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Fred Calvin Marshall (1938–2001)

Fred Calvin Marshall was a jazz musician, inventor, sculptor, and educator best known as the bassist in the Vince Guaraldi Trio, which recorded the soundtrack for the Charlie Brown Christmas television special. He began his musical career in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in the 1950s, later moving to Kansas City, Missouri, and California, where he became active in the thriving San Francisco musical scene in the 1960s.

Fred Marshall was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 4, 1938, to Calvin Abel Marshall and Helen Howard Marshall, although he was raised in Little Rock. His mother was an artist and an art teacher at Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville (Pope County). His mother’s artistic creativity was an inspiration for Fred Marshall and his only sibling, Terry Marshall Williams.

Marshall began playing piano at age five and started playing bass and drums while attending Little Rock High School (now Central High School). He joined the musician’s union at age fourteen, and, by age fifteen, he was playing in clubs on Little Rock’s Ninth Street, home to a thriving African-American club scene. “When I played down there I would have to duck down behind the bass when the police came,” Marshall related. “Not only was I underage, I was also a white man playing in a black club.”

Marshall attended college in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, eventually enrolling in the Kansas City Art Institute. He immersed himself in the Kansas City jazz scene, joining alto saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinton’s band and playing with musicians such as Etta James and Dinah Washington.

He moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s, where he became house bassist at San Francisco’s famous jazz club, Bop City. He played with some of jazz’s most important musicians, including saxophonists Ben Webster, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon; trumpeter Maynard Ferguson; and singer Jimmy Rushing. He also played with fellow Little Rock native, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.

Marshall, along with drummer Jerry Granelli, joined pianist Vince Guaraldi’s trio in 1962, recording several Latin jazz albums together. The Vince Guaraldi Trio was invited to compose and perform music for the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas television special, with Marshall playing an important role in creating the trio’s sound. The soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a classic holiday jazz recording.

Marshall married Beverly Ann Bivens on February 13, 1965; they had one son and one daughter. The couple divorced in 1978.

Marshall and drummer Granelli joined Bill Ham to form Light Sound Dimension (LSD), which gave its first public performance in San Francisco in 1967 and played concerts worldwide over the course of several decades. Ham had created the light shows that accompanied many San Francisco concerts by such bands as the Grateful Dead, and Light Sound Dimension’s performances incorporated Ham’s visual displays with experimental jazz music. Marshall also played bass and guitar in several other bands, including the critically acclaimed band Delta Nine.

Marshall was a sculptor and welder and taught both skills at various schools. His sculptures were featured in a number of art shows, including several joint exhibits with his mother in Little Rock in 1961 that paired his sculptures with her abstract paintings.

He invented the megatar, which combined an Indian sitar and a guitar. He also collaborated with the Zeta musical instrument company to invent a small, portable bass that would fit in an airliner’s overhead bin, which was marketed as the Zeta Upright. He held several patents associated with guitar neck construction and musical amplifier design. He taught music and bass and published A Visual Approach to Music, an instruction book for bass and music theory, in 1975.

In the early 1990s, Marshall formed the Marshall Arts Trio, with his son Joshi on saxophone and Steve Rossi on drums. The trio played together for nearly a decade.

Marshall died on November 14, 2001, of hepatic cirrhosis, and his ashes were scattered in Emeryville, California.

For additional information:
Hyde, Gene. “Renaissance Jazz Man.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 16, 2000, pp. 1E, 2E. Online at http://www.runet.edu/~wehyde/fredmarshall.html (accessed February 23, 2013).

Obituary of Fred Calvin Marshall. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 22, 2001, p. 6B.

Gene Hyde
Radford University

Last Updated 9/5/2013

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