Requiem for Joe Marillo: 1932-2016

Saxophone master transformed local jazz scene.

The San Diego jazz community is reeling from the loss of saxophonist Joe Marillo, a giant on the scene for decades who passed away at the age of 83 on March 25.

Mr. Marillo changed my life. When I was 19, and just getting acquainted with the music, he was literally everywhere on the San Diego jazz landscape. One of the first jazz shows I ever saw was Marillo and a group with pianist Butch Lacy and bassist John Leftwich supporting trumpet legend Blue Mitchell at Southwestern College circa 1977.

He moved to San Diego in 1973, but he had already influenced our musical development before then. Bass great Bob Magnusson remembers, “I first met Joe and his brother Tony (a great drummer) in 1967. I had only been playing bass for about a year. Joe was already a wonderful musician and I was just a raw kid. He was always positive and helping me to improve. Joe spent his whole life helping and teaching young musicians. On another side of his personality, he and Tony were like the Marx Brothers -- always doing funny, crazy things. I love him dearly, and he’ll be sorely missed by all of us whose lives he’s touched.”

Since my first encounter with Marillo in 1977, I witnessed a plethora of young musicians come up through his bands, including guitarist Peter Sprague, trombonist Kevin Quail, and drummer Duncan Moore, to name just a handful.

“Joe was a great guy to work for and with,” says Moore. “He always let the players experiment and change it up. In any conversation, he would take it to a deeper level, looking for the truth in whatever the topic was, often with a great sense of humor. In 1980 we recorded a live album at Elarios which the Summer House Inn financed, but because Joe wasn’t happy with how he played on it, he refused to advertise it from the bandstand, and cases of the records sat in the basement unsold. It certainly didn’t endear him to the hotel owners!”

Bassist Mark Dresser also put time in the Marillo band. “He both hired and fired me,” Dresser recalls. “He was an old-school guy, schooling in a tradition. Not one that I had a big affinity for … He could be very funny and could say outrageous things off the bandstand. The opposite of P.C.”

“Joe was a hero!,” says Peter Sprague. “He played beautifully and perhaps his greatest gift was his enthusiasm for jazz. He wanted all the musos to be heard and he wanted the audiences to be involved and present. And the dude had a sly sense of humor and a wild boomerang thing where whatever you were talking about, he’d circle the conversation back to the metaphysical. I’ll miss him.”

Marillo also made an indelible impression on violinist Jamie Shadowlight. “Joe was the first musician in town who would call me up to play a song with his band. It was my introduction to working and befriending a lot of top musicians including Bob Magnusson, Mikan Zlatkovich, Gilbert Castellanos and Brett Sanders. I learned a lot of tunes and I learned the ropes of being a professional musician through those guys. He was a friend, a mentor, and a character. A true character. He lived outside the system and was simply Joe.”

A tribute to Joe Marillo will be held at Dizzy's in Pacific Beach on May 24 (his birthday) at 7 p.m. featuring many of his associates and a photo display by long-time friend and bandmate Michael Oletta.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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