Tulsa Jazz.Com’s Jazz Legend Spotlight: Marshall Royal

A Leader, Follower, Team Player and Friend…What a Musician, What a Career!

For close to 20 years — from the early ’50s until 1970 — the characteristic sax sound of Count Basie’s big band was topped by the clear, vibrating lead alto of Marshall Royal. Royal was, by all accounts, a competent swing-based soloist, but his strength was first and foremost as a team player. Royal’s style became the prototype for swinging a sax section; his slightly behind-the-beat phrasing, pronounced vibrato, and aggressive leadership influenced a subsequent generation of ensemble players.

Listen to Marshall Royal and Gordon Jenkins play Blues for Beverly:

Royal was born in Oklahoma, the elder brother of trumpeter Ernie Royal, and learned to play violin, guitar, as well as clarinet and sax while still a child. He first performed in public at the age of thirteen, starting his professional career with an eight-year stint with Les Hite’s band (1931–1939), during which time he also recorded with Art Tatum. He spent 1940 to 1942 with Lionel Hampton, until the war interrupted his career. After his military service (during which he played in a Navy band), Royal played with Eddie Heywood, then went on to work in studios in Los Angeles, California.

In 1951 Royal replaced Buddy DeFranco as clarinettist with Count Basie’s septet, which Basie had formed after circumstances forced him to dissolve his big band. When the Basie band was reformed the following year, Royal stayed on as lead alto saxophonist and as music director — not to leave until 1970. Though he was admired as an occasional soloist, his main rôle was as an important part of the reeds section, and as a leader who helped to give Basie’s sound its distinctively precise yet swinging character.

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