October 4, 1914 - August 21, 1974
Marvin Ash was a superior string/stride player who brought his own sound and enthusiasm to pre-bop jazz. Influenced by such pianists as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Joe Sullivan, Ash may have only been three years older than Dizzy Gillespie, but he certainly belonged to an earlier musical generation. Relocating from Tulsa to Los Angeles, Ash did extensive work in studios and worked for the Walt Disney music department, while remaining a fixture in the Los Angeles music circuit as a talented and valuable player. In 2013, Ash was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame's Jazz category.
Marvin Ash was the professional name used by pianist Marvin E. Ashbaugh
Marvin Ash was a remarkable and under-recorded trad jazz style pianist. Born in Lamar, Colorado, the only son to barber Roy Ashbaugh and his wife Nora, Marvin grew up in Junction City, Kansas (reported in the 1920 Census) and Emporia, Kansas, playing with a number of bands beginning in high school. Among the musicians he worked with from there include Wallie Stoeffer, composer Con Conrad, Herman Waldman and Jack Crawford. He was greatly inspired hearing pianist Earl Hines perform in his capacious style on a visit to Abilene in 1931. Ash observed a fortunate encounter one day at Jenkins' Music Store when seated at one of three grand pianos was Joe Sullivan showing his own composition Little Rock Getaway to Thomas Fats Waller and Arthur Schutt, seated at the other two pianos. This inspired Ash to learn to play in a similar style to all three keyboard greats.
When Marvin was 22 he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to expand his musical horizons and work in radio as a studio pianist, musical director and sometimes announcer at station KVOO. With so much exposure to recordings at the time he was able to further hone his skills while absorbing a variety of piano styles. Among his favorite influences were James P. Johnson and Fats Waller (masters of stride piano), Boogie-woogie master Pete Johnson, (who he played a relief shift for at the Sunset Cafe in Kansas City), and jazz players Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and long-time friend and traveling roommate Bob Zurke. On November 20, 1941, Marvin married Wavel Davis, a Creek/Cherokee Native American descendant of one of Tulsa's pioneer families. (They were married for 33 years at the time of his death in 1974, although this may have been a second marriage as his World War II enlistment card indicates he had been divorced.)
Ash enlisted in the Army on January 16, 1942, and was initially assigned to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The terms of his enlistment were "for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law." His civilian occupation was listed as "blacksmith, band or orchestra leader, or musician." It is likely Marvin spent at least some of his Army service in entertainment, a cause that General Dwight D. Eisenhower felt was essential for morale on the front lines. The army was true to their word and did keep him almost six months after the end of the war in Europe.
Following his four-year stint (claimed by Marvin to be five in one source) Ash moved to Los Angeles and soon found work with trumpeter Wingy Manone's band, resulting in some of his earliest ensemble recordings in 1946. He also performed in many nightclubs in the greater Los Angeles area. In 1947, jazz guitarist/banjoist Nappy Lamare and associates opened Club 47 (named for Musician's Union No. 47) on famed Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, an active music strip in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Ash was a regular there for five years. His performances at Club 47 led to his initial sessions with Clive Acker's Jump Records as a soloist in late 1947 and with Rosy McHargue's Memphis Five. With an American Federation of Musicians strike against the record companies looming in 1948, recording studios were crowded in November and December 1947, trying to get in last minute sessions, and Marvin was kept busy during the two-month period. His work with McHargue also resulted in sessions with Lamare and others at Capitol Records (both companies used Radio Recorders, the best Hollywood studio at that time), recording as Nappy Lamare's Levee Loungers and Marvin Ash and his Mason Dixon Music. He also performed regularly on radio at KRKD and television on KHJ-TV, as well as appearing at the aptly named Hangover Club in Hollywood.
Ash's accurate, no-nonsense jazz playing and his liking for ragtime caught the ear of Capitol's producer and A&R man Lou Busch(who would later gain fame as Joe Fingers Carr), and he hired Ash to record a few more sides in 1949 with a small ensemble. Most of these tracks would be released on groundbreaking 10" and later 12" LP records of Honky Tonk piano music. His jazz interpretations of Maple Leaf Rag, Cannon Ball and Fidgety Feet were a nice contrast to Busch's arranged honky-tonk style and colleague Ray Turner's brilliant novelty recordings. Unfortunately, this would be Marvin's last session for Capitol.
Ash spent much of the 1950s playing in various cocktail lounges in the Los Angeles area, but had few recording dates under his own name, instead working as a sideman on many undocumented studio dates. Some of these included recording or live sessions with trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Matty Matlock, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Pud Brown and cornetist Pete Daily (a favorite of Dragnet creator Jack Webb). Marvin's most significant sessions resulted in a suite for a Decca recording entitled New Orleans at Midnight, a virtual pastiche of elegant jazz including a Scott Joplin rag. He also found steady employment in the Walt Disney Studios music department playing for movie and television soundtracks, acting as the resident arranger and pianist for the original Mickey Mouse Club Show, and performing with Firehouse Five Plus Two member and Disney Musical Director George Bruns and his aptly named Wonderland Jazz Band. He frequently performed with Bruns' group or with his own small ensemble playing for events at Disneyland.
After his retirement from Disney in the mid-1960s, Ash spent his last few years playing vintage jazz, stride and (sometimes allegedly grudgingly) ragtime in the cocktail lounge of a large Los Angeles-area bowling alley. He was very popular there, with many admiring customers, and was reportedly very happy with the situation. During the same time he continued to be hired for special appearances up until his death. He died in 1974 at age 59, largely as a result of over-indulgence in alcohol combined with a heart problem caused by rheumatic fever as a child. He was survived by his wife Wavel.
Since his death Ash has been mostly forgotten by all but a few hard-core fans. Yet his ability to merge styles and to approach a composition in many different ways made him versatile and listenable, and his "always-on" smiling demeanor made him a popular person to all who crossed paths with him. His approach to ragtime was successful in demonstrating that piano rags were part of the foundation of jazz, and therefore fused well into the genre - creating a fresh and respectful approach to the older material while still respecting those works.