On October 29, local sax great Shelley Carrol was told he would need to fill in the following evening for Marchel Ivery, who was scheduled to play Terilli's on Greenville Avenue for the second time in October. Carrol was told only that Ivery was ill: He'd been checked into Presbyterian Hospital for pneumonia, a rather sudden development following two days during which Ivery complained of a fever.
Carrol thought nothing of it: He and Ivery often swapped gigs, almost as often as they performed with each other. Indeed, Carrol and Ivery just finished recording an album together, an homage to the great Texas tenors—that fat, wide-open sound pioneered by the likes of Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, James Clay and David "Fathead" Newman. Carrol and Ivery were old pals, introduced years ago by pianist Roger Boykin at the Green Parrot, where Ivery was playing with Clay. They were also labelmates on Mark Elliott's late, lamented Leaning House.
Then, early in the afternoon of October 30, Carrol—like every other jazz musician around town—got the phone call: Marchel Ivery, at age 69, died around 5:30 that very morning. And just like that, one of Dallas' most beloved and influential musicians—not to mention one of its most famous, if only outside the city limits—was gone. He was buried the morning of November 5.
"And, man, he was a really great guy—he was inspiring," Carroll says. "He never said a negative word. He'd go around the way to teach you rather than scold you. I loved him. He was a sweetheart. He's gonna be missed. It's a sad day in Dallas."
I have known Marchel and played with him countless times in my career as a vocalist and I am going to miss him dearly... Marchel was so much fun on a gig. If the gig seemed a little dull, Marchel would wake it up and fast. He was just made that way.
—Sandra Kaye, posting on Unfair Park
The earliest recordings of Ivery were recently released: from the South Dallas Pop Festival in 1970. He did not record under his own name until 1994, when he released Marchel's Mode on Leaning House; also on the album was Dallas-born piano great Cedar Walton, who had performed on John Coltrane's original recordings for Giant Steps, among the most influential albums ever made. Walton and Ivery met in Dallas in 1966, at the Arandas Club, a legendary haunt. Years later, Walton would tell Marchel's Mode liner-note writer Doug Ramsey, "Marchel is a great exponent of the tenor sound that includes Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, and he is a delight to play with. He's at a state where he deserves to be heard nationally and internationally."
Ivery was born in Ennis on September 13, 1938, and though he'd gain international renown as a sax player, he originally played trumpet—when he was all of 12. As Ramsey noted, Ivery switched to sax after hearing Charlie Parker on the radio.
After graduating from George Washington Carver High School, he went into the Army, and as Dave Oliphant notes in his invaluable 1996 book Texas Jazz, Ivery was stationed in Europe in the late 1950s, and it was there he began performing with no less a legend than Bud Powell at Cheque Peche. By the mid-1960s, he was playing with another Dallas-born great: pianist Red Garland, "whom he joined in June of 1983 in New York for Red's last job," Oliphant wrote.
Eight years ago, I spoke with Ivery about his friendship with Garland and the role he played in shaping Ivery's career. This is what he said, in part: "I was always in awe of him. Whenever we were on the bandstand, it was an experience I can't explain. It's something I will cherish forever. I wish he was here today. I talked to Red every day. He would call me, and we would talk an hour, two hours. Then, when we'd get off the phone, he'd say, 'You coming over?' I'd sit over there till one in the morning, and we'd talk, talk, talk. I wish I had a tape recorder."
Ivery released two more albums on Leaning House: Marchel Ivery Meets Joey DeFrancesco in 1997 and, two years later, 3. He also recorded with David Newman in 1990. All are essential recordings. As Elliott notes in the liner notes for Marchel's Mode, "It is rare for a recording with musicians of this quality to take place outside of New York or Los Angeles, and rare for players outside those circles to get recognition commensurate with their talents. I hope this effort will bend those conventions." More than a decade ago, Texas Monthly's John Morthland wrote: "It's not so much that 57-year-old Ivery has slipped through the cracks as that he has conducted his entire career between them."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
I'm very saddened to hear about our loss of a truly great man and musician. The first time that I played with Marchel, I remember feeling like a hollow plastic imitation of a "jazz musician," that this man was indeed "the REAL DEAL." But what was always so beautiful about him is that he never as a PERSON made one feel that way. He was incredibly humble and very supportive of particularly the younger musicians around him.
—Earl Harvin, on Unfair Park
Shelley Carrol has spent the better part of the afternoon phoning jazzers with whom Ivery played—among them, Wynton Marsalis, who would jam with Ivery at Sandaga Market on Levee Street whenever he came to town. They were there last December and only last month. And in January they performed together at a tribute to Texas tenors at the Trinity Jazz Festival. Marchel's been laid to rest now, but no doubt there will be memorial concerts to come; his loss will be deeply felt by the players who admired him and the fans who adored him.
"He plays here almost every week," says Terilli's manager, Joey Terilli. "Has since I was 24, and I'm 38. I always call him 'Marchel My Bell,' and I can't do it no more. It's a crushing thing to me and to the music industry. I don't ever cry, but this, it brought a tear to my eye."