Marie Marcus Biography

Marie Marcus was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on May 25, 1914. Marie was exposed to music as a child and her family said it was at age three that she started playing piano. Her grandmother exposed her to music and she became the pianist at the family parties. Her parents were fans of popular music, and ballroom dancing.

"My mother has always been young-minded. She married my father, whose name was Doherty, when she was sixteen or seventeen and she was a live wire, full of pep and energy. She sang in the church choir and played piano by ear. She and my father were great ballroom dancers. They were on the dance floor two or three nights a week at the Totem Pole, Nutting’s on the Charles or Loew’s State Ballroom. She taught my son Billy, who’s a jazz piano player, how to ballroom dance and he was amazed."

"The house where I grew up was always full of music and it was always full of people too. My mother and father lived in a big, old attic apartment in the house that was owned by my grandmother. She was a fantastic woman of the old fashioned Irish stock who lived to be 93. She ran the roost, which also included my uncle and four aunts. They weren’t that much older than I, and after my grandfather died (I was just three) she raised them all. I was an only child, and for 17 years I was an only grandchild and an only niece, so in one way I was spoiled. It was a very religious Catholic household, and those were still the ‘seen and not heard’ days. So I never seemed to get the kind of affections that my four children give me now."

"My father was a plumber at the Charlestown Navy Yard. He was considerate to me and saw to it that I had all the piano lessons and education I needed but he had a drinking problem that finally drove him and my mother apart. He couldn’t help himself and of course there was no AA then. On top of that, drinking was considered a sin, not a sickness. The poor man died when I was in my late twenties. He was coming home from work on payday when three men jumped him, and that was it. They never found out who did it."

"It was the music in the house that stayed with me. One of my aunts, Mrs. Parnell, would have been a great jazz pianist, but she gave it up when she married. My mother had a player piano with all those rolls by Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. There were always musicians from Boston in the house such as Joe Sullivan, who was good in the ragtime style, and Billy Paine, who was a fine singer. It was all an influence on me."

"When I was about four, I got up on the piano stool and played a whole number. When I was eight or nine I started lessons with Miss Teitelbaum who was a wonderful musician and teacher. We used to kid her about being a nice Jewish lady from Ireland, which she was. I studied with her for four years and when I was thirteen I gave a classical recital at Jordan Hall, in Boston. I continued my music studies at the New England Conservatory of Music (two or three courses) and attended Roxbury Memorial High at the same time. I was fourteen or fifteen when my career really began. I got a job playing piano once a week on the children’s radio show, Bill Toomey’s Stars of Tomorrow. I accompanied the other kids, and also had my own solo spot."

"I had become a pretty fair tap dancer having worked for two years as a tap dancer before playing the piano professionally and for a while I didn’t know whether I wanted to dance or play piano. When I played and danced one summer at a Chinese restaurant in Boston called the Mahjong, I asked the orchestra leader, Jimmy Gallagher, whether he thought I should be a dancer or a pianist. He told me I had something special on the piano and that there were girl dancers under every stone. That made up my mind."

"Then I was hired by Big Brother Bob Emery, who had the most famous children's radio program in New England. He was a strict smart man and a radio pioneer who’d been on the first Boston station, WGI. Working for Big Brother Bob Emery, I became known as the "Lady of the Ivories", playing for all the kids who would sing and dance. Then, just after graduation from Roxbury High, Bob Emery got a call to do a radio show in New York. It was a national show for NBC and he asked me to go with him. This was in 1932, and I was just l8."

"We were supposed to stay at the Royalton, on West 44th Street, but somehow I got turned around and ended up at the Claridge, which wasn’t far away. Emery was in a state of shock when he found me. He told me my mother would have his head, which she would have. So I moved to the Royalton, and I met Robert Benchley, who lived there. He was a friend of Emery’s, and he was a delightful man."

"My mother and father came up from Boston not long after I was in New York, and we took an apartment at the Hildona, over on 45th street, between 8th and 9th Ave. I loved the movies, and I went to every show in New York."

