older or younger than you?
AM: My brother Jim is a year younger. He joined the Army when he was 18 years old and spent his career in the military. He wasn’t musically inclined.
JW: How did you become interested in music?
AM: I loved music from the time I was a child. I always was more interested in listening to Louis Armstrong than Guy Lombardo. And there was always music in the house. My father often had jam sessions there, and he played jazz—or whatever they played in the 1930s.
JW: Did you listen to records?
AM: Not records, just the family radio. I’d listen to whatever came on. When I was 10 years old, the doctor diagnosed me as being asthmatic. He told my dad he should get me blowing an instrument.
JW: What did your dad do?
AM: He brought home a trumpet, but I didn’t like it. So he brought home an alto sax. That was better, and I took some private lessons. In high school I played in the marching and concert bands. Pianist Clare Fischer was there, too. He organized our school’s first dance band.
JW: What was your first professional job?
AM: In1946, I left high school to go out on the road in a sleeper bus doing one nighters with the Walter Marty Orchestra, a territory band. Marty played alto sax.
JW: Did your high school pals join you?
AM: Yes, eventually, I got a whole bunch of guys from Grand Rapids on the band. Clare and his trumpeter-brother Dirk, trumpeter Bill Velten, drummer Mike Balish, tenor saxophonist Morey Velten. There were six of us. Eventually we all went with John Paul Jones, another territory band out of Salina, Kan. We used stock arrangements. I wasn’t with the band very long—maybe into 1947. Jones broke it up, and all of us went home to Grand Rapids.
JW: How did you wind up on the tenor sax?
AM: I worked with a band called the Duke Ambassadors, aband started by Sonny Burke in the '30s at Duke University. When I was on the band, it was fronted by drummer Sammy Fletcher. He came in to do a summer job in Michigan and he needed a tenor saxophonist. I worked with the band during the summers of 1947 and '48.
JW: What did you do after playing with the Duke Ambassadors?
AM: I went with Joe Saunders. He was a pianist. I did some time on the road playing one-nighters. By 1949, I went with pianist Lee Lockwood in St. Joseph, Mich., at the Whitcomb Hotel. It was strictly dinner music and dancing. I did that for a year, until 1950.
JW: What did you do next?
AM: I went back to Grand Rapids again. There weren’t many gigs. Back home, guys would meet, shake hands and play stock arrangements. I worked a lot at the Crispus Attucks American Legion Hall with small groups. Then I did after-hours clubs at the Lamar Hotel. It was just a quartet fronted by Harold “Popeye” Booker, a pianist. Dick Twelvetrees was the drummer and Pete Glover was on bass and me on tenor and alto. We played strictly jazz.
JW: How did you get discovered by Woody Herman?
AM: Woody’s band came through Muskegon, Mich,, and played at the Fruitport Pavilion. I already knew Urbie Green.
JW: When did you meet Green?
AM: When Urbie was with Gene Krupa’s band in 1948. He had asked me to sit in with some of the guys in the band when they closed down the joint where they were playing. My chops were up, and I had made an impression. I was working with the Duke Ambassadors in Michigan, playing a ballroom in Grand Haven, when they came through. We were off that day, so I had a chance to meet Don Fagerquist and Al Porcino. Urbie was a nice guy.
JW: How did your audition go with Herman?
AM: It went great. Soon after the audition I received a telegram offering me a chair in the band. They were in Detroit at that point. But I had an interesting situation.
AM: In one hand I had Woody’s wire asking me to join the band. In the other I had a draft notice just as the Korean War was heating up.
JW: What happened?
AM: I took the physical but flunked. I had a history of being an asthmatic.
JW: So you joined Herman’s band?
AM: Yes, I joined Woody in December of 1951. We went out on the road for a few days to Oklahoma. On my first gig, I had to sight-read the band’s book.
JW: Whose chair did you fill?
AM: I replaced Kenny Pinson, who returned to Detroit. The reed section was me, Dick Hafer and Bill Perkins on tenors, with Sam Staff on baritone and Woody, of course, on alto. Nat Pierce was on piano, Sonny Igoe on drums, Chubby Jackson on bass, Urbie Green, his brother Jack and Carl Fontana on trombones, and Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist at different points.
JW: What do you remember of Fagerquist?
