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Marcus Shelby started playing baseball as a 12-year-old boy. He loved the game, but once he landed a full-ride basketball scholarship to California Polytechnic State University, he turned away from the diamond. He began playing bass at 13, first in church and then in the high school jazz band. Yet with no real ambition to be a professional musician, he drifted away from music, too.
“Then something strange happened to alter my focus,” Shelby says over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “I went to a Wynton Marsalis concert, and I lost my mind.” The band included Marcus Roberts, Bob Hurst and Jeff “Tain” Watts. It swung hard. Shelby felt inspired. He found an old bass, and began playing again. A job as an electrical engineer at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed him in Los Angeles, where he met drummer Billy Higgins. Things happened fast. He joined Los Angeles’s World Stage Workshop. He applied to Cal Arts, got a music scholarship and soon found himself studying bass with Charlie Haden and composition with James Newton. He started a group with some classmates, got signed to Columbia Records and ended up opening for Marsalis’ band on tour.
“I wasn’t following baseball closely then,” Shelby says. “I think it was because I was surrounded by nothing but Dodger fans.” That would change, too. In 1996, he moved to San Francisco and settled into a career as a musician. His love of baseball rekindled. “It was the Giants and Barry Bonds that did it,” he says. “San Francisco is a baseball town. It’s hard to live here and not be aware of what’s going on with the Giants. I got hooked all over again.” These days, Shelby carries gloves, balls, bats and bases in the trunk of his car at all times. “I will play catch with anyone willing to. My daughters and I play before school and after school. Weekends, too.”
Twenty years ago, when Shelby formed a 15-piece jazz orchestra, he began to think big and thematically. “I have been on a mission for the past 20 years to compose and create music about African-American history,” he says. These pieces have included an oratorio on Harriet Tubman and a suite about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues, a music-and-theater piece of his that premiered last year at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, where he is artist-in-residence, combined his dual loves of both jazz and baseball with his artistic mission. As performed live, actors played Negro League heroes (Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson), clowns mimicked infield practice and Shelby attempted to re-create an environment that gave rise to African American achievement in baseball stadiums and dance halls across the country. On his recent CD, Transitions, which includes standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter, the four-part “Black Ball” suite forms a clear centerpiece. Here, Shelby highlights four cities — Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Kansas City — “because they were most central to the history of Negro League Baseball, and are elemental to the story of big-band jazz,” he says. The opening movement, “Transition 1 (Pittsburgh),” begins with snare-drum rim shots, muted trumpets and a hint of boogie-woogie; its bold rhythms are meant to evoke the hard-charging swing of native-son drummers including Art Blakey and Jeff "Tain" Watts, as well as the aggressive style of play of two powerhouse Negro League teams (the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays). Latin elements within “Transition 2 (New York)” reflect the diverse influx of many cultures during a population boom in New York during the 1920s and ’30, and the legacy of the first Negro League team, the New York Cubans. “Barnstormin’ (Chicago)” begins with a deep-blues feel and honors the architect of the Negro Leagues, Rube Foster. The suite’s final movement, “Black Ball Swing (Kansas City),” celebrates the best-known, most respected Negro League team of all time, the Kansas City Monarchs; it showcases the bebop language developed by Charlie Parker and ends on the signature chords of Count Basie, both Kansas City icons.
Shelby spent three years researching this project — attending Society of Baseball Research conferences, interviewing surviving Negro League players, reading books and watching YouTube clips. He sees a clear connection between the legacies of the Negro Leagues and African-American music. “Rube Foster started the first organized Negro League in 1920,” he says, “right about the same time Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Sara Smith and others made the first blues recordings and toured the infamous ‘wheel,’ which ran through the South, Midwest, upper South and parts of the Southeast. Barnstorming Negro League baseball teams employed the same traveling routes, stayed at the same hotels, ate at the same homes and in many cases were booked by the same agents. Chicago is where the Negro Leagues as an initial entity began through the efforts and leadership of Rube Foster, who migrated from Texas to Chicago, just like so many musicians who traveled up the Mississippi River, including King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.”
Shelby had long considered inherent connections between his two rediscovered passions, jazz and baseball. “I wouldn’t say baseball has the same rhythm as jazz, but it does swing and it grooves,” he says. “Watch the rhythm and motion between a pitcher and a catcher. It’s critical that it has rhythm or the pitcher will be rattled. Watch infield practice. Same thing. There is a flow and rhythm to it. You have to be ready because it’s different every time — a fast hop is coming at you, just like in the middle of walking rhythm changes while playing bass. Also, baseball takes patience. Jazz is a patient art form with little gratification that is quick and easy.”
So, were his jazz orchestra a baseball team, what position would he play? “I think about this question every day as I’m always trying to learn the values of baseball by watching games,” he says. “I would certainly be the catcher. As a bass player, I think the catcher has the equivalent role: steady and consistent; involved in every pitch; controlling the tempo by calling the game; rarely the front-person but in the center of the action and comfortable with that role.” - Larry Blumenfeld