Marcus Elliot is a jazz musician from Detroit who has been playing professionally since the age of 15, and continues to garner increasing recognition for his imaginative improvising and fervently thoughtful voice on the saxophone. Elliot has led the Marcus Elliot Quartet for the past eight years; they perform weekly in the Detroit area. He has performed internationally, including in Cuba, Barbados, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia. He has two self-released albums, Looking Forward (2010) and When the City Meets the Sky (2015), and has shared the stage, as a sideman, with a long list of exciting performers, including Talib Kewli, Bob Hurst, Karriem Riggins, James Carter, Jimmy Cobb, Bobby Broom, Marcus Belgrave, Johnny O’Neal, Jimmy Heath, Sean Dobbins, Kris Johnson, Thaddeus Dixon, Ettiene Charles, Mulgrew Miller, Rodney Whitaker, and many others.
In addition to his impressive résumé as a performer, Elliot is a composer and educator; he has been giving private saxophone lessons for approximately the past decade, and is the current Artist-in-Residence at Troy High School. He served as saxophone instructor at The Young Musicians Program in Berkley, CA, from 2009-2011, and as the Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Band in 2012-2013. A strong supporter of the arts, Elliot has created and funded a scholarship at Milford High School in Detroit that gives monetary awards to young musicians and visual artists who exhibit both creative promise and tenacity. After listening to several recordings of Elliot’s live performances, I asked him whether he would be willing to share some of the aspects of his creative process with us. He graciously agreed.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through music. There are many ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to create music, specifically?
Marcus Elliot: The core of my creative drive comes from my hunger to express ideas and concepts that cannot be expressed in other mediums. Music is one of the few art forms where you can actually express the idea that you are trying to convey in real time. You cannot receive all of the information at once: it must be played out through time to be understood fully. This forces people to truly appreciate each moment that goes by. It forces you to feel how time moves and dances.
FFF: That description is fascinating to me. Can you talk a little bit more about your creative or aesthetic influences (what and/or who), and their impact on your work?
ME: I am currently drawing a lot of inspiration from Nature. I want my music to be an expression of how things in our natural world exist. Everything from plant life to the planets has a rhythmic cycle that governs them. Even our own bodies have cycles that we must obey or we will cease to exist. I am interest in understanding these patterns at a deep level and somehow reflect these cycles in my music. It already happens naturally with sound, what I am interested in is organizing the sound in ways that imitates these patterns that we see in nature.
FFF: Conceptually, that seems like such an interesting approach to creating your art. Coming off of that idea, I want to ask about how you balance this really organic approach to creating art out of sound with some of maybe the less organic or more artificial aspects of being a working artist in the world. I know that in the literary world, for example, it becomes very important to make the distinction for yourself between your art & its genesis and the industry side of things. It can be sort of soul-crushing, I think, if you don’t differentiate your success in creating your art from your success in marketing that art as a product. I’m speaking about the literary industry, but I’m curious about what this is like for professional musicians. Do you find yourself needing to make a distinction like this, or is it a more seamless path between the genesis of the music and the marketing and/or public performance of the music?
ME: This is something I think about a lot. The way I am dealing with this issue in the present moment is to make sure that I put the music first. Yes, I must feed myself and put a roof over my head, but it is more important that I stay focused on what is really important to me and my community. I have always been told since I was young, “If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.” What that means to me is if you stay true to who you are, everything else will fall into place the way it needs to. It is an example of living in harmony with yourself.
FFF: I really like that idea. I also admire the tenacity and hustle that I think it takes to live that attitude out in the world. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about your aesthetic motivations—what do you value most in your music?
ME: I value original thought. I value bold, original and thoughtful music. I value music that transforms me emotionally and spiritually. These are all things that I hope to accomplish in my own music and so I am constantly seeking others that are making music like that from their own perspective.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it help shape your creative consciousness?
ME: I have a weekly gig with my quartet. For the most part, we play all original compositions written by myself and other people in the band. The bass player has a composition that is essentially a launching pad for “free” improvisation. We have played this composition multiple times, but one particular performance of this tune was a very powerful experience for me.
We began to play the melody of the tune and then we moved into the section of “free” improvisation. As we begin to step into this unknown territory, a series of emotions and thought begin to run through my mind. This is not an unusual thing to happen when I begin to improvise. First is a feeling of excitement for beginning the journey. Then it’s a feeling of fear of not having any clue of what is going to happen next. Then I become very self-conscious, and I begin to start asking myself, “Am I playing too much? Should I play more? Does the audience like this?” Et cetera. These thoughts that are zipping through my mind can sometimes get to be overwhelming to the point where I forget that I am even playing music. But this one particular time I made a realization that, if I am so busy having all of these thoughts, then who/what is playing the music? Obviously, these thoughts that I was so focused on did not have as much weight as I was giving them. The music was still happening. As I let these ideas float away, I was able to fully submit to and immerse myself in the moment. This realization made it clear to me that playing music can be used as a tool to transcend the self.
Once I was able to do this, it brought me into a state of mind that connected me to a larger/group consciousness. It was no longer four musicians on a stage improvising individually: there was only the music. The music became this living, breathing, morphing organism that I was just a small part of. As we continued to play for another 15 minutes or so, the music had taken on so many different forms and shapes, highs and lows, until it began to die. It was almost as if it had lived a life full of experiences and it was at the end of its journey. As we all played our parts to the end, finally we all stopped playing. The silence at the end felt like it lasted an eternity. Everyone in the building was silent as if they had witnessed a death. Then, finally someone broke the silence and began to clap. We had another 15 minutes to play in our set, but we decided to just end it there. There was nothing more to be said and we needed a brief second to catch up with ourselves.
This experience proved to me that music is much more than some sort of enjoyable, passive exercise that takes place at social functions. It became clear to me now why we use music in so many religious rituals. It connects you. It can be used as a tool to send a message. It can literally raise your consciousness. These are all things that our world needs desperately. If we understood the FACT that we are all connected, so much pain and suffering would be gone. We have been fooled by our own egos to think that we are separate from each other, when this is just not the case at all. We are all parts of a much larger consciousness, and music can provide the experience for people to understand that.
Marcus Elliot currently lives in Detroit, where he is studying, practicing, composing, and engulfing himself in the rich history of the Detroit music scene by performing with local artists and ensembles. Readers who are interested in listening to more of Marcus Elliot’s music and finding available downloads may do so here.