The show with Emery at WEAF for Humphrey's Remedies was philosophical with poetry readings and Marie played background music. Then they went over to WNEW which they helped open and finally they ended with a children's program on WOR (Mutual Broadcast Network). The radio show was three mornings a week so Marie had her nights to go hear music.

Marie had gotten bored with all the spare time she had, so she asked Emery to get her a job playing in a nightclub. She was very young but a friend of Emery that owned a bar and grill on Amsterdam Avenue hired her as the intermission pianist and she worked there seven nights a week. "The owner became partners with Dutch Schultz who bought Kean's Steak House at 49th Street and 8th Ave., so Dutch Schultz became my boss for quite an extended engagement." That was the start of it.

"At Kean's Steak House I worked from ten thirty till seven in the morning and then did my radio show late in the afternoon. I was in a little room next to the saloon-type bar and I was treated beautifully. I built up a following of fans who would come in and scat sing new phrases they'd heard uptown, where they would take me on my day off. We'd go to the Savoy Ballroom to hear Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald, and it was one of the experiences of my life."

She also frequented the Cotton Club. She remembers the big acts - Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. She also remembers how the big show people would go in after the shows in the late hours - people like Rudy Vallee and the members of the Whiteman band.

At the time, Marie had no idea of the extent of the violence of the era nor of the corruption among the lives of the people for whom she worked. Marie realizes now it was a very violent era as far as the mob was concerned. Yet when she worked for Dutch Schultz, Dutch would protect her - "the word was out on the street not to go near her". In the early years, Marie was known as Marie Doherty.

"During my first nightclub job at the bar and grill on Amsterdam Avenue, the boss and some of the waiters asked me to go to Tillie's Kitchen, in Harlem. It was an after hours hangout for show people and was open 24 hours a day. It was a fried chicken place (noted for fried chicken and hot biscuits) and Bob Howard, who sounded just like Fats Waller, was on piano. We went up there quite often and one night Fats himself came in. I remember the whole room lit up. He played and then Howard persuaded me to play even though I was scared to death. Fats listened, and when I'd finished he pointed to his heart and said, ‘For a white gal, you sure got it there.’ I was amazed but I guess he was too since at the time the only women who were playing jazz were Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Lil Armstrong, and they were still working mainly out west. We got talking, and I told him that I would like to further my education in jazz and asked if he knew a good teacher. He looked at me and said 'How about me?' l thought he was putting me on, but he wasn't."

"He had a small office, with two pianos, in the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway. During the next year or so, when he wasn't on the road or making records, he'd call me up and say, 'Come on down and let's play some piano.’"

The way Marie puts it, Fats never taught according to the accepted teacher pupil method but rather she sort of absorbed his ideas by osmosis.

"You couldn't exactly call them lessons. We'd play duets, and then he'd play and have me listen carefully to the things he did. He'd tell me, ' When you're playing jazz, remember the rhythm, remember the rhythm. Make the number of notes count. Tell a story, and get that feeling across to the people. Please the people by making it come from here.' He was very serious when we were working together, and I was grateful for every minute."

One lesson he had her do - he would go up the keyboard - giving her a chord, then noting the 5th of the chord and position of the chord, and the 10th of the chord, and the position of the chord, all the way up the keyboard. He told her to keep doing it faster and faster and it would speed the fingers for doing stride.

"I could never get over his reach on the keyboard. He had stubby hands, but he could span way over a tenth, which gave him that great left hand. Sometimes he would simply say, 'I wouldn't do that if I were you’ or 'you don't have to be a virtuoso, don't have to be all over the keyboard.'"

Marie was musically adopted by these people from Harlem - people at the V disk Studios where Fats played. Willy the Lion was interested in her and played with her and with Nat King Cole and Page Cavanah Trio. That's when Nat was only a player, and hadn't begun as a singer.

Marie tells the story of noticing a man in the wings listening to her playing. Later that evening he tells her, "You're going to make it one of these days, you got a lot of potential, little girl". It was Duke Ellington.

