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Marie Marcus, 89, a virtuoso at jazz piano; led Cape band

Marie Marcus, known as Cape Cod's "first lady of jazz," whose nimble fingers dancing across piano keys also dazzled New York, New Orleans, and Boston audiences for decades, died Friday from complications of a stroke at Cape Cod Hospital. She was 89.

Mrs. Marcus had a storied introduction to the swing jazz scene.

After playing for mobster Dutch Schultz at his restaurant, Kean's Steakhouse in Manhattan, she would stop by Tillie's Kitchen, an all-night restaurant in Harlem, and hang out with some of the great jazz pianists of the 1930s. She was shy about her playing at first, and even after much cajoling, Tillie's pianist Bob Howard could not persuade her to let his friend, piano legend Fats Waller, hear her play.

"It was almost unheard of for a white woman to play swing music then," she told the Globe in a 1985 interview.

But one night, Waller showed up at Tillie's Kitchen and asked her to play a number "and I nearly died," she recalled. "I asked him later to refer me to a teacher in Manhattan and he said, `How about me?' He promised that whenever he returned from the road, he'd give me a call and would teach me things about stride piano. I figured he was just kidding. But he kept his word."

Waller was great with advice, she said.

"He'd say, `Don't get too busy, and make each note tell a big story. And play the lyrics,' " she said.

"Fats sort of molded my style and I'll never stop being thankful to him. Other musicians began to hear about me and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Harry James would stop by and give me a lot of tips about playing," she added. "I guess I was in the right place at the right time."

That place and time were far removed from her beginnings in music. She made her professional debut at Boston's venerable Jordan Hall at age 13. It appeared that she was headed to a career in classical music, and she briefly attended the New England Conservatory of Music. It was there, however, that the "devil music" of jazz intervened. She was nearly expelled from one class for playing swing music.

She moved to New York, playing in restaurants in the heart of the East Coast jazz scene: Harlem.

After training with Waller and working with some of America's greatest jazz musicians, Mrs. Marcus returned to the Bay State, taking a job at the Coonamessett Club in Falmouth.

She joined pianist Alma Gates White to form the "piano mamas," playing at the Panama Club in Hyannis, where President John F. Kennedy would go to hear them, her friends said.

In the early 1960s, she played at Mildred's Chowder House in Hyannis and in the mid-1960s formed a Dixieland band to play at the Olde Inn on Cape Cod. Her first album was recorded with 13 instruments in accompaniment in 1966.

Looking for a network of jazz musicians in the area, Mrs. Marcus formed the Cape Cod Jazz Society in the mid-1970s, helping to see it grow over the next nine years.

"What makes jazz musicians want to settle down here is the natural, relaxed atmosphere that permeates the entire Cape," she told the Globe.

Dick Johnson of Brockton, the leader of the Artie Shaw Orchestra, who played clarinet with Mrs. Marcus starting in the 1970s, said her wild sense of humor kept her fellow musicians in stitches during their breaks.

"During our break, we'd always be laughing about something," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen her in a bad mood," he added.

In a repertoire mostly from the Dixieland era, Mrs. Marcus played in a style known as stride piano, in which her left hand rhythmically pounded out chords to form the bass line while her right hand flew up and down the octaves.

"She was just something else," Johnson said.

Mrs. Marcus leaves two sons, Jack Brown of Quincy and William of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two daughters, Mary Liles and Barbara, both of St. Petersburg, Fla.; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow in Holy Trinity Church in West Harwich. Burial will be in Island Pond Cemetery in Harwich.

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