Primary Instrument: Clarinet, bass
Baltimore bass clarinetist, composer, and arranger Todd Marcus is one of the few jazz artists worldwide to focus exclusively on use of the bass clarinet as a primary soloing instrument. While use of bass clarinet in jazz typically tends to lean heavily towards avant-garde and free-jazz styles, Marcus’ playing presents the instrument with a modern straight-ahead jazz approach. His music swings hard with both fiery and introspective intensity but also maintains a strong lyrical sensibility.
Born and raised in the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City, the half-Egyptian Marcus began music at age six with early piano lessons. He picked up clarinet at age 10 first playing band then classical music repertoire. While in high school, an English teacher who also played New Orleans style jazz piano would introduce Marcus to jazz. But upon trying to join the school’s jazz band, Marcus was told saxophones, not clarinets, were the reed instruments allowed in the band and he was turned away.
In 1994 Marcus moved to Baltimore, MD to study political science at Loyola University and again attempted to join the school’s big band. This time Marcus was allowed to play and embraced the opportunity. With this first exposure to modern jazz along with a new friend’s borrowed jazz records of artists like Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, Marcus began to further explore the music learning improvisation from records and teaching himself theory and harmony. “I started exploring and realized I would have to figure out how to understand theory and harmony. So I’d just mentally drill myself by thinking - Ok, what is the minor 7th of an E dominant chord? – just exercises like that. And then of course, I learned a lot by just sitting at the piano and plucking away till I could play chord progressions.”
While at Loyola, Marcus also began volunteering at a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity in west Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community. He soon began to build relationships with community members including a life-long resident and pastor, Rev. C.W. Harris, who mentored him about the African-American community’s rich legacy of the arts and jazz, segregation challenges, and battles to overcome decades of poverty resulting from destruction by 1960’s riots, flight by black professionals, and an influx of drugs. Harris’ mentoring nurtured Marcus’ interest in Civil Rights era history, its deep connection with the jazz music of that time, and Marcus’ feelings of the need for greater racial reconciliation in America. With a resulting belief in a need to be engaged in community based revitalization, Marcus left college and in 1997 moved into the neighborhood doing community work by day and pursuing his ongoing study of jazz at night.
1997 also marked an important move for Marcus musically as he made the switch from clarinet to bass clarinet shortly after hearing the work of jazz legend Eric Dolphy on the instrument. “I felt it offered a lot more options than regular clarinet,” Marcus explains. “It hasn’t been easy because of challenges the bass clarinet presents on a sonic and mechanical level but I’ve worked to present the horn as an equal to saxophones in a straight-ahead playing context. With so few examples of people playing bass clarinet in modern jazz though, I think it’s ended up being an opportunity for me to chart some new territory for the instrument.”
In late 1998 Marcus returned to New Jersey to complete his college degree in urban studies with two semesters at Rutgers University. While there however, he spent a majority of his time at the school’s jazz department. Though not a music major, he was accepted by audition into the department’s jazz combos getting his first experience of performing in quartets, trios, and composing.
By mid 1999 Marcus was back in Baltimore working again with Rev. Harris where together they worked since to run Newborn Holistic Ministries (newbornholisticministries.com), a nonprofit addressing poverty related issues in the community. These efforts have resulted in the establishment in 2000 of Martha’s Place, the organization’s recovery program for women overcoming drug addiction and homelessness as well Jubilee Arts, a program established in 2008 to offer children and adults with alternatives to drugs and violence in the community. Accomplishments have also included significant community revitalization through the renovation of multiple abandoned buildings and vacant lots and community beautification with greenspaces and murals.
Marcus’ music career has also grown during these years as he has charted new ground on the bass clarinet and developed as a composer and arranger with his Todd Marcus Quartet, Trio, and Duo as well as his nonet, The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra. In 2006 he released his debut album In Pursuit of the 9th Man with his Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra as well as his Todd Marcus Quartet’s 2012 release Inheritance.
Though self taught in jazz theory and composition, Marcus’ compositions draw largely on intricate but lyrical straight-ahead jazz, classical influences, and over recent years have also increasingly explored the Middle-Eastern sounds from his Egyptian-American heritage. His work includes international performances, clinics, and radio play and he has worked with other jazz artists such as Bennie Maupin, Don Byron, Larry Willis, Odean Pope, Tim Warfield, Sean Jones, George Colligan, Orrin Evans, Joel Frahm, Xavier Davis, Mike Formanek, and Gary Thomas. Marcus was also a featured guest at the 1st World Bass Clarinet Convention in Rotterdam, Holland where his work was recognized for both his compositions and unique solo voice.
