He Made It Big, For a While
By Bob Dietsche
Jazz Research is pleased once more to welcome guest author, Bob Dietsche. His article on Dodo Marmarosa was originally published in Oregon Focus, November, 1990. Dietsche related that this article same about with the help of avid jazz fan Gene Javens of Salem, Oregon. Although the Pittsburgh musician’s union thought that Marmarosa was no longer living, Javens didn’t believe it – he found his name in a suburban telephone book. Dietsche called . . . and his article takes it from there.
A jazz publication had listed him as deceased, so I called Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa’s home to make sure. “No, I don’t think that’s right,” deadpanned a voice at the Marmarosa residence in Glenshaw, near Pittsburgh. It was Dodo himself, a pianist who has played with the likes of Charlie Parker and Gene Krupa and whose talent has the “highest respect” of band leader Artie Shaw.
Note that it’s Dodo’s talent Shaw respects—his lifestyle is another story. Jazz musicians have been known to be a bit unusual, but on a scale of unusualness stretched coast to coast, Dodo would be extraterrestrial.
Apparently the rumors surrounding his death have circulated widely enough that even Dodo, who will be 65 in December, sometimes has doubts. It seems like a reasonable presumption: He hasn’t had a piano job in more than a decade, hasn’t made a record since 1962, and most of the people who remember playing with the reclusive Dodo haven’t seen him in more than 40 years.
Shaw says he last saw Dodo in 1949 when the unpredictable pianist quit the band because he got tired of playing “Frenesi.”
It was a great band, says Shaw, “Maybe my best. The dancers hated us, but the critics loved us. Along with the modern arrangements from Tadd Dameron and Johnny Mandel, we had to play all the old favorites like ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Frenesi.’ One night we got three requests to play that tune. After the third time Dodo comes up to me and says, ‘If we play that tune again, I’m going to have to leave the band.’ Sure enough the next night we got a request to play it and after we finished I looked over at the piano and no Dodo. That was the last time I ever saw him. His head was so full of musical ideas that it was hard to have a conversation with him, but I have the highest respect for his talent.”
Dodo says the credit should go to Evelina Palmieri for five years of around-the-clock training, including recitals, contests, and a whole lot of confidence, during his Peabody High School days. Palmieri taught piano all her life, but never saw anything like young Michael Marmarosa. It took five minutes for her to know that this gawky kid with dark Arabian eyes could become another Horowitz. At 14 he could play Chopin as well as anyone in town.
And then, Dodo says, he heard young Erroll Garner: “It’s a strange thing. Erroll was from Pittsburgh and I happened to be somewhere where he was playing piano. It was really surprising; it was good-sounding music. He was playing jazz just the way he always played. When I got home I started to do some of the things he was doing on piano. We went to different high schools, but you could say that we were good friends. We both loved Art Tatum’, Teddy Wilson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, and a local piano player named Tootsie Davis. Tootsie really never worked anywhere and hardly anyone knew who he was, but he played these fine block chord progressions that had a definite line in the left hand. He died of consumption a long time ago. Erroll and I would go over to his house and we’d sit and play for two or three hours. Tootsie would play and then Erroll would try to follow and then I would sneak in a couple of interludes.”
Marmarosa’s closest friend at that time was a peppery lead trumpeter by the name of Jimmy Pupa. Still feisty at 72, Pupa more or less discovered Dodo and got him his first big job.
“Dodo’s dad begged me, practically twisted my arm, to come over to the house to hear his son play. I had quite a reputation in those days ’cause of my work with Red Nichols, so he wanted me to help his son out. So I went over to their house and I never heard such genius. I’m tellin’ ya I heard a lot of great pianos in my time, being with all them big names I was with, but I ain’t heard nothing like Dodo. I went to high school with Erroll Garner and Billy Strayhorn and worked with them many times, but they couldn’t play piano like Dodo.
