Tenor of the Times

For years he humbly backed up jazz greats like Red Garland and Art Blakey. Today, Dallas saxman Marchel Ivery is a player in his own right.

March 1997By Comments

UNLESS’RE A JAZZ FANATIC—being a casual listener isn’t enough—you probably haven’t heard of Marchel Ivery, the self-effacing Dallas tenor saxophonist. It’s not so much that 57-year-old Ivery has slipped through the cracks as that he has conducted his entire career between them.

Of course, Dallas pianist Red Garland knew who Ivery was. When Garland reemerged internationally in 1978—two decades after playing alongside John Coltrane in Miles Davis’ classic group—Ivery was his pet project. Art Blakey knew Ivery too; he tried repeatedly, with only fleeting success, to talk him into joining his Jazz Messengers. Composer and pianist Cedar Walton, who also hails from Dallas and is a veteran of Blakey’s band, played sideman on Marchel’s Mode (Leaning House), Ivery’s first-ever album, which was released in 1994. And on the just-released Marchel Ivery Meets Joey DeFrancesco, Ivery slices deep grooves with a 25-year-old Pennsylvanian credited in recent years with bringing back the Hammond B-3 organ sound. Both Walton and DeFrancesco see Ivery, who combines his hard bop background with the muscular, bluesy tone known as Texas tenor, as one of jazz’s buried treasures.

Ivery Meets DeFrancesco, which was recorded in six spur-of-the-moment hours, is the kind of informal, irresistible blowing session that the fabled Blue Note label popularized in the sixties. And it’s just the product that could finally raise Ivery’s profile. DeFrancesco is pedigreed (he played with one of Miles Davis’ last groups), records for Blue Note, and is hot in both Europe and the United States—and he wants Ivery to join his quartet for extensive touring this spring and summer. “I’m hoping it happens,” declares Ivery. “I’m ready for it now.”

He wasn’t always ready: Family obligations got in the way, or he couldn’t hack New York, where all jazz musicians must go to get famous, or he simply lacked the confidence. Whatever the case, Ivery had his reasons—or so he told me in his Oak Cliff living room last year after a late-night gig. The home reflected his conflicting concerns. In the living room were numerous family portraits, mostly of his wife, Ida, a retired schoolteacher; a couple of jazz magazines on the coffee table were the only hint that a musician lived there. But back in the spare room, where Ivery practiced, music books were strewn across the bed, and photos of jazz legends were tacked to the walls.

Marchel Ivery was born in Ennis in 1938, the youngest of a construction worker’s eleven kids. He took up the trumpet around the time he entered junior high school but soon switched to alto sax after hearing Charlie Parker on the radio. A couple of years later, he switched to tenor because it was more in demand. When he entered the Army fresh out of high school, he had been playing both jazz and rhythm and blues gigs around the Dallas metropolitan area.

During basic training, Ivery heard John Coltrane’s achingly lyrical solo on Miles Davis’ recording of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and he has been chasing that sound ever since. In the three years he was stationed in Paris, his playing began to gel. By day, he worked as a medical lab technician off the Champs-Elysées; at night, he hit the clubs, which were bursting with American jazz talent (once, he even sat in with pianist Bud Powell, one of the architects of bop). Before Ivery left Europe in 1960, some friends got him backstage after Coltrane’s last show with Davis. Typically, he didn’t try to speak with his idol. “There were so many people around him,” he recalls, “that I just said to myself, well, maybe I’ll meet him another time.” (He didn’t, of course.) When he was discharged, Ivery hung around New York and Philadelphia to size up the scene. But in mid-1960, his father suffered a stroke; as the only unmarried son, he came home to help his mom. His father died the next year.

Over the next decade, Ivery cut his jazz chops during wide-open Sunday afternoon jams at Woodman’s Auditorium in South Dallas, where he met such local sax stars as James Clay, David “Fathead” Newman (then playing with Ray Charles), and Leroy Cooper. But to the horror of jazz purists, he made his money as a blues and R&B player. “I liked it,” he says unapologetically. “Texas R&B was a style I had so much ingrained that I fit in very well.” Indeed, his rhythm and blues attack helps separate him from garden-variety beboppers, who are not exactly rare.

Backing the R&B stars who passed through Dallas, Ivery got many offers to tour. “I turned ’em all down because I was committed to being at home with my family, supporting my mother as well as my wife,” he says. He had married Ida in 1962, and though they never had kids, they raised three of his nephews over the years. “They were having people problems,” he explains. “It was an opportunity for me to serve as a supporter, and I took advantage of it. I’m glad I did.” When necessary, he took temporary jobs as a computer consultant, a skill he’d learned while attending college on the GI bill.

