Take 7: The World According to Marsh

1. When the world is right, when the music of the planets sets up a certain vibration, when the raucous strings of cicadas reach their apex and then begin to fall, some of the best jazz musicians in Texas and the nation find themselves mystically drawn to Austin to produce an evening of some of the best music in America. And then they float away into the jazz diaspora, waiting to reunite in varying configurations. One way or another this has been happening for 25 years.

Most often their stage is the outdoor amphitheater under the swaying palms of Austin’s Laguna Gloria Art Museum in the deepening twilight, fireflies signaling to the boat lights flickering in the distance on Lake Austin, couples lying on their picnic tablecloths amid their cheeses, cherry stems, and empty wine bottles, looking at the stars. And the force that brings all this together sways in her blue tunic in front of the microphone, warbling through all the human registers like the musical lovechild of Ella Fitzgerald and Ornette Coleman. This is the world of Tina Marsh, impresario, conductor, composer, and jazz singer extraordinaire.

You’ve got to be on the lookout. This is the Creative Opportunity Orchestra—CO2. This isn’t something built for MTV or PBS or the people who book Dave Brubeck or India Arie. This is built for the preservation of the jazz chromosome, for the furtherance of music. This isn’t Kenny G and easy listening. This temporary universe inhabits the space between the lush life and the bleeding fingers at the cutting edge of jazz. Great musicians coming together, playing their own music, pushing the bounds without fear or favor. The creative opportunity. Not a very lucrative mission. In fact, a real money loser, but crucial to the survival of jazz. Founded, worried over, and led by Tina Marsh, who came to Austin in the late 1970s to sing rockabilly and discovered Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton at the Armadillo World Headquarters and the boundless world of jazz.

2. You can find it as a whole or in parts. A moveable jazz feast. I found it once at the legendary Victory Grill in East Austin. Late September 2003. Tina Marsh with Eddy Hobizal, Ken Filiano, and Matt Wilson. You go through a door, down a dark hallway next to the Victory Grill fish-fry restaurant. Go through a dark curtain and you’re there—Café Wha? in Greenwich Village in 1960. Booths and movie theatre seats angle toward the stage on the entrance level. Then you descend to the lower level, where underground hipsters in dinette chairs are hunched over peeling formica tables. Fried fish plates, gumbo, and beer served occasionally from behind the bar in back.

Cracked mirrors on one wall. Gold-fringed paper over the stage. Hipsters of all ages leaning across the small tables in whispered conversation before the show begins. They’re 25 years old and 35 years old and 55 years old. They’re black, white, brown, and Asian. They’re middle-aged cools, hiding inside themselves 51 weeks of the year, working for the State Insurance Department. Until Tina Marsh takes the underground stage.

And take it she does, after rearranging a tall vase of gladiolas she’d placed on the stage. Then she sings, “You’ve changed,” straight to the heart of these denizens of the underground. They’d been lost, but now they’re found. And now they’re digging it. She scats. The diva levitating above the grubby stage. Riffing on riffs. Sparkling ball lights hanging from the ceiling, one bulb flickering. Some of the best musicians in Austin put down their beer to hear Tina sing.

“Things you do come back to you, as if they knew the way,” she sings. Each listener is thinking, how’d she know?

In the world according to Tina Marsh, the only way to sing a song is to mean it—the words of the song go straight to the listener’s heart, maybe passing through the head, maybe not. She can deliver a ballad like she’s writing it as she sings it. Sometimes the words give way to scat singing. Sometimes scat singing gives way to singing in tongues—a low, guttural evocation that seems to begin deep in the earth and works its way up through every register of the emotional universe, all the while interacting with the other musicians. You can feel her hurting. She’s been there. She’s scarred. She’s clawing her way back to the surface of the earth. And she finds where you’re hurting. Her arms are out, beseeching you, “Who knows where or when?”

The hipsters don’t snap their fingers. They clap and hoot enthusiastically. They grab another beer and suck it down. Grooving in this brief, tarnished underground jazz nirvana.

