The Marsalas: A Love Story

Adele-Joe-Marsala

Back in the early 1970s, I occasionally dropped into a junk shop in Passaic, New Jersey that had, among other things, large piles—and yes, they were just heaped into piles, not placed on shelves or anything else—of old LPs and 45s. Most came from the period 1952-1964, many were out of their original covers, and more than a few were scratched, chipped at the edges or even cracked, but they were cheap (LPs for a quarter, 45s for a dime) and amidst all the garbage were some real rarities. One such that I picked up was an old 10” Brunswick LP featuring reissues of Vocalion-Decca-Brunswick jazz 78s from the late 1930s-early ‘40s. One side was by Bud Freeman and his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra; the other side was by someone named Joe Marsala, with harpist Adele Girard on some of the tracks.

Of course I knew who Bud Freeman was; his name was legendary, he had been a charter member of the Austin High Gang in the late 1920s and was still playing here and there. Joe Marsala was a name new to me. I listened to the recordings, which were updated versions of old trad jazz pieces from the 1920s. They sounded pretty nice, but they didn’t grab me at the time.

Talking to older jazz musicians and critics, I learned that I was by no means alone in my assessment of them. I was told that Marsala was a “pretty good” clarinetist who played at the Hickory House in New York City for a decade, and that Girard played “very pretty” on the harp but couldn’t swing. As the years went by, I also noticed that the Marsalas were consistently left out of jazz histories (such as Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era). They were considered to be fairly marginal figures.

Yet with time, a greater knowledge of jazz history and a deeper appreciation of what certain older jazz musicians could and couldn’t do, I came to appreciate Marsala quite a bit and his wife (as I learned), harpist Adele Girard, even more. Joe Marsala was a technically superb clarinetist who had a brighter top range than that of Artie Shaw and a deeper, richer low range than that of Benny Goodman. A product of the Chicago jazz scene in the 1920s, he gravitated to the playing of both Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone and fused elements of both of their styles into his own. His improvisations were adventurous when compared to those of such late-‘20s New Orleans players like Barney Bigard or Omer Simeon, he swung hard, and he could (and did) play both traditional jazz (or Dixieland, if you prefer) and the contemporary jazz styles of his time. His only sin was that he was, to coin a phrase, conventionally excellent but not a groundbreaker, and for this reason he has been pushed to the side in jazz histories.

Adele Girard, however, is another story. Her only real predecessor in the realm of jazz harp was Casper Reardon, who died young in 1941 and is largely forgotten. But since Reardon was a man, and recorded with Jack Teagarden, he is sometimes considered to have been a better jazz harpist than Girard. That simply is not so. Although a fine technician, Reardon’s improvisations were fairly tame and didn’t swing. Within the limitations of her instrument, Girard did swing, and her improvisations are much better than his. It is a testament to her excellence that almost no one other than LaVilla Tulos, an African-American jazz harpist with a very limited repertoire, could equal her in swinging (though Tulos’ improvisations were not as complex). The reason is, as Girard explained so well, the harp is probably the most difficult instrument to “swing” on because it is so technically complex. You have seven pedals to deal with, each controlling a small group of strings, therefore one’s hand and foot manipulation is considerably more complex than on a piano. It’s like the difference between playing jazz on an actual, full-sized, fill-up-the-building pipe organ or one of those portable electric organs. Even the most complex of the latter, like the Hammond B-3, are relatively easy to control compared to the former, which is why Fats Waller’s 1926-27 jazz recordings on the pipe organ still hold up as marvels.

In some ways, Girard’s improvisations were similar to those of her husband, but at times she differed from him. This, I have since discovered, was because she was trained in jazz improvisation by three of the best white musicians of her day: Frank Trumbauer and Charlie and Jack Teagarden. But more on that in a bit.

First, we need to trace the history of the leader, the man she married, from his early days to the years of stardom on 52nd Street. This isn’t terribly easy to do; Joe was a modest man who didn’t talk a lot about his past, even to his wife, thus all we have are the tidbits of information which she passed along.

