By Stephen Vargha
Cuenca has been called the “Arts Capital of Ecuador,” and some say the city is an “Up-And-Coming Arts Capital of South America.” It seems more and more artists are flocking to Cuenca.
That includes J.W. Marshall. The 65-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia moved to Cuenca from Vilcabamba a year ago, looking to play his music.
“Music is my life. I came here to play,” said Marshall. “I was weaned on blues and jazz.”
His musical life began at the age of seven when Marshall got his first guitar for Christmas in Rochester, New York. “I studied at the local music store,” said Marshall. “Two years later, I got my second guitar. And by fourth grade, I was performing at school”
In high school, Marshall played at dances, at the community centers, and at local lodges such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Just after high school, Marshall got his first paying gig.
“It was good money playing for the Night Wing Band,” said Marshall. “It was ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll and Booze’ as we toured the entire East Coast.”
A few years later, Marshall hired his first booking agent. “I was playing everything from country music to performing at Bar Mitzvahs,” said Marshall. “Whoever was playing, I was playing with them. I made a good amount of money doing this.”
Despite the good money, Marshall went back to school for training. He went to SUNY Cortland. Because the school did not have all of the courses needed for his music studies, Marshall went to nearby Ithaca School of Music. His jazz guru at Ithaca was Steve Brown, who was the sideman for flugelhorn player and composer Chuck Mangione.
After graduation, Marshall headed to the Orlando area, where he performed at the Little Darlin’s Rock and Roll Palace. The now-closed Kissimmee music venue was considered the world’s premier Oldies night club.
At one point, Marshall was performing with the Texas band, Toby Beau, known for their 1978 hit “My Angel Baby.”
His travels took him to southern California. In Los Angeles, Marshall opened a guitar repair and building school and guitar store. During that time, he made a guitar for Reginald Ward of the R&B and electro-funk group, S.O.S. band. “It was an awesome build, a real looker and player,” said Marshall on his Facebook page.
Ward agreed as he replied, “The first guitar John made for me. What a fine instrument. One of the best.”
For the last 25 years in the U.S., Marshall was in Atlanta, performing with “The Work In Progress Band.” He describes their music as “Southern Soul.”
Retiring from music in the United States, Marshall moved to Vilcabamba before moving up to Cuenca.
Looking to pursue his love and expand the blues, funk, and soul scene in Cuenca, Marshall put out a search for musicians interested in the genre. “Nobody would hire me, so I put out an ad in Gringo Post for interested musicians,” said Marshall. “I came from Vilcabamba in September 2020 to play music, to start a band.”
By November, the band had three members. One of them was the drummer, Jeff Jones, who hails from Greensboro, North Carolina and is the same age as Marshall. “Jeff was referred to me by a groupie who had followed me in the United States,” said Marshall. “She moved to Cuenca and told me to hire Jeff.”
“I was playing with Paco’s Blues, a loose group of musicians playing Blues, R&B, Soul, and Rock & Roll,” said Jones. “And when I saw J.W.’s ad, I said why not?”
Like Marshall, Jones began his music career at seven. “My family was always musical, so I chose drums,” said Jones. He studied music at Rutgers University followed by ten years of performing in Summerville, New Jersey, just outside of New York City.
His music career was put on hold for 35 years while working in Greensboro. As a retiree, his music career is back on track with the band as Jones’ favorite group is the Dave Matthews Band. “Of course, Neal Young is one my favorites,” said Jones.
The addition of Jones was the beginning of the Cuenca Soul Band as they added bass player Walt Panko from North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and keyboardist William Maher from Texas. Two horn players were added as well as a female lead singer.
The band became an instant hit, playing at venues like Common Grounds Sports Bar & Grill. The lack of vaccinations in Ecuador grounded the band for five months as well as three members departing, including their entire horn section. One went to Italy to teach and the other had to go back to the United States to deal with immigration issues.
Last week, with new members, the band was back together. They jammed at Bandog Studios on Calle Gran Colombia. Founded by Peter Boynton, the five-year-old studio is the largest in Cuenca. Professionally designed by a New York City firm, it has 3,000 square feet with three isolated rooms, one practice room, and a recording room.
Recently reopened, the studios were a perfect place for the Cuenca Soul Band to get back on track, including having a local woman, Stefy Ortiz, audition for its lead singer. They replaced the horn section with a couple of Ecuadorians: saxophonist Louis Carrion and trumpeter Angel Rodrigo.
Live performances by the band will resume soon. “If J.W. had his way, we would be playing seven days a week,” Jones said with a laugh.
For now, J.W. says the goal is twice a month with a great blend of uplifting, foot stomping music. Their upcoming performances will be posted on their Facebook page.
Photos by Stephen Vargha