“I’m the guy who got Dodo on the Johnny ‘Scat’ Davis band, the one with Buddy DeFranco on clarinet. I remember Dodo showing up at 7 in the morning at this lodge we were staying in with just a small cardboard suitcase in his hand. The rest of the band was asleep upstairs, so to have a little fun I switched on the band mike. Then I told Dodo to play the piano. So he starts in on this wild classical thing, and before I know it the whole band including the manager is standing around the piano watching this little genius play. Dodo, Buddy, and me knew we had a lot of talent, so we formed a pact which meant that if one of us got hired on a good band, we would see to it that the rest of us got hired, too. That’s how come we’re on so many big-name bands together.”
DeFranco eventually became the heavy-weight champion of the clarinet; some would say even better than Benny Goodman. Erroll Garner ended up in the hall of fame. Marmarosa, on the other hand, became one of the “might have beens,” as one writer put it.
A panel of jazz experts for Esquire magazine picked Dodo over Bud Powell as the most promising jazz pianist of 1947. Two years later Marmarosa retired from the national scene.
A bizarre 1943 event in Philadelphia permanently damaged Dodo’s promising career, according to De Franco. As he tells it: “We were with Gene Krupa then and had just finished one of those short band films, so we still had our band uniforms on, or ‘zoot suits.’ It was during the war and there was a lot of resentment between civilians and servicemen. I’m sure they resented our uniforms and the fact that we weren’t drafted. So while Dodo and I were waiting for a subway, these five sailors came across the tracks and really took care of us. Dodo got the worst of it. One of those bruisers dropped Dodo head-first on a railroad tie. He was in a coma for 24 hours and he has never been the same since.”
When the Krupa band broke over Gene’s infamous marijuana scandal, DeFranco went with Charlie Barnet and, as was their plan, eventually arranged to have Pupa and Marmarosa hired. Known as “the East Coast Maniacs” because of their madcap antics, the two seemed to fit right in with this group of musicians.
“Most other band leaders would not have put up with this group of misfits, but I kind of got a kick out of it. If I hadn’t, I would have ended up in the nut house. Besides, they were a lot of great musicians. Dodo was a tremendous piano player, but very mixed up. I remember once he pushed a small piano off the third-floor balcony because he said he wanted to hear what chord it would make when it hit the ground.”
Dodo’s solos with the Barnet band are well documented on an MCA recording called “The Best of Charlie Barnet.” You can hear him on “Drop Me off in Harlem,” “Strollin’,” “Skyliner,” and “The Moose,” his longest and most highly acclaimed performance from that period. “Moose,” in fact is another of Dodo’s nicknames, both having come about because of his physical characteristics.
When Barnet dissolved the band in the spring of 1944, Dodo signed on with Tommy Dorsey. A while later, Shaw hired Dodo to play with his large orchestra and with the Gramercy 5, a hot combo within the band that featured Barney Kessel on guitar and Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Marmarosa had been known as a big-band pianist—his work with the Gramercy 5, particularly on “Grabtown Grapple,” showed that he was even better with a small group. Shaw was impressed and still is calling Dodo “the best white modern jazz pianist of his time.”
Marmarosa was on more than 80 records in 1945. Most of them were RCA Victors with Shaw, but his best work could be found on the smaller, offbeat labels like Beltone, Cadet, and Aladdin, where Dodo recalls making historic sides with saxophonist Lester Young.
When Charlie Parker’s regular pianist, Joe Albany, quit just days before the now famous “Ornithology” recording session, Marmarosa was called in. Any doubts about Dodo’s ability to think on his feet vanished after the first take of “Ornithology.” For some reason Parker walked away from the mike just as he was about to solo. Dodo picked up the cue, stuttered for an instant, then rolled off 32 bars of pure art. Roy Porter, Parker’s drummer on that session, had this to say: “He was different from all the rest. To be honest I wasn’t too crazy about a lot them white cats comin’ down here stealin’ our new music. But Dodo was different. He really had it down.”
“Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite,” and “Night in Tunisia” were among the most important jazz records of 1946 and probably the reason three of the sidemen —Lucky Thompson, Miles Davis, and Dodo—were voted “rookies of the year” in an Esquire poll.
Meanwhile, Marmarosa joined Boyd Raeburn’s experimental, sometimes surrealistic, orchestra that mixed classical music with jazz. Raeburn couldn’t have done better than Dodo, whose off-the-wall chords and crazy rhythms befit arrangements like “Dalvadore Sally” and “Little Boyd Blue.”