Marsala was born on January 4, 1907, which would have put him on the Chicago jazz scene during its heyday, the mid-1920s. His immigrant parents originally settled in New Orleans, which made Joe’s connection with jazz all the more likely, and his father Pietro played valve trombone on the riverboats. But Pietro, who was also known as Pete, married and had five children, which forced him to get a job as a stock clerk to supplement his part-time trombone playing.

Joe had to toughen up quickly as a youth in order to survive Al Capone’s gangster-run city. According to Adele, at about age 12 his mother sent Joe to the local grocer to buy some food, and with the little money left over he bought a peanut butter sandwich and began eating it as he left the store. Suddenly, “a black limousine wheeled around the corner, the doors flew open, and machine gun bullets riddled a man standing next to him. Joe dropped everything and ran, but before going half a block, an old man on his porch said, ‘Walk, son, walk. Don’t call attention to yourself.’ And Joe did. He never ate peanut butter again nor could tolerate the smell of it.”

Marsala quit school at age 15 to help his family and naively took a job that paid pretty well to help them out: running liquor for a bootlegger. According to his daughter Eleisa Marsala Trampler, his father hauled him off the premises, letting him know that he could get killed that way, so Joe shoveled cinders off freight cars and tried both factory and office work. He couldn’t keep up physically enough to handle those jobs. While working for a trucking company he was thrown through the windshield in an accident, which permanently scarred his face and neck. If you look closely at photos of Marsala, you will notice that he wore makeup to cover the scars as best he could.

Attracted to jazz and having tried out several instruments, Joe and his younger brother Marty eventually settled on the clarinet and trumpet, respectively. Again according to Eleisa Trampler, “When Joe could afford a clarinet, an African-American neighbor gave him tips on playing the blues. Marsala was greatly inspired by Jimmie Noone [who played with a little band at the Apex Club], but it was after hearing Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five in the 1920s that he decided to be a musician” Unable to afford lessons, he was noticed by Clarence Warmelin, the former clarinetist for the Minneapolis Symphony. Warmelin told Joe that he knew he couldn’t afford lessons, but if he came to his studio he’d leave the door open so he could listen to the instructions he gave to his paying pupil. “After my student leaves,” he told him, “I’ll go out for a sandwich, that way I won’t have to charge you.” Marsala thus picked up the all-important basics of clarinet playing this way, though Eleisa insists that “he was mainly self-taught.”

Joe MarsalaFor a time, Marsala played with fellow-Chicagoan Francis “Muggsy” Spanier, six years his senior. Spanier, already established as a professional musician at the time, loved Marsala’s playing, and both of them were of the same mind about updating the old jazz standards for the more modern audiences of the 1930s. Ironically, this paid off more for Spanier than for Marsala. Muggsy’s “Ragtime Band” of 1939-40 recorded 16 sides for RCA Bluebird that were praised to the skies by jazz critics of the time and have come to be known as “The Great 16,” credited with sparking the Dixieland revival of the 1940s, while Marsala’s late-1930s updates of such tunes as Clarinet Marmalade, Walkin’ the Dog and Wolverine Blues are generally ignored or dismissed. Much of this has to do with promotion and location. Although Spanier felt to his dying day that his band never got the gigs or promotion that it needed and deserved, the promotion he did get was like a blockbuster compared to Marsala.

