Marcus Shelby: Jazz & Baseball

The bassist and bandleader explores the legacy of the Negro Leagues as part of a new album from his orchestra

Bassist, composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby (photo by Scott Chernis)
Bassist, composer, and bandleader Marcus Shelby (photo: Scott Chernis)

Marcus Shelby loves baseball. His Facebook posts tend to be daily updates on the ups and downs of his favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, who are currently in rebuilding mode and therefore experiencing more of the latter than the former. The bassist and composer’s appreciation for the sport recently resulted in new music for his orchestra, which has been playing together for more than 20 years. Their new album Transitions features several compositions inspired by Shelby’s research into the Negro Leagues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He premiered them as an artist-in-residence at SFJAZZ and also performed them as part of his long-running relationship as a curator with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco.

This isn’t the first time the Memphis-born Shelby has taken a deep dive into an area of African-American culture and history. In Soul of the Movement, he paid tribute not only to Martin Luther King, Jr., but also to the many other leaders, and even some foot soldiers, in the civil rights movement. In 2008 he presented and recorded a suite dedicated to the legacy of Harriet Tubman, the renowned abolitionist and political activist of the 19th century, known for her work with the underground railroad.

He’s also collaborated with the singular playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith, likewise known for her explorations of African-American culture, albeit more contemporary in context, in works such as Fires in the Mirror, Twilight, Los Angeles 1992, and House Arrest, one-woman plays in which she played multiple characters based on her extensive interviews and research. Shelby provided the music for Smith’s Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratorio in 2015.

Recently Shelby talked with JazzTimes about Transitions, and about how his research into the Negro Leagues birthed new work. –Lee Mergner

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JazzTimes: Your Transitions album isn’t totally devoted to baseball, but the game certainly plays a big part in it.

Marcus Shelby: I do have a complete baseball piece, but I just haven’t recorded it yet. I’m not in a situation where I can record every year, so I wanted to document where the group was at this point and particularly with [vocalist] Tiffany Austin, who was a big part of our group.

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How did you first get interested in the Negro Leagues? I was doing a bit of research, and one thing I was surprised about was that there were actually multiple leagues. The plural is there for a reason.

That’s the thing I first learned. There were rogue leagues all the time: starting, stopping. Kind of like you see with these professional football leagues or soccer leagues—they come up, they might last for half a season. My interest started because I felt like I only had a surface understanding of certain things in history. In the past I’ve tackled projects like Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I felt like I didn’t really have a personal, emotional, passionate understanding of that movement, so I decided that I’m going to take a dive research-wise and create a musical suite that reflects the music of that period, Dr. King’s work, and whatever else happens in this research that I could turn into music. I did that with Harriet Tubman, and I did that with other projects that I haven’t even recorded.

Marcus Shelby at Giants' spring training
Marcus Shelby at Giants spring training

With the Negro Leagues, I obviously have a passion for baseball—I played in little league. I played basketball, I played football, I ran track, I got a basketball scholarship, so that was kind of the end of my baseball career. I went to school in L.A. but never became a Dodgers fan, came to San Francisco in ’96, and just kept reading peripherally about Jackie Robinson, and I saw the movie 42. I realized, “Man, I still don’t know about the Negro Leagues. I still don’t know what this is. There’s got to be something to this.” I just got started and got a book. The first book I got was called Raceball [by Rob Ruck] and it was really about the Afro-Latin American influences in major-league baseball, but that opened up a door. Then I got into a biography about Jackie Robinson, the biography Satchel, and I kept going back.

That biography on Satchel Paige by Larry Tye is excellent. It really enlightened us to his unique talents and personality.

I have a musical equivalent to all of them. Satchel Paige to me is a lot like Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong discovered the cornet when he was in the Colored Waif’s Home when he was a teenager and Satchel Page discovered he could pitch when he was in juvenile hall as a teenager. They both go by this moniker “Satch”—“Satchmo” and “Satchel Paige.” That’s not Satchel Paige’s real first name. [Ed. note: It was Leroy.] He got that nickname because he used to help carry satchel bags at the train station, and they called him a satchel tree because he used to try to carry as many bags as possible. He used to do that as a kid to make money. I guess when he was in juvenile hall, he used to throw rocks at birds, and he was like, “Wow, I actually have an arm.”

There’s Josh Gibson, who reminds me a lot of John Coltrane, and on and on. I have all of these characters that are based on their histories. Some of it is migration. When you look at the sections of music I wrote, there’s “Transition I,” there’s “Transition II,” there’s “Barnstormin’,” and then there’s “Black Ball Swing,” and all of these are about these areas, these cities that championed Negro League baseball. You have Kansas City, of course—the Count Basie Band, Mary Lou Williams, and others that came through there and defined the music and the style and the history there. You have New York City, this burgeoning city at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the subways. As a matter of fact, baseball kind of tied to that in some areas. I hate the Dodgers, but the Brooklyn Dodgers were called the Trolley Dodgers. It reflected this sort of mass transportation stop-and-go. And the first Negro League baseball team came out of New York—they were called the Cubans [actually the Cuban Giants, founded in 1885—Ed.].

