Joshi Marshall
Berkeley boy Joshi Marshall is making two rare appearances in his hometown, the first Friday night at Jupiter. Photo: courtesy Joshi Marshall

There’s nothing quite like having children to put your own upbringing in perspective. Looking back, saxophonist Joshi Marshall realizes that growing up in west Berkeley in the 1970s and 80s with two prominent musicians for parents provided a fabulously rich creative environment, albeit one with little of the structure that he provides for his two kids.

“There was no nighttime routine,” Marshall recalls. “There were real artists over playing music all the time and everything was about music and art. It was like, you sleep here and you sleep there, and you have to be part of our trip. It was such an unorthodox way of raising kids. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything, there was so much love.”

Best known as a founding member of Mingus Amungus, the pioneering jazz/hip hop combo directed by bassist and fellow Berkeley High alum Miles Perkins, Marshall has been a scarce presence on Bay Area stages in recent years as he’s thrown himself into teaching music. He makes two rare hometown appearances in the next few weeks, playing Friday at Jupiter with drummer Bryan Bowman and Lorenzo Farrell on Hammond B-3 organ, and Valentine’s Day at Chez Panisse.

The Jupiter combo is a new project that’s taken shape as bassist Lorenzo Farrell, a longtime member of the popular blues band Rick Estrin and the Night Cats, has increasingly concentrated on the organ. A Berkeley High grad who went on to earn a philosophy degree from Cal, Farrell brings his deep knowledge of the low end to the B-3, laying down supple bass lines with the instrument’s pedals. 

“I love that sound,” Marshall says. “We’re playing half originals and half covers that aren’t necessarily jazz tunes, including songs by The Kinks, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley. It’s really open and loosely structured, as if Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy Smith took psychedelics and went to a Pink Floyd concert.”

If the Jupiter gig is all about grooving hard, the Chez Panisse show focuses on romantic music and ballads, “fine music and fine dining at its best,” Marshall says. He’s played many a Valentine’s Day show at the iconic restaurant, a legacy of his employment there as a dishwasher in his late teens. At the time he was an apprentice musician playing blues and jazz with vocalist Faye Carol, who provided the ideal training for a fateful encounter with Charles Brown. The blues legend, whose cool West Coast sound influenced future stars like Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield and Floyd Dixon, performed at Chez Panisse on New Year’s Eve for several years when he was living in the East Bay.

Coaxed by the restaurant’s servers, Marshall asked to sit in with Brown, “and he kept me up there playing for half a set while the sinks filled up with dishes,” Marshall says. “At the end he said, ‘we all know that boy don’t belong in that dish room,’ which made it kind of hard to go back to work.”

As the scion of Bay Area music royalty, Marshall comes by his gift for music via nature and nurture. His father, the late bassist Fred Marshall, was a respected jazz musician and founder of the seminal psychedelic outfit Light Sound Dimension with drummer Jerry Granelli. His mother is Beverly Bivens, vocalist for the short-lived but influential folk rock band We Five, whose 1965 hit “You Were On My Mind” reached the highest spot by a band from the Bay Area scene until Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” peaked at number 2 on the Billboard chart in 1969. She went on to sing with Light Sound Dimension, but has largely eschewed performing for the past four decades.

Marshall started playing alto saxophone in grade school and made good progress under the direction of Phil Hardymon. But he still wasn’t quite prepared for his first experience hearing the Berkeley High Jazz Band, where Miles Perkins and Josh Redman were already starting to gain attention. Marshall wasn’t particularly interested in academics, and the band provided a lifeline that kept him in school.

“I had been doing music in middle school, but not that great,” Marshall says. “By the time I got to Berkeley High and saw the big band play my mind was blown. Oh my God, these are my peers, and they’re serious like my parents are serious. They don’t want to get stoned and miss class. The seriousness blew me away.”

After he graduated in 1989 Marshall decided to stay in town and throw himself into the scene rather than heading off to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, which offered him a scholarship. After three years honing his chops with Faye Carol, he launched his own band Marshall Arts, a trio featuring his father that performed around the region for more than a decade.

At the same time, he was at the center of the Bay Area acid jazz scene, playing and recording with seminal bands like Alphabet Soup, Jungle Biskit, Groove Shop, Daddy Goddess, Charlie Hunter, Human Flavor, and The Mofessionals. But it was with Mingus Amungus that he earned the most renown. Now on hiatus rather than officially disbanded, the group combined jazz forms with rap, spoken word and dance, delivering a potent experience that exemplified the genre-mashing ethos of a scene that flourished as the dot-com bubble expanded.

“I was working so much,” Marshall says. “It was an amazing time. The whole dot-com scene shot a lot of money into the city. With no kids or responsibilities I had more gigs and more money what I knew what to do with. Mingus Amungus did all those touring gigs in Europe. We played Greece five times, Istanbul, Cuba. This music can take you so many places if you really practice and play.”

These days Marshall is loving his work teaching music at Oakland’s Chabot Elementary School, while mentoring with Orff Method guru Doug Goodkin. When he’s not teaching kids, Marshall is teaching the Orff Method to San Francisco elementary school teachers.

“It’s all about music and my love for music,” he says. “It’s been mind blowing how blessed I am.”

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events. 

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....