Black History in Sapulpa: Marshal Royal influences jazz musicians to this day

Rachel Whitney, Curator
Sapulpa Historical Museum

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Marshal Walton Royal, Jr. was born in Sapulpa, May 12, 1912 to Marshal and Ernestine Royal. The Royal families were local musicians creating a family band with their friends. His father was a music teacher and band leader, his mother played piano, and his brother Ernie was a well-known jazz trumpeter.  The family lived along 122, 126 and 135 Leonard from circa 1912 to circa 1920 as musicians, according to the city directories of the same years.

The family moved to Los Angeles by 1921. Marshal Royal’s career took off from there. He began performing professionally with his saxophone at the age of 13.

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Marshal Royal

Marshal Royal has a Wikipedia page for his influence on the jazz scene. “Royal’s first professional gig was with Lawrence Brown’s band at Danceland in Los Angeles, and he soon had a regular gig at the Apex, working for Curtis Mosby in Mosby’s Blue Blowers, a 10-piece band. He then began an eight-year (1931–1939) stint with the Les Hite orchestra at Sebastian’s Cotton Club, which was near the MGM studios in Los Angeles. He spent 1940 to 1942 with Lionel Hampton, until the war interrupted his career.

“With his brother, Ernie, he served in the U.S. Navy in the 45-piece regimental band that was attached to the Navy’s pre-flight training school for pilots at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. The band played for bond rallies, regimental reviews, at football games, and in concerts for the cadets and the community. Two swing bands were organized from the larger regimental band, and they played for smokers and dances at USOs and officers clubs. Royal was leader of the Bombardiers, one of those bands, which also included his brother, Ernie, Jackie Kelson (later known as Jackie Kelso), Buddy Collette, Jerome Richardson, and Vernon Alley.”

He was a musical guest for the Jazz Ensemble at the Whitworth University in Washington. “The saxophone legend played lead alto saxophone for the Count Basie Orchestra from 1951-1971. From the 1930’s through the seventies he performed with Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, and Duke Ellington besides his time with Count Basie. He has recorded with Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. Most recently he also played for many motion picture scores including the hit, ‘Dick Tracy.’”

Promotional poster for the 2007 Royal Jazzfest

“When he left Basie in 1970, Royal settled permanently in Los Angeles, continuing to play and record, working with Bill Berry’s big band, Frank Capp and Nat Pierce, Earl Hines, and Duke Ellington. Royal recorded as a soloist with Dave Frishberg in 1977, and with Warren Vache in 1978. He co-led a band with Snooky Young in the 1970s and 1980s, recording with it in 1978. Marshal died in Culver City, California on May 8, 1995.”

Book Cover: Marshal Royal, Jazz Survivor

Even after his death, Marshal Royal still leaves his mark on the jazz culture and community. The biography of Marshal Royal is told in his book, ‘Marshal Royal: Jazz Survivor’ (1996). The description states: “Marshal Royal was a core member of the Count Basie Orchestra for twenty years during its resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s. Before that, he was a pioneer of jazz on the West Coast, playing with many bands in and around Los Angeles. A child prodigy of both the violin and saxophone, Royal was literally born on the road as his musician parents made their way West. After leaving Hampton, Royal made countless recordings as a freelancer before joining Basie, where he was responsible for rehearsing the Orchestra. Later, he became internationally known as a soloist while continuing his prolific recording career. His brother, Ernie, who was a star trumpeter in the bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, is also profiled. Claire P. Gordon is the editor of Rex Stewart’s memoir, Boy Meets Horn, and of Stewart’s other collections of writings. She lives on the West Coast and has a long-term interest in the oral history of jazz.”

A jazz festival hosted by the Sapulpa Parks and Recreation along with another local musician, Steve Ham, band-director at the Allen-Bowden Schools began in 2003. “The festival was named in honor of alto saxophonist Marshal Royal. ‘In 1987, he was given the lifetime musical achievement award from the Los Angeles Jazz Society’ said Steve Ham.”

As near as we could tell, The Jazzfest ran from 2003 to 2007.

(Sapulpa Herald, February 23, 1917, July 24, 2003, July 25, 2003, January 4, 2004; Oklahoma Eagle, March 29, 1951, May 3, 1984, August 12, 1993, June 15, 1995).