3. You’ve got to know this about Tina. She can sing “Nessun Dorma” by Puccini. She can sing Rogers and Hart. She can curl a song around and through the instruments behind her. Other times her voice becomes an instrument among the trumpets, trombones, saxes, and basses of the orchestra and then becomes the soloist and then is silent while she conducts. Not like Bobbie McFerrin—imitating instruments or groups of instruments, singing every note you expect him to sing. Tina’s voice is singular—its own instrument in the orchestra. You might have heard jazz vocalist Joe Lee Wilson sing 25 years ago with Archie Shepp, sing like steam as part of the composition “Steam.” The only voice I’ve heard to compare to Tina’s. Its own instrument.

This past summer at Laguna Gloria, in the middle of CO2 mainstay and saxophone master Alex Coke’s “Iraqnophobia,” she emits a quick succession of guttural sounds like a nutty geisha arguing with herself, like lava popping in the primordial ooze, as Alan Pogue’s photos of Iraq and the victims of war play across screens that bend like sails in the breeze off Lake Austin.

4. An unusually cool July evening, 2004. Tina Marsh with collaborator and pianist Eddy Hobizal perform standards for a packed Umlauf Sculpture Garden concert. The pavilion functioning as an outdoor cathedral of song. The concert begins with a Lutheran hymn, “Create in Me,” and ends with a John Lennon hymn. Marsh’s singing moves from sadness to exuberance and back again. Her voice becomes breathy and husky as she sings, “I love Paris,” so we can hear it sizzle and drizzle, leading Hobizal’s lush piano. “The very thought of you” begins a conversation. The lines are almost spoken as they begin: “The little ordinary things … the mere idea of you.” She sings it like she means it. As she sings Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle,” swallows high in the sky swoop through the fading light. As dark descends, Marsh sings Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Her voice getting stronger with each successive line—bringing in more light as the night takes over. The Umlauf pavilion becomes an island of light in the darkness, as she ends with the John Lennon hymn “Imagine”: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

With the last note, the audience rises to its feet in a long ovation. The woman next to me, whose son is in a carpool with Marsh’s son, is ecstatic. “I never knew,” she said. “And she’s a very good driver.”

5. Since 1980, these musicians have been convening to play serious, original and innovative jazz right here in Texas. Twenty-five years. Like Count Basie’s Orchestra. Under our noses. Some of the best jazz in America. They congregate most often in Austin, but also at the old Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, the Houston Jazz Festival, the Carver Center in San Antonio, the Caruth Auditorium in Dallas, and the Brazos Nights festival in Waco. Not to mention various configurations of CO2 playing with Tina in New York City, Oregon, Seattle, Berkeley, Denver, Chicago, Corpus Christi, and Helena, Montana. And the world comes to them in the person of such jazz greats as Carla Bley, Billy Hart, Kenny Wheeler, Rosco Mitchell, Hamiet Bluiett, and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. Right here deep in the heart. Get on board.

All this is engineered, inspired, and held together by Tina Marsh, who is constantly seeking resources to pay the players, book venues, create concert series, commission original works, and make recordings. With the assistance of CO2 managing director Adam Conaway, she’s the creative force at the center of CO2 and its carnival barker. And a single mother. And a composer. An absolutely unique vocalist. And a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame.

More than 100 musicians have played with CO2 over the past 25 years. A few of the mainstays: Alex Coke, saxophone, composer, played with Willem Breuker Kollektief, Alejandro Escovedo and many others; James Lakey, trombone, composer, arranger, now of Atlanta, played with Clark Terry, the Temptations and many others; Jay Rozen, tuba, composer, collaborator with Virgil Thomson, tuba professor at Texas State University; John Mills, composer and assistant professor at the University of Texas (jazz saxophone), played with Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson; Bob Rodriguez, piano, now of New York, played with Carla Bley, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Wheeler and many others; Dennis Dotson, trumpet, played with Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano and the John Adams Quartet, jazz trumpet professor at University of Houston; Jay Fort, woodwinds, composer of “crossunder music,” played with Artie Shaw Big Band, Cecil Carter, jazz band director at San Antonio College; Oliver Rajamani, tabla, dumbek, percussion, leader of the band The Gypsies; and the late Martin Banks, trumpet, flugelhorn, Austin native, played with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, and Sun Ra.

6. Try making a living pulling together a cutting-edge jazz orchestra. Or singing jazz with a trio. Or recording a jazz CD. You’ve got to be a celebrity like Wynton Marsalis to make it work. Tina and Adam spend a full work week writing grant proposals, hustling foundations, lining up with other arts groups for meager city funds, looking for backers. They have an odd commitment to the notion that musicians should be paid.

