CO2's Tina Marsh
The Perils of Jazz

by Raoul Hernandez Jazz can kill you. Look what it did to Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, and countless others. It wasted every last one of them. Sure, you could argue that years of drug abuse undercut these musical giants' lives, but it was jazz lurking in the shadows, beckoning to these men and women to try just a taste, that stuck the needle in and pushed the plunger down. At least that's what the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective of jazz musicians and composers based in Chicago in the mid-Sixties, believed.

"I remember going to visit Roscoe [Mitchell, an AACM torch bearer]," says Tina Marsh, a jazz musician/composer whose own musical path has been lit by the philosophies of the AACM. "He said that the AACM grew out of that disparate competition that black musicians were having with one another for such limited resources. Of their getting ripped off by the white establishment, and then succumbing to really dreadful substance abuse problems - like Bird - where they ended up destroying themselves within the music instead of flourishing. So the AACM was a very heroic response to that. He said `We started it, but you're the next generation. You have to carry the flag. You have to go on.' For me, that's what the orchestra is."

That orchestra, the Creative Opportunity Orchestra (CO2), which Marsh began in 1980 as a collective of jazz musicians and composers based in Austin, has indeed carried that flag, and in the process become the standard bearer for the local jazz scene - boasting at one time or another Martin Banks, Tomas Ramirez, Joseph Marchione, Tony Campise, John Hagen, and Rich Harney, among many, many others. But after 15 long years, more than 65 members (you play once, you're in), and four albums, including last year's excellent The Heaven Line, the CO2, which lists its mission statement as being "a forum for the evolution of jazz," has eroded down to a core group of four: Marsh, her husband Randy Zimmerman, John Mills, and Jay Rozen.

"And Martin [Banks]," adds Marsh, looking at Zimmerman sitting on a couch in the couple's living room, "but he's more of a spiritual director - a sage in the band. Everyone else is committed to be a journeyman musician. [CO2] is on the downside of musician commitment: Alex [Coke], [James] Lakey, Bob Rodriquez all split. When Lakey split, that was devastating to us." Most telling perhaps, though not surprising, is why trombonist extraordinaire Lakey split. "A computer job in Atlanta," says the couple flatly in near unison.

Which brings us to the obvious: You can't make any money playing jazz - unless, of course, you're a Marsalis. In Austin, where it's hard to make money playing any sort
of music, let alone the bastard mother of rock & roll, the problem is magnified that much more.

"The only way to be middle class," posits Mash, "have that kind of middle class life style in terms of income, saving for college for kids, having a dental plan - you know, all that stuff - is to have a popping international career. Like Wynton [Marsalis]. Basically, there's no infrastructure to be a working musician, and have a regular life. And that's very discouraging. Very disheartening. That's why most people leave the music."

Even more discouraging and disheartening is the fact that the answer is so simple: It's all in the marketing. If MTV has slammed home any one music axiom, it's that one. And for Marsh, as for any other jazz musician throughout the ages, the problem of getting her music seen, heard, and ultimately consumed is made a thousand times harder by the fact that she's working within a musical genre that basically intimidates most Americans: You'd think it would be easier to sell a form of music that gave rock & roll its love of musical virtuosity and passionate improvisation - curse the Europeans for discovering and embracing jazz and blues so much quicker than the clucks on this continent.

To make matters worse, CO2's harmonically complex mix of acid jazz (dissonant, oftentimes free-form musical chaos) and traditional jazz (nice, romantic, structured), coupled with Marsh's mostly wordless vocals (Billie Holiday meets Diamanda Galas for a drink at the Broken Spoke) isn't exactly a Madison Ave., PR dream-sell.

"With the music being somewhat more difficult listening, what we have are several [marketing] challenges," says Marsh. "Part of my strategy now is to have shorter forms; at least one or two four- to five-minute pieces every set (not the long, extended ones). People tend to need that. They tend to want English language, so the more I have words that are spoken or lyrics, the
more they're open after that to things that are more abstract.

"It took me three years to get Billie Holiday. I'd listen to her and think: `It sounds like she's sleeping, what's the big deal?' But I kept on. Then one night I got it, and it was `Ooooooh'," coos Marsh. "And it's part of that, that I'm hoping and wishing our audiences will have towards us as a collective, as individuals. Come back, come back and give yourself a chance to have it occur to you."

Towards that end, Marsh has spent the better part of her musical career not only leading CO2, but managing it, booking it, soliciting foundation grants, doing the PR, distributing the CDs - everything short of coming to your house and selling you the CDs herself. Add to the equation two kids (Clay, 12, and Diamond Zeke, 6), a mortgage, part-time teaching duties, and the music itself, and it's easy to understand how this DIY musical career has been a struggle since day one, and has taken a serious toll on Marsh's most precious commodity: her health.

Last January, Marsh made one of life's most terrifying discoveries: a lump in her breast. By July, the lump had turned into breast cancer, and a double mastectomy followed shortly thereafter. By September she was in chemotherapy, and now, 10 months later, Marsh says she's finally getting out of bed. Asked point blank if it was jazz that threatened her life, whether the struggle to
be heard caused the cancer, she hesitates only
for a second.

"Sure," she says. "I think cancer is a situation of certain toxicity that's not being filtered through. In Chinese medicine they talk about it being a blockage of heat in the liver. What that is, is frustration, anger, anxiety, resentment, all that stuff being blocked... I don't wanna have to raise money, and do the promotion and distribution all by myself. It's not possible for one person to do it. Therein lies the big dilemma. I think that's a very toxic situation for me personally, and I don't have a great answer. In my personality, it's not available yet for me to say `let the chips fall where they may.' "

As she says this there is concern in her eyes, concern for her own well-being. At the same time, however, in those same eyes there also shines a hard, steely-gray resolve that matches the color of her short-cropped hair. As in most music lifers, this look is borne out of resignation to an all-but-smooth career path: a path that started out with Marsh being a mid-Seventies theatre extrovert in Philadelphia and New York; shifted gears after a cold northeast winter drove Marsh to Austin; and began in earnest when she underwent musical conversion at an Anthony Braxton (AACMer) show at the Armadillo.

"It's been 15 years," says Marsh, "this shit is no hobby. This is our lives. It's what we do, and something obviously I believe in very firmly. But I definitely want my children to go to college. If they need braces, they gotta have braces. And Randy and I aren't going to go work for IBM. That's not the way we are. I have to figure out how we're going to make this work, or deal with it. I really don't know, but I still believe in the potential of us, and the music."

Just be careful, Tina. Jazz can kill you. n

[Tina Marsh & CO2 perform with multi media artist Sally Jacques at Laguna Gloria Amphitheater June 23-25.]