It was at Woodman’s that Ivery met Red Garland, whose block-chord style is based on Bud Powell’s. Critics usually argue that Garland’s best years were behind him as soon as he left Miles Davis, but to Ivery he was the man who had played piano on the hallowed “Round Midnight,” who had taught Coltrane to play ballads, who had given up the New York spotlight to return to Dallas in 1964 to look after his sick mother: Here was a man he could relate to. “He became a father figure, and I respected him beyond his musical personality,” Ivery says. “He would call me almost every night and we would talk. He would tell me about his experiences with Miles, the whole thing. It was so nourishing.”

Ivery was added to Garland’s trio. From 1974 to 1980 they ruled the Recovery Room on Cedar Springs, Dallas’ last real jazz club, a smoky hole-in-the-wall that seated maybe 75 people and served no food. Ivery, who by then had absorbed the sound of Sonny Rollins and that of early Coltrane, fronted the group nightly and was joined by Garland on weekends. Buddy Rich, Arnett Cobb, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Harris, and Sonny Stitt would also sit in when they were in town. “This was my training ground,” Ivery says, beaming. “I’d stretch out and see what I could do because there were no restrictions on the music. You played what you wanted to play as long as you wanted to play it.” Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster, the two twentysomething Southern Methodist University graduates who founded Leaning House Records, have unearthed hours of crude tapes from the Recovery Room that they hope to release someday. The best, such as a fifteen-minute version of “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” catch Ivery playing as if he’s in a trance. And Garland, normally rather formal, is loose, aggressive, and full of surprises.

In 1978 Garland began touring again, and Ivery went along. At their first show at New York’s Village Vanguard, veteran tenors George Coleman and Dewey Redman sat up front to see the unknown Texan that Garland was so high on. By the end of the night, they were onstage jamming with Ivery. “That’s where I started to believe I could play that music,” Ivery says. “I knew I could play the R&B stuff, but to play with those guys . . .”

In 1984, when Garland retired for good a few years before he died, Art Blakey asked Ivery to join his Jazz Messengers, a band that introduced such stars as Cedar Walton, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Typically, Ivery took nearly a year to make up his mind, but he finally agreed. Blakey sent a plane ticket but was relaxing at his farm in Connecticut when Ivery arrived in New York. Ivery sat around his hotel room for a couple of days without hearing from Blakey, then flew home rather than spend more money when he wasn’t making any; after the misunderstanding was cleared up, he returned. Blakey had built Ivery up, telling the press that he was like “fire personified”—and that only made Ivery feel worse when, a few Village Gate gigs later, he decided New York wasn’t for him. He quit before the rest of the world could see if Blakey’s description was accurate.

“After that, I felt for a long time that I had let myself down, and Art too,” Ivery says. His voice quavers as he speaks. He still has both the plane ticket stub and Blakey’s business card (the bandleader died in 1990). “But I think I did the right thing,” he continues. “I had seen the New York scene, talked to so many cats, and looked things over. I said, well, I would have to pack up my family, probably sell my house, uproot my wife from her job, nieces and nephews I’ve got in college—I’d have to make some really strong moves.” Then, as if to emphasize his ambivalence, he adds, “It’s the only place I’d recommend that any musician should go if he thinks he’s really got what it takes. You’re smoking everywhere else; when you get to New York, you catch fire.”

Ever since, Ivery has settled for smoking in Dallas, for making a stable living at supper clubs, weddings, and private parties and for cutting the occasional jingle and doing the odd computer job, while lesser talents have grabbed the headlines in New York. He has even happily played as a sideman for one of his protégés, Hammond B-3 whiz Eric “Scorch” Scortia. So when Elliott and Foerster of Leaning House first approached him about recording, he was suspicious. They were so young; anyway, he feared they’d want a fusion album from him, or something equally out of character. But they proved to be fans first and dedicated to getting his sound on tape the way he wanted it. Though it was Walton’s guest spot that initially drew attention, Marchel’s Mode was rightly praised for Ivery’s singular, seasoned approach to standards—an unlisted to-die-for solo version of Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” a romp through “Wee,” an unlikely interpretation of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (arranged by Walton)—as well as the title tune, a meaty original. The new album with DeFrancesco—including a sly “Makin’ Whoopie,” a heartbreaking “Lover Man,” and a playful “Lester Leaps In”—won’t let go; with Leaning House releases now distributed by one company instead of four, it will also get a wider hearing.

In this era of jazz traditionalism, which has made stars out of earnest youngsters like Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, the Marsalis brothers, and Terence Blanchard, could there be room for a savvy elder statesman who never gave up? “If something were to happen,” Ivery points out, “this would be the appropriate time in my life.” And if not, he can live with that too: “My philosophy is that if you go out to be famous for famous’ sake, it may be somewhat destructive to the spirit. I don’t think I would have been very good at being famous. I’ve always been pretty levelheaded.”

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