In 1935, Marsala joined the band of New Orleans trumpeter Joe “Wingy” Manone (sometimes, even on record labels, erroneously spelled “Mannone”) at Adrian Rollini’s Tap room. Although Joe could read music and Wingy couldn’t, they got along famously, with Wingy helping to loosen up the somewhat shy youngster. And each time Wingy got a better gig, he took Joe along with him, moving first from the Tap Room to the Famous Door and then to the Hickory House at 144 West 52nd Street. Being older and better known, Manone was able to wangle a good recording contract with RCA Victor, first on their full-priced black label records in 1935 and then, the following year, on their less Bluebirdexpensive Bluebird label, and of course Marsala was a part of his band—as were Adrian Rollini, the Tap Room’s owner and a formidable bass saxist, and Putney Dandridge, a black vaudeville singer who at the time was trying to make it in New York. In between his Victor black label and Bluebird contracts, Manone recorded for Vocalion, once a “name” company in the 1920s but then a budget label on a par with Bluebird discs. Somewhere in the middle of this, Marsala managed to wangle a deal with Decca to record six sides, two of them under the name of “The Six Blue Chips” featuring a then-little-known trumpeter named Roy Eldridge. Ironically, however, these were Dixieland-styled records, the only time Eldridge was known to play in that style. On one of his General recording sessions, he used African-American trumpeter/vocalist Bill Coleman and alto saxist Pete Brown, one of the forerunners of rhythm & blues.

But now let us divert our attention from Marsala for a bit to check in on the career of his lovely future harpist and bride. Unlike Marsala, Adele Girard came from a French Canadian family which was originally well-off: her grandfather was one of the original contractors of Williams College, her father a violinist, and her mother had a fine soprano voice. But you can see how their “blue blood” interfered with their business decisions when you read that her mother won both a scholarship to study voice at Williams and an opportunity to study and sing at the La Scala Opera in Milan, but turned both down because she believed that singing onstage was “unladylike.”

Fortunately for us, the Girards fell on hard times during the Depression and daughter Adele was much more realistic about making it in the world. Originally a pianist (though she began taking harp lessons at age 14), Adele’s older brother Don found her some jobs in the Catskills. Her mother was set against it, but when Adele packed her bags and showed she was serious, Mother just had to come with her to protect her good name. After landing a job as pianist and vocalist with the fairly well-known society bandleader Harry Sosnick in 1933, she eventually switched from piano to harp the following year, and it was on this job that she honed her skills on the instrument. In the winter of 1935, she joined the band of another fairly well-known leader, saxophonist Dick Stabile, this time strictly as singer-harpist. Her skills rapidly improved.

Adele GirardIn early 1936, Stabile decided to go on the road and couldn’t afford to take a harp with him, so Adele lost her job. Feeling dejected, she was approached, in her own words, by “a formal-looking, goateed gentleman” who walked up to her and offered her a job playing in his small band. This “gentleman” was the famous C-melody saxist Frank Trumbauer and his bandmates, in a group they called “The Three T’s,” were Charlie and Jack Teagarden. According to Girard, “Their harpist, Casper Reardon, had taken a job in the Broadway production of I Married an Angel,” and this was “the first musically challenging job I ever had” because she knew very little about jazz despite playing dance music for several years. “But the Teagardens and Frankie Trumbauer were fine musicians and treated me well. From them I learned the jazz repertoire. But even more importantly, I learned how to improvise. My having been forced to play without music so much had given me a knack for knowing which notes to play, but I had no sense of the feel, phrasing, and logic that go into jazz improvisation. I learned those from listening to the Teagardens and Frankie every night.”[1]

Girard thought she had finally made it, playing with these top professionals in their field, but after playing in several of the best New York nightclubs, most often at the Hickory House, she was told that “Paul Whiteman had hired Jack, Charlie, and Frankie. My situation was desperate this time because I had just purchased a $2,500 gold Lyon and Healy harp. So I went to Jack Goldman, owner of the Hickory House, to see if he could help me. He told me that a young clarinetist, Joe Marsala, was putting a group together to replace us.”

