John Marshall, a titan of the British jazz scene for the last 55 years has left the building. At the age of 82, John passed away peacefully yesterday. He was at home in South London with his lovely wife of 54 years Maxi. I wanted to share a few thoughts about John as I have known him and worked with him over the last 29 years.
John was a very special drummer, a one off and a unique musical voice. He had great technique, formidable power and a rounded flowing rhythmic ‘feel’ but these do not begin to describe the magic that he could bring to whatever music he was involved in. As an improviser he could add so much colour, texture, structure and energy to music. He could play incredibly delicately and quietly and at other times do this thing where he would sort of erupt with a gargantuan energy – like a volcano. I never really understood what he was doing rhythmically when he did that, but the emotional power of it was unmistakable. He really listened to others when he played always focussing on what benefited the music as a whole.
Having started his playing in the 1950s he would have learnt so much of his craft from playing with others in his early days in the 1960s. It was an era before jazz was accepted in musical institutions. In those days there were no jazz teaching modules, jazz tutor books, educational jazz books and instruction videos. There were records and then people played – a lot. So John (and so many of his contemporaries) developed their individual style and honed it through playing night after night onstage with others. I think this contributed to John being the musician he was.
I first met John through a mutual colleague the wonderful double bass player Jeff Clyne. I had a gig at the 606 club in London and had asked Jeff who he would like to play with on the gig. He suggested John Marshall. I knew JM’s (as he was often affectionately called) playing as I had heard him with John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Eberhard Weber and Soft Machine. Plus of course he had played and recorded with so many others – Jack Bruce, Arild Anderson, Arthur Brown, Terje Rypdal, John Abercrombie, Sarah Vaughan etc etc. John had a huge reputation and was in that jazz superleague – those who had recorded on the prestigious ECM record label! I had seen him play and onstage he had a rather formidable presence. He could often have a severe look with furrowed brow, like you did not want to mess with this guy. Our gig at the 606 went well, and John and Jeff both agreed to guest on my second album ‘View from the Edge’ which was a great experience for me and they sounded fantastic together, particularly on the track ‘The Purple Sky’. In 1997 I formed a free improvising trio with John and guitarist Mark Wood – simply called Marshall Travis Wood – I think the first time John had been in a band with his name in the band title. We released one album ‘Bodywork’ and undertook a UK tour in 1998 touring the hardcore free improv’ clubs around the UK. It was an amazing tour and John was brilliant. He contributed so much to the music when he played. It is hard to describe in words the difference between a good creative drummer and what JM did.
I found John very encouraging and when he paid a compliment it always felt like something special. A nod of approval from an internationally respected musician like JM really meant you were probably doing something right.
One thing you would probably not know from photos of John, especially on stage, is how funny, how intelligent, how knowledgeable he was and what good company he was. I spent many many weeks on tour buses with him around Europe, America and the UK and he was great to be with. He was super intelligent and had started off doing a psychology degree at Reading University (with Arthur Brown!). He did the Guardian crossword every morning (the hard one!) and was very knowledgeable about art, culture and politics. John had a lovely smile and a big hearty laugh.
I have played with John in Soft Machine (and formerly Soft Machine Legacy) since February 2006, so for the last 17 years. I don’t think in that time I experienced one single unpleasant comment from him though he could be quite down on his own playing at times, even angry at himself because he did not meet his own high musical expectations. From our first Soft Machine Legacy album together ‘Steam’ (2007) to our most recent studio album ‘Other Doors’ (2023) John has always been amazing in the studio, with wonderful playing and ’feel’. The sound of his drum kit, cymbals and various bits of percussion always had a great tone, richness and depth. He brought so much to the recordings he was involved in, even when his health was failing towards the end. His final gig with us was at Ronnie Scott’s club on 20 June 2022. It was to be his last ever gig and there was a feeling it might be so. Sometimes you can just tell. John Etheridge said to me he felt that too on Elton Dean’s last gig with the band in 2005. When John walked onstage in his final few years, he would become 3 feet taller and as he sat down on the drum stool it was as if he was charged up with electricity and became 20 years younger. John was truly amazing on that last gig – he played spectacularly and it was glorious. I am only sorry it was not recorded. And we are fortunate that his final studio outing was also a fitting swansong to his illustrious career.
John Marshall was one of the greats. He was one of Britain’s finest ever modern drummers – brilliant and unique. He was an inspiring musician and human being. He was my friend and I will miss him.
Rest in Peace.
John Marshall photos by Geoff Dennison @GDcorporatephotography
Soft Machine photos by Mariia Korneeva