Marissa Dodge ~ In Depth

She was born on the edge of the universe, or as it’s known to earth dwellers, Duluth, a northern Minnesota port town three hours from the Canadian border, near the rocky shores of the biggest, deepest freshwater lake in the world, the Great Lake Superior. With this fortune came an inherent sense of a creation much greater than herself, the rest was left to her imagination. Both fascinating and foreboding, that awe-inspiring inland sea seems to be a symbol of her soul and from it flows freshwater words and unbroken waves of music. Here’s a part of Marissa’s story.

A fish in and out of water

Considering that Marissa is a Pisces, that she was born near Lake Superior, that her name means “of the sea,” and that she has a great love for the earth’s creatures, it would seem fitting that she’d follow her initial desire to become a marine biologist. But the pull of music was too great and she found it to be the ideal alchemy of the introverted art of writing and the extroverted art of communication, she offers more on this; “I used to stare at the pictures in Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Sea Around Us,’ for hours - especially the one of the giant squid fighting with a blue whale - and dream of exploring every ocean, but as much as I wanted to hang with Jacques Cousteau and the whales, I loved to write and make music and that was right there in front of me. After I discovered that I had a knack for it, I wanted to explore it even further. Years later I’m still fascinated by the process of writing music because it’s an exploration of the world in a different way. It’s a form of science because you’re researching life and examining the layers of it so closely - painstakingly close at times - and recording every detail of it." By the way, there are legends of Beluga whales in the Great Lakes. It'd be lovely to think that sometimes the very thing we’re searching for ends up right under our nose. A side note; Marissa attributes some of her ongoing passion for animals and nature to one of her ancestors, William Harvey, the well-known physician responsible for documenting the workings of the circulatory system and who studied more than 80 species of animals in his lifetime.

From Suess to Sarah

“Like most kids my age I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss. "That's a thong twister.” Marissa smiles, “but at a young age I discovered and devoured the classics (I fell in love with Shakespeare and Poe), short stories, true stories, fiction, and poetry, all thanks to my father, who was well-read and a lover of all the arts. I’d also read articles in his New Yorker and Saturday Review magazines when I was in grade school, so I was also hip to the outside world early on. As for music, I couldn’t escape it! I was surrounded by every style of it - particularly jazz. My parent’s collection of 78s included Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Benny Goodman, once I heard them I was changed forever. My Father loved jazz vocalists so I woke up every morning to him singing standards while he shaved. The Beatles “Yeah, yeah, yeah-ed” from my older sister’s record player, and in the evenings my big brother’s rock band would rehearse in the basement until the transient bass vibrated the floor and rattled the knick-knacks. Nearly every night the lavish voices of Sarah Vaughn and Nat Cole were the blankets wrapped around my shoulders as I fell asleep. Even my own Mother - who was really the keystone of all this musical madness - gave music lessons and played sax and clarinet in bands from cocktail combos to symphonies from the age of 13 until she was 88. She played all of the shows that came through town and was usually the only female musician in the band - as I would grow up to be. More often than not, she’d bring me along to her gigs and I observed and absorbed my future life even before it began to unfold. I was extremely fortunate to have so much music, art, and beauty in my young life.”

Nothing but heartbreak

Since her parents believed so strongly in the arts, they started Marissa on dance and piano lessons at age 3. “I loved to dance - especially tap - but I decided to give up on my dream of becoming a Broadway hoofer and concentrate completely on music at the ripe old age of 10.” Marissa laughs. Even after years of dull piano lessons with every kind of teacher - including nuns with rulers who didn’t appreciate it when Marissa jazzed things up and played things “her own way” (like a certain Mr. Ellington did with his piano teachers) - she loved the piano and knew that she wanted a career in music. “I remember when I told my Mom that I really wanted to be a musician and a singer. She shook her head and said, ‘It’s nothing but heartbreak.’ She was right, but despite those wise words she brought me to a real musician for piano lessons.” That real musician was named Rollie Everton and the first time Marissa heard him was in a crowded downtown club that her older brother snuck her into. “Rollie also taught my brother Deen, and Rollie and I hit it off right away - he could swing.” Marissa continued her lessons with Rollie and performed everywhere she could as a teenager and even though she was underage, got her parents permission and began to play in clubs when she was 14. Throughout the 70s and early 80s Marissa played, sang, and toured with a host of diverse bands, which included a jazz quintet with her mother Ruth, and a quartet with her brother Deen, who is a gifted pianist and a graduate of Berklee College of Music. Marissa’s sister Denice (who introduced her to the Beatles) is also a respected pianist and organist in Duluth.

