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Commentary: Remembering Marchel Ivery

By David Okamoto, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Track 1: "Three Coins in the Fountain"

The most common compliment paid to Marchel Ivery was listing him in the roll call of the Texas Tenors, an honorary club of husky-toned, large-lunged saxophonists like Illinois Jacquet, David "Fathead" Newman, and Dewey Redman who learned how to be heard in raucous roadhouses long before they got to perform in stately venues like Carnegie Hall.

But Ivery, the 69-year-old Ennis native who died on October 30 after coming down with pneumonia, contributed much more to Texas jazz history than just a big sound. As an underrated patriarch, he connected the dots between the romping swing of Buster Smith and the pioneering bebop of Charlie Christian, the free expression of Ornette Coleman and the innovative modernism of Roy Hargrove. As a musician, he was the favorite sideman of late Miles Davis Quintet pianist Red Garland, the free agent that the legendary Art Blakey desperately tried to recruit for his Jazz Messengers, and the guy Wynton Marsalis always invited to either sit in or jam after hours whenever he came through town.

Rather than flee to the coasts, Ivery stayed in Dallas to take care of his family. His name was a fixture on the Sammons Center for the Arts and Dallas Museum of Art's jazz programs, and his weekly bookings at Terilli's on Greenville Avenue served as a live jazz harbor for almost 15 years. He often had to compete with the clatter of forks and the chatter of diners, but if he'd have rather been playing the Village Vanguard instead of an upscale Italian restaurant, you never would have known it by his attitude: Aside from the occasional raised eyebrow when the fettuccine received louder accolades than his solos, Ivery played with a fiery focus and cool confidence that embraced both the gently swinging and harder-bopping sides of jazz. His warm, soulful sound was bluesy but never blustery: Even when channeling John Coltrane, his improvisations would deftly wander around the melodies but always find their way back home.

Track 2: "East of the Sun"

Inspired after hearing Charlie Parker on the radio, Ivery traded the trumpet for the sax in junior high school. After a stint in the Army, he anchored jazz and funk house bands at such local institutions as The Lark on Grand Avenue, the Recovery Room on Cedar Springs, and the old Central-Forest Club on Martin Luther King Boulevard, which has recently been revived by Erykah Badu as the Black Forest Theater. In 1994, at age 56, Ivery finally got his chance to record an album under his own name: Marchel's Mode, featuring Coltrane pianist Cedar Walton, was the maiden release for Dallas-based Leaning House Records. It paved the way for two more Ivery albums as well as the debuts by Duke Ellington Orchestra saxophonist Shelley Carrol, Arts Magnet graduate Fred Sanders, and drummer Earl Harvin - all of which elevated the international visibility of the Dallas jazz scene.

If you're looking for Ivery's music today, you'll have to scour the Web and the local used CD stores. His three Leaning House albums are out of print and iTunes sells just one 99 cent track - "Trippin'," an outtake from a 1970 funk festival CD recorded at the Central-Forest Club. To search for it, you have to misspell his name like the soap. It's not exactly the way a jazz icon should be remembered - but then, Marchel Ivery's brilliant legacy will never be forgotten.

Track 4: "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"

David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo! in Dallas and a former contributor to Jazziz and ICE magazines and the Dallas Morning News.

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