OBITUARY : Marshall Royal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The trademark of Count Basie's band was his precise and swinging rhythm section, but his brass and saxophone sections were every bit as distinctive. For 20 years the saxophone section was led by the alto player Marshall Royal, who was also the "straw boss" - the man who worked as Basie's deputy, rehearsed the band and took care of its day-to-day affairs.

Royal wasn't always on the side of the management, however. When the parlous state of the band business caused Basie to cut his big band from 16 men to a septet in 1951, Royal, the trumpeter Clark Terry and the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray formed the front line. For economy's sake Basie made them wear uniforms which had been used by members of the big band and were by now well worn. On tour in Toronto the three complained about their seedy appearance and asked for new uniforms. Basie said, "Never mind about the uniforms, just get out there and play good."

The three decided drastic action was called for, slashed the uniforms to ribbons and hung them on the doorknob of Basie's hotel room. Then they set them on fire, knocked on the door and ran away. That night, expecting raging retribution from Basie, they dressed smartly in their own clothes. As Basie climbed on the bandstand he looked them over and said wryly, "You mothers weren't kidding, were you?" He paid for the new uniforms.

Royal's father was a music teacher and band leader and taught Marshall to play the violin. His mother was a pianist and they all, along with other relations, played in a family band (this was before the birth of Marshall's brother Ernie, who became an outstanding jazz trumpeter). "I gave up the violin when I got into high school and started playing clarinet and then saxophone. I made the change for strictly economic reasons. Violins weren't popular." Although always regarded as a saxophone player, Royal was, in the words of the pianist Sir Charles Thompson, "one of the greatest musicians in the world. He can read any kind of music, play any kind of music, and he is - something few people know today - a genius on the clarinet."

While still a young boy, Royal made a living playing in taxi dance halls (male customers paid for 10-minute dances with the halls' girls) until 2am, managing to get to school by eight the next morning. By the time he was 16 he was working in night-clubs and, in a remarkably auspicious beginning to his career, was invited by Duke Ellington to join the Ellington band as a violinist for its appearance in the film Check and Double Check in 1930 (Royal's friendship with Ellington was a lifetime one and when he could he deputised for Johnny Hodges on lead alto in the Ellington band).

His saxophone playing at 16 was so good that he joined the band of Les Hite where he stayed for nine years and had his first job as a straw boss. Other kids in the band were the trombonist Lawrence Brown, soon to become one of Duke Ellington's main soloists, and Lionel Hampton, who at that time was playing drums. Hite's band, which mostly worked on the West Coast and never became as famous as it should have been, often worked as Louis Armstrong's band.

By 1940 Hampton had formed his own band and Royal joined him in October that year. Sir Charles Thompson was the band's pianist. "Without Marshall Royal it wouldn't have been the band it was," Thompson said. "I looked to him as a father musically, although sometimes his criticism made me so mad I could have cried. Later on I saw its value. Several of the younger musicians disliked him for it. He told them there was more to it than just blowing their horns and he taught them about breathing together in the section." Royal stayed with Hampton until he was called into the services in September 1942 where he became straw boss of a very good navy band.

When Royal left the navy in 1946 the big-band scene had collapsed. Royal thought the reason was that there had been no new dance crazes: "On top of that, during the war they took up all the floors with tables to serve drinks, so there was no place for the people to dance. That created a listening audience, which is good in a lot of ways, but if you have no dance, dance bands can't exist." He joined the small group led by the pianist Eddie Heywood for a year and then moved back to the West Coast, settling in Los Angeles, where he worked as one of the first black musicians in the studios, his consummate musicianship making him much in demand.

Royal joined Basie in 1951 and stayed for 20 years. "I consider Basie is a friend of mine and I've always tried to keep my working conditions with him on a level of friendship and respect. Basie and I work together on a handshake proposition. Every band had to have a kind of deputy leader and my job may go a little further than that at times. I direct the shows in the theatres, rehearse the acts, put 'em together and try and keep things going. I've done that kind of stuff all my life and know how it should be done. So many people who have resented at the time what I've told them to do have come back in later years and thanked me and that in itself is sometimes enough reward."

Royal's concern with the sound of the band was such that he didn't bother much about taking solos - he had been in the reformed Basie big band for three or four years before he was given one. He was also more concerned with playing prettily than with hard swinging. His best solo feature was his version of Quincy Jones's ballad "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set".

In 1970 Royal left Basie and returned to Los Angeles, where he worked until a few months ago as a key member of the trumpeter Bill Berry's LA Big Band and of Juggernaut, two big bands based firmly in the Ellington and Basie traditions. Royal was a key man in honing the intonation of the sections and in his later years was much loved by the younger Los Angeles musicians to whom he taught so much. He had toured the world many times with Basie and returned to Europe in the Seventies and Eighties with the Count's Men, a band made up from ex-Basie musicians, the Concord All Stars, and with Bill Berry.

Steve Voce

Marshall Walton Royal, alto saxophonist and clarinettist: born Sapulpa, Oklahoma 12 May 1912; died Los Angeles 9 May 1995.