AM: His nickname was Dugan. When Chubby Jackson left the band, Red Kelly came in. He gave Don that name, and I have no idea what it signified.
JW: What other changes took place?
AM: Sonny Igoe was replaced by Art Mardigan. We started making noise with that band in 1952. We got into San Francisco and Ralph Gleason wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle that named us The Third Herd." Woody’s bands hadn’t been named before that.
JW: What did you think of Fagerquist?
AM: I enjoyed Don’s playing. He was such a tremendous jazz player. He was a funny guy.
JW: What did you think of Doug Mettome?
AM: He was a fantastic trumpet player. One of the biggest,fattest sounds I ever heard coming out of a horn. When I first joined the band, both Doug Mettome and Don Fagerquist were in there, if you can believe it. Don and Doug together were unbelievable. Don, of course, played jazz trumpet, and Doug played lead.
JW: And Chubby Jackson?
AM: Chubby was a very funny guy. He had been in Woody's 1945 Goosey Gander" band. When I joined in '51, we had some uniforms made. The jacket was one color and the pants another. Chubby had his made in reverse colors. That's the kind of humor he had.
JW: What was Woody Herman like?
.AM: .Let me tell you something about Woody. Everyone who had worked in that band loved the man. Woody showed his musicians enormous respect. If he didn’t like you, you left pretty quickly. That happened to tenor saxophonist Phil Urso. He was a strange guy. I never got close to him. He got fired during a Hollywood broadcast. He did something goofy and was gone.
JW: Was the Third Herd band drug-free?
AM: As far as I knew there were no drug users on that band. Woody had put up with that in the Four Brothers band and it lost quite a bit of money when he had to break it up. After the Four Brothers band, Woody wanted an orchestra that could connect with more fans. The Third Herd’s book was more danceable.
JW: You left Herman in 1953?
AM: Yes. I went back to Grand Rapids. I was on the road so long it started to get to me. Frankly, I don’t know how all those bandleaders did it.
JW: Why was the road so hard?
AM: You’re traveling 300 to 400 miles each day, sometimes through the night. Once in a while you get to stay in one location for a while, but that was rare. You’re checking in and out of hotels.
JW: How did you do the wash?
AM: Hotels had laundry service. You usually didn’t eat in the room. You ate in hotel coffee shops.
JW: How did the band travel in ’52 and ‘53?
AM: By car. Woody leased a fleet of four cars. We didn’t follow each other. That was a recipe for trouble. Each driver knew the directions and drove independently of each other.
JW: What about the wardrobe and drums?
AM: We carried our horns in the cars. But the band boy handled all the clothes and drums. He drove a small van. He traveled independently as well, often leaving ahead of us so he could get there first and set up.
JW: Where did you eat?
AM: At truck stops. You have to remember that this was the days before air conditioning in cars. In warm weather, it could be very hot. And if the heat wasn’t working, cold in the winter.
JW: And if you were black?
AM: Oh, it was much harder.
I remember we did a concert tour with Dinah Washington and the Mills Brothers. When we got down South, they had to stay in black neighborhoods. I was driving a station wagon on that trip while the rest for the band was on the bus. I was driving the guitarist in the Mills Brothers. I stayed where Dinah and the Mills Brothers stayed. I can tell you it was demeaning for people as talented as they were. But the places we stayed were so friendly to me, and the food was so good.
JW: When you went back home, what did you do?
AM: I formed my own group. Norm Schnell on piano, Bob Tuller on bass, Dick Twelvetrees on drums and me on tenor. We worked at the Hotel Rowe in Grand Rapids. Then we went up north in the summer, since hotel management would shut the Rowe in the hot weather.
JW: What did you do in the years that followed?
AM: I played the Rowe for a couple of years. Then in December 1955, I went back with Woody.
AM: I missed the big time. Woody kept that band together until 1956. Then he broke it up to go into the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
JW: What did you do?
AM: I went to Chicago and transferred into the union there. While I was there, Stan Kenton was at the Blue Note. He needed a saxophonist because Lennie Niehaus was leaving. His wife had just had a baby. Tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins shifted to lead alto, and I played Bill’s tenor book. The other reeds were Billy Root on tenor and Pepper Adams on baritone.
JW: Big difference in the reed sections?