Marsala-Allen

Marsala with Mort Stuhlmaker and Henry “Red” Allen, 1936

Although this scenario sounds logical, there’s a bit of a problem with the chronology, because the Teagarden brothers both signed five-year contracts to play in Whiteman’s band in 1933, not 1936, and Trumbauer himself played in the Whiteman orchestra during 1935-36. There’s a famous 1935 recording of Announcer’s Blues featuring both Tram and Big T to prove it. The only thing I can think of to explain this scenario is that Whiteman, who always allowed his top jazz talent to make recordings on the side, possibly also allowed them a chance to play on nights of the week when his orchestra wasn’t performing to supplement their incomes. There are no recordings by “The Three T’s” to substantiate their existence, but there is a 1934 recording under Jack Teagarden’s name called Junk Man which featured both his brother Charlie on trumpet and the afore-mentioned harpist Casper Reardon.

As it turned out, Jack Goldman was well acquainted with Joe Marsala due to his prior affiliation with Manone. One of the reasons why Marsala was chosen to be the new band’s leader was that he suffered from colitis and therefore had no tolerance for alcohol. This meant that it was guaranteed that he, at least, would be sober by the night’s end!

Of course Marsala hired the pretty young harpist, and was delighted when he learned that she not only knew a lot of jazz standards but could also improvise. It was musical love at first sight for both of them, and within a few months of their opening at the Hickory House on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1937, they eloped to get married. Joe had wanted a full wedding with all the trimmings, but Adele knew her mother too well to know that she’d even allow such a union, let alone attend the ceremony. They eloped and were married at the “actor’s chapel” on 49th Street in July. As it turned out, Adele was right. When she broke the news to her mother a few months later, her comment was, “Adele, he’s a damned Italian who will murder us in our beds!” Mama Girard had seen one too many gangster movies, and was convinced that every Italian from Chicago was a gangster.

Toots Thielemans, Girard, Marsala

Guitarist Toots Thielemans with Adele and Joe on 52nd Street c. 1947.

But Marsala was anything but. Polite, soft-spoken, modest about his talents, he did everything he could to make the band a success, hiring the top jazz talent in New York as they became available. At one point, his lead trumpet player was the great Henry “Red” Allen, Jr. When his band was booked to play a different venue in New York, he was told that “the colored gentleman” would have to leave. “In that case,” said Joe, “I leave too.” It was only when the manager saw them actually packing up their instruments that he allowed Allen to stay.

Hot String BeansThus we have the beginnings of an anomaly. Marsala, as I mentioned earlier, stayed at the Hickory House for 11 years, so he had to be doing something right, and even a cursory glance at the musicians on his many recordings will show you that he did indeed have top talent in his band: trumpeters Bill Coleman, Benny Carter, Max Kaminsky and Bobby Hackett in addition to his regular trumpeter, brother Marty (and later, one session with Dizzy Gillespie) and drummers George Wettling, Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, Dave Tough and Zutty Singleton. Like Benny Goodman, Marsala was a pioneer in the integration of live jazz, but Benny got all the credit while Marsala did even more than him. Also, in a way, this revolving door of stars made the Marsala band look like a temporary haven for these musicians to hang out and play good jazz until something better came along, for none of them stayed very long.

General labelAnd there was another problem. Although Marsala insisted on always playing good jazz, whether swing or streamlined New Orleans style, he never, ever condescended to record any pop tunes of the day, so he never had any hit records. Without hit records, no one but hardcore jazz collectors—who even then only represented 30% of the population at best—were going to buy his records, and none of them would be played on the radio (except by real jazz DJs like Ralph Berton). Marsala’s band recorded for Vocalion and, for two or three years, for Decca, but most of the time they had to make do with small indie labels like General Records, known almost exclusively for having made Jelly Roll Morton’s last recordings. Most people who are not Joe Marsala fans don’t even know that he did record for General. Later on, he recorded on the Black & White and Musicraft labels, neither one with really good distribution. When his Decca recording of Twelve Bar Stampede b/w Feather Bed Lament was issued in England, his name didn’t even appear on the label. Instead, the session was credited to British-born jazz critic Leonard Feather because he had written those tunes.

