This is the story of a "local guy" who stuck to his guns and made it on his own terms. He's a DIY musician. His name is Marcus Shelby.
Twenty years ago, Shelby -- bassist, bandleader, composer, big musical thinker -- was part of the "Young Lions" movement in jazz, recording for Columbia Records and seemingly destined for fame and fortune in New York City. Shelby, however, moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and began gigging six and seven nights a week. He was forging a reputation, teaching in schools and collaborating with theater companies, choreographers, filmmakers and poets, while building a discography focused on grand historical themes in African-American history.
He's never left the Bay Area. Lucky us.
"In New York, I'm not sure I could've built the vision," he says, during a two-hour conversation at the Red Poppy Art House, a cozy community center near his Mission district apartment. "This is my city. This is where I am. My kids go to school here. I work in the schools. I believe in them."
Dedicated to Duke
Now 48, he brings his latest project to fruition Friday at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, where the Marcus Shelby Orchestra will perform a Duke Ellington tribute under the auspices of Cal Performances. It will include early classics by Ellington, as well as his "Such Sweet Thunder" suite, inspired by Shakespeare -- and here performed by Shelby's 16-piece orchestra in a collaboration with Cal Shakes. Actors just may pop up around the concert hall to render Bardian bits: i.e., from the balcony scene of "Romeo and Juliet," which inspired Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to compose the suite's sublime ballad "The Star-Crossed Lovers."
The collaboration was Shelby's idea; he knows Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes artistic director. Well, Shelby knows everybody, it seems.
On stage, wrapped around his double bass, grounding bands with his fat tone and deep rhythm, he is all business, rarely cracking a smile. In conversation, he is a charismatic dynamo, expansive and prone to breaking into laughter -- and, as on stage, wearing a fedora tipped at just the right angle, his signature.
He veers from one topic to the next: from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (he scored a 2012 production for San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company) to actor-playwright Anna Deavere Smith (he's scoring her new play "Pipeline Project"), from San Francisco's juvenile hall (where he teaches music) to the 100-voice choir he conducts in Sonoma (it performs in June at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival) and somehow on to the California Gold Rush, Ohlone Indian culture, Grizzly bears and naturalist John Muir (about whom he wrote a piece, "Muir's Walk," part of his "Green and Blues" suite for his orchestra).
"I've tried to combine different things that inspire me," he says. "When I want to learn about a subject, then I find a way to write music about it."
Shelby has composed a triptych of big band suites drawn from African-American history. His "Port Chicago" (2006) was inspired by the 1944 explosion at an East Bay naval yard, where more than 320 men were killed, mostly black American sailors. His "Harriet Tubman" suite (2007) evoked the Underground Railroad's abolitionist hero. His "Soul of the Movement" (2011) drew on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., while exploring work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz and Curtis Mayfield's "We're a Winner."
Doing his homework
It involved three years of research, including residencies at Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the Columbia College Center for Black Music Research, also in Chicago. He drove from Alabama to Tennessee, interviewing scores of men and women who lived through the civil rights years, including his aunts Katie Mae and Lucille Greer, retired nurses who had participated in the Memphis protests on behalf of the city's black sanitation workers, led by King in 1968.
"It's research and immersion, and that turns into melody," Shelby says, explaining his process. "It's action and movement, which turns into rhythm." He adds, "Music has to be about something."
Pianist and composer Rebeca Mauleón directs the education program at SFJazz, where Shelby's family concerts (including two with author Lemony Snicket) have been sell-outs:
"Everything he does is with this spirit of curiosity and experimentation -- one foot in tradition and one foot in the modern world," she says.
Deborah Cullinan has known Shelby since the late '90s, when she directed Intersection for the Arts. Now she directs the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and has helped guide funding toward his projects for 16 years. She says, "He's special. He's one of these constantly evolving, constantly questioning people."
Asked to imagine what Shelby might be doing in 15 years, she says, "His curiosity is kind of insatiable, so the question would be like, 'What kind of wild collaborations would he come up with?' Astronauts and musicians and who knows what? But also the themes and questions that he feels required to explore: What will they be?"
As a boy, Shelby lived in Memphis, where his grandfather was a preacher and family life revolved around church. "Oh yeah, every Sunday. Twice on Sunday," he says.
When he was about 5, Shelby and his family moved to Sacramento. At 13 -- inspired by the bass-playing older brother of his best friend -- he took up the double bass, playing it alongside the choir at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church and in his high school orchestra. He never had a private lesson -- and quit at age 16 to pursue sports.
He won a basketball scholarship to Cal Poly, where he majored in electrical engineering, thinking, he recalls, "I was going to be an electrical engineer or a professional athlete, if God let me be."
In his senior year, though, his father suggested that he "check out this trumpet player." It was Wynton Marsalis. Shelby took a date to see Marsalis' band at the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento -- and quickly forgot about his date. "Because it was like they were playing to me. This swing, this up-tempo swing, this multi-polyrhythmic -- oh, man. And Wynton was so articulate. And I was, 'Wow, that's what I want to be, right there.'"
This was in 1988. Shelby was 21 or 22. He dusted off his bass and practically was laughed off the stage during a gig in Pismo Beach, where the bandleader shouted to the drummer to "Play louder," to drown out Shelby's mistakes. "I was horrible," he says.
He practiced maniacally. He moved to Los Angeles and found a home at the World Stage, a community arts and performance center founded by Billy Higgins, who was one of jazz's most infectiously swinging drummers. Higgins saw the spark in Shelby and his friends, mentored them, taught them the connection between community and music. At the World Stage, the young bassist and his pals formed the Black-Notes, the group that later recorded for Columbia Records and toured Europe in 1994, opening for Marsalis.
We'll have to fast-forward through Shelby's two years at Cal Arts, his studying with flutist-composer James Newton, his self-education in classical music, his obsessing on Tchaikovsky and attending more than 100 Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsals at the Hollywood Bowl with pocket scores in hand.
No wasting time
We'll jump to 1996, the year Shelby performed at a Billy Higgins tribute in San Francisco. He soon moved to the Mission, began gigging and meeting with arts administrators. He "got into the middle of our stuff immediately," remembers percussionist-educator John Santos. "He's a mover. He's not a guy who's wasting time."
Shelby has never stopped moving. He teaches the music-history connection in two schools. His daughters, 4 and 11, play in the teen jazz band he directs at the Community Music Center in the Mission. He has become a mentor to a new generation: "Without Marcus, there is no me," says Oakland-reared trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who's now a star, tours the world, but still texts Shelby for advice "whenever I'm feeling stuck or boxed in."
Last year, Shelby was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission: "I'm here 18 years, man," he jokes. "Sooner or later, people will call you for things."
He's here. He plays bass. He swings, infectiously, like Billy Higgins. And he's got something big on tap for Friday, his Ellington extravaganza. Expect sweet thunder.
Marcus Shelby Orchestra
Performing "The Legacy of Duke Ellington: 50 Years of Swing!" with members of Cal Shakes for "Such Sweet Thunder," the Ellington-Strayhorn suite