Joe Marsala

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Joe Marsala
Toots Thielemans and Joe Marsala.jpg
Toots Thielemans and Joe Marsala (right).
Photo: William P. Gottlieb.
Background information
Birth name Joe Marsala
Born (1907-01-04)January 4, 1907
Origin Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died March 4, 1978(1978-03-04) (aged 71)
Genres Dixieland
Swing
Occupations Clarinetist
Instruments Clarinet
Associated acts Joe Marsala And His Chosen Seven
Joe Marsala And His Delta Four

Joe Marsala (January 4, 1907 – March 4, 1978) was an Italian-American jazz clarinetist and songwriter, born and initially based in Chicago, Marsala moved to New York City in 1933 at the request of Wingy Manone. It was in NYC that Joe found his greatest success as the leader of the 1936 band that entered the Hickory House on 52nd Street. He remained there as leader for ten years.

Primarily self-taught, Joe and his brother Marty (trumpet) hung out in the early 1920s behind the clubs on the south side of Chicago listening to and absorbing the music called jazz. He was active during the big band era though he preferred the smaller combos of six or seven in which each member could really swing. Marsala is notable as one of the early employers of drummers Buddy Rich and Shelly Manne, jazz harpist Adele Girard whom he later married,guitarist Charlie Byrd, pianist Gene DiNovi and trumpeter Neal Hefti. Other early band members were trumpeter brother Marty, pianist Joe Bushkin, guitarists Eddie Condon, Jack Lemaire, Carmen Mastren, and bassist Artie Shapiro. Jazz critic and pianistLeonard Feather, among others, gives him a good deal of credit for breaking down race segregation in jazz when he hired trumpeter Henry,"Red" Allen in 1936.[1] In the early 1940s Marsala invited many fine African American musicians to sit in on his Sunday jam sessions at the Hickory House, trumpeter Clarence"Hot Lips"Page, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, drummer Zutty Singleton, and pianist Fats Waller were a few. Marsala's earliest friendships in Chicago from neighbors to the back alleys of the south side to his earliest recording sessions were peopled with African Americans whom he respected as the first and finest of jazz musicians. Hiring and inviting these musicians to display their talents with his band was just something that came naturally to Joe, it wasn't done for effect or to impress.

Marsala's own playing was rich and graceful, owing a lot to one of his idols, Jimmie Noone. Benny Goodman once said that he "would feel more like the king of swing if he had a lower register like Joe Marsala." In 1959 Louis Armstrong said of Joe that he was "one of the finest clarinetists around." Although usually thought of as a "dixielander" along with Eddie Condon, Marsala was more adventurous: in the 1940s he used Dizzy Gillespie on a recording session, for instance. He also cut some very modern sounding sides with guitarist/composer Chuck Wayne.

That said, he did have some difficulties adjusting to the bebop era; he simply preferred traditional and swing styles to the newer cool jazz. By 1949 he partly switched to writing songs in the genre now called classic pop. Among these songs was the hit Don't Cry, Joe (Let Her Go, Let Her Go, Let Her Go), recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1949. The song led friends to the unfounded fear his marriage to Adele Girard was over when in fact it was written for GIs returning from WW2 only to find that girlfriends had married other guys.[2] He also wrote And So to Sleep Again with lyric help from Sonny Skylar and which was recorded by Patti Page in 1951.

A friendship with Jack Gordon who worked for RCA Records led Joe to teaching Jack's son Bobby the finer points of the clarinet. Bobby became Joe's protégé and Joe worked on Bobby's behalf to make him known by showing him the ropes in the jazz world, introducing him to well known musicians and producing his first records for Decca, "Warm And Sentimental" and "Young Man's Fancy." Joe was particularly proud of his accomplishments as teacher, friend and mentor to Bobby Gordon. Gordon, for his part has played Marsala songs on a number of his recordings, most recently,"Bobby Gordon Plays Joe Marsala, Lower Register" for Arbors records in 2007, as well as featuring Marsala's wife Adele in her final session also for Arbors in 1992, "The Bobby Gordon Quartet Featuring Adele Girard Marsala, Don't Let It End."

According to his wife, Adele, in his early years Joe Marsala suffered from an allergy to nickel and had a constant irritating rash on his hands from contact with the nickel plated keys on the clarinet. He was also somewhat plagued by colitis and was unable to drink alcohol for a time; an operation in 1945 cured that condition. Though his younger brother Marty was drafted, Joe was an unacceptable candidate for WWII because of cartilage and ligament tears resulting in "water on the knee." To make up for that Joe and Adele entertained stateside for the USO during the war years. A lifelong smoker, Joe died in Santa Barbara, California at age 71 of cancer.

Joe Marsala was the brother of jazz musician Marty Marsala.[3]

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Eleisa Marsala Trampler is the author of articles about her parents appearing in The Clarinet("Don't Let It End Pt.I: Joe Marsala," June 2007, and "Don't Let It End Pt.II: Bobby Gordon", September 2007, and subsequently on the Riverwalk Jazz Archives. Mrs. Trampler is also the source of information along with her mother, Adele Girard, for The Sweethearts of Swing by Philip D. Atteberry appearing in The Mississippi Rag, May, 1994 and subsequently in The American Harp Journal, Summer 1999. An article, "Adele Girard Marsala: First Lady of the Jazz Harp" by Marsala-Trampler appeared in the American Harp Journal, Winter, 2005.

Liner Notes for the Arbors Records CD "Bobby Gordon Plays Joe Marsala: Lower Register"(ARCD 19352) were also written by this author in 2007.