From Upton to Hingetown: Todd Marcus’s Two Clarinet Quintet Comes to Bop Stop

Published July 10, 2023, By John Chacona

Todd Marcus is the sort of guy who likes to walk an unconventional path. That path will bring him to BOP STOP on Wednesday with a unique quintet that features clarinetist Virginia MacDonald and Marcus’ bass clarinet on the frontline.

The dark-hued, snaky sound of the bass clarinet is not unknown in jazz. Harry Carney played it early in his career with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Eric Dolphy established it as an eloquent if peripheral voice in modern jazz. But neither of those players, nor any other jazz player of note, made it their primary instrument as Marcus has done.

photo credit: Gary Young

Taking the road less traveled is nothing new for the New Jersey native. After graduating from Loyola University Maryland, Marcus chose to stay in Baltimore. There he became a community activist running Intersection of Change, a nonprofit that addresses poverty-related issues in the historic Upton neighborhood.

“Pennsylvania Avenue was the historic thoroughfare in Baltimore City where you had all the famous venues, and the Royal Theatre was Baltimore’s equivalent of the
Apollo,” said by phone from Baltimore. “Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles and Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie: everybody was here. Gary Bartz is from my neighborhood.”

Marcus, 47, taught himself music theory and composition. He has been a frequent presence since 2013 as a Rising Star in Downbeat Magazine’s Annual Critics Poll and his independently released recordings have found wide critical acclaim, including a featured review on NPR’s “Fresh Air. Three of those recordings, Inheritance (Hipnotic Records, 2012) , Blues for Tahrir (Hipnotic Records, 2014) and In The Valley (Stricker Street Records, 2022) were inspired by the history and culture of Egypt, the homeland of Marcus’ father.

All three feature drummer Eric Kennedy who will join Marcus in this tour along with pianist Hannah Mayer, Steven Arnold on bass and MacDonald, a Torontonian who was one of the clarinet players profiled on a YouTube series that also included Marcus. Listening to her interview he liked what he heard and reached out to her. “There are so few of us that are clarinet players in modern jazz,” he said. “[It’s a] very small community and I always keep an eye out to see who else is out there. I love her tone. It’s got a little bit of the Jimmy Giuxre tone to it. Her vocabulary, her content, is very modern, very intense. She’s throwing down. She’s a bad girl.”

At Jimmy Glass Jazz Bar in Valencia

The front line of bass clarinet and the more familiar B-flat clarinet is unusual, to be sure, but it’s not unprecedented. Marcus himself played and recorded in this formation with Don Byron, arguably the most in|uential modern player on the smaller horn.

Those are big shoes to fill, but MacDonald is ready. “I think we both really feel that clarinet in jazz music has been super underrepresented even though there are a lot of great players out there,” she said from Sunday’s tour stop in Chicago. “So to bring it to the forefront by having two clarinets in the same band kind of catches a lot of people’s attention.”

Attention, though, is secondary. Ultimately, Marcus, the community activist and musician, sees music as a relationship. “For me the most precious experiences are when I’m playing music with other great musicians, and it really comes together and kind of has a spiritual quality when you have the audience on that journey with you. It’s just very special.”

Todd Marcus Quintet featuring Virginia MacDonald Wednesday, July 12, 7 p.m. at Bop Stop. 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. $20.