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Lou Marini : "Blue Lou" Blows On

This is all you need to know about saxophonist Lou "Blue Lou" Marini: When a Bowling Green State University faculty member asked whether he'd want to jam with students at Easy Street Cafe after his scheduled concert he quickly replied: "Yeah! Let's play as much as we can." Marini, who appeared in both Blues Brothers movies and was a member of the original Saturday Night Live band, was at the Northwest Ohio university as guest artist for "Jazz Week", hosted by the school's Jazz Studies program.

During his stay he played concerts with a student big band and with the university's own estimable faculty jazz trio—Jeff Halsey, bass, Chris Buzzelli, guitar, and Roger Schupp, drums, as well as guest Wendell Jones, who had taught at BGSU with Marini's father Lou Marini Sr. The elder Marini taught saxophone, theory and arranging at the university starting in the 1960s. By that time Marini Jr. was already attending North Texas State University. Having a band director for a father set Marini on his career course early.

He said in an interview between rehearsals on campus that he can't remember ever wanting to be anything other than a musician. His father, who was also his band director, started teaching him clarinet when he was in elementary school. As soon as he realized that his son was serious about music, he had him study saxophone with a friend, Frank Corbi.

During the concert with the faculty jazz trio, he recalled that his father used to write two clarinet duets for the two of them to play at school assemblies. Then he played one of them—"Fancy Pants", an upbeat bebop tune.

Marini, who was born in South Carolina on May 13, 1945 and raised in Beach City near Massillon, Ohio, said he's fortunate to have had an upbringing in which he was surrounded by music and musicians, but was at the same time a near-idyllic small town childhood. "As a kid I loved to play ball as much as I loved to play music", he told students during a jazz band rehearsal. Both music and sports require the same sort of "physicality", he said. "You have to discipline your body."

He mixed his instruction to the students with references to his own life in music—hearing Count Basie for the first time at 11, playing with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, James Taylor and, of course, the Blues Brothers. He was playing the role of "old head", passing along the tradition the way elder musicians did when he first arrived on the scene.

Though he made his first recordings in the early 1970s in North Texas State's renowned stage band program, his career began in earnest when Doc Severinsen offered him a gig with his traveling band. He was soon immersed in the New York jazz scene. One night in 1971 during a jam session, he met trumpeter Lew Soloff and trombonist Dave Bargeron, then part of the BS&T horn section. They invited him to audition to replace the original saxophonist Fred Lipsius. He stayed with the jazz-rock band for several years, appearing on the New Blood and No Sweat albums.

Marini said he's recently viewed videotapes from his tenure with the pop band and was impressed by how jazz-oriented it was. The band would open with a chorus of his tune "Hip Pickles". Still, he decided to quit. "I felt the band couldn't decide in a direction to go."

Back in New York he worked as a session musician, doing up to five recordings a week. Over his career he's also done numerous studio dates, including work with artists as diverse as Tony Bennett and the Rolling Stones. He remembered recording with the Stones and told the story of trumpeter Al Rubin mimicking an inebriated Mick Jagger. Asked what album or songs the dates produced, Marini shrugged his shoulders. "All I remember is we made good money."

He joined a BS&T colleague, trombonist Tom Malone, in the band of a new, innovative comedy program. From 1976 through 1983 "live from New York", Marini intoned the opening lick for Saturday Night Live. The atmosphere on the set was heady. "We realized on Monday the whole country would be doing the bit we did on Saturday night." Rubin used to ask him right before the broadcast: "Where's the hippest place to be in the whole world?" Then he'd answer his own question: "Right here!"

The band and cast shared a sense of camaraderie. Chevy Chase would sit in on piano—"he knew a little bit of 'Milestones'". And John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd would join the band to sing a few classic rhythm 'n' blues numbers to warm up the audience before the show. One week a skit got canned right before show time and producer Lorne Michaels decided to insert a Belushi-Ackroyd musical number in its place.

They didn't have the suits, or hats, or sunglasses, Marini remembered, but The Blues Brothers clicked with viewers. The sartorial embellishments were added when the bit was repeated, destined to become a regular feature. Then came jobs opening for comedian and show alumnus Steve Martin, and then the casting call for the movie.
Ackroyd told the band members that they needed nicknames "and if we wanted any say in it we'd have to come up with them ourselves". "Blue Lou" seemed a natural for a blues musician, Marini said, especially since it referred to the classic blowing tune his father had taught him back in Ohio.

Marini said he was disappointed with the 1980 movie when it came out because so much of what the band did was cut out. He and the band play a bigger role in Blues Brothers 2000, with John Goodman filling in for Belushi, who died in 1982. Marini said he visited the set every day and learned as much as he could about the movie-making process. "The first one we were making too much money and were too crazy."

