The Local Music Makers - Marilynn Seits
“It’s Always Been About Jazz”
By Peggy Ratusz
Pianist, accompanist and composer for many decades, Marilyn’s magical musical history tour reveals how in her own way she has shaped, witnessed and contributed to the vast and ever-evolving cosmos we call ‘the music business.’
Her taste in music is flavored predominantly with Jazz spices. But her ‘side-hustle’ in New Age music enhances her financial well-being with sales and worldwide licensing opportunities. Her knack for writing tranquil melodies resonates with bodywork and wellness practitioners and those who use music in meditation.
A Chicago native, Marilynn learned to play by ear, mimicking her self-taught father. “My father taught himself to read music.
Back in the day you could go to a music store and pick out sheet music and take it into a separate piano room to play it to see if you liked it. He had such a good ear that he’d remember the tunes he liked, which was good since he couldn’t afford to buy any of them.”
Her toddler memories are strong: “I’d sit by the piano while my dad played. I could pick out melodies even though I couldn’t play chords. Family members would shout ‘hey that sounds like a real song she’s playing!’”
“I was so small I couldn’t climb onto the piano bench. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the piano, my hands at eye level, plunking out the melody to “Don’t Fence Me In”, the first song she learned to play by heart.
Back in the 1940’s the school of thought was to wait until a child was seven years old before starting music lessons. In the meantime, she’d listen to her older sister’s big band records on the wind-up Victrola in the basement.
Marilynn explains, “When my parents hired my first teacher, I’d become lazy learning music theory and all I wanted was for her to play so I could listen in order to play by ear without having to learn to read the music. By the time I began thinking about going to college, I’d picked up some bad habits.”
She spent her freshman year at DePaul University studying music education. It was the early 1960’s and Marilynn recalls, “One day during my first semester I was playing Jazz on a practice room piano and the department heads told me I couldn’t play Jazz in any of their practice rooms; that practicing Jazz was forbidden.”
Consequently, she switched campuses her sophomore year. The University of Illinois is where she joined a fledgling Jazz band that was allowed to rehearse in the basement of an old building on campus that wasn’t being used.
Her senior year in 1964, Jazz bands in colleges were just becoming popular and only a few colleges offered Jazz Studies programs. But the bands “everybody in the country knew about” were from North Texas State and Northwestern.
The International Collegiate Jazz Festival was established years prior but that year, Marilynn’s University of Illinois Jazz band won first place. “Our win forced the university to consider creating a degree in Jazz Studies, and we came up from out of the basement.”
Marilynn was so ambitious that, literally straight from her last class, she hopped on a bus to New York City, skipping her graduation ceremony the next day. “I needed to hear Bill Evans in person and I was afraid he was going to die.
"I left my luggage in storage and went from the bus station at Port Authority to The Metropole Café.” The Woody Herman band was playing their matinee show there.
Her roommate from college had gone to New York before her and found them both a room at a “working woman’s hotel “where they stayed until they found good enough paying jobs to rent an apartment.
“I went to a jam session which led to my first job. I asked the piano player if I could sit in and at first he told me no. I don’t know how I mustered the courage, but I made a snide comment like, ‘are you afraid I’m gonna be better than you and I’m female?’”
Challenge accepted, he allowed her to play. Afterward he offered her his job for the summer while he played a residency elsewhere.
A five night per week piano playing gig right off the bus was not bad for a bold and vivacious, passionate and talented, young Marilynn. And because it was the matinee slot, she was able to go out at night to hear more Jazz.
“Charles Mingus just happened to be spending the summer of 64 playing a regular stint at the Five Spot Café. I spent several nights a week in that place. When I look back at it, it all seems like a fairy tale.”
After that summer she took a teaching job in Guttenberg, NJ which jump started her teaching career that continues today.
Nine years ago, Seits realized that working constantly in order to stay afloat in New York was crimping her style and her happiness quotient. “I knew I had to leave because the city had changed and old New York wasn’t coming back.”
Her youngest son was living in Asheville and she was visiting him on holidays. Knowing what a mecca for Old Time, Bluegrass and Americana this area was already known for she says, “Reluctantly, kicking and screaming, I finally made the decision to move to Asheville.
"The voice in my head kept saying ‘there won’t be any Jazz, there won’t be any Blues and I won’t find anybody like me. And I was totally wrong.”
She promptly joined the Asheville Area Piano Forum and made friends with classical pianist and fellow Jazz enthusiast, Cynthia Riley. Cynthia took her to Jazz jams and Jazz orchestra shows, introducing her to the movers and shakers.
Since then, Marilynn moves and grooves on stages with all the quintessential local Jazz players.
Together with her son Sean who plays six-string fretless bass, they formed a duo called Seits & Sound playing regularly at cocktail parties, Asheville Symphony galas, senior centers and special events. You’ll find her playing solo too, performing seasonally at The Asheville Art Museum and concerts for the Asheville Area Piano Forum.
For the past many years, Marilynn has played holiday music for Christmas at The Biltmore Estate and has been a featured player for their popular Candlelight Christmas events. This year she’ll play December 1st, 7th, 15th & 21st.
Her 2008 Jazz recording “Rained Out” won best Jazz record South Florida and is available for purchase on her website along with five other superb releases.