It’s interesting how many teams were called the Cubans back then.

It was a common mascot. The only mascot that’s more common than that would be the Giants, because you had Chicago, led by the great [pitcher/manager] Rube Foster. He started what might be considered the first national Negro League team; he’s like the godfather of the Negro Leagues. He came out of Texas and came up to Chicago, much like Louis Armstrong and others like King Oliver, as part of the great migration. That’s what got these baseball players to these cities. His first team was the Chicago Union Giants, then he led the Leland Giants, and then he created another team that was called the Chicago American Giants. This was a very popular theme, I don’t know why. Even the San Francisco and New York Giants go back to that.

That’s the thing about Kansas City. The most prolific team came out of there: the Monarchs. They had a long history, they were led by a white owner [J.L. Wilkinson] who came up with the idea of the first lights at a baseball game, so they were able to have night games and make more money. Those barnstorming teams wanted to play a lot, but they actually had to play a lot to finance their tours. So what does that remind you of? The early blues bands—they did the same thing. There’s such an equivalent history between the early blues, swing, and jazz and Negro League baseball. The same infrastructure, the same agents, the same mentality of how they were taking care of all of those that were traveling, the entrepreneurship behind that, buses, and all of that. And even, where were they going to stay? Because we’re talking about segregation in this time period. So that’s how I got into all of this, the parallel between the music and Negro League baseball, and then as with anything else, you get deeper and deeper. I even signed up and became a member of the Society of Baseball Research. I started communicating with scholars.

Most serious baseball fans know that handful of names, like Paige, Gibson, and Buck O’Neil, but beyond them, most of us don’t know those other players. I’m not talking about the Negro League players who went on to play in the regular major leagues, like Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, and others.

There is something I did learn from this project, and it’s like this with every project I choose. I go into a project thinking, “Oh, I want to do something on Dr. King,” and you get into the project and something else happens, something else that’s maybe more inspiring or a different type of history that might hit you personally. I went into this project thinking, “Okay, I know I want to do something about the Negro Leagues, but [I want] to honor Jackie Robinson.” What happened was, when I got into it, I discovered that Rube Foster might’ve been the most important figure in all of this. There are no books out there about Rube Foster.

Was he originally a player or just an entrepreneur?

He was a player. Think about this: Back then, they didn’t have the money to just have a manager and that’s all they did. Think about Count Basie—Count Basie was a good organizer when he became leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. He wasn’t necessarily the most famous person in the band or the most notable soloist. He was the one who handled the finances, got the bookings, and was able to keep the band the most organized. As a matter of fact, he took over the job from the bass player that was in that band.

The same thing was happening in Negro League baseball. Rube Foster was really organized, but he was also the pitcher—he was a great pitcher [for various teams between 1897 and 1917]. They didn’t have the money to have just a dedicated manager, so it was always a player/coach. When he got older and couldn’t do the things he did before, then he became just a manager, and then he became an executive and he ran what was called the Negro National League [from 1920 to 1926].

I bring him up because he inspired the idea, during segregation, that if black players were going to be able to play in the major leagues or the minor leagues, to really build your own infrastructure, come up with your own venues. In other words, come up with your own ballparks, which not everyone could do. But the guy that owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Gus Greenlee, was able to do that. He owned one of the first Negro League-owned parks. He inspired that sense of self-sustaining.

I think he kind of foreshadowed what would happen if the major leagues brought in African-American players, and what it would do to the Negro Leagues, which it actually did. As soon as Jackie Robinson got drafted, it was over! There were three players who got signed with Jackie Robinson. Two of them didn’t make it, Jackie Robinson did. He showed the symbolism of the entrepreneurial mindset of creating and sustaining during that period of 1920 to 1946. There wouldn’t have been any Negro Leagues without that. Even so, many were not well-run businesses. They’d start up, they’d fold because of money, players would jump from one team to the next, Satchel Paige was one who did that a lot. Who’s enforcing contracts, right? There was a lot of disorganization. But in the end, it did teach the black communities how to own businesses, how to plan, how to raise money—lessons that they never had before post-Reconstruction. So it was a very important time period that was led by these gentlemen.

Did white people go to the games?

