Affectionately known around town as the “Godfather of Jazz,” Joe Marillo has made his living for the past 29 years playing and teaching jazz in San Diego, a city that challenges the arts at every turn. Leading a life devoted to jazz is an impressive feat, especially so in the context of a place that, for example, allowed its symphony orchestra to disband without even a firm plan for its rebirth. In this city, jazz venues appear and quickly disappear, excellent jazz musicians get discouraged and move away, and jazz stars live in the area for the weather, but most often perform in other cities, countries, and continents.
Joe Marillo, described to me personally as a “genius” by another musician/teacher, excels on tenor saxophone as a master of improvisation. He travels between mainstream, bebop, ballads, and funky blues with ease, his haunting tone expressing his soul through the medium of his beloved jazz. In addition to the tenor, he plays alto saxophone, flute, and piano; he sings and composes as well.
Joe estimates that he has taught over 500 students over the years, with lessons in improvisation on the tenor and alto saxophones, flute, piano, bass, guitar, and voice. In addition to his teaching, Joe is compiling a book that presents his original method for playing jazz piano for the novice. Presently, his students range in age from 6 to 87. He continually acquires new students (mostly by word of mouth), and former students frequently call and visit. A tremendous love is evident between Joe and his students (and often their families as well).
Joe is unique in many ways. The first is the sheer beauty of the music he creates, with his inventive improvisation, his rich tone, and his inspired interplay with other musicians. As a leader of countless groups, he soars when playing with others of his calibre, yet is patient with the many beginning or less-experienced musicians he hires or invites to sit in. The second is Joe’s lack of ego involvement in the making of music. His generosity and non-competitive disposition lead him to share his substantial knowledge and experience with everyone. To Joe, the music is what is important; music politics and personality advancement do not interest him. The third quality is that of Joe’s devotion to bringing jazz to San Diego. In addition to his teaching, playing gigs, and serving as a jazz DJ, Joe founded the San Diego Society for the Preservation of Jazz, a non-profit organization designed to support the hiring of nationally known jazz artists. Serving as a booking agent, Joe hired and sat in with such notables as Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt. Noting the success of the program, management of the venue, a local hotel, dismissed Joe, tried to continue the program itself, and not surprisingly caused the program’s quick demise, as the hotel personnel “lacked Joe’s personal touch,” according to a newspaper account which named him its “Only the Strong Survive” award winner. Through the Society, funds were raised to purchase guitars for San Diego schoolchildren, whose music programs continue to dwindle.
Joe Marillo has received a number of honors in his career, but the one he is most proud of was awarded to him by the NAACP for his efforts in hiring African-American musicians. Joe is well aware of the origins of jazz and the debt owed to those who went before, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, some of his personal heroes.
Despite incredibly positive feedback from others-”musicians and fans alike” he remains modest about his gifts. Stan Getz’s son Steve (a friend and admirer) booked Joe’s quartet into the jazz festival at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in the summer of 1997. After the concert the festival organizer told Joe that their performance was one of the best that the festival had experienced in its 12 years of featuring national and international stars. The audience, which had remained from the heat of the afternoon to the very cool of the evening, was equally enthusiastic, with many concertgoers of all ages dancing to the last selection, a wild rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “School Days,”with Joe on vocals.
Although Joe no longer plays the saxophone while swinging on a trapeze (as he did nightly in his younger days in Atlantic City), he has retained his robust sense of humor and an amazing level of vitality in his playing, studying, and teaching. When asked why this is so, he credits the fact that he is doing what he loves. Despite advice from others to broaden his base and play other types of music, Joe’s understanding of his true nature has led him to avoid non-jazz situations because of their draining effect on him.
As a jazz enthusiast since 1955, I had virtually given up on finding great live jazz in San Diego, where the commercial “jazz” radio station formerly boasted “Jazz for People Who Don’t Like Jazz.” When fate, in the form of a longtime friend and jazz fan, led me to hear Joe perform one night, I marveled at his playing, which is the equal of the best jazz performers anywhere.
Joe’s playing of original compositions and standards on his four recent CDs reflect the distillation of his life experience into sound that reflects his respect for the masters, his love of jazz, his musicality, and his celebration of the life of the spirit. Joe Marillo was called by one writer “the city’s best jazz musician;” as such, his music deserves the maximum exposure possible.
Darcy Abrahams, San Diego, 1998/2000/2003