Novato's Hometown Newspaper Since 1922
July 7, 2004 -July 13, 2004
Our Town: Mel Martin
By Meghan Whitbeck/Staff Writer
As a child, Mel Martin would listen to jazz
on his family’s old FM tuner for hours at a time. He became a walking
encyclopedia of music. He checked out every book on jazz at the library.
Tower Records had just opened in Sacramento, where he was raised. He would dig through the sales bins, finding good LPs for only $3. On Sundays, he would listen to Phil Elwood’s jazz program on KPFA. From dixieland to blues to bebop, Elwood played every style of jazz. “It was very nurturing,” Martin remembers.
At 5 years old, Martin learned to play the piano, but never really took to the instrument. In fourth grade, he discovered the clarinet and his entrance into the jazz world. Later, he picked up the saxophone. When he was 14, Martin was paid to play for the first time.
Although his parents were not too pleased with his decision, “I knew from the age of 14 what I wanted to do,” he said. “It didn’t matter if I was good, bad or indifferent.”
By the age of 16, he belonged to the American Federation of Music Local 12 union in Sacramento. By the time he finished high school, Martin was playing all the instruments he would play professionally.
Today, at 62, Martin still tackles jazz with the same fervor as when he first picked up a clarinet. He plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto flute, piccolo, clarinet and bass clarinet. Over the years, he has played along many great jazz musicians, such as Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.
“ Music has always been present in my life,” he said. But, “when I heard jazz for the first time, that was it, I was home.” From concerts to workshops in his Novato studio, he tries to share that passion.
In 1980, he moved to Novato with Catey, his wife of 39 years now, and his daughter Sara.
Three years ago, with a grant from the California Arts Council, Martin took his expertise into the Novato schools.
Through the program, he mentors musicians from middle school through high school, cultivating their talent and broadening their knowledge of music. “It’s more ideal to work with them at an early age, being a little jazz farmer,” he said. “I’m planting seeds and watching them grow.” Often, he will bring in his own jazz group, Bebop and Beyond.
He is constantly amazed by the talent and drive of his students. “The ones working in combos, their solo abilities are far above average music students,” he said. “I developed a fondness for working with young people.”
Originally, the program was offered at Hill Middle School, Sinaloa Middle School, Novato High School and San Marin High School. Due to the budget crisis in the schools, the program, now supported by band boosters and the Marin Arts Council, only remains at Sinaloa and San Marin.
The program offers an opportunity to learn repertoire and ensemble, something not available in most music programs. “Very little time is spent on developing soloists,” Martin said.
He also runs workshops at his home, where he invites students for six sessions of jamming. At the end of the workshop, they make a CD. The students in his current summer workshop will perform at Night on the Green at San Marin on July 16.
In the course of his career, Martin has taught jazz saxophone at San Jose State and Sonoma State universities. He has also conducted workshops and clinics across the United States. Although he enjoys teaching advanced students, his fondest memories are from the times he spent playing alongside his jazz idols.
In the mid-1960s, Martin moved to San Francisco, where the jazz scene was flourishing.
Martin was playing at burlesques. When he got done with work, he could cross the street and listen to Miles Davis in a local club. Count Basie was playing down the street.
“ I learned on the streets,” he said. “All the great bands of the ‘60s were there.” He played with John Handy, Tom Harrell and Eddie Henderson at venues such as Bop City, Soulville, The Jazz Workshop and The Both And while he attended San Francisco State University.
But his work with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter influenced him the most.
Martin got the chance to perform next to Gillespie several times. In 1991, they put out “Bebop and Beyond Plays Dizzy Gillespie” for Gillespie’s final studio recording. “Dizzy Gillespie could come out with one look and have his audience in stitches,” he remembers. “He was such a funny guy.”
From 1991 to 1992, Martin worked alongside another phenomenal musician, touring Japan with Carter. In 1995, they recorded “Mel Martin Plays Benny Carter.” Carter’s sound on the saxophone inspired Martin. “He played into his 90s,” he said. Martin hopes he can do the same.
Most of these great jazz musicians are gone now. “These musicians carried themselves with such dignity,” Martin said. “All I can do is pass on the spirit.”
He has shared the legend of these musicians with his daughter Sara, who is now 35.
When she was a toddler, Martin took Sara to see Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Recently, his daughter, who is pregnant with Martin’s first grandchild, came to see her father play at a club. After the show, she told Martin, “Dad, the baby was kicking like crazy during the drum solo.” Martin told her, “You better hide the pots.”
Martin’s love of music may well be passed down to another generation.