brown DeccaAdd to that the fact that the Marsala band never toured but only played in New York and mostly at the Hickory House, and you have a recipe for a modest, solid income but nothing approaching stardom. Of course Marsala, being a modest man with no exhibitionist tendencies, probably would have crumbled under the weight of stardom and particularly its grueling one-night stands across the country, and toting Adele’s $2,500 harp around would have made such travels cumbersome. At one point, from 1939 to 1941, he expanded his group to nine pieces which was scored like a big band to take advantage of the swing jazz orchestra craze of the time, but nine pieces—in which there was only one trumpet (brother Marty) and no trombones—weren’t going to bowl anyone over, especially (again) with not a single hit record to their credit. Ironically, he received what was possibly his widest exposure as an occasional guest on Eddie Condon’s trad-jazz radio broadcasts beginning in 1943, first from Town Hall and then, from 1945 onward, from his own nightclub, Condon’s.

Black and White labelMarsala’s musical curiosity extended briefly into the bebop era. In 1945 he recorded two sessions with the very advanced bop guitarist Chuck Wayne, and in the first of these he had Dizzy Gillespie as a guest artist. Yet again, the records only appealed to the jazz cognoscenti.

By 1949, Marsala had had enough. In an ironic twist of fate, one of his last recordings was a middle-of-the-road pop version of Someone to Watch Over Me, complete with a chorus of singers behind himself and Adele. Although it didn’t make the top ten, it was the best-selling record of his career. That’s when he knew it was time to leave. Also, in addition to his colitis, Joe had developed an allergy to nickel and had a constant rash on his hands from the nickel-plated keys on his instrument, so he decided to stop playing. In its place, he wrote—of all things—popular songs, some of which were recorded by Frank Sinatra and Patti Page. The lifelong, hardcore jazz man became mainstream at last.

Musicraft 2Joe Marsala died at age 71 in 1978. Adele outlived him by 15 years, dying in 1993 at the age of 80. She missed him terribly to her dying day, but managed to leave us one last memento of her talent. Clarinetist Bobby Gordon, who had studied with Joe, made an album of standards with her in 1991. Although her playing is evidently a bit less energetic than it had been in her prime, Adele played very well on it. It was her way of saying both “Thank you” and “Goodbye” to the man she loved.

Below are links to the performances I like the most:

Swingin’ at the Hickory House (w/Manone)
A Star Fell Out of Heaven (w/Red Allen)
Wolverine Blues
Feather Bed Lament
Jim Jam Stomp (w/Buddy Rich)
Hot String Beans (w/Buddy Rich)
Twelve Bar Stampede
Three O’Clock Jump (w/Bill Coleman & Pete Brown)
Reunion in Harlem (w/Bill Coleman & Pete Brown)
Salty Mama Blues (w/Bill Coleman & Pete Brown)
Clarinet Marmalade
Bull’s Eye (w/Shelly Manne)
Slow Down (w/Shelly Manne)
Solid Geometry for Squares (w/Shelly Manne)
With a Twist of the Wrist (w/Dave Tough)
Soft Winds (w/Dave Tough)
Walkin’ the Dog (w/Max Kaminsky)
Sweet Mama, Papa’s Getting’ Mad (w/Kaminsky)
I Know That You Know (w/Eddie Condon & Gene Krupa)
Clarinet Chase (w/Ernie Caceres, Pee Wee Russell, Krupa)
Zero Hour (w/Joe Thomas & Chuck Wayne)
Joe Joe Jump (w/Joe Thomas & Chuck Wayne)
Slightly Dizzy (w/Chuck Wayne)
My Melancholy Baby (w/Wayne, Dizzy Gillespie)
Cherokee (w/Wayne, Dizzy Gillespie)
Southern Comfort (w/Joe Thomas, Buddy Christian)
Gotta Be This or That (w/Joe Thomas, Buddy Christian)
Harp Boogie (Adele Girard, solo)

Check them out…you’ll be glad you did.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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[1] Adele Girard quotes from The Sweethearts of Swing, https://www.pitt.edu/~atteberr/jazz/articles/Girard.html, © Phillip D. Atterberry.

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