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A Cooler Time

[whitespace] Marcus Shelby Nothin' but the Swing: Bass player Marcus Shelby keeps the past contemporary.

Jazz tradition thrives in Marcus Shelby's passionate hands

By Amanda Nowinski

WHEN ACOUSTIC-BASSIST Marcus Shelby and his band take the stage, a strange thing happens. Present geographical-spatial-time continuums are erupted by sounds of a cooler time--when jazz wasn't just backdrop for dinner conversation or a trend for retro poseurs in wing tips and Stetsons. "I articulate my musical experiences through traditional examples," explains Shelby, whose influences include Monk, Mingus, Miles and Marsalis, to name a few. Although Shelby's sound is reminiscent of "passionate, romantic, sophisticated" flavors of the past, it is also decidedly contemporary; the trained composer and former rocket scientist (yes, it's true) writes most of the material he and his various bands perform.

"My style is based on my favorite old-time musicians, but I keep it modern by taking my own sensibilities and creating new sound from that. There's really nothing new under the sun, but every musician has their own unique vision," Shelby says. "As a composer, there's no better example to me than Duke Ellington. He's where I start. He's the foundation, and his music is still relatively undiscovered by this generation." But what about the swing-set kids--don't they know about the jazz legends? "Uh, sure," Shelby says. "Even though there are swing clubs that play Duke Ellington's music, they still don't know too much about the musical genre as a whole."

Raised in a family of talented Memphis blues musicians, Shelby began playing the stand-up bass as a child ("I didn't pick it--it chose me"). But it wasn't until two years after graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in electrical engineering that he took up jazz as a full-time gig. "When I finished college, I worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, but only for one year. I hated it. It was something that didn't fit into my lifestyle," he explains. When he met drummer Billy Higgins in 1990, "everything changed."

"Two years earlier," Shelby continues, "I also met Wynton Marsalis. And that's what got me thinking about music as more than just a hobby. Wynton became my role model in music because he was well-spoken, incredibly talented, successful and respected--everything I aspired to for myself."

In 1990, Shelby won a full scholarship to the prestigious Cal Arts, where he studied with several jazz greats, including Higgins, James Haden and Tootie Heath. While a student there, Shelby formed his first jazz band, Black/Note. After signing on to Columbia Records, the group traveled around the States, toured Europe with Wynton Marsalis' band and released four albums (Nothin' but the Swing, Jungle Music, LA Underground and 43rd and Degnan). "Black/Note was an amazing experience," Shelby reminisces. "But we got to the point where we needed to shake things up a bit. We had to reach another level, and to do that we had to explore ourselves individually."

After dabbling in the jazz scenes of New York and Paris, Shelby left L.A. in 1996 for San Francisco, where he formed the Marcus Shelby Trio and Noir Records, a label "dedicated to exposing 'art music'--jazz, classical and world music." Shelby has recorded several outstanding jazz albums on Noir, including Un Faux Pas and the recent Intimate Strangers, a spoken word/jazz album featuring poet Marcus Conrad Poston.

"Although spoken-word is nothing new, it's going through a renaissance," Shelby explains. "The earliest combination of jazz and poetry took place in the Harlem Renaissance with Langston Hughes, when he did the album Weary Blues. It shouldn't be just poetry on top of jazz--it should have a solid conversation with the melody, the rhythm and even the harmony. It's like having two separate arts function as one."

Marcus Shelby performs Thursday (July 23) at 9pm at Gordon Biersch, 33 E. San Fernando St., San Jose; no cover. The Marcus Shelby Trio performs Aug. 9 at the San Jose Jazz Festival. (408/294-6785)

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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