By John Lawrence
Joe Marillo passed away Saturday, March 26. Born in Niagara Falls, NY, 83 years ago, he moved to San Diego in 1974 from Las Vegas where he had played in show bands for 10 years. He started out playing saxophone in Atlantic City, NJ while swinging from a trapeze.
He was dedicated to bringing straight-ahead, mainstream jazz to San Diego for almost 50 years both with his virtuoso playing and his skills as a presenter and impresario. He received the San Diego Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
After moving here from Las Vegas, Joe immediately started playing and performing in San Diego clubs. I first saw and heard him at Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla where Joe lived “in the ghetto” for his entire life.
There were so many clubs that have gone in and out of business in the last 50 years, and Joe played in all of them. The Crossroads, Elario’s, Our Place, Bella Via in Cardiff, Henry’s in Oceanside, George’s in Encinitas, the Jazz Mine, the Catamaran. The list goes on and on. The ephemeral nature of most jazz clubs is contrasted with the constancy of Joe’s presence and dedication to jazz in San Diego over several decades.
Joe initiated a jazz policy at the Catamaran in the 70s that was very successful. He brought in all the greats from the Golden Age of Jazz, roughly 1945 to 1970. People like Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Ahmad Jamal, Supersax, Bobby Hutcherson. I was in the audience for many of these gigs. I particularly remember when Bill Evans was there with Philly Joe Jones on drums. Bill’s playing was wonderful that night, but Philly Joe sat patiently behind his drum kit in a supporting role not given many chances to solo. Finally, Joe said, “Let Philly Joe go!” Then on the last tune of the set Philly Joe got to play a long drum solo and everyone breathed a sigh of satisfaction. Joe Marillo sat in with all these greats and in the process became one himself.
Unfortunately, Joe’s Society for the Preservation of Jazz was too successful at the Catamaran. Management got the idea that they could save money, get rid of Joe and still bring in all the big guys. Of course, it was the beginning of the end. The dolts who thought they could emulate a true and natural impresario like Joe just didn’t understand the simpatico in the jazz world that was necessary to make a good thing happen, and the jazz program at the Catamaran was doomed. Joe was the Pied Piper. When the Catamaran got rid of the Pied Piper, the musicians didn’t come any more.
As my trumpet playing improved, I got up the nerve one night to ask Joe if I could sit in at his gig at a club in Encinitas. The club was in the corner of an L-shaped strip mall where, it seemed, a lot of jazz clubs were located. Joe let me sit in for one tune and then called something at a furious tempo. I had all I could do to keep up. Many years later I started the San Diego Jazz Society similar to Joe’s Society for the Preservation of Jazz. There were a number of jazz societies in those days including the Society for Straight Ahead Jazz and the San Diego Jazz Festival. We presented Joe in numerous venues on many different occasions as well as many other artists. Joe was kind enough to let us use the silhouette of him from his “Lady Caroline” album on our brochure for the San Diego Jazz Society.
We did a series of gigs at the North Coast Repertory Theater. Like many venues, there was no piano. This problem was solved by moving my piano from home, a 1908 Story and Clark upright, to the gig. I asked Joe if he would do one of the gigs with him and me as the front line. He graciously consented, and I practiced my head off to be worthy of being on the same stage with him. One of the tunes I called was Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee. I cranked up the metronome at home because I wanted to be able to play the head at an ungodly tempo. I counted it off, and Joe, ever the consummate professional, pulled it off without breaking a sweat.
Like many of us, Joe was inspired by Charlie Parker, “Bird”, as he was known to his fans. I never got to see Bird in person as I was in eighth grade in 1955 when Bird died, but Joe bought him a drink once. Joe didn’t get interested in music until he was 20. “That’s when I heard my first Charlie Parker record,” he said, “and immediately got turned on. It’s a strange thing–who knows why we like certain types of music. All I know, to this day, is that something about Parker’s sound, his ideas, his saxophone, really got to me, and before long I was buying every Parker record I could find.”
Joe was lucky in that he got to do what he really loved in life, and, if he didn’t make a great living, at least he survived. He said, “I’m a lot more concerned with realizing my dream of becoming a polished improviser, which is what be-bop is all about. And that’s a continual learning process that will never end.
“So as long as I have a place to play, a place to practice my music, I’m content–even if it’s only one night a week. And aside from playing live, I’m constantly seeking out new avenues to share my creativity–and my love of be-bop–with others.”
Joe was true to his calling till the very end. He was a teacher, an improviser, a promoter. Be-bop, as Parker’s music was called, was his inspiration. For the last almost 50 years, Joe Marillo has been Mr Jazz in San Diego. Clubs have come and gone; venues have come and gone. The one constant was Joe’s presence on the jazz scene having played and presented in all of them. Now he’s graduated to playing celestial harmonies with Bird, Diz, Stan and all the rest from the Golden Age. We were fortunate to have shared the same window of time with them and San Diego was fortunate to have had Joe Marillo as our guiding light for the best in jazz for the last 50 years. Joe, we will miss you. RIP, my friend.
A memorial concert honoring Joe is scheduled for May 24 at Dizzy’s, 4275 Mission Bay Drive, San Diego, CA 92109.