Two years ago, Tina won a prestigious commission from the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Jazz Commissioning Program. For this she wrote “Courage of the Butterfly,” inspired by a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. On a foggy night, an 11-piece jazz orchestra surrounded her on the stage of the Helms Fine Arts Center at St. Stephen’s School in Austin. The players were black, white, brown, bald and dreadlocked. Tina swayed in front, fanning herself with a red fan, calling out measures, keeping the beat with the fan.

The piece chronicles the journey of the butterfly across oceans and the metamorphosis. The musicians create rivers of butterflies. Then Tina, like a force of nature breaks in, breathlessly, singing in tongues. “Let the spider sing in her cave,” wrote Lorca, while the butterfly spends herself in flight. Tina conducts, her arms like flapping wings. Her singing—an ululation, jazz glossolalia. The same piece and a few different musicians also played in a club on the Lower East Side.

Then there’s the Circle of Light. Every year Tina brings together performers from various backgrounds and nations for the holiday season for schools. The performers are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindis, black, white, brown, red. African drummer. Indian singer. Iranian musician. They begin with a welcoming chant that African drumming legend Olatunji taught Tina. They sing traditional songs of celebration for Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hanukkah. There are songs from India and the Nigerian “All God’s creations cannot be destroyed.” They play traditional instruments. Tina insists on paying the musicians, though all look as if they’re performing as a labor of love. With current school funding, few schools can afford this moment of enlightenment.

7. It’s one of those evenings on May 23, 2004. Laguna Gloria Amphitheater.

A breeze off the lake was bending the elephant ears, blowing the palms.

Small boats floating up, close behind the 14-piece jazz orchestra.

Bull frogs croaking by the river’s edge. Martin Banks is there for one of his last appearances.

The first piece is Tina’s “Aortic Bruise Blues.” Deep blues building off the baritone sax of John Mills. Then Martin Banks and the horns join in. The audience listens from the grassy terraces of the amphitheater.

Propped up on their elbows. The breeze picks up about 8:30. The trees begin to sway as the light turns gray. A young couple takes off on a path into the woods.

Then John Mills leads his “So Long Song,” standing with his baritone sax.

A boat trolls past as brass and woodwinds fill a twilit amphitheater. Tina singing with the alto sax. Rhythms and counter-rhythms. Young sax player Justin Vasquez takes off. Salsa beat. Sounds like a night in Habana. Tina makes mambo while singing with saxes against the counterpoint of horns.

That night Alex Coke’s “Iraqnophobia” sounds like the Casbah by the Colorado. Oliver Rajamani underscoring the whole on tabla.

As it gets darker, the breeze kicks up. The shadows of the trees dance like specters. Dipping, bowing, gracefully as the soprano sax wails its way through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” From Iraq to Delancy Street, as Jay Rozen leads the orchestra into what begins as a crazed klezmer piece. Wild tuba in the twilight. Then switching beats from klezmer to hot jazz.

World Saxophone Quartet legend Hamiet Bluiett is warming up at water’s edge. Holds high soprano notes on his baritone sax. He plays the stops on the sax like a percussion instrument while singing into the horn.

The orchestra becomes a wild swing band. The trombones, bass, percussion really taking off. Tina is smiling and singing in the middle of it all, bathing in the music. Then Bluiett slows it down with his huge hands, conducting like finger painting in the air. He faces the orchestra to tell a story. “Bring it down to where you can hear the fish,” he tells the orchestra.

As he begins his “TFA Afrophobic Denial Suite,” Bluiett declares, “Y’all got something going on down here. It’s not always that you get to embrace the stage with such articulate, intelligent soulful people. These are rare moments.”

Then Bluiett and Tina Marsh launch into a scat duet, call and response. This night jazzAmerica is alive and well on the banks of the Colorado.

Geoff Rips is a former Observer editor. For information about CO2 performances and CDs, see The Circle of Light will be performing December 6 at the One World Theatre in Austin and December 31 at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Austin’s State Theatre. Tina Marsh and a trio will perform for the Piney Woods Arts Council on March 3. Next June, CO2 will host a jazz series in Austin and will perform a Charlie Mingus tribute.

Geoff Rips is a novelist and a former editor of The Texas Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST