The Mysterious Dodo Marmarosa

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DODO’S BOUNCE / MARMAROSA: Dodo’s Bounce. Opus #5. You Thrill Me. Compadoo. Bopmatism. Raindrops. Escape. KREISLER-LeBARON: I’m in Love. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover, Come Back to Me. KERN-HARBACH: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes / Dodo Marmarosa, pno; Barney Kessel, gtr; Gene Englund, bs / DeROSE-PARISH: Deep Purple. YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. MARMAROSA: Tone Paintings I. Tone Paintings II / Marmarosa, pno / MARMAROSA: Bopmatism (2 tks). Dodo’s Dance (2 tks). Dary Departs (2 tks). Dodo’s Bounce. Dodo’s Lament. COOTS-GILLESPIE: You Go to My Head (listed as Trace Winds by Marmarosa, 2 tks). RODGERS-HART: Lover (listed as Cosmo Street by Marmarosa, 2 tks)/ Marmatosa, pno; Harry Babasin, cel/bs; Mills, dm / THOMPSON: Slam’s Mishap. Shuffle That Riff. Smooth Sailing. Commercial Eyes. MARMAROSA: Bopmatism, Dodo’s Dance. Trade Winds. Dary Departs. Cosmo Street / Marmarosa, pno; Lucky Thompson, t-sax; Red Callender, bs; Jackie Mills, dm / Fresh Sound Records FSCD-1019

The collection of rare 1946-47 recordings, released by Fresh Sound in 1991, adds considerably to our perception of a mysterious but obviously prodigious jazz talent who flourished in that decade, disappeared, came back briefly in the early 1960s and then apparently vanished from the face of the earth, though he continued to live until 2002 when he died in his native Pittsburgh at the age of 76.

If you look up photos of Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, you’ll find only one in which he is smiling. One. In all the others, he looks about as sad as a man who has lost everything he loved in life.

Marmarosa was born in Pittsburgh on December 12, 1925. As a child he couldn’t pronounce his first name, Michael, so his family called him a dodo. Somehow, against his will, the nickname stuck. When he left Pittsburgh at age 16, in 1942, he was a fully formed classical pianist and his family expected great things of him, but he was bitten by the jazz bug by hearing the music on the radio. After a few local appearances with Brad Hunt’s society orchestra and also with local guitarist Billy Yates, Marmarosa joined the band of Johnny “Scat” Davis. A few months later Gene Krupa hired him, but the leader was then busted on the first of a couple of marijuana possessions and the band broke up. Dodo, lead trumpeter Jimmy Pupa and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, all from the Davis band, stuck together as a trio. They were then picked up in rapid succession by Ted Fio Rito, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey, but it was with Barnet that he made his first important and notable recording, The Moose. Written by Ralph Burns, later a staff writer and arranger with Woody Herman’s First Herd, the original title of the piece was Dick Tracy Liquidates 88 Keys, but Barnet thought it too long. At this point, not having been around long enough for his nickname to stick in the professional world, Barnet nicknamed him “Moose” and so the record was titled The Moose.

After Barnet, he spent a year in Artie Shaw’s first band after his discharge from the Navy (starting in late 1944), mostly in the small group called the Gramercy Five, but then joined the avant-garde jazz band of Boys Raeburn where he made his second most influential record, Boyd Meets Stravinsky. His star was on the ascendant, but for some reason he kept a low profile. Perhaps his most notable recording session was the one in March 1946 of Ornithology, Night in Tunisia, Moose the Mooche (there’s that nickname of Moose again!) and Yardbird Suite with Charlie Parker. But Dodo kept a low profile. Despite the fact that jazz collectors began to seek out his records, the activity presented on this CD pretty much sums up the rest of his contributions during the ‘40s. He was hospitalized for illness from July 1946 through January 1947, returned to Pittsburgh in 1948 and just played local gigs, apparently unaware of his cult status among musicians and jazz fans.

What led to his disappearance from the jazz scene were two traumatic events that left deep psychological scars: his wife leaving him (also barring his being able to see his two daughters) and an Army induction in 1954. He was labeled as crazy, hospitalized, given shock treatments and then discharged three months later. According to an article by Steven Cerra posted on the Jazz Profiles page (https://jazzprofiles.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-mysterious-michael-marmarosa-aka.html), “Dodo became even more remote. He lived day-to-day, seeking no gigs on his own – jobs came because a friend would call him (especially Danny Conn). But he practiced continually, his entire world revolving around the piano. Full of self-doubts, he was unable to share his music – on some nights if you were there and heard him that was enough – no questions, no compliments, no requests, no encores. On other nights, he was very congenial. His family, first generation Italian, rejected any professional help, looking upon this as a stigma.”

But here he is in his prime, sounding wonderful, relaxed and swinging. His style was sort of a cross between two other innovative white jazz pianists of the 1940s, George Shearing and Lennie Tristano (who also disappeared for a while, but that was because he refused to go commercial and wanted to devote a decade to teaching). His playing here is not as busy or as complex as on The Moose or Boyd Meets Stravinsky, but excellent nonetheless. He also does not use as many extended or altered chord positions as did Shearing or Tristano, and in Deep Purple and Tea for Two he sounds surprisingly like one of his idols, Art Tatum (he told Cerra in 1995 that “I used to listen to all his records. I used to buy his records.” Unlike several other pianists I’ve heard try to “do” Art Tatum, Marmarosa actually gets the articulation and the rhythm exactly right. In Tone Paintings I and II, we hear Dodo the free jazz improviser, creating pieces that sound for all the world like updated versions of Bix Beiderbecke’s improvised piano piece of the 1920s, full of Debussy and Ravel-like harmonies, the second more swinging than the first. These are clearly remarkable recordings, and it’s a real shame that the original 78s were apparently pressed a bit off-center, so that there is some pitch wavering towards the end of each side. (Of course, Fresh Sound could have corrected this pretty easily by using a 78-rpm turntable with a removable center spindle—I had one once myself. You put the record on with the spindle, start the turntable up, then remove the spindle, eye the record from its edge to see where it sways and gently tap it the opposite direction of its outward “swing” with your index finger until the grooves appear to be more centered. It would have taken then all of a minute to correct but, like so many others, they were too lazy to do it.)

Fresh Sound mistakenly identifies the first five tracks that he plays with Harry Babasin and Jackie Mills to the session with Lucky Thompson and Red Callender, and then compounds the error by attributing the first six tracks with Thompson to the Babasin-Mills session. I should also point out that two pieces attributed to Marmarosa, Trace Winds and Cosmo Street, are actually the old standards You Go to My Head and Lover  (with no changes in either the melody or harmony). Dodo is in spectacular shape, sometimes spinning out right-handed runs with the insouciance of a Bud Powell. But Marmarosa was always very modest about his talents. In that 1995 interview, he particularly praised fellow-pianist Johnny Guarnieri for being able to play things he couldn’t, such as the amazing left-handed runs on his recording of Hallelujah. “I could never do that ’cause it takes time to get from here to there, and I thought how the hell does this guy do that? It always amazed me how he did that. It sounds reasonable, you know. You play the roots and then you have to play a chord. It takes time to get from here to there.” Yet some of his own playing could be equally dazzling, as can be heard here.

In addition to not correcting the “swinging copies,” Fresh Sound also retained most of the 78-rpm surface noise on these discs, but no matter. The music is marvelous.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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