“My adult life has really been about being a part of and serving my community by day and cultivating my music by night,” Marcus shares. “I think I’ve always felt upset by the injustice of inequities in the world and so being a part of my community has allowed me to specifically deal with ongoing issues that stem from systemic racism and poverty. And at the same time, my music has allowed me to try to create some beauty that hopefully unites people across all races through the power of music.”
Todd Marcus, a musical autodidact, plays the clarinet and bass clarinet (rarities in the jazz world) with sharp ease. His tidy but sprawled-out compostions have a similar preternatural comfort about them. As a result his swingin' punchy post-bop often comes off both comforting and challenging. - CapitalBop, July 2011
The bass clarinetist's original tunes and the top-notch, lively musicians in the orchestra deliver one of the most satisfying big-band sounds in the region - Baltimore City Paper, January 5, 2011
Marcus has deftly helmed [a] nine-piece orchestra, which features some of the region's more notable players - Baltimore Sun, October 20, 2010
...masterfully performed solos...If you need to get your blood pumping, this [music] will fit the bill. - Examiner.com, November 26, 2010
Powerful, intricate jazz flowing through a bass clarinet - The B Daily, February 2010
One of the area's finest jazz musicians. - The Baltimore Times, September 2008
... one of the finest [CDs] to come out in late 2006...a fabulous ear and brain cleaner. We dug the freshness of the approach...Truly refreshing in a world of sameness. - Linda Yohn, WEMU Music Director, February 2007
“Todd Marcus shows a lot of promise with his exciting recording debut as a leader.” - All Music, February 2007
“After interviewing Todd at Jazz Radio 247, it also became clear that he was self taught as an arranger and player. In one respect you’d never guess this was the case, for his music is organized, balanced and mature. On the other hand, there is a fire, which resonates on this recording. His bass clarinet playing has an original sound, and his arranging has a style of his own…[The band’s] energy is awesome and the ensemble has a bright future. - Rich Holland, Jazz Radio 247.com, February 2007
“Marcus…brings a saxophonic rigor to the bass clarinet while also generating enough sonic power to front a nine-piece ensemble…With his melodic imagination and technical aptitude on an unorthodox horn, Marcus has something truly new and personal to offer.” - David R. Adler, contributing writer, Jazz Times
“While the bass clarinet has been used often since Dolphy, it is typically used by a saxophonist or clarinetist as a second or third instrument…Very few performers have used the instrument exclusively, but one such performer is the Baltimore-based American musician and bandleader Todd Marcus.” - Wikipedia Encyclopedia
[T]he Baltimore-based Marcus has fashioned a career on the bass clarinet of blending traditional bebop and swing with some world music touches that make him deserving of wider recognition. A sampling of his CD, In Pursuit of the 9th Man, on HiPNOTIC Records label shows off his skills as a composer and arranger as well as a musician. - Jazzreview.com, October 2005
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The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra, Quartet, Trio, or Duo are all available for clinics with participants ranging from middle school to college level participants. Clinics by Todd Marcus ensembles utilize an approach designed to expose participants to jazz through listening, discussion and application of improvisation, sectional coaching, and music business education. Topics include: 1. Listening - exposure to classic jazz recordings played as participants arrive to provide exposure of the music and initiate conversations about key musicians 2. Performance - clinic sessions open with a live performance by the specified Todd Marcus ensemble with a selection that allows students to observe live ensemble and solo playing and the material participants will in turn learn work to perform themselves 3. Rehearsal of selection/music business education - following the ensemble’s performance, participants are provided with sheet music and rehearse the selection - as necessary participants breakout into smaller groups by instruments for coaching on their parts by the respective instrumentalist from within the Todd Marcus Jazz ensemble to provide specialized instruction. - as applicable on selected clinics, music business will be discussed (in place of rehearsal). This type of education is critical information yet regularly lacking for participants considering careers in music. Subjects include self-marketing, working with private venues, engaging audiences, accounting practices, grant writing, and obtaining health insurance. 4. Improvisation study - members of the ensemble coach participants on improvisation as appropriate to the skill level of the participants. Content focuses on harmony, rhythm, time, and theory. Handouts are also provided for participants to utilize in home practice. 5. Participants performance - participants perform selected work again to incorporate the sectional, improvisation coaching, and soloing elements covered.