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Obituary: Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa / Legendary jazz pianist

Friday, September 20, 2002

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa, a piano wunderkind who was for about a decade one of the most sought-after pianists in the history of jazz, died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack. He was 76.

For the past few years, Mr. Marmarosa was a resident at the VA Medical Center in Lincoln Lemington, where he occasionally played piano and organ for other residents and guests.

On the day of his death, his sister, Doris Shepherd of Glenshaw, said he played a small organ on the fourth floor of the building before returning to his room because he wasn't feeling well.

"He was truly one of the legendary bebop players," said Tony Mowod, WDUQ radio host and founder of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society. "He was one of the many Pittsburghers who have made us proud to be associated with the music."

From his boyhood days growing up on Paulson Avenue in Larimer, Mr. Marmarosa used the entire keyboard, all 88 keys. Sometimes he played off the keyboard, creating imaginary keys in the wind, finishing the phrase in his mind.

He practiced every day for hours, alternating hands until his left hand was as strong as his right. Within months of starting to play, he was playing Bach for fun.

In 1941, the Johnny "Scat" Davis Orchestra came to Pittsburgh with an opening for a piano player. Even as a kid, Mr. Marmarosa had a reputation in local jazz circles, and some local musicians suggested that Davis snatch up the young pianist, so he hit the road. He was 15.

After a few months, the orchestra broke up. But Mr. Marmarosa and a few others hooked up with Gene Krupa's band.

Mr. Marmarosa then joined Charlie Barnet's big band. During that time, the Barnet band recorded "The Moose" and "Strollin,' " the first of dozens of recordings Mr. Marmarosa would be part of over the next few years.

During a tour in New York, one of Barnet's trumpeters got sick and was replaced temporarily by Dizzy Gillespie. One afternoon, Gillespie invited Mr. Marmarosa to his apartment to meet a rising star named Charlie Parker.

In early 1944, at age 18, Mr. Marmarosa left Barnet's band to join Tommy Dorsey. The band featured a quartet including Mr. Marmarosa, Buddy De Franco, Sidney Block and Buddy Rich. For Mr. Marmarosa, playing with Dorsey was another in a series of dead-end jobs made tolerable by the opportunity to work regularly with Rich.

"Buddy Rich was a great drummer, the greatest," Mr. Marmarosa told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998. "The band had great cohesion and a lot of spontaneity."

In November 1944, Mr. Marmarosa left Dorsey and joined Artie Shaw's band, which was considered one of the best big bands in the country. Shaw, like Dorsey, featured a small combo from the band, known as the Grammercy-Five. With it, Mr. Marmarosa found more opportunity to improvise, and the group made several popular recordings. The group also featured guitarist Barney Kessel and fellow Pittsburgher and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.

What all these great musicians heard in Mr. Marmarosa was, first of all, discipline, and beyond that, an unparalleled capacity for speed and musical tapestry. Mr. Marmarosa marched to the sound of his own drums, and the beat was bebop.

That became clear to Shaw one night in some obscure club in the Midwest. The small crowd kept requesting "Frenesi," a Shaw arrangement. The band played the song twice during the first set and opened the second set with it. Mr. Marmarosa yelled to Shaw that if he had to play the song again, he was leaving. Shaw called for "Frenesi" one more time, and Mr. Marmarosa walked off the bandstand and drove back to Pittsburgh.

After a few weeks in Pittsburgh, Mr. Marmarosa moved to Los Angeles and began hiring out on a free-lance basis, primarily as "house" pianist for Lyle Griffin's Atomic record company. During his tenure there, he recorded such classics as "A Night in Tunisia," "Moose the Mooche" and "Yardbird Suite," working with such luminaries as Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

He created his own keyboard vocabulary, attacking the piano with force and articulation, creating intensity and climaxes, alternating between hands as if the keys were an extension of his fingers.

In 1947, Esquire magazine published its fourth annual jazz poll. For an "All-American" jazz band, the critics chose several musicians who would dominate the jazz scene for the next 30 years: Miles Davis, Sonny Stitts, Milt Jackson, Sarah Vaughn, Pittsburgh bassist Ray Brown and the "new star" on piano, 21-year-old Dodo Marmarosa.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Marmarosa was drafted into the Army. Military life had an emotional effect on him and he was discharged after spending several months in the hospital.

Upon his return to Pittsburgh, he made no attempt to re-enter the national jazz scene. He worked briefly at the Midway Lounge in Downtown Pittsburgh, where he and close friend Danny Conn recorded "Pittsburgh, 1958."

"He was like a big brother to me," said Conn, who regularly visited Mr. Marmarosa at the VA center. "He was a very humble musician. He was also a genius at the piano."

In the late '60s, he went to work at the Colony Restaurant in Mt. Lebanon. Mr. Marmarosa performed there until diabetes forced him into retirement.

Mr. Marmarosa is survived by another sister, Audrey Radinovic of Glenshaw. The family requested a private funeral and burial.

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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