Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lest We Forget: Charlie Mariano (1923-2009)

Note: this article also appears in the August 2009 issue of All About Jazz New York in a shortened version.

Making a name for oneself in the cutting-contest world of bebop was a difficult thing in the 1940s, a ripe period when swing was giving itself over to the “new thing” of improvising on melodic-rhythmic changes. Modern jazz was, of course, a rich enough approach that many musicians found a lifetime of aesthetic achievement within that idiom. Yet there were players who came out of the bebop language who continued to invent, finding music itself a broad enough language that a single approach couldn’t contain their ideas. Saxophonist and flutist Charlie Mariano was one of those restless improvisers, though his body of work might be skipped over by a canon set to the changes of Coltrane, Miles and Mingus.

Mariano was born Carmine Ugo Mariano on November 12, 1923 in Boston, the son of Italian immigrants who had come over at the time of World War I. Mariano began in music very young, learning piano and becoming an excellent sight-reader. Under the influence of Lester Young, he took up the saxophone as a teenager, receiving an alto as a gift from his sister. Almost immediately, he formed a small dance-band combo and played locally; by nineteen, he had joined the union and was gigging semi-professionally. After a stint in the Army where he was stationed in Kansas and California, he returned to Boston and came under the spell of Charlie Parker. He told interviewer Lothar Lewien: “I wanted to be able to play like this. Hence I chased Bird's sound, his way of phrasing. I listened to his solos on recordings for hours, wrote them down, and played it. I'd been obsessed with this music, and Charlie Parker had been my God.” After a brief and, in Mariano’s words, unchallenging period with territory bands, he attended the Schillinger School (later Berklee) on the GI Bill, studying under Joe Viola. Music school opened doors, and Mariano worked in the bands of Nat Pierce, Serge Chaloff and Herb Pomeroy, as well as leading his first sessions for Imperial and, shortly thereafter, Prestige and Bethlehem.

By the mid-1950s, Mariano was leading the saxophone section of Stan Kenton’s band as well as arranging; an on-and-off position, he left the group for Los Angeles and drummer Shelley Manne’s quintet, for which he wrote a number of compositions and recorded five albums. In 1958, he returned to Boston and began teaching at Berklee, where met his second wife, Japanese-born pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Forming a quartet, the Marianos were busy, working in New York, recording for Candid and touring Japan (later resulting in a somewhat lengthy stay). Mariano’s sound had evolved past the Charlie Parker mold into a keening cry, analogous to a “cooler” Jackie McLean – something which Charles Mingus appreciated and used on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse, both 1963). In 1967, Mariano went on exchange to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where he became interested in Indonesian and South Asian music, especially the nadaswaram (a South Indian double-reed instrument), which he studied with guru Muthaiah.

Mariano’s “second career” began to take shape after his months in Indonesia. After brief visits to Japan (where he recorded with Japanese saxophonist Sadao Watanabe) and the US, Mariano relocated to Holland and then Belgium, working with Dutch flutist Chris Hinze, pianist Jasper van’t Hof and Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. His approach to alto and soprano saxophones and flute, with both an edgy keen and an understanding of Indian modes, was perfectly suited to jazz-rock. It wasn’t long before he joined the German prog-rock band Embryo and Dutch group Supersister, as well as forming Porkpie with van’t Hof and Catherine (also featuring drummer Aldo Romano and bassist J-F Jenny-Clarke). Mariano closed out the decade playing in German bassist-cellist Eberhard Weber’s group, Colours, and the multi-national United Jazz + Rock Ensemble. He also spent time in India throughout the decade, studying bamboo flute in Bombay.

From the 1980s onward, Mariano was based in Cologne, Germany leading his own combos and guesting with artists as diverse as Mal Waldron, Anthony Braxton, Kent Carter and Theo J√∂rgensmann. His renown and achievements are bittersweet, however – revered and downright “popular” in Western Europe, Mariano’s work (not many can boast Herb Pomeroy and Embryo on their resume) is certainly far less-discussed in American jazz circles. After a long illness, Mariano passed away June 17, 2009 at age 85.

Selected Discography:

Charlie Mariano - Boston All Stars - (Prestige/OJC, 1951-1953)
Toshiko Mariano Quartet - (Candid, 1960)
Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady - (Impulse!, 1963)
Charlie Mariano/Chris Hinze Combination - Blue Stone - (Black Lion, 1971)
Embryo - We Keep On - (BASF, 1972)
Charlie Mariano - Reflections - (Catalyst, 1974)
Edward Vesala - Nan Madol - (Japo, 1974)
Charlie Mariano - Jac's Group - (Horo, 1975)
Embryo - Life - (Schneeball, 1980)
Charlie Mariano/Mal Waldron - Autumn Dreams - (Alfa Jazz, 1991)


  1. Who does not have the singular sound and sensibility of Charlie Mariano etched into their frontal lobes? I first heard him dancing through The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and have been an admirer of Mariano's work ever since.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen!

  3. Great piece, Cliff. One small discog nit: Mariano isn't on Manne's Blackhawk sides, it's Kamuca in the sax chair on those. Damn sorry I missed your Minneapolis hit. We got back around 2pm yesterday and I noticed the email stating your morning departure. Next time!

  4. Thanks - it has been a while since I heard those and seem to have got the wires crossed!