“You didn’t look like a drummer to me”. With this expression of astonishment, the trad jazz star Acker Bilk apologized to his substitute drummer in the early 1960s for not paying enough attention to him on the band bus on the way to a gig.
The transferee was more familiar with confusion regarding his last name. In his class alone at Isleworth Grammar School there were two other Marshalls sitting next to him. And on Saturdays he took drum lessons from Jim Marshall (yes folks, from Marshall Amps).
He later received panicked calls about how quickly he could rush to Studio XYZ – the wrong John Marshall had been booked. The trombonist. Such anecdotes might seem strange to Central European jazz fans. For them, John Marshall had been an iconographic figure since the late 1960s: with his mustache and extensive hairstyle, then called the “Papua bomb” (a dutiful yuck at this point). And mainly as a busy drummer who, from Nucleus “Elastic Rock” (1970) and Soft Machine “Fifth” (1971), pushed British jazz rock like no other colleague.
“I was very adaptable, liked a lot of things and could play with just about anyone, which was fantastic. One evening in Acker Bilk’s Trad Band, the next with John Surman in Ronnie’s ‘Old Place’ and the night after that I accompanied a singer in the new club on Frith Street. I even played with Indo-Jazz Fusions in front of 250,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 on the same program as Bob Dylan.”
Isle of Wight, one might add, there was also Miles Davis; and in his band a musician with a similar head of hair, who not entirely unknown African Americans such as Quincy Jones and Ornette Coleman therefore – and mistakenly – took for one of their own, Keith Jarrett.
John Marshall was immune to such confusion, even in terms of style. With Jack Bruce, with Eberhard Weber Colors, for a long time with John Surman, with Hugh Hopper, Michael Gibbs and Vassilis Tsabropoulos, we saw him less in African-American expression, certainly not funky, but as a powerful, sometimes loud jazz drummer with great affinity to rock rhythms.
By far his longest engagement, over five decades with interruptions, was with Soft Machine. In January 2023 he handed over the post to Asaf Sirkis. He took part in the most recent album “Other Doors” in the summer of 2022. He obviously suffered from osteoporosis (bone loss).
“…of great importance for the development of straight ahead jazz in the country,” writes the saxophonist colleague in the email informing us of his death.
One may argue about the terminology, ask whether hard bop would be more accurate or modern jazz, which is what is used in one’s environment. However, these are variants of the same thing, which with the addition of “influence of John Coltrane” come very close to an exact localization.
The man stood at the center of jazz, not at its interfaces. Although at the very beginning of their career, in the early 1970s, with Jazztrack, the quintet also moved at the then new interface of rock. At the beginning of the 80s he began a collaboration with a partner, the drummer Peter Weiss, which initially lasted as a trio, later and at most in a quartet, for “fourty years” (CD title from 2011).
He has seen the world, 850th anniversary Moscow, Japan, China, Australia, but also Brazil. Has played with celebrities, from John Scofield to Eberhard Weber, and several times with the stylistically closely related Randy Brecker (e.g. “Together”, 1991). And yet the local pride is not entirely wrong, which the Rheinische Post describes in its obituary as follows: “…(he) represented Düsseldorf in the world”.
It doesn’t fit into the traditional Rhine rail folklore that this Düsseldorf native held a professorship for jazz saxophone at the Cologne University of Music for 24 years, and was even the first to hold this position there.
The fact that he – which is normal today – did not flee from a “normal” job in jazz, nor did he convert from classical music, but rather acquired the skills straight away at a university, the first of their kind, must also have a pilot character Art in Europe, in Graz.
Wolfgang Engstfeld, born on December 9, 1950 in Düsseldorf, succumbed to cancer there on September 18, 2023. He was 72 years old.