Just like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, don’t expect saxophonist Joe Marillo to leap onto the pop-jazz bandwagon simply because it happens to be the hottest form of jazz in town right now.
Ever since he heard his first Charlie Parker record 30 years ago, Marillo, 50, has been an ardent student of be-bop, which reached maturity in the late 1950s in the hands of “cool” New York jazzmen like Al Cohn and Stan Getz.
And he’s not about to change styles now, even though he acknowledges that he could be making considerably more money--and landing a lot more gigs--if he did. (He’s playing at Chuck’s Steak House in La Jolla on Sundays and will be at the Our Place Lounge in the Miki-San restaurant tonight and Saturday.)
“Sure, I could play pop-jazz and be working six nights a week at the top jazz nightclubs in town,” Marillo said. “But making money isn’t my life’s desire.
“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.”
Marillo’s devotion goes a lot further than playing a mix of originals and old Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz and John Coltrane standards at Chuck’s each Sunday night with his 6-month-old Joe Marillo Jazz Quartet. The band features his brother Tony on drums, Joe Azzarello on piano, and Tom Azzarello on stand-up bass.
Each weekday afternoon for the last two years, Marillo has been teaching be-bop theory, harmony and composition at La Jolla Music, a private music school on Girard Avenue.
Since the end of February, Marillo has been preaching the gospel of be-bop in yet another way: as talent coordinator for a Monday night series of concerts at the Jazz Mine Record and Book Store on Pearl Street, featuring such local mainstays as guitarists Steve O’Connor and Peter Sprague and the Padres’ pitcher-cum-guitarist Eric Show.
“To me, be-bop is a lot more interesting than pop-jazz,” Marillo said. “With be-bop, the whole idea is improvisation, with different rhythm patterns, time signatures and tempos.
“You never play a song the same way twice; you’re constantly challenging both the listener and yourself. Pop-jazz, on the other hand, is built around one simple rhythm and only a couple of chords--and since you’re always at the mercy of either the dance floor or the Top 40 listener, that challenge just isn’t there.
“Be-bop lets you create, lets you experiment. And even though most people who come out to the nightclubs prefer the more accessible pop-jazz, there are still people out there who want to hear something different, who want to be surprised.
“And it’s this class of listeners--the more serious jazz fans--whom I’m aiming my music at.”
Marillo was born and raised in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and didn’t become seriously interested in music until he was 20.
“That’s when I heard my first Charlie Parker record,” Marillo 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.”
Believing imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, Marillo promptly took up the saxophone himself so he could reproduce “those very same, wonderful sounds.”
After completing a two-year hitch with the Army in 1955, he enrolled in the Berkeley School of Music in Boston for a more serious study of jazz--and the saxophone.
For several years in the late 1950s, he played professionally with a show band in Atlantic City. By 1960, he had relocated to Las Vegas, and for the next decade played with the show bands at the Riviera, the Sands and the Tropicana.
“Eventually, though, I grew very tired and bored of having to play the same thing every night,” Marillo said. “So 14 years ago, I moved to San Diego with the intention of establishing myself on the local nightclub scene, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Marillo has always managed to involve himself in many aspects of the business as well.
In 1972, he started the San Diego Society for the Preservation of Jazz, and a year later he had launched a highly successful jazz concert series at the Catamaran Hotel on Mission Bay, bringing to town Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Stanley Turrentine.
Since then, he has played--and helped book--virtually every other jazz club in San Diego, including Chuck’s, Elario’s, Humphrey’s and the Blue Parrot.
Marillo said that the local pop-jazz musicians like Hollis Gentry and Ella Ruth Piggee, who are the ones filling the clubs, have also helped further the cause of be-bop.
“Pop-jazz has really opened up people’s ears to jazz music,” he said. “And once people find they like pop-jazz, they’re more likely to give other forms of jazz, like be-bop, a chance.
“And the more people who listen to be-bop, at least once, the greater chance we have of hanging on to at least some of those listeners and thus building up our own audience.”