Music News

Amazing Feet

"I play keyboards, guitar, harmonica and bass," mentions Jeffrey Marshall from the balcony of his downtown Denver apartment. This in itself is impressive but hardly unparalleled; many musicians can lay claim to multi-instrumental talents. But it's unlikely that anyone else is able to duplicate Marshall's unusual performing approach. After all, this musician has no arms and plays everything but his harp with his feet. "I guess," he says reluctantly, "I'm unique."

Marshall, 23, was born with a birth defect that also left him without hips and knees; his lower legs join directly to his pelvis. Moreover, he sports only a few toes on each foot. But Marshall hasn't let these potentially overwhelming physical limitations interfere with his ambitions. "I don't like being confined to what I can or can't do," he notes without a trace of boasting. Neither does Marshall allow his disabilities to darken his outlook. As he puts it, "I'm just loving life, doing my thing."

To see Marshall make music with his bass guitar is a jarring experience. He rolls rapidly across the floor to his ax, grabbing it with his right foot while adjusting its various controls with his left. After positioning himself on his side and offering an understandable musical disclaimer--"It takes me a while to warm up"--he gets under way. Marshall's technique is fascinating: He frets the neck of his bass with the big toe of his right foot while playing the strings beneath the fret with the agile toes of his left foot. In spite of the obvious ergonomic difficulties inherent in this method, Marshall makes everything look easy; as he plays, his handsome face bears an expression that mingles intense concentration with glee. Staring down at his toes, several of which are adorned with rings, he knocks out a bluesy progression that gives new meaning to the term "walking" bass line. However, he generally strives to avoid such familiar musical elements. "I don't like to play anything conventional," he emphasizes.

While Marshall enjoyed a fairly typical childhood, it didn't start out that way. At three months of age, he was taken into foster care by Bill and Linda Marshall of La Plata, Maryland. They promptly fell in love with the tot and decided to seek his adoption, but the La Plata Social Services unit refused their request. "When we asked to adopt Jeff, they said, 'He's black, and you're white,'" Linda remembers. "We said, 'So?'" Fortunately, the bureaucrats subsequently agreed that Jeffrey belonged with the Marshalls, making them the first white couple in their community to adopt a black child.

When Jeffrey decided to take up the guitar years later, his parents were far from astonished. "We raised all of our children with the attitude that there was nothing they couldn't do," Linda attests. "Every time doctors said there was something Jeff couldn't do, we made sure he did it." In fact, Jeffrey's interest in music came as something of a relief to his folks, who were less than thrilled by the obsession that preceded it. "I was a hardcore skater punk," Marshall declares, "and I'd do crazy stunts. When you're laying down on a skateboard, you're really aerodynamic." He adds, "I'd come home all cut up. At least from playing guitar, I didn't have scars--just calluses."

A friend taught Marshall the basics of guitar--he learned to hold the pick between his toes--and within a few years he was playing with various blues, punk and rock bands in the Nashville area, where the Marshalls had recently moved. When his band lost its bass player, Marshall volunteered to take over for him. Before long, he reports, "I fell in love with it.

"When I first started playing," he continues, "I got a lot of notoriety real quick. But the Blues Traveler thing really escalated it to where everybody knew I was a bass player."

The "Blues Traveler thing" took place in 1993, at a H.O.R.D.E. Festival date in Birmingham, Alabama. Marshall, whose main mode of transportation is a mechanical wheelchair that he operates with his right foot, met Blues Traveler frontman John Popper backstage early in the day. (Popper, who was recovering from injuries he'd suffered in a motorcycle accident, was also in a wheelchair at the time.) When Marshall told Popper that he was a bass player, the head Traveler invited him to participate in the show's final number, a lengthy jam featuring members of several other acts on the tour. "I was scared to death," Marshall concedes--but he more than held his own. Since then, Marshall has played with Blues Traveler at shows in Nashville and here in Denver, during last year's gig at the Paramount Theatre. Nonetheless, Marshall doesn't want to be defined by this brush with stardom. "John Popper is a wonderful human being, and I loved the experience of playing with them," he maintains. "But I got to be known as 'the cat with no arms who played with Blues Traveler,' and there's a lot more to me than that."

Among Marshall's other qualities is a complete lack of bitterness about his physical state--an attitude that tends to rub off on those who come into contact with him. "You don't complain too much after you meet Jeffrey," Linda contends.

When asked about the proper term to describe his condition, Marshall gets straight to the point. "I prefer 'gimp'," he says candidly. "People use politically correct terms to hide the truth, and I think all this P.C. stuff is bullshit. I'm not offended by what a person says or thinks. I had to give that up a long time ago. If you get offended by a word that somebody calls you, you've got a lot more to overcome than I do." He recalls only one term that got under his skin: While having a beer at a Nashville bar, another local musician called him a "gimmick." Still, Marshall claims, "It didn't really offend me. It just pissed me off."

By the same token, Marshall is quite aware of his unusual musical chops and understands that they could be used to his advantage. "A record company could look at me and see me as profitable because of my disability," he admits. "And when I first started playing, I thought, 'Wow, I could be somebody famous.' But that way of thinking really doesn't work for me." Then he jokingly contradicts this statement. "Remember that album by Def Leppard--Hysteria?" he asks, grinning. "It sold about 12 million copies, and their drummer had only one arm. I'm thinking that maybe if I took up drums, I could sell 24 million copies!"

Jamie Alonge certainly believes that Marshall is capable of such an achievement--or anything else he sets his mind to. A Denver musician who owns a ticket agency, Alonge met Marshall over the phone while Jeffrey, who'd moved to Colorado a few months after his brother had relocated here, was making plane reservations. "Jeff was heading back to Nashville, and he mentioned that he played bass," Alonge elaborates. "So I told him to call me when he got back to town." He did, and Alonge and Marshall struck up a friendship on both a musical and personal level. In Alonge's view, "Jeffrey is the most amazing bass player I've ever seen, and his sound is the most unique I've ever heard. He's also a very wise man." Marshall is equally complimentary of Alonge. "He's one of the best songwriters and musicians I've ever heard. He's also one of the most beautiful people a friend could ask for."

For now, the players are putting their collaborative musical projects on hold. The reason? Marshall is taking a break from his job at Alonge's company (he processes data with his toes) in order to tour the West in a hearse a friend of his recently purchased. "Life's too fun to waste it," he asserts. "I want to be one of those people who experiences life." During his travels, Marshall intends to support himself by playing on the street. "Music is my passion--it's what I was put on this earth to do. And I really love the art of being a street musician. It's beautiful. It's pure."

A moment later, Marshall asks a visitor to place his harmonica rack on the floor by his head so that he can practice a musical skill he'll use on the streets--playing harmonica and bass at the same time. As his toes tap out a bass line, Marshall leans his head into the harp rack and blows a spare, earthy blues. His eyes are gleaming. But after he's finished, he shrugs off any and all compliments. "I don't consider myself an inspiring person," he says. "I'm just this guy who plays music.