On an uncomfortably hot Wednesday afternoon last week at a funky downtown Santa Barbara coffee shop, Alex Marshall left me thoroughly confused. Marshall claims to be the leader of the Santa Barbara-based jazz outfit Ulysses S. Jasz, but in the liner notes for the band’s 2004 release, Too Late for Valentine, Marshall’s name is found only under the “graphics” heading. Marshall quickly confirmed he is truly a member of the band, but like all serious jazz musicians, he created a separate moniker for the stage: Frank Franks. “I chose ‘Frank Franks’ because it’s onomatopoeia,” he said. “The name sounds like the rhythms my banjo makes. Plus, it’s a tradition for jazz artists to have nicknames-just look at Duke Ellington, or Dizzy Gillespie, or Satchmo : the list goes on and on.”
Aside from an inventive nickname, Marshall shares a few other things with the jazz greats, chief among them improvisational talent and a passion for jazz and its history. An Edinburgh, Scotland, native, Marshall began experimenting with guitar in his late teens, but it was not until his stint at a Scottish art college that he became enamored with the early jazz sounds of the 1920s and “graduated to the banjo.” Marshall-a soft-spoken and unassuming man in his seventies whose voice retains subtle remnants of a Scots brogue-described the Edinburgh jazz scene of his college years as “healthy,” but said he longed to experience jazz in its home country, and thus came to the U.S. via New York City in 1979. After traveling the country for a few months, Marshall eventually stumbled on Santa Barbara and decided he wasn’t going anywhere. “I was living in L.A. at the time, and one weekend, a friend invited me to visit him in Santa Barbara,” he recalled. “I was only supposed to come up here for the weekend, but I loved it so much that I
Nearly three decades later, the Santa Barbara jazz scene is benefiting greatly from that decision. Marshall, along with bandmates Bill Dods and Robin Frost, formed Ulysses S. Jasz in 1998 as a weekly Saturday night jam session at The James Joyce, a relentlessly popular Irish pub in the heart of State Street run by jazz aficionado Tommy Byrne. It didn’t take long for the band, the name of which is a nod to the landmark James Joyce novel Ulysses, to amass a legion of followers and secure a weekly Saturday night residency.
Ulysses’s style is primarily Dixieland. As is traditional among Dixieland groups, Ulysses rarely writes its own material and instead improvises on an expansive collection of standards tapped from what Marshall calls the “great American jazz songbook.” These classics include “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” The band is attracted to Dixieland “because there’s a joyful quality about it,” Marshall explained. “There’s no moodiness, it is good dance music, and it’s instantly accessible to all different kinds of people, much more so than modern jazz.” Indeed, the band’s weekly performances have consistently drawn an enormously diverse crowd of traditional jazz fans ranging from college students to yuppies to retirees. In Marshall’s opinion, with such an eclectic following comes a duty for the band to preserve an American art form that has largely been ignored by both the media and general populace. “I think it’s vital that we propagate this music and make it heard. These songs are the spirit of New Orleans and have such a rich heritage. I really do feel a sense of responsibility toward them,” Marshall said.
Yet, even with its staunch dedication to the Dixieland sound, Ulysses is not afraid to venture into new directions. With the imminent departure of two of the group’s longtime mainstays-cornet player Dick Miller and singer/trombonist/pianist Bill Dods-and the equally imminent arrival of trombonist Larry Jones and pianist John Slais to replace them, the band will likely reshape its sound to cater to the more swing-era sensibilities of its new members. “Moving toward a swing sound is the next logical step, at least chronologically speaking,” Marshall said.
However, just because the group may already be planning its next chapter should not imply the exit of Miller and Dods is considered just a mere shuffle in the lineup. Marshall maintains a deep loyalty and respect for his bandmates, and when asked to assess the band’s impact on his life during the past nine years, the typically poised Scotsman struggled to articulate the depth of his emotions. Eventually, he simply stated: “Leading this band is my life’s ambition realized.”
Ulysses S. Jasz will host a free Grand Farewell Party to say goodbye to two of its departing members on Saturday, July 28, at The James Joyce at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 962-2688.