"Another experience was being at Benny Goodman's famous opening at the Paramount. I'd heard an early Goodman band in Boston, and something about it told me that this was the coming music. I was at the Paramount for the first show - the ten-o'clock morning show - and I couldn't believe what happened. That music just carried everybody away, and people started dancing in the aisles and on their seats. Somebody grabbed me, and there I was, dancing away like crazy. The Quartet in particular knocked me out, and although I wouldn't wait for St. Peter today, I stayed through three or four shows that morning."

"From Dutch Schultz’s place I moved on to work at the Venetian Palace for Frank Costello, another underworld figure. During this time I was doing singles and playing for singing waiters. It was scary there. Kids were naive in those days, and I was the most naive of all. I didn’t drink or smoke and I’d been taught all my life that sex was a dirty work. One night the bosses sent me and this little red-headed singer to play at a private party in a hotel. When I got there I couldn’t find any piano and began to realize I was in a strange situation. So I up and said to the hoods that were there, "If you force me to do anything, it’ll be like your kid sister." They took one look at my Boston Irish face and sent me back to the club. I never saw the singer again."

"The Venetian didn’t last long, and after a couple of jobs in between I finally made it to 52nd street, to the Swing Club. With one club after the other, 52nd street was known as the swing strip. It was paradise. Stuff Smith and Jonah Jones were working next door, at the Onyx Club, and Art Tatum was across the street, and Billie Holiday was two doors away. I was doing most of my work through CBS. I learned and I learned, not so much from piano players as from horn players and singers. It was a fantastic time in New York; there was so much good music."

"In 1937, I got married for the first time. I married a native New York boy named Jack Brown, He was a singer, an M.C., and he ran shows at a couple of Chinese restaurants on Broadway in the 40’s. We got a job together at Barkley’s in Brooklyn and we moved out there. In 1938 my son Jackie was born and I had to go back to work two weeks later because my husband had a nervous breakdown. He was in a hospital in Brooklyn and then in a sanitarium where he was for quite a while. Things were never quite the same after that and eventually we drifted apart and separated. He died several years later. I raised Jackie from the time he was 15 months old with help from my mother and aunts."

"For a short time I became a band leader with a 13 piece band (all men) and was known as Marie Doherty and her Gentlemen of Swing. I sang and played and had a grand opening at the Roseland Ballroom opposite Alvino Ray with the King Sisters. Six members of the band were drafted after a short time so I formed a 6-piece band playing shows in a popular spot in Brooklyn known as the Embassy Club where there were big plans to make a star out of me. Then more men were drafted, and with war coming, and after years of getting by on four to five hours sleep, I started to break down. My agent decided I was bushed and that first I should go up to the Coonamessett Club, in Falmouth on Cape Cod, where the work would be light and I’d get a rest. It was 1942 and war had just started."

End of New York/ Start of Cape Cod

Arthur Thorsen, who had come from California to take over the Coonamessett Club (later known as the Falmouth Playhouse), needed a piano player to play for a fellow that had a trio called Charlie Mack. CBS sent her there to rest and play a little in the lounge. She arrived the day before St. Patrick’s Day by train, got off in Hatchville, and was met by the hostess from the club, Bunny Chase. Marie wanted to take the next train back. "It was the dead of winter, and I looked around and thought, My God, I’m in the wilderness. But within a week my love affair with the Cape began, and I never did get back to New York."

At the Coonamessett, she played two pianos with Ray Collins and later with Alma Gates White, who became one of Marie’s best friends. They called them the Piano Maniacs and they worked as a trio with Charlie Mack as the leader.

"The Coonamessett, which is gone now, was a huge place, with a bowling alley and ballrooms and restaurants, and the work was anything but light. The day after I arrived was St. Patrick’s (March 1942) and the whole of Camp Edwards came over. I was at the Coonamessett or over at Camp Edwards, where I became a sort of mother confessor to the wounded boys, during most of the war."

"I moved to the Panama Club in Hyannis in the middle of a big hurricane – ‘43 or ‘44. It was a high-class steak pub and the number one club or the Cape. It’s gone now too. In fact, I seem to turn most of the places I’ve worked in up here into parking lots."

