Marsh came from an affluent background: his father was the cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh (1892-1941), and his mother Elizabeth was a violinist. Mae Marsh, the actress, was his aunt.
He was tutored by Lennie Tristano, and along with Lee Konitz became one of the pre-eminent saxophonists of the Tristano- inspired Cool School. He was often recorded in the company of other Cool School musicians, and remained one of the most faithful to the Tristano philosophy of improvisation, the faith in the purity of the long line, the avoidance of licks and emotional chain-pulling, the concentration on endlessly mining the same small body of jazz standards. Nevertheless, his distinctively sombre, grainy tone (which set Marsh apart from other Lester Young- influenced saxophonists); uncannily fluent use of the high register; and rhythmically subtle lines are immediately recognizable. He has been called by Anthony Braxton the greatest vertical improviser. In the 1970s he gained renewed exposure as a member of Supersax, a large ensemble which played orchestral arrangements of Charlie Parker solos; Marsh also recorded one of his most celebrated albums during this period, All Music, with the Supersax rhythm section. He died onstage at the Los Angeles club Donte's in 1987, in the middle of playing Out of Nowhere. Though he remains something of a cult figure among jazz fans and musicians, his influence has grown since his death; younger players such as Mark Turner have increasingly been borrowing from his music as a way of counterbalancing the pervasive influence of John Coltrane
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