In Memoriam: Saxophonist Mark Colby


Mark Colby (1949–2020)


Saxophonist Mark Colby died Aug. 31 from complications related to cancer, according to an email sent to DownBeat from Elmhurst University. He was 71. A recording artist, educator and contributor to DownBeat, Colby had served as a jazz studies adjunct faculty member at Elmhurst since 1997. He also taught at Chicago’s DePaul University for 31 years.

A native of Brooklyn, Colby was the son of a professional drummer who had performed with Benny Goodman. Drawn to music, Colby began playing clarinet at age 8 and switched to saxophone at age 11. He was performing professionally by age 14.

He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from the University of Miami, and then was hired for extended stints in the bands of trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and pianist Bob James.

Among the other musicians with whom Colby performed during his lengthy career are Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, Doc Severinsen, Frank Sinatra, Ira Sullivan and Sarah Vaughan.

As a leader, Colby’s discography includes 1978’s Serpentine Fire, which was released by CBS and found him working alongside James, bassist Gary King, drummer Steve Gadd and guitarists Eric Gale and Steve Khan. Colby followed that LP with another CBS release, 1979’s One Good Turn, which featured the aforementioned musicians, as well as other top-shelf players, such as drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Hiram Bullock and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri.

Other albums in Colby’s discography include Mango Tango, a 1990 collaboration with keyboardist Frank Caruso; Speaking Of Stan, a 2005 tribute to Stan Getz; Reflections, a 2008 release on Origin that included a guest appearance by one of his heroes, saxophonist Phil Woods; and All Or Nothing At All, a quartet project he self-released in 2016.

In 2018, Colby was named the recipient of the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Lifetime Achievement Award and Selmer Paris Award.

Eager to share his insights with others, Colby penned the article “Choosing the Best Saxophone Equipment” for the October 2014 issue of DownBeat. After dispensing much wisdom and detailed, practical advice, toward the end of the article, he wrote: “Don’t get hung up on the equipment.” He added, “Just play your heart out and let the music speak for itself.”

Doug Beach, director of jazz studies at Elmhurst University, provided DownBeat with a statement that reads, in part: “A tireless recruiter, [Colby] was always promoting Elmhurst University. Once a student was at Elmhurst, he was always willing to share his gifts and knowledge with them. That sharing might occur in a lesson, but it would also just as readily happen in a casual conversation in the hallway. There were numerous times when Mark would invite one of our students to join him on the stage of the Jazz Showcase. … The void that Mark leaves is not one that is easily filled. In reality it cannot be filled. All of us have been deeply enriched by his presence.” DB

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