Raeburn’s singer was David Allyn, who likes to tell about the time Marmarosa missed an important theater engagement in Los Angeles, only to be found two days later ironing handkerchiefs in a Chinese laundry.
One of Dodo’s roommates at that time was Ernie Hood, a composer now living in West Linn, Oregon: “I met Dodo along with some other members of the Raeburn band at the Hangover Club on Vine Street. I used to play my guitar there for drinks and entertainment, and Dodo did the same. I remember he had a favorite telephone pole he would talk to. It was right in front of the club, I mean seriously. I don’t think he was putting us on.
“I thought he was a bit daft, but refreshing. You never knew what to expect, even in his music. Sometimes it didn’t come off, like the last bridge on Barnet’s ‘Skyliner’ where the time gets a little jagged showing that he wasn’t thinking ahead. What made him unique were his strange chord inversions. By leaving so much space between his right hand and his left, he created phantom tones that made his chords sound larger than they really were.”
Somewhere in 1946, Marmarosa and Thompson left Raeburn to form a group of their own. Health problems in 1948 helped convince Marmarosa he would be better off in Pittsburgh. Dodo’s not exactly sure about the date, but not too long after he returned he got married. The marriage lasted three years and is not something Dodo likes to talk about.
In 1949, Dodo reunited with Johnny “Scat” Davis and then with Shaw for a week. Except for a dismal trio recording a few months later, Marmarosa did not record again until 1961. After a disastrous stint in the Army, when he was given shock treatments, Dodo returned to Pittsburgh. Eventually he got a job with the Al Noble Orchestra. Then he was with trumpeter Whitey Scharbo for a while and finally with his own trio at the Midway Lounge. To the locals Dodo was a hometown big name, the guy who played with Charlie Parker but burned out doing it.
Dodo’s last hurrah began in 1960 when he went to Chicago to play at the Pink Poodle for a couple of weeks. He made a trio record for the Argo label with Richard Davis on bass and Marshall Thompson on drums, called “Dodo’s Back.” Marmarosa’s fan club, but hardly anyone else, bought copies. It was out of print almost before it was in.
A better album is the one Dodo did that same year with saxophonist Gene “Jug” Ammons. Prestige records released it in the early ’70s under the title “Jug and Dodo.” Dodo’s not one to talk about himself, but he does admit he likes his playing on “You’re Driving Me Crazy” on that album.
Marmarosa went into semi-retirement in Pittsburgh in 1963. Occasionally he would play at The Colony restaurant, but he stopped doing that fifteen years ago. Dodo spends his time these days helping his sister take care of their ailing parents, both in their 90s. He listens to jazz and classical music on the radio and likes to watch the Steelers on television.
He still plays the piano, and the methods books he used 55 years ago with Evelina Palmieri are still in the piano bench. A nervous disorder and other complications prevent him from performing the way he used to, so there won’t be any more “comeback” albums.
There probably wouldn’t be anyway. Dodo never liked the limelight that much or the self-promotion that goes with it. “Dodo hates for anyone to make a fuss over him,” says his sister, Doris Shepherd. “When that happens, it embarrasses him and he withdraws.”
Escape in one form or another always seemed to be in the back of his mind. He even wrote a tune with that title.
In the liner notes for “Dodo’s Dance,” an LP on Spotlite, Ross Russel wrote: “The inside of his bathtub was painted green. Dodo would draw a tepid bath and luxuriate, watching the rays of the sunlight glint through an open window and bounce around the greenish water. He was a born dreamer, a man enslaved in a universe of sound. Every sound had a secret meaning for him. Certain sounds issued imperious orders. If he was walking down the street and a cathedral began chiming vespers, he would stop, rooted to the spot until the sounds stopped and he was released from their spell. One of his favorite things to do was to stay up all night so he could stand barefoot in the dewy plot in front of the house listening to the cries of birds as they awakened to the California dawn.”
Dodo concedes that some of the stories about him might be true, but warns that “people get carried away sometimes.”
Well, how about the colored bathtub?
“Oh,” Dodo says, “it was just some auto paint I bought to make the water green and warm like the South Seas.”