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Checking in No. 1: Marcus Tenney

Marcus Tenney playing trumpet
Richmond-based musician Marcus Tenney is a man of many talents. He's a skilled trumpeter, saxophonist, hip-hop artist, rapper and producer. (Photo by Robert Davezac)

This is the first in a series called Checking in - conversations with members of the local jazz scene about what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and other recent events and what they are doing to stay creative, productive and inspired.

I'm starting the series with a conversation with a multi-faceted Richmond musician named Marcus Tenney. I first became aware of Marcus several years ago when he started attending VCU to study music. He’s an impressive trumpeter who credits Wynton Marsalis and Freddie Hubbard as his chief inspiration on that instrument.

Then, I heard him play tenor sax. It’s not an easy thing to play multiple instruments well, but there are occasionally musical renaissance men that can basically play whatever they get their hands on. Benny Carter and Ira Sullivan are well known examples in the jazz world. Marcus is as adept a saxophonist as he is a trumpeter. That’s saying a lot.

Marcus’ instrumental music is only one part of his diverse output as a musician. He’s a lyricist and rapper. He’s been picking up other skills as well, like playing drum set and learning audio engineering.

Before the pandemic set in, you might have heard Marcus playing in own trio or quartet, in No BS Brass – a band that he was a member of until 2019 - or in the Richmond-based quintet Butcher Brown. 

A note about Butcher Brown - they have taken off in the last few years and the group has earned the attention of the national music industry. As a result, they have toured with groundbreaking saxophonist Kamasi Washington and were picked up by Concord records.

Highlights:

On starting the trumpet
My grandfather on my dad's side was a huge fan of trumpet. And my dad listened to a lot of different popular music that had like lots of horns … in it. So that's kind of what got me attracted to brass and the trumpet. And when I was in sixth grade, I thought it was gonna be easy because it only had three buttons. So what a mistake.

On similarities between jazz and hip-hop:
The rhythmic aspect was really huge in jazz to me. That's one thing that also brought me to trumpet but then you go to hip hop and that rhythmic aspect is also everywhere with the way that they program the drums the way the drums play, the rhythms and the bass line, every single instrument level has a certain amount of rhythm that is pretty explicit. And that kind of that composite makes the whole sound of hip hop that very street in your face. bombastic sound and so … to me jazz became the lighter rhythmic side of that and then hip hop was the evolutionary emphasis on rhythm and and and bass and those types of things. So I would like to go back and check out the jazz and then like, follow the lines all the way into hip hop. And and you see how, how extremely similar these artists are between jazz and hip hop artists, in my opinion.

On working with Butcher Brown:
Butcher Brown is a group of five producer minded musicians. So everyone is kind of thinking about the different parts of how these records are coming together and are also thinking about how they're different part is going to affect the other parts, which is something that I think is kind of rare. … It allows us to really get into the, the compositions because the the band kind of functions like a basketball team in the sense of everybody's got this got the skills and they've got them to a level where it's automatic. So when we're on the court, we're just thinking about what is happening right there. And we have control over the skill. So we use whatever we kind of emotionally see necessary based on what's going on on this day. So I think that that having having a system like that allows us to operate in a more nuanced way with tunes as well.

On having time to work on new skills during the pandemic:
Basically, it just allowed me to do all of the stuff that I wished I could do as I was walking out of the door to do stuff I didn't want to do.

On racial injustice in America
When I was a kid, every time somebody black was killed on television by a police officer or somebody of authority, like I was always forced to watch. My parents was like, look at this, look at this. This is real. Don't forget we live in America, but they would always be painted as like, don't forget where we at. This is how where we're at operates period, there's no change… but 2020 has kind of shown that that's not the case. It's like this doesn't have to be like this.

This segment features excerpts of the following recordings:

  • Marcus Tenney Quartet: “Work and Play”  
  • Marcus Tenney Trio “I’m Allergic to Cats”
  • Tennishu: “ATL”
  • Wutang Clan: “Protect Ya Neck”
  • Tennishu: “Especial (Intro)”
  • Tennishu: “RVA”
  • Butcher Brown: “Fiat”
  • Butcher Brown: “Camden Square”
  • Marcus Tenney Trio: “As You See It”
  • Marcus Tenney Quartet: “Loss”
  • Tennishu: “America”