The classic 1980 film gave Marini "minor celebrity". Recently a young man in Spain stopped him and greeted him as "Blue Lou". His small slice of fame is very different from what Belushi endured. Even in New York City, a place where celebrities usually walk the streets undisturbed, fans would accost Belushi. "People couldn't control themselves when they met him", Marini said. He recalled being in Tower Records in Los Angeles at 2 a.m. with Belushi. Soon the place was packed with fans and Belushi was "running for his life".

The Blues Brothers band still plays regular engagements, mostly in Europe and Japan. In the United States they have to contend with promoters who don't think the band is worth booking without Belushi and Ackroyd, or with a host of Blues Brothers imitators.

But Marini remains true to his first love, jazz. He still plays in a number of rehearsal bands. He loves playing in ensembles, either as lead saxophonist setting the pace or as second alto to a great lead player, matching his tone and interpretation.

His first United States recording under his own name came out this year. Lou's Blues, on Chase Music Group, was recorded in Alabama by The Magic City Orchestra. It showcases both Marini's writing and blowing. He composed all but one number and arranged all the charts. The arrangements are vibrant, full of rousing, intricate shout choruses. He loves the weight of the Kenton-size brass section with five each of trumpets and trombones. Yet he uses them with subtlety. The charts can be both delicate, as demonstrated by the atmospheric ballad "Song for John", and wailing—as shown by the old BS&T opener "Hip Pickles", with its mix of funk and free, and by "Looking with New Eyes", which dates back to his North Texas State days. Marini's playing on Lou's Blues is characteristically urbane; he blends a soulful earthiness with bebop savvy.

Despite the lack of commercial appeal of jazz, it still attracts musicians, Marini said. They love the challenge the music poses. "You don't get like that unless you put in thousands of hours", he said, referring to the best players. But the studio scene has fragmented and withered. "I made my living as a recording musician", Marini said. "I don't know that anyone does that now." He said he doubts he had five recording dates in the past five months.

Electronics have displaced live musicians on dates, and with the emergence of hip-hop, producers are more likely to hire musicians from their own circles. "They don't know that whole group of guys who can sight read and play in any style", he said. He admits having little affinity for rap. "I don't get it", he said. "It has no buoyancy." When he does hear a pop tune that he likes with a strong melody and interesting chord changes, he's offended by the vulgar lyrics.

Most of his studio colleagues are now holding down steady jobs in Broadway pit orchestras. He finds the pit jobs too confining. Instead he continues to do play live with various jazz groups including a quintet with ex-BS&T trumpeter Soloff and the Blues Brothers Band. He's also backed up James Taylor on the singer's last two tours. One tour took him to North Carolina, where his father (at 83) still teaches part-time at a local high school. After one Taylor concert in the state, Marini even got a chance to sit in with a local band that included Corbi, his old saxophone teacher.

Marini said though he enjoys doing college clinics like the one at Bowling Green, he doesn't do very many. Academics want them planned a year or so in advance, and given the Blues Brothers Band schedule he can't commit that far in the future. The Bowling Green residency though was set up in November, after Marini and his father made a guest appearance with the marching band during the homecoming football game.

Marini also said that he feels he usually doesn't play his best with college musicians. "I depend so much on the guys playing with me. The truest playing to me is you walk into this club and you say 'let's play this tune' and something that's never happened before happens. That's the shit. I've learned to be very open-minded. Every time I pick up my horn I try to play at the highest level I can as a craftsman and with as much heart."

That came through when he played with the BGSU faculty trio. Schupp, Buzzelli and Halsey are all active gigging musicians, as individuals and as an ensemble. They played a set that included Marini's "Star Maker". The music really took flight when guest vibraphonist Wendell Jones opened up "Air Mail Special". The music evolved into a joyous exchange. The crowd that packed the hall was on its feet following the Goodman classic. Now in most situations like this, it's the resident musicians who urge the guest to come out for one more number. But on this night it was Marini calling the rhythm section out from backstage to play an encore, his own "Cita con Cita", which is dedicated to his wife. The Spanish-tinged tune revolved around a sudden break before the last phrase and Marini and the band teased the audience with several false endings.

At 58, Marini said he treasures every chance to play. He recalled a friend from Texas. A drummer with a Dixieland band, he had just taken a solo on "When the Saints Go Marching In". The audience gave him a standing ovation. The drummer stood up to acknowledge the applause, then as he started to settle onto his seat he fell straight back, stricken by a heart attack. That, Marini said, is the perfect way to go.

(A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the April 7, 2004 edition of the Sentinel-Tribune, Bowling Green, Ohio.)