Marc Cary

On Ellington and beyond, by Eugene Holley, Jr.

As we celebrate Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday, 57 year-old pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary’s three-decade career exemplifies the “beyond category” credo that Duke lived by. Marc’s sideman cred includes work with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Art Taylor, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and singers Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. His dozen-plus recordings as a leader that melds jazz and Indian music include his 1999 and 2023 releases, Trillium and Marc Cary Quartet Live at Zebulon’s 2003, and his Fender Rhodes/go-go grooved Indigenous Peoples albums include N.G.G.R. Please and Rhodes Ahead, Vols. 1 & 2.

This month, Marc performs at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s final installment of their Ellington at 125 series with pianist James Hurt, with both pianists playing Duke selections in alternating solo and duo and possibly four-hand settings. For Marc, this concert joins him with an equally iconoclastic fellow piano traveler whom also worked with Abbey Lincoln.

“James Hurt and I have played in all kinds of situations, whether it's with the rhythm section, or just the two of us,” Marc says. “I like to work with him, because he's so dynamic. He's so awesome. He pushes me. I really love his approach to the piano and harmony, his understanding of rhythm and the history of the piano. it's hard to play with another pianist. You gotta know how to play parts, and he's a great part player, he's a great contributor, and our styles complement each other. That's why I chose him as my partner in this [Duke tribute].”

Marc’s debt to Duke extends back to his high school days in Washington, D.C., where he attended the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the same school that’s boasts an impressive alumni that includes trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and comedian Dave Chappelle. “Ellington means everything to me,” Marc declares. “He inspired me to go deeper into big band music and deeper into my Native American [heritage], because he dealt with all of those issues mainly through the music, but he also talked a lot about the history and the meaning of the blues, and things like that and where it came from.”

Marc’s connection to Duke goes beyond the educational – it’s familial: Duke’s baritone saxophonist Harry Carney is first cousin to Marc’s grandfather, Otis Gamble, who lived in Rhode Island. “He played in Cootie’s band for years,” Marc proudly says of Otis, “and when Cootie got with Duke, he recommended that my grandfather join Duke’s band, but he turned him down because my mom was about to be born. So he [led] a pickup band that played with most of the acts coming through Providence.”

Marc was born in New York City, and grew up in Providence and Washington. While in D.C., Marc played in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra, and was also falling under the spell of go-go music: D.C.’s local percussion-based, musical genre that boasts artists and groups like Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk and Rare Essence. “I started playing music, because I started a go-go band,” Marc reminisces. “It was Chuck Brown that made it possible for me to even imagine jazz and go-go together. I literally use this template. I learned a lot of standards from Chuck, and I started to become more proficient at the piano.”

Marc’s interest in Indian music was fueled by his early exposure to it in his home, and through the musicians he studied and respected. “I grew up in a home with about 25,000 records. My parents were avid collectors and worked on the radio and all that stuff,” Marc says. “So I was privy to people like Alice Coltrane very early. I was fascinated with her record Transfiguration, Lonnie Smith, and Les McCann’s Layers.

“Dizzy Gillespie was one of my mentors. He traveled to India and understood how to pull from that sound. So all the people that I was really influenced by were studying Indian classical music and so I did too. And then I found Indian musicians, like Samir Gupta, who were willing to try something new.”

Marc’s next project includes a new recording with poet, musician and author Sharrif Simmons, who recorded on Marc’s 2019 Cosmic Indigenous album, and is the newest member of The Last Poets. Marc is indeed putting Duke’s motto of making music beyond category into practice. “I get the feeling that Ellington would at least be excited to see someone celebrating him, 125 years from his birth.”

Marc Cary and James Hurt play Ellington at Dizzy’s Club, May 4 at 7 p.m. and Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 5.

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