The back wall of Jack Marchbanks’ rectangular office is mostly bare, aside from a poster of blues great B.B. King and a smaller concert poster with a young Stevie Wonder smiling wide.
An adjacent wall, the one above his desk, holds an enormous photograph of snowplows burrowing their way through an Ohio road.
Marchbanks is the corner crease between the two, nimbly finding intersections between his new job as the director of the Ohio Department of Transportation and his longtime role co-hosting Jazz Sunday, a weekly, three-hour radio program on WCBE (90.5 FM).
Poised and coordinated — ties matched to pocket squares, an ODOT pin on his suit lapel — Marchbanks speaks like he eats encyclopedias for lunch and is equally passionate about planning massive highway reconstruction projects and combing through stacks of CDs to find the perfect John Coltrane cut.
Every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m., Marchbanks, who lives on the Near East Side with his wife, Alice Flowers, shares his musical tidbits with a loyal central Ohio audience, alongside co-host KC Jones. He spends the rest of his week in that ODOT office, a bookshelf overloaded with jazz, soul and gospel history books behind his desk.
Marchbanks, 65, has worked for ODOT for 24 of the last 28 years, serving as deputy director of District 6 and then as assistant director for business and human resources, when he managed the department’s 5,000 employees and developed its $3.3 billion budget.
Jerry Wray, director of ODOT from 1991 to ’98, and again from 2011 to ’18, doesn’t think many in the office know about his successor’s musical background. Wray said that Marchbanks humored his many questions on the origins of soul and rock ‘n’ roll.
“I learned a lot from him,” Wray said. “When I say we talked a lot, I’m the one that was learning, and he was the one teaching.”
Wray added that he can’t think of a more capable, or more knowledgeable, ODOT director.
“There were a lot of happy people when Gov. (Mike) DeWine appointed Jack Marchbanks, but there was no one happier than me,” he said. “They deserve a great leader, and he is one.”
Marchbanks worked on the Cap project connecting Downtown with the expanding Short North in the early 2000s and currently is part of the Columbus Crossroads project, an effort to ease the congestion along the Interstate 70-71 corridor Downtown.
The director’s two focuses — transportation and American music history — wouldn’t seem to have much connection at first glance. But Marchbanks, who last year earned a doctorate in American history from Ohio University, is the master of finding analogues in everything.
“The connection between highway and culture and transportation has always been there,” Marchbanks said.
It starts, for him, with the Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s, when escaped slaves ran straight north through Ohio to Lake Erie, and then on to Canada. In the early 2000s, Marchbanks teamed with local historians to create a series of plaques highlighting stops along the way. The resulting River-to-Lake Freedom Trail remains his proudest accomplishment at ODOT, he said.
One hundred years later, black gospel groups traveled a different sort of trail, the “Gospel Highway,” taking them around the Eastern and Southern U.S.
“I always found it fascinating that a group like the Soul Stirrers, or the Pilgrim Travelers, or the Dixie Hummingbirds, would buy a new car, get in it, drive all around the South during the Jim Crow era (and) put 100,000 miles in one year. One year!” he said.
Marchbanks has lived the history of America traced along its highways and in its record stores.
The oldest of six, Marchbanks was born in Alabama before moving to Dayton as a baby. His father, a railroad worker, would visit distant locales such as Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, bringing home brand-new records yet to reach the Midwest.
Marchbanks grew up on the cutting edge of soul and funk, even attending school with members of the Ohio Players.
He worked his way into broadcasting music in the mid-2000s after winning a National Public Radio essay contest with a prize of an on-the-air interview. (Marchbanks also wrote scripts for “Kids Sunday” on WCBE in the early 1990s.)
From there, he pitched the staff at WCBE a story on covering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions in New York City, where members of the Canton R&B group the O’Jays and Akron native Chrissie Hynde (and the Pretenders) were to be included.
He covered seven more inductions and wrote one-off documentaries on the massive gospel-oriented Great Shrine Concert of 1955, the club CBGB in New York City, and funk in Ohio. But it was his pitch about how soul artist Isaac Hayes and R&B ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire tie in to jazz music that landed him a permanent radio slot on Jazz Sunday in 2007.
Started in 1996, the program originally provided a vehicle for local jazz pianist Jim Maneri and radio host Wayne Self to introduce central Ohio listeners to a plethora of jazz styles and artists. By 2007, Gail Burkholder and KC Jones replaced Maneri, and Marchbanks joined in Self’s place. Burkholder left in 2009, leaving Jones and Marchbanks as the voice of jazz for the next decade.
Marchbanks has a voice like a mountain lake — smooth and deep. He described Jones as his older brother and said he is “the smart-aleck younger brother.”
On air, the two gently rib, trail off on historical tangents and generally wax poetic about the genre. Jones usually arrives late to the three-hour program, occasionally by design.
“Sometimes I do it intentionally because I like to hear what Jack’s going to play,” Jones, 70, said. “Musically, Jack himself is an instrument. He becomes the instrument. What we hear are some of the musings of Jack, and I enjoy listening to him.”
Jones first met his co-host in the early 1980s, when Marchbanks served on the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and Jones spoke with him for several radio segments.
“I used to hate to interview Jack, because Jack’s voice was so deep, and when I first met Jack I was like, ‘Oh boy ... this guy sounds better than I do,’ ” Jones said.
The duo never script their shows, instead planning loosely around a theme or birthday — or going completely off the cuff.
Maggie Brennan, music director at WCBE, said that not only does Marchbanks give his time for free to the station, he also supports it financially.
“His dedication and love of the station is immeasurable. He’s always been supportive. He volunteers his time, and he also listens,” she said. “It just shows how much he supports us and his love for jazz.”
Marchbanks calls the genre his “adopted child” after growing up around soul, rock and funk. He reads avidly, citing liner notes in records and CDs as the reason for his range of knowledge.
Maintaining some form of creative output has kept him curious, something that is high on his list of character qualities.
“One thing I’ve prayed to be all my life is remain intellectually curious,” he said. “I feel sad for people who are not, because they’re letting so much that is wonderful about life pass them by because they don’t inquire. It’s better to know than not know, isn’t it?”