American jazz musician John Marshall has been teaching jazz at the Music and Dance Conservatory of Mongolia and performing with local jazz musicians since late October. The 66-year-old musician is known for his masterful trumpet and flugelhorn playing as well as soulful vocals. Since 1996, Marshall has released eight CDs as a leader or co-leader and several more as a specially featured guest all the while growing his reputation through the many concerts and CDs of the WDR Big Band.
Marshall said he’d always wanted to travel to Mongolia and finally decided to come when his old friend, German bassist Martin Zenker, who works as a project consultant at Goethe-Institute Mongolia, invited him to join the institute’s jazz program. Before his four-week stay ends in late November, The UB Post got the chance to delve into jazz and discuss the Mongolian jazz scene with Marshall.
When did you become passionate about jazz?
My father was a music teacher who taught small children in public schools. When I was a child, there were always instruments so I could try playing them all like the clarinet or trumpet. I liked the trumpet the most. I liked the sound of it. As time went on, I started to study it privately with a very good teacher. My school had a music program so I was very lucky because there was a really good music program at school and a private teacher that my parents paid for.
My father had records. He had some swing records because he was into swing music. I didn’t really understand jazz but when I was about 15 years old, we had a new music director for the school band. His name was Clem DeRosa. He had been successful in other schools, playing big band music. He brought some good experience to the school. So, when I was 15, I began to have the opportunity to play some of the music that Count Daisy was famous for. It took me years to understand how a jazz player constructs his solo but I had become fond of jazz music and continued to listen to it. A few years after I moved to New York, when I was 19, I really tried to figure that out and try to understand what all of the jazz players were doing.
Of course, it’s a big tradition. All the great jazz players, when they were young, were copying somebody who was also copying someone else when they were younger. It’s a lot of copying and imitation and you need to try to understand the logic of it. My biggest hero Dizzy Gillespie, for example, when he was young, all the trumpet players were trying to play like Roy Eldridge. In the 1970s, he was the most exciting trumpet player. Dizzy and many other trumpeters were trying to copy his style of playing. Afterward, they added more things to the style and developed their own great styles. That’s just one example. There’s a lot of imitation.
Does that mean you have to imitate others to develop your own style of playing?
Yes, definitely. I think that if you don’t do that, it means you’re not that serious about becoming a jazz musician.
Since when have you been actively traveling and playing the trumpet?
Since I was 18 or 19. I’ve been to many countries. When I was really trying to pursue a career in jazz, I was in my 20s – it was the 1970s. We still had many big bands and great jazz players but in 10 years, most of them were dead. This was the last 10 years, they all were active, you could join and perform with them, and go on the road with them. There was a special time in history when popular music and jazz were all working together. There was a very positive influence on jazz. Jazz players were writing music for shows and show music was influencing jazz players. But nothing lasts forever. We still have certain good songwriters like Stevie Wonder.
Generally, there aren’t many great songwriters these days. Now, we have a music industry that puts out music to make money. Good songwriters are working like money machines. Jazz isn’t for making money because you have to dedicate your whole lifetime to try to do that.
You’re temporarily teaching at the Music and Dance Conservatory. How are your students? Are they good?
They’re very good. They’re very nice to me and very eager to learn. I’m trying to teach them some of the basic techniques of playing and reading music so that it’s easier to play jazz. Rhythm is the most important of all. Rhythm drives everything in music. I’m trying to teach them that and then show how to construct melodies that fit harmonies of the old songs we play.
I’m trying teaching them how to prepare to play jazz too. You have to master your instrument to make music. You can create beautiful melodies in your mind and it would be nice if you have developed the techniques required to play out that melody in your mind. There’s a lot of preparation. Practicing is your preparation. Playing is different. When you have to perform at a concert, you need to relax and give yourself to the spirit of the music and hopefully, the technique – because you repeated it over so many times – is in you and you subconsciously use it as you play.
A lot of jazz is based on old songs from shows and films. Many of the songs that became popular with jazz players were originally in some kind of show or film because we had so many amazing songwriters and teams writing music for them.
Have you taught in other countries?
Yes, I have. I taught music in Columbia for eight years but I was quite busy with regular jobs and the WDR Big Band. Later, I decided to concentrate on my own job and quintet. I worked [with Big Band] for about 26 years all the way until I reached 65. It was a very good job. The whole time, I was going to New York and making tours of my own. My job with Big Band was a 200-day a year work so it was a lot but I still managed to stay active with my music.
Now, I’m free which means I can tour whenever I want and wherever I want. It’s nice.
You’ve been collaborating with Mongolian jazz musicians. How did you find the experience and their skills?
They’re good and they love music. I’ve just been trying to encourage them to listen to certain things more and to improve their reading skills. This is important if you’re trying to become a working musician. One of the reasons I was pretty successful in New York for over 20 years is that I could read well and match the style. I could fit into different styles. It’s not that good if you can do only one style of playing. You have to be able to play all styles or at least the main styles like swing music, and rock the music with just the right amount of adjustments. If you’re flexible, care about music and listen carefully, you can adapt (to other music styles) and be very successful [as a musician]. I’m trying to help them with that.
Would you say that they are on par with international jazz musicians?
Sure. Jazz is popular all around the world. Sometimes, you don’t hear great jazz. Sometimes, the jazz people hear is very commercial and when they hear pure jazz, they love it so much. They think that pure jazz exists only on records. I don’t want people to hear commercial jazz but pure jazz and the world needs it.
Where can we find pure jazz today?
Jazz requires people who love it and can play it well. It exists but people just have to learn to play it.
Back to Mongolian jazz musicians, do you have any advice that can help them take their skills up a notch?
Master the instruments, spend the time to develop their technique, and if you’re certain about the instrument, carefully study the music and figure out how it is constructed. Find out who the best players are and whose style really touches your heart. Then, analyze their style and imitate it.
If you’re composing, of course, you’re going to study Bach. Just like that, jazz has its own great people. For example, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and it goes on and on. There are many good trumpet players, each one of them with their own influence. My biggest influence was probably Dizzy Gillespie and somebody called Fats Nirvalo, who unfortunately died very young. I used to copy his style. It also happens that Christopher Brown died very young. He was a very big influence too.
When listening to jazz, what should people look for and listen to?
Jazz isn’t background music – you have to really listen to it. Great jazz music is almost like it’s trying to tell a story. Right away, you can tell it’s not for everybody. A lot of people just want background music. They don’t want to really listen. But if you do really want to listen, jazz has everything. It has something for intellect, something for your heart, and something for your soul. To me, jazz is a complete music and very satisfying as it always has been. The most important thing is that it touches the heart and your emotions.
Do you have a favorite jazz song?
It’s hard to pick one. Music that’s closest to my heart would be Charlie Parker’s “Bebop”. I think the name is a little silly but he took a slow music and developed it to a higher level lyrically and harmonically.
Jazz is somewhat based on improvisation. A band will have to have a good synergy to be able to play along, right?
Yes, you have to listen to each other to react in time. Good musicians are always listening to the next musician and always playing something that will make him/ her sound even better. If one musician plays the wrong note, the other musicians will do something so that it doesn’t sound that wrong.
How do you keep in shape and take care of your health?
I enjoy swimming.
[Playing the trumpet] is more about efficiently using the air and keeping most of the body relaxed. When playing, you should relax your body as much as possible and your neck should not be tight. It’s more about the balance, synchronization, and strength. It requires training.
What do you plan to do next?
I will go back to Germany on November 24. I will play a few nights in Berlin in December and then, three nights in Prague in January. I’m working on a big tour for next year. Some of my favorite jazz players will be touring with me at the beginning of May so I’ll be working on that.