A tale of two cities and two decades

Marissa moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul in the 80s and continued to perform and compose with the cream of the Minneapolis scene. Some of the key players, collaborators, and vocalists Marissa worked with during those years were Tony Axtell, Jack Robinson, Adi Yeshaya, Jack McDuff, Tommy Barbarella, Charlie Elgart, Irv Williams, Laura Caviani, Karrin Allyson, Debbie Duncan, Dennis Spears, Connie Evingson, Bruce Henry, Voice Trek, Mary Louise Knutson, and Vicky Mountain. CD by CD Marissa’s name became synonymous with superb songwriting and lyric writing - in any style. “Though I’d spent most of my teenage years listening to the R&B, Soul, and Funk that I loved, the material I gravitated to was jazz infused. In spite of all of my musical influences, jazz was what eventually surfaced in my writing and performing and I ended up right where I’d started - my jazz roots.”

Something like Strayhorn

During one of the many CD projects Marissa was involved in, she met the brilliant arranger/composer Robert Freedman who became one of her mentors. Freedman’s stellar list of credits includes tenure as musical director for Lena Horne and it was to her that he sent one of Marissa’s songs, “Black Is.” Lena was so taken with the song that she told Marissa that it reminded her of “something that Billy Strayhorn would’ve written,” and called it “a beautiful poem.” Marissa adds, “Meeting Lena Horne and having her compliment me on my writing and singing was a great honor for me. It was even more meaningful for me because she was one of my Dad’s favorite singers; he used to play her albums and I’d stare at the album covers, now here I was in the same room with her, singing one of my songs with her. She was kind to me and has a strong and beautiful spirit. I wished my Dad would’ve lived to see it - I would’ve taken him with me to New York to meet her. I think that might’ve put an end to the ‘you should’ve gone to college’ argument!”

Nearly a decade

Lena Horne recorded "Black Is" with a full orchestra in 1996, but the tapes sat in a vault at Capitol Records for nearly a decade. Thanks to Horne’s producer and guitarist Rodney Jones, the song was finally released on her final, Grammy nominated CD, Seasons of a Life (Blue Note). “Rodney really believed in my song, he was the one who made sure it was on the CD and made it the opening track.” Marissa says. “Black Is” has now been recorded by other artists and has become one of Marissa’s most well known songs. “I wrote Black Is as a children’s song, a poetic way to explain that everything black isn’t negative, of course there was a deeper, more universal meaning and the more I played it for people the more it took on a life of its own. One of the most meaningful moments in my career occurred at a CD release concert for Dennis Spears, who recorded ‘Black Is’ for his CD, "I Hear It." I was sitting in the audience behind a couple, one person happened to be black and the other white and as Dennis sang the song I watched those two people join hands and look at each other with tears in their eyes. That was a great moment for me and they never even knew who I was, nor I them, but that memory still brings tears to my eyes. That really defines why I write songs; to connect and communicate emotion and love on a level that surpasses boundaries.”

Trust in the song and the songwriter

It a little known fact that Marissa rewrote the bridge of Black Is specifically for Lena, and her version has a few different words. Dennis Spears, Debbie Duncan and Marissa’s recordings have the original words. Though Marissa enjoys hearing other vocalists and musicians interpretations of her songs, there are those times when things get lost in the mix and the lyric and melody might be mistakenly altered, Marissa explains;  “Most songwriters and lyricists don’t dig rewriting words after we’ve lived with them for a while. We’ve already thought about what the ultimate word in that particular spot would be and feel we’ve found it. It drives us crazy when the words are changed, just as composers are driven crazy when their melodies are changed or fluffed over. Improvisation is great and that we all love, but it’s important to establish the melody at least once and then go anywhere from there.” She smiles and adds, “I thought being a musician and a vocalist was a thankless vocation, but being a songwriter, composer, lyricist, or arranger is ten times more thankless!" When asked if she’d ever give up music, for this or any other reason she says, “No, I’ve tried, but when you’re born to do something and its in your blood you can’t give it up - no matter what happens or doesn’t happen.”

No matter what happens

In 1997 a car wreck almost put an end to Marissa’s music career - and nearly her life. On her way to a jazz festival she miraculously survived a head-on collision, but for more than a year was unable to play because of an injury to her right arm and hand. She also lost the physical strength to sing and she could no longer perform. “That was a depressing time in my life, I felt like I’d lost everything and I was angry. Granted, I was grateful that I was alive, but I didn’t feel alive because I couldn’t play or sing. That experience forced me to face the fact that music didn’t define me, it was merely an extension of me and I defined it. My soul was what mattered and that's what I try to put into everything.” She never lost the will to write and that was the point at which she started over.

