Journeyman: JaRon Marshall's Path From Black Pumas to Jazz-Hop Debut
Methodical keyboard maestro lands atmospheric LP earth sounds
During Adrian Quesada's 2022 Austin City Limits episode showcasing the album Boleros Psicodélicos, the colorful mini-orchestra of musicians and singers provided plenty of action for the crew to cover. Amongst the sea of strings, horns, and stylish international guest vocalists, the cameras often settled on keyboardist JaRon Marshall. Tall, beshaded, and topped by a yellow wool cap, the Black Pumas member casually tapped his fingers on his ivories with the cool taste of a modest virtuoso, applying exactly the right licks to the grandiose baladas.
It's the kind of performance that plants a seed in the back of your mind: This guy is a star. He'll be leading his own band soon. Sure enough, Marshall was already prepping earth sounds, his funky, atmospheric, and swinging debut album with his group the Collective.
Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, and raised in nearby Loreauville, the 30-year-old Marshall began playing piano at age 11, joining his church's band. He learned the fundamentals of music in junior high before acquiring a MIDI keyboard and a freeware version of FruityLoops, making his own beats and demos. "If you'd asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up," Marshall says from Austin Proper Hotel, where he DJs on Fridays and Saturdays, "I'd say music producer."
One day after a performance, his church bandleader/mentor David Mitchell handed him 50 bucks. "That's when I started the journey," he proclaims, using a word he often deploys when describing his career. The Baptist churches in which he performed taught him things like walking basslines and dominant seventh chords, which led him to test out of theory class for his first semester at the University of Louisiana.
"That's when jazz made sense," he says.
Marshall's college years put him in clubs for the first time, and he moved to Austin in 2016. He immediately scored gigs at the Sahara Lounge and the Domain, played in wedding and cover bands, held a weekly church gig in Waco, taught at Eastside Music School, and backed Riders Against the Storm (a hookup via fellow keyboard maestro Jonathan Deas). At 25, he met Quesada, which led to recording with Rod Gator and Nané before being invited to work on an album featuring "this R&B singer he was working with."
Old Settler's Music Festival was his first gig with Black Pumas, the breakout Austin band combining Quesada's production with Eric Burton's vocals. Marshall's stayed through world tours, Austin City Limits, Joe Biden's inauguration, and their other accomplishments. "We were still in the van in 2019, so I got to see everything naturally happen," he notes about the Grammy-nominated Pumas' rise. "It's always been super cool and super chill. It's been a thrilling journey."
While in the Pumas, who have been on hiatus since last summer, Marshall continued writing and recording, crafting beats, and working with local MCs. Joined by drummer Michael Longoria and singer James Robinson, he released a digital EP titled The Black Power Tape in 2020. The Prequel followed in 2022, debuting the Collective: Longoria, bassist Chris Loveland, and saxophonist/flutist Brian Donohoe, leader of Progger and also a member of the Boleros Psicodélicos band. ("We call him the Oracle.")
With a crew of that caliber on hand, Marshall took them into the studio to record his debut live to tape, everyone in the same room. "I named it earth sounds because it's organic music," Marshall explains. "It's all analog instruments, even the synths. In a world where everything is digital, it means something to record to tape.
"And I do care about the Earth. Post-industrial revolution, I don't think we can sustain this. That's why I was turned on by the artwork of the Earth on fire. Whatever people are fighting for, that's what sets the world aflame."
With improvisation at a minimum, the melodies do the talking, giving the music an almost cinematic feel. "I liken it to an orchestral moment when everyone's just sitting down playing their part," Marshall says. "I got my start with the choral hymnals – play those four parts and that's it. Of course we stretch it out live."
That approach allows the emotion behind each tune to shine, something very important to their composer. Dig the sense of contemplation in "constellations," freedom in "flying high," or love for ancestors in "dungeons."
"Whether it's a chord or whatever, I always was interested in attaching an emotion to it," he says. "Instrumental music especially. That's why 'punk jazz' is a protest song. I made it last June, when I left the house to go to the protest at the Capitol around Black Lives Matter 2020. That's what I was going through emotionally, and I do take inspiration from emotional things. That's a big part of my process."
Perhaps the most direct sentiment powers closing track "the magnolia tree": a boy's love for his mother. "Where my mom worked when I was growing up, there's a magnolia tree," Marshall explains. "Whenever I would go, I would get [a flower], and I'd keep it for an extended period of time. So that one's a dedication to my mom."
In contrast, of the album's more ominous feelings, Marshall says: "If you listen to 'ride or die' or 'punk jazz,' I really love to create dark, sinister moments. But I like the relief, too, so I felt that was the perfect way to close out the album."
With the record wrapped, Marshall and the Collective played their national coming out party at this year's South by Southwest. For the bandleader, who anticipates more shows in the future, it's just another step in the journey – as outlined by the song "journeyman."
"My dad was a mechanic growing up," Marshall says. "I treat music like that. I feel that for people, especially from my generation on down, music is this lauded thing. But I treat it like it's a methodical thing, something that makes sense for me to build a future for me and my family."
That future looks bright and busy. The Austinite adds: "We're gonna do LP No. 2, more touring, hopefully more support slots, and just go for it. I'm taking that energy into the whole year." He'll need that energy for his biggest endeavor of all.
"I'm having my first child soon, a daughter," Marshall notes proudly in late March. "We're about seven or eight weeks out. I already feel this centeredness – I'll be even more relaxed than I am now. And I don't even smoke weed, man!"
JaRon Marshall’s jazz- and hip-hop-inspired LP, earth sounds, debuted on April 14. His Collective plays with Neal Francis at Antone’s on April 25.