AM: Oh yes. Woody was the kind of bandleader who would get up and start stomping and swinging right away. Kenton’s band was so heavily loaded it was like trying to pick up a house. The emphasis was always on volume rather than swing. This was 1956. I was with Kenton for only about 30 days. He broke up that band in Los Angeles.
JW: What was next for you?
AM: I decided to transfer into the Los Angeles local. While I was there, I played in one of Maynard’s Dreambands. The charts were by Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel and Willie Maiden. The reeds were Joe Maini on alto, Richie Kamuca and me on tenor, and Willie Maiden on baritone.
JW: What else did you do in L.A.?
AM: I auditioned for Les Brown and got the gig. Billy Usselton was leaving to join Ray Anthony, who had landed a TV show. But then Usselton decided not to leave, and the Brown gig fell through for me.
JW: What happened next?
AM: I joined Hank Penny in Las Vegas.
Hank was a country humorist. The band behind him was a small jazz group. I spent two years with Penny in Vegas.
JW: How did you get the job? AM: Sue Thompson, Penny’s wife, sang with his band. She talked to the band’s bassist to introduce us.
JW: What was the town like back then?
AM: Vegas in the late 50s was really different. It was just starting to surpass Reno’s population. There was so much work for a musician. If you could play, you didn’t stop working. I transferred into the Las Vegas union.
JW: You played with Charlie Ventura there?
AM: That’s right. Charlie came into the Thunderbird Hotel and needed a tenor player. Ventura was a sweetheart. Al Cohn had written his book. They were all groovy charts. There were four reeds, two trombones, two trumpets, Charlie on tenor, and a trio. We were working opposite Jackie and Roy in ‘57.
JW: Did you stay out there?
AM: I did. I worked the Reno-Lake Tahoe-Las Vegas circuit.
JW: Did you spend any time in New York?
AM: Yes, when I was with Woody in ’52 and ‘53. One time we were working at the Band Box, which was next door to Birdland. During a break, we went up to the street for some air. A cab pulled up and Charlie Parker jumped out. But he couldn’t pay the driver. I remember he was playing Birdland that night with Art Taylor, George Duvivier and Bud Powell.
JW: What happened?
AM: While the cab was idling, Parker ran down to the bar to get some money. But he came back empty-handed. They wouldn’t give him an advance. So I paid his fare.
JW: Did you get to know Parker?
AM: I was rooming with baritone saxophonist Sam Staff in Woody’s band. Sam played baritone. We roomed at the Hotel Knickerbocker, which was on 45th St. just east of Broadway. Sam knew Parker, and sometimes Parker would come up, and they’d play chess. Parker was a real nice guy.
JW: Was that the first time you met Parker?
AM: Actually no. One time, when I was with one of those territory bands back in 1946 or '47, we played in Kansas City. After our show was over, a bunch of the guys went to this old movie theater on 18th and Vine, which had become a club.
JW: Why? AM: They had what were called Blue Monday Sessions. These were jam sessions that would start late Sunday night and last until daybreak on Monday. Well, we’re playing one of those, and in comes this guy with an alto saxophone. He got up and played in front of us and floored everyone. It was Parker. He was in K.C. visiting his mother.
JW: Who was your biggest influence?
AM: Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Sonny Rollins. And Wardell Gray and Stan Getz. I loved Getz and marveled at his playing. His ability, facility and knowledge and concept were amazing.
JW: What was the turning point in Las Vegas for jazz musicians?
AM: I think the long musicians strike in 1989. After it was settled, the hotels didn’t want us anymore. There’s very little work there now for older musicians. I live about 25 miles out of town. I play once a week or so with a couple of bands that features young musicians and us older guys. It keeps our chops in shape.
JazzWax clips: Here's Arno Marsh in 2009 with fellow saxophonist Tom Hall playing Disc Jockey Jump. Arno is on the left...
Here's How High the Moon at the Lighthouse in 2004, featuring Bob Summers (tp), Arno Marsh (ts), Ross Tompkins (p), Chuck Berghofer (b) and Paul Kreibich (d)...
Here's Nancy Wilson at the Sands in Las Vegas singing I Can't Get Started with Arno blowing a tenor sax obbligato...
And here's Arno with Woody Herman in 1958 at Peacock Lane in Los Angeles playing Gene Roland's arrangement of Ready, Get Set, Jump...
This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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