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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, June 28, 2002

Turning on 'the lights' Turning on 'the lights' (June 28, 2002)

Jazz composer Marcus Shelby keeps seeking new musical challenges

by Robyn Israel

J azz composer Marcus Shelby doesn't just sit down with paper and pen to write musical scores. An intensely curious and erudite young man, Shelby draws inspiration from a variety of sources, both musical and artistic. His serious study of abstract painting led to one of his most recent compositions, "Random Abstract."

Reading about turn-of-the-century collaborations between abstract artists and musicians, such as Wassily Kandinski and Webber - coupled with a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Venice - sparked in Shelby a creativity that resulted in the four-part suite.

"The thing that really inspired me was to create essentially a composition that dealt with abstract ideas, in particular theme variation (taking a theme and finding different ways to vary it, in the context of an orchestra)."

That original composition will figure prominently in Shelby's Sunday-night performance at the Stanford Jazz Festival. Accompanying him will be his 15-piece orchestra, an ensemble created three years ago after Shelby decided to challenge himself more creatively.

A passionate composer, Shelby looked at his limited palette and realized that writing for a bass-piano-drum trio just didn't cut it anymore. Adding four trumpets, three trombones, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, one baritone saxophone (sometimes using clarinets, too) to the mix presented a wealth of new opportunity.

"You can only do so much with a trio," Shelby said. "But with a 15-piece orchestra, it opened up the possibilities and the potential of expanding composition for me."

The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra came together rather quickly -- in the span of one year -- and continues to gel under Shelby's watchful eye. They include some musicians whom Shelby has known for nearly a decade, such as alto-saxophonist Gabe Eaton, and others, such as tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Rob Barics, whom Shelby met only recently.

"It's not just a matter of getting the best people," Shelby said of his ensemble. "It's a matter of getting the best people who get along and who musically connect. We all understand each other's moods and behavior, what makes us happy. It's a really mellow band. And I really like that, 'cause that's my personality."

Barichs, added to Shelby's orchestra a year ago, previously played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. After marrying and moving to the Bay Area, he sat in one night with Shelby's band, impressing the bandleader with his "young genius" and the fact that he spoke the same musical language.

"I knew I wanted to play with this guy" Shelby said. "He brought a lot of experience and soulfulness."

Although the orchestra includes two vocalists - Antoine Garth and Alegra Bandy - neither will be present on Sunday. Sunday's program will also feature a three-part suite derived from Shelby's original jazz score for "The Lights," a play that was staged in January at the ODC Theatre in San Francisco. The collaboration came about through Shelby's desire to compose music for a play that addressed urban issues. He found what he was looking for in Howard Korder's "The Lights," a piece that ostensibly dealt with gentrification, but which took on new meaning after Sept. 11.

"It was about being scared, about the unknown, about being a faceless entity," Shelby said, adding that his orchestra was an integral part of the piece, performing every night on risers that made them clearly visible to the audience.

"We were the architecture of the city, like the buildings," Shelby said. "We were part of the city that never slept."

"The Lights Suite," the orchestra's first CD, reached Number 10 on national jazz charts in early 2002.

A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Shelby grew up in Sacramento and spent much of his adult life in Memphis and Los Angeles. He attended Cal Arts (a school located in southern California) for two years, where he studied composition with James Newton and acoustic bass with Charlie Haden, but knows more from reading books and perusing jazz scores, he said.

"It was good to be there, for the reinforcement, but I got the most of what I've learned by personal study," Shelby said.

Perhaps one exception is Billy Higgins, who served as Shelby's mentor for more than 10 years, until his death last year from liver and kidney failure. A former drummer for John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Higgins set up a jazz workshop in Leimert Park (in south central L.A.), where musicians could play any time of day or night.

"He gave us a key. He got us into shows," Shelby recalled. "It was this sense of giving, of always helping your fellow musicians. And he didn't say 'Do it.' He did it by example. It was intoxicating."

Higgins also produced Shelby's first album, "43rd and Deegnan" (recorded in 1991 by Black Note, his first band), a work that really jump-started his career. And it was the strong connection to Higgins that eventually led to Shelby's move to the Bay Area six years ago, when he attended a fund raiser that benefited his mentor. The event, held at Kimball's East in Emeryville, was designed to raise money for Higgins' liver transplant.

"I came up here and I saw this overwhelming support for jazz," said Shelby, who by then had been living in L.A. for six years. "I was seriously thinking about New York, but I came up here and things started happening."

Shelby has been busy ever since, and continues to collaborate with various art forms, including ballet, theater, dance and film. In addition to "The Lights," Shelby has scored two Sam Shepard plays, "Suicide in B Flat," staged in 1998 at ??? and "Simpatico," staged the following year by ???. He also typically does two film scores per year, the most recent being "Ralph Ellison: An American Hero," which aired in ??? on PBS.

Shelby is also the music director for the Savage Jazz Dance Company, a position he has held since 1998, which entails doing arrangements for their shows. He is currently working on a score for "Port Chicago," a new work that will be staged by the Oakland Ballet next February.

Shelby, a 36-year-old bachelor, admits to having more music scores than CDs at his San Francisco apartment, but singles out two records that are the most prized in his collection: Claudio ??? conducting Tchaikovsky's Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and Leonard Bernstein conducting the London Philharmonic in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." The latter is particularly impressive, he said.

"It's probably the most influential composition of the 20th century -- and that's a global opinion, not just mine," he said. "Bernstein takes the temp slower, so it really opens up the composition to me."

It is that deep love of classical music - and the interesting lives of the composers themselves -- that partially draws Shelby to jazz.

"I like the grandeur of classical music, but I also like the soulfulness of jazz," Shelby explained. "And in jazz you have an opportunity be spontaneous, to be improvisational, to be individual and collective."

In addition to venues like Yoshi's, Biscuits and Blues, Bruno's (" a wonderful, slightly underground place where the owners have always been supportive of the music") Shelby's orchestra performs several times a year at Intersection for the Arts, a San Francisco-based nonprofit arts organization, where he is composer-in-residence.

Beginning in the fall, Shelby will introduce an educational outreach component to Intersection for the Arts, which will bring him to various San Francisco schools, some of which do not even have a music program, such as Bessy Carmichael Middle School in Hunter's Point. Shelby is looking forward to teaching the kids about instruments, compositional theory and group playing.

"A lot of kids have never even seen or touched a baritone sax or a clarinet. They may know the clarinet from the symphony, but not in the context of jazz. We tend to bring that sense of realness into the school."

And it is to that pool of young talent that Shelby will keep casting his eyes, as he continues to formulate his orchestra.

"It's a long-term project," he said of his band. "And I want to continue to keep the blood fresh by keeping an eye on the young guys moving up."

E-mail Robyn Israel at

Who: The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, presented by the Stanford Jazz Festival

Where: Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium

When: Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $22 general; $20 for students, seniors and Palo Alto Jazz Alliance members, and are available by calling (650) 725-ARTS or by visiting

Info: Call (650) 736-0324 or visit


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