"It was at the Panama Club that I met Bill Marcus. Charlie Mack had hired him. He was a Boston musician, a fine trumpet player, and later a lawyer and we were married just after the war. We started going to Florida for the winter, and my two girls, Mary and Barbara, were born there. We worked every winter in Miami Beach and every summer on the Cape until 1961. After that, we stayed up here all year."

"It was in Miami in the fifties that I really got deeply into dixieland for the first time, I joined Preacher Rollo and the Five Saints - Preacher was a drummer named Rollo Laylan and I was with them five or six years, and we were a big hit. We worked every hotel in Miami Beach and had a national radio hookup five days a week and a recording contract with MGM for whom there were numerous albums made. We were on Steve Allen's Tonight Show and the Dave Garroway Show and Arthur Godfrey’s program."

Dixieland was the second influence on her music, and with Preacher Rollo and the Five Saints, she became known as Miami Beach’s Queen of Dixieland. Her and Bill and the children traveled on Cape Cod in the summer and wintered in Florida. But it was hard work. She didn’t finish until three or four in the morning, and she had to take several different buses going home and then be up at seven to get the kids off to school. Later on, she went on to work with her own trio around Ft. Lauderdale and Pompano.

After a while, the family came back to the Cape and settled. To make ends meet in winter, one of them would go on the road. During this time she worked for about six to eight weeks at Storyville in Boston for George Wein, and it was there that she met Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton and numerous others.

"When I worked for George Wein, I got a hundred and eight dollars and I worked seven nights a week." This was all the middle or late 50’s. She also toured the Midwest with Wild Bill Davison. Her husband was on the road a lot of the time and she went back playing Dixieland with Rollo. In 1960, living in Miami Beach and her husband working in Birmingham, Al., she had a full-blown coronary and was hospitalized for three weeks. She came back to Boston to recuperate with her mother and children.

Marie decided to come back to Cape Cod, where she finally started to get her health back. She worked in Mildred's Chowder House in 1963 with Jim Blackmore, who she met previously on a club date with Mel Von in Falmouth. At Mildred's she met Carl German, who was doing a single on guitar and vocals. Carl bought a second hand bass and started sitting in. She worked there as a sub for about eight weeks and went to Rooster (later known as Johnny Yee's) with her husband and a drummer.

"In 1963, after the Nauset Inn, I formed a partnership with Carl German - he pronounced it 'Germaine'. He played bass and sang, and we sang duets. I have a little Bonnie Baker voice, and I sang only with him, because I get very nervous by myself. Carl commuted an hour and a half each way from Mattapoisett, where he lived. We worked the winter of '63 at Mildred's Chowder House, in Hyannis and the summer in Mashpee (at the rotary)) at Ellie's Drift Inn, which later became On the Rocks. It was the same two places in 1964 and '65 and then we went into the Windjammer Lounge, in Hyannis, where we built up a terrific following. We worked the Windjammer the next four years, with a side job at the Orleans Inn. In 1970, we were at the Gateway Yacht Club, in West Yarmouth, and at La Coquille, in Dennis, and we did the Lighthouse Inn, the Sandbar, and Deacon's Perch. The winter of 1971, I was with Bobby Hackett at the Gateway, which was a ball, and during the summer Carl and I were at the Hereford House, in Dennisport. And the summer '72, it was the Charcoal Pit, in Chatham."

In 1963, Marie's tapes were put into the New Orleans Jazz Museum by its founder Dr. Edmond Souchon. It was Dr. Souchon who first proposed Marie and her original tapes for the first female musician to be elected to the archives of the museum and the motion was carried unanimously. And it was Dr. Souchon that first called Marie "The First Lady of Jazz".

"At the Nauset Inn in Orleans I played duets with a wonderful piano player, Leo Grimes, who went on to the Ritz in Boston. I worked with Leo on 2 pianos for three years there and at Hennessy's Steak House. Leo is self-taught, and he told me once that he can't help himself, that he thinks about music 24 hours a day - on the street, when he eats, when he dreams, when he gets up in the morning - all the time figuring out new things to play."

There were Sunday afternoon concerts at the Olde Inn with her own Dixieland band, which was formed in 1965. They worked eight or nine months of the year, at least once a week, at clubs and private parties and at outdoor concerts. Everyone in the band had day jobs except for Alan Pratt, the drummer, and Marie. They started at four and played until seven-thirty, when Marie would have to get to her regular job."

