Joe Marsala and Adele Girard at the Hickory House. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb

Who remembers Joe Marsala (1917-78)? 

He was a clarinet player (doubling alto), Chicago-born, who made his reputation in the middle Thirties to the late Forties, usually in small improvising groups. 

He had splendid intuitive taste in the musicians he associated with — Wingy Manone, Joe Thomas, his brother Marty Marsala, Pee Wee Erwin, Max Kaminsky, Bill Coleman, Bobby Hackett, and an upstart named Dizzy Gillespie; Eddie Condon, Dave Tough, Dave Bowman, Carmen Mastren, Eddie Miller, Ray Bauduc, Buddy Rich (a kid given his first professional jazz job on Fifty-Second Street by Joe), harpist Adele Girard (who became Joe’s wife) and others.

Billie Holiday told a story of being broke and hungry and coming into the Hickory House and having Marsala buy her a big steak dinner . . . obviously a man whose soul was generous as well. 

To my ears, what distinguishes Marsala from the crop of wonderful clarinetists playing in that period is his combination of tone, phrasing, and the undefinable thing called “soul.”       

Consider this:

and this:

and this, from the same 1940 date:

And another surprise V-Disc effort which suggests that Marsala was deeply aware of the “new jazz” of 1945, even more than simply hiring Dizzy Gillespie for a record date.  (In writing this, I do not raise Marsala above his fellow “Condonites” because he was “hip” enough to listen to Bird and Dizzy — my world is not restricted to bebop.  But I find it intriguing that he made friends across the soon-to-be divided jazz landscape.) 

At first hearing, some might think this performance an unabsorbing piece of early Forties pop.  But wait for Joe’s brief interlude, his warm tone, his delicate phrasing:

And a rare record from the collection of another gifted clarinetist Norman Field:

To learn more about Joe Marsala and his wife — jazz harpist Adele Girard, heard above — visit this site, which contains a lovely extended interview with Adele done by Phil Atteberry, a treasure:

Bobby Gordon, who studied with Joe, keeps his spirit alive.  But perhaps you’d never heard of Joe, so I hope this blog will act as a little gift: there are more wonderful musicians out there, uncelebrated, than you know in your philosophy, Horatio. 

Musicians who play so beautifully need to be celebrated in a world that seems to have forgotten them.


11 responses to “VINTAGE MARSALA

  1. Dizzy actually recorded with him. I have heard “On the Alamo,” although probably not in 20 years

  2. Listen to MY MELANCHOLY BABY — from that session! On this blog . . .

  3. Can’t forget his recordings with Roy Eldridge as the Delta 4 on Decca, with Sharkey Bonano on Vocalion and with Bunny Berigan on Frank Froeba session for Columbia. I gave a presentation on Marsala at IAJRC – Chicago last Fall and noted that Joe was recorded on at least 90 different dates between 1935 and 1945. His recordings are very sparse after that. His last recording session was with Tony Bennett with Bobby Hackett on ukelele! His gorgeous sound was a constant thoughout his career; it neve waned. Thanks Jazz Lives for this remembrance of Joe.

  4. I wouldn’t forget a note Joe played – – – and we are kindred spirits, my man, because we not only love Joe but also that little Hackett fellow. Yours in their spirits, Michael

  5. I enjoyed all of the posts so much,,,Thank you!!

  6. Great post! Another one of those players who I periodically remind myself, “I need to listen through his stuff some time…” Thank you for saving me the immense effort of pulling his discs off my shelves, lol.

  7. You know well that one of the pleasures of the blogosphere — our common home — is of grabbing someone by the imagined sleeve and saying, “Hey! Listen to this!” I spent many hours in my adolescence with my now-scattered friends playing records back and forth for our shared exultation. So if I can remind someone of Joe Marsala — or, even better, make someone newly aware of him — what a pleasure! And since I haven’t yet extended myself to learn how to run simple audio tracks on JAZZ LIVES, I rely on YouTube, where you not only hear the music, you see the record spinning: Proust’s madeline at 78 rpm, inedible but still delicious! Be well, Prof. F: may your Pennies turn into Nichols!

  8. Eleisa Marsala Trampler

    Bobby Gordon tipped me to your site and it’s a pleasure to find that appreciation for Joe and Adele Marsala(my parents)still remains. Their recordings are indeed special. The big bands have their place but it’s the small combos where jazz really lives. I heard my folks play at the Hickory House and went to the opening of Condon’s in the Village when I was just a kid. I met many of the fine musicians featured with Joe and Adele and was blown away by the music they played. As Adele said, “The best of it is out there(in the cosmos)somewhere!” I’ve collected most of the stuff my parents recorded along with photos and magazine articles. I’m still looking for a short subject news film(title unknown) which featured Joe’s group in the early forties along with a couple other small bands from the NYC area. If anyone knows of this film I’d like to hear from you.

  9. I have to laugh at Diz coming in OVER the clarinet. I wish I could have been there.

  10. Wish I’d seen this comment by tromba back in 2011, Here’s the story: The great stride pianist, Cliff Jackson, was apparently apalled at Diz and his manner of blowing all over everybody. He leaned over and said quietly to Joe, “What’s this guy doing, building a garage!”

  11. Do I remember Joe and Adele? Of course. They were my uncle and aunt (Marty was my father). Having their music now is such a gift. Thank you!

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