From what I read, yes. Just like they went to the jazz clubs. We’re talking about two worlds that were really parallel. Here’s the other thing: Just like the white musicians respected the black musicians, the black musicians had equal respect for the white musicians, the ones that could play. That same sort of respect happened in baseball. The reason why there was segregated baseball was because of a very popular white player named Cap Anson. There were Negro League players in the major leagues in the 1880s. Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldon Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings. But then Cap Anson said, “No. We don’t want Negroes in our league.” This is when the major league was a player’s league—if you had a popular player like that who said he didn’t want to play, then that’s the way it was going to be. From 1886 to when Jackie Robinson came, you have this 60-year period of no African-Americans in the major leagues because of Cap Anson. By the time we get to the ’20s and the Babe Ruth era, everything I read was that there was a mutual respect amongst the players, even though they were playing in separate leagues. And you hear all the time about these exhibition and barnstorming games.

It really allowed them to take measure, both ways.

Yes. Babe Ruth was called the white Josh Gibson, Josh Gibson was called the black Babe Ruth, and so on. It was a lot like the music. I think that players and musicians, like artists in general, sometimes tend to be a little ahead of society in that regard. Maybe it’s because they’re so passionate about the game or the music that they respect game when they see game.

Are any of the original Negro Leagues ballparks still around?

No, I don’t think there’s any parks left. Even the most famous park—Gus Greenlee’s park, where the Pittsburgh Crawfords played in 1933—is no longer.

How do you manage to match the music to the theme? Is baseball just an open-ended inspiration? 

It’s a very good question. I’ve written a whole piece about Negro Leagues baseball. But in the full piece I have, I have music that reenacts an at-bat, an umpire fight—this is for a public performance where I have clowns and I have actors, and I have singing. I am going to record that, but that’s a bigger project and that’s called The Negro Leagues and the Blues. The four pieces that I have on Transitions [are] about how baseball, at least Negro League baseball, came through the migration to these four great cities. For me it was thinking about what was unique about these cities, what was unique about Pittsburgh musically, what was unique about Chicago musically, as well as New York and Kansas City. With Pittsburgh, you’ve got great jazz musicians like Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers. When you look at that era, and you look at how those musicians got there, it’s all through migration, whether it was World War I that brought a lot north, or jobs in factories and steel mills.

Clowns performing in “Black Ball Swing” at Yerba Buena Gardens

Thanks in no small part to the porters and factories saying, “Come north for work—spread the word!”

Chicago benefited from that. In “Transition I” it’s really about that, that’s why I have train sounds in that section. I went back and listened to a bunch of Duke Ellington because he was fascinated by trains and how he was able to make the orchestra kind of reenact that. “Transition II” is really about New York and its mass-transportation population, how it affected early baseball there too, which was a big part of the growth of New York City. The only real sound of baseball as a sport that I utilized is in “Barnstormin’,” where I bring the theme back in, change the key here and there, and even have the drummer doing the sound of the batting practice. Very simple, subtle things, but it wasn’t to create a musical about baseball but really honor these four landmark cities that brought all these great baseball players and, in a parallel world, musicians from the South to the North.

With all the migration of African-Americans to the North, why were the Birmingham Black Barons in the South still big? How did that happen?

There were a lot of teams in the South. My family’s actually from Memphis, and you had a team there: the Memphis Red Sox. You had teams—maybe not as many as in the Midwest, East Coast, and Northeast—in the larger cities like Birmingham, where Willie Mays is from.

Hank Aaron is from Alabama as well. He played for the Indianapolis Clowns. As a matter of fact, when he left and went to Atlanta, the person that took his place was a woman, Toni Stone. She replaced Hank Aaron and played second base. See, that’s the thing. I didn’t know all of this. I have two daughters and one of my daughters is really into baseball, so these are things I try to share with young folks, whether they’re boys or girls, to get them interested again in this sport. Particularly in the black community, because when you look at the rosters, African-American players are becoming more and more scarce in the major leagues. There are a lot of reasons, that didn’t happen overnight. I don’t have any false pretenses to think that a bunch of girls are going to play major-league baseball. But the passion of the sport and learning about it and being exposed to it, I think, is important. There’s a lot of lessons in baseball about life. We can get into other sports, but for me baseball is almost the perfect analogy of life.

Because of the percentage of failure?

The percentage of failure is a big one, but just the fact that you start at home and the whole goal is to go through these trials—first base, second base, third base—to come back home. Often you’ve got to sacrifice yourself to move someone forward in life. The language of baseball is so beautiful and eloquent. To me there’s nothing violent about it. They say you’ve got to play the game right [in] every sport, but baseball specifically has that notion of “playing the game right.” Say you’re the pitcher and your left fielder drops the ball and the guy on third gets home. You know, as a pitcher you can’t sit there and cuss him out and huff and puff. These are all lessons.

Let’s talk about the fact that you’re leading and composing for a big band. What is it that you enjoy the most? And what’s the greatest challenge for you?

