Billy Marrero

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The Marrero morass of musicians can be traced back to New Orleans, a suitably swampy place. There, a bassist named Billy Marrero fathered a series of sons, most famous of whom was the banjoist and guitarist…
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The Marrero morass of musicians can be traced back to New Orleans, a suitably swampy place. There, a bassist named Billy Marrero fathered a series of sons, most famous of whom was the banjoist and guitarist Laurence Marrero, also credited upon occasion as Lawrence Marrero. The chance to tarry with alternate spellings of Larry is just a warm-up for the composite story of what happens when the members of this family saunter forth into the supposedly calm world of historical musical research, blending in -- at least in print -- with various branches of a Marrero family that is involved in both Latin music and acting. While there seem to be some members of the latter clan who are unsure of who is related to whom, one absolute fact is that the New Orleans jazz bassist Billy Marrero, born in 1874, is not the same Billy Marrero who played percussion with the progressive Latin Cuchara ensemble circa 2002.

Many historic jazz artists from New Orleans were born in the final decade of the 19th century. Bassist Marrero's even earlier presence on the city's music scene righteously promises pioneer status of some sort, and indeed the man literally played a part in what would develop into a jazz approach to the bass, distinct from the way the instrument is handled in the classical world. The pottery shard that researchers look for is who, how, where, and why players started plucking, rather than bowing, the strings of the bass. The more forceful the pluck, the more it sounds like a slap, the bassist actually whapping the instrument for a rhythmic effect that has continued to have a vital importance in several different styles of music. Was Billy Marrero the first to pluck, perhaps the first to slap? Bassists who were his students (such as Chester Zardis) have, like accomplices in a heist, changed their stories over the years.

Marrero may not have slapped at all, despite some of Zardis' recollections. Of the bassist's four sons who became professional musicians, Eddie Marrero has, in interviews, described his father's style as being much more involved with use of the bow, or arco-oriented. Johnny Prudence, a competing bassist who was around the same age as the senior Marrero, says in interviews that the guy plucked but didn't slap. Similar statements from someone credited as Johnny Predonce do not represent another vote for the pluck column, since this is simply an alternate spelling for Prudence, who under either name is the choice of bassist Albert Gleny for the first guy to pluck. Billy Marrero certainly influenced many New Orleans jazz musicians directly by being willing to teach them his approach to the bass, whatever it was.

His ensembles were likewise training grounds, superb saxophonist Bunk Johnson blowing in as a member of Billy Marrero's Superior Orchestra, for example. Other groups the bassist worked with included the Olympia Orchestra between 1900 and 1914 and the Camelia Dance Orchestra from 1917 to the mid-'20s. The latter group was an expansion on the Camelia Brass Band, also featuring Ike Robinson on guitar and son Laurence Marrero on banjo. Banjoist John Marrero and bassist Simon Marrero fill out the family roster of performers.