The original Dixieland Band consisted of Paul Nossiter (clarinet), Jim Blackmore (cornet), and Charlie Tourjee (trombone) composing the front line. Also, Bobby Travis, Jim Cullum (bass) Alan Pratt (drums), and Carl German (bass).

"My second husband Bill Marcus, died in 1965. He had perfect health, but he had a heart attack and died right on the bandstand at Barnstable High. He was a trumpet player, a society-band trumpet player, who worked for Meyer Davis and the Lanins and Ruby Newman. We had just bought a big house on Division Street in West Harwich. It was December of 1964. He was then President of the CC Musicians Union and a practicing attorney, a BU graduate. He had hung out a sign and was starting to practice again in a renovated office in the garage. The music studio was on the other side of the garage. He had lived in the house just six months before he died. After he passed, I moved into the office and my three aunts and my uncle moved in next door."

She knew then that she had to work for the rest of her life and help her children as much as possible. She made her first album in 1966 with Carl. A big thrill for Marie was making her second album - "arranging it and playing it with an all star band of 13 pieces backing me up with great musicians like Dick Johnson, Art Pelosi. Lou Colombo, Tony DeFazio among others." It was through the prodding of Bobby Hackett along with Wild Bill Davison and Dr. Souchon, founder of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, that Marie finally decided to cut this album. Dick Johnson wrote the charts.

Marie knew Bobby Hackett well. Bobby would say, "I'm going to keep practicing until I get it right." There'll never be another Bobby Hackett. There's nobody that can imitate him in my book. Bobby liked to play ‘Louisiana’ - I used to play it with him all the time." Bobby was Marie's guest for a week at Dunfey's before he died. He went in the hospital - but said he was O.K. - that he was planning to get a room at the Weqausett Inn and was setting up musicians to play. The night he died, a Sunday, he went to the Barnstable Airport to get Dave McKenna and have dinner with him. That night, he got up in the middle of the night and died."

In 1969 Marie worked again in Pompano and for four months at the Orleans Inn. Then she went back to the Windjammer. In the 70's she worked a succession of places including the last season that the Belmont Hotel was open. During those years she always had her Dixieland Band working Sunday jam sessions and they always packed them in. Also in the 70’s, there was Pates Charcoal Pit, The Belmont, the Sheraton Regal Inn for 1 1/2 years, and Dunfey’s Tavern on the Green for two years. In 1977 - she went to the Dunes Hotel in Miami Beach for six weeks with a five piece Dixieland Band. When she came back, she played with Carl at the Chuck Wagon in Harwichport for a year. Carl got sick just before the summer of 78 and she got another bass player for this and the Dixie sessions on the Sundays. Carl died of cancer in October of 78. "After Carl died, my spirit sort of died with him and New Year’s Eve was my last date at the Chuck Wagon."

At a benefit for Carl at the Sheraton in September of 78, she first heard the Boston Jazz Quartet. She had previously met pianist Mike Garvan and bassist Ron Ormsby as they were negotiating to buy the Columns Restaurant in West Dennis. They had asked her if she would get involved with running the entertainment there. Of course she would, for she had always loved the place and it had been Dave McKenna's home base working for the late Warren Maddows, who started the jazz policy there with many nationally known jazz artists. In January of 1979, she went to work for David Luhman at the Captain Linnell House in Orleans following Dave McKenna’s engagement there. Marie then worked for five years as music director at the Columns Restaurant. In 1982, there were two benefit concerts for Marie celebrating her fifty years in show business.

As of May 1998, it would be nineteen years that she would be with one partner, Ron Ormsby, former owner of the Columns Restaurant, her bass player and personal manager. The former Boston Jazz Quartet’s bass player, became a great influence on Marie's music. Through him, she learned to enjoy mainstream jazz, bebop and progressive music. "I also owe a great deal to my son, Billy, because he helped open my eyes and ears to this new music. He is also responsible for my appreciation of this music. I thoroughly enjoy listening to it."

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