Jazz pianist Marie Marcus, a former protégée of Fats Waller and Cape Cod’s undisputed “First Lady of Jazz,” died on Oct. 10 of complications from a stroke. She was 89.
Born in Roxbury, Mass., on May 25, 1914, the daughter of two avid ballroom dancers, Marcus was exposed to music at a very early age. She is said to have started playing piano when she was three years old.
Marcus got her start in New York in the 1930s performing on national radio broadcasts and nightclubs. Known for her proficiency with stride piano, her repertoire consisted mostly of Dixieland standards. During her tenure in the jazz clubs of New York, she often performed on Manhattan’s 52nd St. jazz epicenter. It was in New York where she met the man who would soon become her piano “coach” and greatest influence, the legendary Thomas “Fats” Waller.
Marcus has stated Fats wasn’t really a teacher in the usual sense, but their friendship yielded many opportunities for the two to play together. She tried her best to absorb his ideas and technique. “We’d play duets,” she said in an interview. “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. Please the people by making it come from here.'”
But after years of exhausting work in New York City her agent sent her to the Coonamessett Club in Cape Cod for some much needed rest and relaxation. But her popularity among tourists and locals soon transformed her quick vacation into a 40-year residency. Over her distinguished career there, Marcus performed for the likes of President Kennedy.
In his book Barney, Bradley, and Max), Whitney Balliett described her style thusly: “At first, her style seems a simple mélange of chunky chords and brief connective runs, but on closer examination it is a repository of the jazz piano playing of the ’30s and ’40s.” It was a style that elevated her over typical nightclub fare.
Marcus is survived by her sons, Jack and William; her daughters, Mary and Barbara; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.Originally Published