top of page

Marshall Nelson Passes Away At 63

Marshall Nelson 1956 - 2019

We are saddened to hear of the sudden passing of of pianist/vocalist Marshall Nelson. We wanted to pay tribute to his life and music by republishing an article that first appeared in Chicago Jazz Magazine in March of 2014 written by pianist and longtime friend of Marshall's Mick Archer.

The Chicago music scene has lost a great musician and more importantly a wonderful person.


Originally Published in Chicago Jazz Magazine in March 2014.

Marshall Nelson:

A black artist in the very white world of pianobar


Three of my Chicago piano bar heroes are black-deceased bluesman Detroit Junior, the retired master Dave Green and current Orlando resident, Sidney James Wingfield. I saw these piano giants many times (and even did some duet gigs with Detroit and Sydney), and they were almost always the only black people in the room. Is piano bar just for white people? And if that's true, how does it feel to be a person of color working in this world?

Aside from my friend and colleague, John Talmadge, who has the steady at Hugo's on Rush Street and appears in my piano duo, The Blues 88s, and Jay Jones, who lives in Indianapolis but came up to Chicago to work with me at the now closed Heart & Soul piano bar, I knew of no other black musicians in Chicago work­ ing as solo piano/vocal entertainers.

In last issue's column, I put the word out that I was hoping to fill in this gap, and was contacted by Marshall Nelson. His YouTube video knocked me out. I was struck by how he started this demo with a great standard, "As Time Goes By," later seamlessly descending into that dreaded bane of piano bar entertainers, "Piano Man." Here is somebody, I thought, who knows how to get the job done without completely selling out.

Marshall Neslon began his studies in his hometown of Cincinnati, in a gifted children's program at age eight. He became a member of the Cincinnati Youth Orchestra as a violinist. He went onto Miami University-Oxford, Ohio, as a Kenner Scholarship recipient. He led the Miami Gospel Singers while beginning his career in entertainment.

After spending sometime as a cruise musician, Marshall ended up in Japan for four years. He then moved to New York City where he worked as music director at the Cotton Club for their famous Gospel Brunch, and accompanied notable artists such as Cab Calloway, the La Sant Brothers, and the Pointer Sisters. Then it was back on the road as a member of the distinguished R&B act, Kool and the Gang, with whom he toured Asia and the WestIndies.

Marshall arrived in Chicago in 2007 and became house pianist at Stetson's-Hyatt Regency, working there until 2009. He currently keeps a very busy schedule, performing regularly at the Red Head Piano Bar, Seasons 52, Monsignor Murphy's and the Signature Room in the John Hancock building.

"When I am working at more tradition­al settings such as the Signature Room or private parties, I play a lot of jazz, blues and R&B."That is when you can hear his piano influences, which include Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Claude Debussy. As a singer, Marshall likes "Sarah Vaughn, Michelle Ferrell, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Tony Bennett and, of course,Sinatra."

After more than 25 years as a full-time player, he says, "My best night was per­ forming for an audience of about a thou­sand people in Cincinnati, Ohio, under my own billing. I did music of my own choice and was accompanied with a great ensem­ble. My worst night was in the early years when I knew little of jazz. Someone heard me play 'Spain' in one of my hotel gigs and supposed I had a complete jazz repertoire to compliment it. He invited me to his club and I proceeded to drive out all the patrons with my drum machine and pop selections...quite embarrassing. A brave admission!

But the problem has been remedied. Marshall now has a full evening of jazz/blues/standards, though hardly any of his current gigs allow him to play it. My observation is that the piano bar tradition, still firmly rooted in cabaret (i.e. at least one singing performer doing a variety of material in a non-background, casual setting), has drifted far away from the jazz, blues and R&B traditions. The largely under 40, overwhelmingly white audience, who frequent trendy spots with pianists are only interested in hear­ing the tunes they grew up with. They will tolerate only the smallest doses of roots music, applied sparingly like an exotic spice that is too hot for general consump­tion. In addition to this restriction, there has been a recent policy change that real­ly horrifies me and makes me glad I'm no longer on Marshall's circuit: having non­ musician managers (who are very young white people) micro-manage repertoire, even handing out setlists!

"Rarely do I reveal my inner mind regarding being a black man performing in a white world and the additional pres­sure that incurs. Not only do I have to be proficient in the musical tastes and desires of my audience-largely white-I also have to be ready, at the drop of a hat, to switch cultures to satisfy the whims of the audience. Personally, I live by the often-quoted axiom, 'what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger,' and in my case, more skillful. It is a great delight when I observe the surprise, and some­ times amazement on the faces of my audi­ence when I effectively switch from Marvin Gaye to Katy Perry! All complete with different piano voicings, different vocal tone, vibrato and breathing. I only grow more skillful as a result of this mim­icry." I asked Marshall why there are so few black people inside of piano bars: "Because it's not their scene, two gigs, each with their own character. At the Seasons 52 restaurants, I'm doing lots of pop with some standards and even some musical theater thrown in. That is often followed by a late night at the Red Head, where the format is definitely about up-tempo pop tunes from recent decades-a lot of '70s and '80s sing­ along." I didn't really have to ask about how much jazz he did, because having worked both places I knew the answer. "Well, occasionally I can get away with a Rat Pack medley ,and I can get away with expressing my roots by doing Motown, which is old but still acceptable."

In the future, Marshall's"...dream is to be performing not out of necessity for a job, but performing when and exactly whatI want to. My ultimate dream is to play a full concert in a jazz trio or quartet format, and be accepted for the material I want to play,'' like his favorite songs, "Round Midnight,""Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, "selections from West Side Story."I confess to liking 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' too, but I dread 'Piano Man."' So do all of us-even Billy Joel!

Marshall has a big show coming up in his hometown of Cincinnati, March 21-22, at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. He'll be doing originals, jazz and maybe even some gospel. After that, you can check out his schedule on his FaceBook page. After you hear him, be sure to tell the hostess or manager that you really liked it when he sang jazz!

Mick Archer has toured the world as a solo act and sideman, performing in hotels, clubs, concert venues, and cruise ships. He wa s the pianist in residence at The Tokyo Westin in the Summer of 2004, and since then has traveled to Holland, Germany, Ireland, England, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland and Norway to bring his unique act to worldwide audiences.

Contact Mick at or email address­

bottom of page