This is our 21st year, we’ve been around the Bay Area for a while. Maybe every five, six, seven, eight years you have a little turnover, people move on. We don’t have a ton of gigs because I’m not doing [gigs] where I have to pay everybody $10—I fundraise or I get grants or I do these projects. To go back to baseball, I watch good managers. I watch [Giants manager] Bruce Bochy … I watch older managers … I watch new managers like [Dodgers manager] Dave Roberts and [Phillies manager] Gabe Kapler using the analytics. I equate it to running a band, because what do you want in a good team? You want some good prospects that are young, but you also want veterans who can guide those young musicians or young players. I try to create a band that way. You want diversity so that you have different elements. One of the things I’ve learned being a bandleader all these years is to be proactive in the makeup of my band. You try to do what you can do with the talent source here, but for me I am very conscious of having good representation, whether it’s gender-wise, racial-wise, age-wise, almost like a good baseball team where you have all these various talents.

Cover of Marcus Shelby Orchestra album "Transitions"
Cover of Marcus Shelby Orchestra album Transitions

Music is not a representation of strength and speed, it’s about creativity. I think for a big-band leader, and particularly a composer, there’s an advantage to having a diverse palette with which to write music, and to perform music with that sort of mindset. That’s one of the things I’ve learned by watching other situations, like a baseball coach—how they might put together a lineup—and how the music might flow through that. I have a 16-year-old drummer, I have a 70-year-old second trombone player. My lead alto player is a wonderful veteran woman who’s been playing for a long time with different artists, my bass player is a young lady who’s been in my band for eight years. You get the drift. I have people in my band off and on for 20 years. My baritone player used to be my second alto player, my second alto player used to be my baritone player … like my second baseman used to be my first baseman, you get my drift? I really love that sort of approach. Not that everybody’s approach needs to be that way, but it works for me because that’s the way I think and that’s the way I try to operate.

It’s a lot harder financially to lead a big band.

You’ve got to plan. I’m a little bit older of a musician now. I have a lot of support with SFJAZZ, with Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, with the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. I’m on the [San Francisco] Arts Commission, and I’m a member of the union here. I’ve tried to create a long-term future view of this orchestra, and to me that’s to treat every musician with respect, with integrity, and to treat it like they’re playing in a trio. When I say that, I mean to pay them like they’re playing in a trio. That may mean you can’t take every gig, but you build on that.

I try to document the band through recordings when that point in time comes, and then I try to use that to further the work that we’re doing. The challenge is to stay relevant and keep pushing forward. That’s why I always look for young musicians that can bring new ideas and new energy. Just like you look at some of these baseball teams, and all of the good teams have the young players. The Dodgers, the Yankees—I mean, yeah, they can afford them, but the Astros, they’re all homegrown, they’re not fancy free agents, like “Oh, that’s the best musician in town, let me hire him” and “Oh, there’s the other best musician in town.” I try to develop a homegrown situation where there’s a commonality of culture in the band, a commonality of language, and also goals.

Artists always hate to be asked this, but what’s next?

I’m doing a number of different projects. I just finished a week at SFJAZZ as one of their resident artist directors, and one piece I did was with the writer Daniel Handler and it was on the natural history of the Bay Area, from the original flora and fauna to the old [native] tribes to the Gold Rush to John Muir and his work here, the naval shipyards, all of that stuff.

The next night I did a project with Angela Davis based on her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. The next night I did my Negro Leagues and the Blues piece, and then the last night I did the legacy of Duke Ellington. Next year I’m going to be doing a week with Ledisi. We’ve worked together off and on for the past 20 years and I’ve done a lot of arrangements for her. I did a tour with her and the Count Basie band. We haven’t done a lot lately because she’s been busy doing R&B and touring the world, but I did ask her to be part of my year two at SFJAZZ. And I’m doing a project called 1619, which deals with the first African slaves that were brought here and the history around that.

We have a number of festivals this summer, including the San Jose Jazz Festival, the Fillmore Jazz Festival. I’m doing the Monterey Jazz Festival with Maxine Gordon, doing Dexter’s stuff with a quartet featuring Teodross Avery, Adam Shulman, and Jaz Sawyer. A more personal project is, I’m going to be doing a piece on Willie Mays. I always have two feet in baseball somehow, even if it’s something that’s not imminent, but I really love the story of Willie Mays. He’s a big icon here in the Bay Area, almost a saint. He’s 87 now and he’s just such an inspiring figure. His story, his history on the diamond, his work afterwards. I’d like to honor him in a musical piece. I said the same thing when I wanted to do one on Jackie Robinson—it’ll start there, I’m not sure where it’s going to end. But it’s going to start with Willie Mays. A lot of these projects originate with artist residencies—such as one with the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, one with San Francisco Jazz Festival, and my longest one has been with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival right here in San Francisco. They’re the ones that will be supporting the initial work on Willie Mays.