Full strength, full circle

It took a few more years for her to regain the strength and confidence to perform and record again, and now after years of having other artists record her songs on their CD’s, she’s recording her own CD. “ I started out wanting to be an artist who wrote her own songs, and that’s what I focused on for the first 15 years of my career, but I got so involved in writing for other artists that my being an artist kind of hovered in the background. I always did my own demos and would get positive comments about them, but I considered them demos and not CD ready - I wanted to do more with the songs. I have so many that I’ve wanted to record for so long that it looks like we may have two or three CD’s worth. My reason for doing the CD is twofold, first to get really good recordings of my songs for posterity’s sake and to record the songs as they were written - the way I’d intended them to be. It’s funny, here I am 25 years later making the CD that I wanted to make back when CD’s didn’t even exist, and now I’m releasing it as a digital download without the actual disc itself being involved. ” Marissa laughs and adds, “It appears that I’m an odd combination of someone who’s ahead of her time, but a late bloomer. I don't know where that put me in the time space continuum." She adds, "My journey - as is with most creative souls - has been somewhat serendipitous and with more struggle than success. I’ve lived through the ups and downs of life and the artifice of the music business. I just want to live and create from my soul and let the rest of the world catch up."

Words along the way

Though Marissa has written words as well as music throughout her life, her literary writing was more of a private art for her. When she began writing artist bios and liner notes for friends and fellow artists, she enjoyed it enough to start her writing company, A Way With Words. Her pastoral locale seemed to lend itself to the solitary calling of writing and her poetry and short story collections flourished in the woods. When her writing began to appear on the Net, it was noticed by jazz writers Alan Kurtz and Ted Gioia, who then invited her to become a contributing writer for Marissa continues to write reviews and do interviews for She’s also compiled three collections of poetry and an anthology of short stories, a sampling of which you’ll find on her site. She expands on her feelings about writing; “I’ve always had a deep love for the sound and rhythm of words, which is of course music to me, and songwriting and lyric writing are storytelling, the more I do both the more similarities I discover. Writing is very instantaneous for me, not only in the way it flows out of me, but in the fulfillment of it; there’s the blank page, you fill it, and it’s done, whereas the process of making music has more layers; you write the melody, the lyric, you arrange it, produce/record it, and perform it, and get it out into the sonic atmosphere. As much as I dig the musical process, I also need the simplicity of writing. The blank page is very Zen for me, it clears my mind and that makes my music clearer, it’s a balance that I’ve grown to love and need. I never thought I’d love writing as much as I do, but it’s become an integral part of me now, almost as essential as music for me."

Jazz from remote places

Marissa’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota could be considered a remote northern place, but in 2001 she relocated to an even more remote southern place - East Texas. Marissa adds, “I’ve been called crazy before, but that never stopped me. M. C. Escher said, ‘Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.’ Two of my favorite words are ‘absurd’ and ‘impossible!’ I’m the first to admit that there are challenges to being a music maker in the middle of nowhere, but obstacles are often the very things that shape us and our art. Many of what I once considered disadvantages have turned into advantages. There’s an organic, genuine vibe to the music I’ve done here and it’s much easier to hear my own voice among trees than in traffic.” In spite of her unwillingness to sacrifice her peaceful country life for the stress of living in a music Mecca like Nashville, L. A., or NYC, she continues to get her music out to the ends of the earth. Her songs have been heard in more than thirty countries and in places as remote as the one she inhabits. From the backwoods of Texas she’s collaborated with Japanese pianist Yukiko Isomura, Washington based Grammy nominated composer/arranger Phil Kelly, Arizona-based Grammy winning composer/arranger Bob Freedman (Billy Joel, Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves), and Arkansas native, jazz guitarist Tonk Edwards (Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Roy Hargrove, Roberta Gambarini), and of course, several Minnesota artists, thus far. Marissa’s songs are heard by more ears and recorded by more artists every day.

You'd better listen

Throughout her 30 year career Marissa has met and worked with many talented musicians, vocalists, arrangers, composers, and artists, here she recounts one of the most memorable meetings of all. “Well you know Shirley Horn was really 'IT' for me. I was so inspired by her one of a kind sensitive but swinging style - beautiful. In fact, I was so into her for so many years that I wrote a song for her, and thanks to an introduction from Lowell Pickett, I ended up playing two of my songs for her. After she’d carefully listened to ‘Black Is’ and ‘Jaded Heart’ - which was her song and always will be to me - she looked over her reading glasses, right into my eyes and said, “You should be heard.” Now when someone like Shirley Horn says something like that to you, you’d better listen, and we’d better listen as well.

~ Criterion Jazz Review




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