The coolest of the cool is gone.

That was the tough news that spread Monday, July 25—the word that the brilliant musician, horn-fixer-preserver, and all-around hip touchstone Rodney Lee Marsh had died at 75, after a long illness and decline, according to long-time friends. Arrangements were incomplete as of last Tuesday.

Born September 15, 1946, a graduate of Needham Broughton High School and North Carolina State University, Marsh likely did much more teaching than being taught, serving as a mentor over a long term and in a number of fields.

A deeply musical player and wise improviser, Marsh added intangible presence to many of the Triangle’s highest-profile jazz and theatre bands. Just a few of them were the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Group Sax, the Hard Times Jazz Band, and the orchestra for the Theatre in the Park’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” from its 1974 inception.

“Rodney was a very important person in my life,” Gregg Gelb, also a high-profile Triangle horn player, wrote in an email Tuesday. “When I moved here in 1979 he was my first friend, he got me involved in playing with Group Sax. Then when I started the Gregg Gelb Swing Band (which also included “Uncle” Paul Montgomery) Rodney played alto sax and flute.”

(Another timeless Raleigh personality, Montgomery was everywhere in those years, both as a broadcaster and musician.)

“Rodney played alto sax and flute,” Gelb says. “This band worked steadily for about 10 years through the ’90s and Rodney and I, and my wife Kathy (Paul’s daughter and the singer in the band) traveled throughout North Carolina.”

Starting as a flute player, Marsh moved on to saxophone, playing not only in formal ensembles but also in countless acts put together for weddings, parties, and all sorts of other gigs.

Now long-gone nightspots such as the Frog and Nightgown and Cafe Deja Vu opened their stages to national acts as well as Marsh and his growing cohort of young jazzers. It seemed as though Marsh was always there, to enlighten the music and enhance the “vibe.”

As the scene broadened, Marsh’s reputation also spread among some of the style’s greatest players, who were based in North Carolina and traded at his succession of shops. That’s according to Raleigh bassist Tom Bryan, who knew and played music with Marsh for decades.

“All the musicians around here, horn players, would go off in the world and do this, that, and the other—and I’m talking about Maceo Parker and Branford Marsalis—and after they got back to the airport they’d stop by Marsh Woodwinds,” Bryan says. 

The shop’s locations, starting in the mid-’70s, ranged from its Southeast Raleigh birthplace to spots on New Bern Avenue, Hillsborough Street, and finally Person Street. That’s where Marsh Woodwinds made room for a well-loved performance space as well as his retail and repair businesses.

Marsh was spending long hours preparing spreads of food for the crowd as well as running the club and businesses. Friends said the personal and nightlife pressure on Marsh grew intense and he closed the Person Street locus down in July 2015.

“It has been so sad though the last 5-8 years as I and most everyone watched him ‘give up on life’—well, that’s one way I can describe it,” Gelb wrote.

This week, seven years after Marsh began a retreat from business and music, many dozens of players and friends filled up social media sites with anecdotes, musical memories, and attempts to sum up Marsh’s singular role as expansive host and driven musician.

“He was kind of a self-taught musician,” says Raleigh saxophonist Peter Lamb, who followed Marsh’s footsteps both as a musician and woodwind shop operator. “He was such a good musician and he just played what he heard. And he can play anything.”

Marsh was preceded in death by his parents and a brother.

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at