Saxophonist Blue Lou Marini celebrates 40th anniversary of 'The Blues Brothers'

CHICAGO — It’s one of the most thrilling musical scenes in a film packed with them:

Aretha Franklin sings and struts around her tiny Maxwell Street diner, imploring her musician boyfriend to “Think” before he considers walking out on her and rejoining Joliet Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) in “The Blues Brothers.”

They’re “putting the band back together,” as Belushi famously says throughout the film, and in the midst of the scene, a dishwasher takes off his hair net, shakes out his flowing locks, picks up his alto saxophone, jumps up onto the restaurant counter and starts blowing his horn, prowling up and down the counter all the while.

That moment and the rest of Blue Lou Marini’s work in “The Blues Brothers” may not have transformed his career, but it certainly yielded a high point few jazz musicians could match. For “The Blues Brothers” — which this year marks its 40th anniversary — went on to attain something more than cult status, reappearing endlessly on cable TV.

Marini will reprise “Think” (sans counter) and other “Blues Brothers” classics on Aug. 7, when he solos with Jeff Lindberg’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra in its own “Putting the Band Back Together” concert on the Water Colors series at Navy Pier’s Lake Stage. The concert will feature “Blues Brothers” music and mark the first time both Marini and the CJO have performed since the coronavirus shutdown.

In pre-pandemic times, wherever in the world Marini would play, he’d encounter someone who recognized him from “The Blues Brothers.”

“I was on a Greek island once, and a 7-year-old kid is playing with a truck and looks up and says: ‘Blue Lou!’” remembers Marini.

“At one point I was in the middle of a divorce, living in a little apartment on 9th Avenue (in New York), there was a house fire in the apartment building, smoke was billowing into my apartment. I had to run. I’m standing outside. It’s a beautiful October day.

“I see the windows of my apartment being broken out. I’ve got saxophones on stands in there. I’m going to lose all my stuff. A $12,000 alto flute. Suddenly two firemen come out. They’re covered with water and grime. They make it out, lift up their masks, and they say, ‘Hey, it’s Blue Lou!’ Then I’m on the firetruck being introduced to everyone.”

All of which attests to the durability of “The Blues Brothers,” surely the greatest Chicago film ever made and one of the most ebullient musical comedies ever filmed. For any movie that captures Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, James Brown and John Lee Hooker in full glory deserves a slice of immortality.

For Marini — as it would be for any jazz musician — being on a set and in a recording studio with those musical giants was a profound experience.

Marini recalls that the band had rehearsed assiduously for their scene with Franklin, who – like all great improvisers – sang the music not the way it was written but the way she felt it.

So the band had to rerecord its part, and “then Aretha did her vocal overdubs,” explains Marini. “And I snuck into the vocal booth and sat on the floor, where she couldn’t see me. I got to hear her vocal overdubs live. She did three takes. Each take had nothing to do with the previous one. She was just totally in it, in the moment. It was like tabula rasa.”

As Marini recalls it, Charles nailed his number in one take. And Calloway shared with Marini a few choice words of wisdom.

“I had played a gig with him before ‘The Blues Brothers,’ in a little local club out on Long Island,” says Marini. “And his book was all the original charts, and they were all marked up,” and therefore difficult to read. “And he had a musical conductor who wasn’t very clear.

“We play gigs as professional musicians with pride that you can play in any situation – but there were mistakes all over the place. And Cab just sailed through it, no matter what clams that we had.

“So I told Cab at ‘The Blues Brothers’ (shoot): ‘A few years ago we played a gig with you, and I wanted to apologize, there were so many mistakes, and you went right through it.’

“And he said: ‘I learned something a long time ago. If you have good musicians, you don’t have to say anything. If you don’t have good musicians, there’s nothing you can say.’”

Marini got the “Blues Brothers” gig because Belushi and Aykroyd essentially had booked the “Saturday Night Live” house band for the film. They’d all done sketches together on the TV show and played some concerts, “and the whole thing was like a rocket ride, because the next thing you know, we’re making a movie. Everyone (in the band) was like: Oh, boy, this is going to be a drag. It turned out to be their favorite time was when we were on the set.”

When the film came out, Marini and friends felt the slight disappointment many experience when certain scenes have been left on the cutting room floor. And the reviews were less than enthusiastic.

“We didn’t realize for a while how important it was to all the fans who really loved it,” says Marini. “Now it’s constantly listed in the top 10 comedy movies of all time.”

But I’d argue that “The Blues Brothers” is really a classic musical intertwined with comedy. For in addition to the spectacular scenes with Franklin, Calloway, Charles, Brown and Hooker, it’s saturated with music as a driving force, either in foreground or background.

Marini was uniquely qualified to participate, his studio and concert work with Woody Herman; Doc Severinsen; Thad Jones/Mel Lewis;, Dr. John; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and other luminaries attesting to his versatility. Because he played in the Kennedy Center Honors orchestra, he’d always attend the supper featuring the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and sit in with the band, making his upcoming appearance a kind of reunion.

Why does he think “The Blues Brothers” has endured?

“Last night we were flipping channels, and there was ‘The Godfather’ — and you have to watch it,” says Marini. “‘The Blues Brothers’ is like that.

“When we were watching the other night, we tuned in, and it was the beginning of the (film’s) final concert. And watching Aykroyd dance — it’s so out, and it’s so unique, only he would have thought of that stuff.

“And then Belushi, when Carrie Fisher aims that machine gun at him, and he looks up at her with those eyes!”

One indelible moment among many.


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