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Mel Martin

By Joe Rosenberg

Originally published Sept/Oct 1993 Saxophone Journal

Saxophone JournalMel Martin has performed just about every style of music imaginable from Sinatra, the late sixties and early seventies, studio work and, of course, small jazz ensembles and big bands. In jazz venues he has performed with Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, and Freddie Hubbard, just to name a few. He is a highly sought-after educator, and leader of the much acclaimed Bay Area group Bebop and Beyond. He ultimately chose to remain in the Bay Area throughout his career.


How did you first get started in music and what was that like?

Well, my mother was a pianist and she started giving me lessons when I was about five years old. I would get up and practice piano for twenty minutes before I went to school. I learned a lot of the fundamentals, like how to read, and a little harmony. In grammar school we were encouraged to try out different instruments. The first thing I took home was a violin, which I took right back because it was like claws on a blackboard. Then they gave me a trombone and my mother said, "No, you can't play that because your uncle lost a lung playing trombone." All my friends were taking up the clarinet and so I played the clarinet. When I was fourteen I fell into the saxophone through a friend named Earl Bartel. He had an old Conn alto with the tuner on the neck. I found that I could get something out of it and in about three days I was playing the saxophone. I bugged my parents to get me my first saxophone, a Martin alto. About that same time, I heard Charlie Parker's Jazz At Massey Hall recording and I wanted to play like Charlie Parker on the alto, but, of course, I had no chops or anything. I'd pickup the alto and try to play his solo; everybody would boo and I would just sit down. But even at that age I knew it would be my profession-no question.

I had a group with an accordion and drums. Then I added the saxophone to that. My first professional job my father got me when I was fourteen, and it was at a supermarket on a flatbed truck. We made five dollars a piece, which is more than I made on some other gigs later on.

I know you're from Sacramento. What kind of education and experience did you get there?

By the time I was in high school, there were quite a few professional venues available as well as a really wonderful educational program in the high school. The system was very strong and we produced a lot of professional musicians out of that same high school, like Vince Lateano, the drummer, and the great bassist Rufus Reid, who was actually a trumpet player in our school band.

We had a dance band and a jazz band. I realized if I played tenor I would get more solos, so I asked for a tenor and started playing more jazz. By the time I graduated from high school, I had some experience with just about everything I do now as a professional.

Did you get to hear much music not being in a big city?

Sacramento at that time was a flourishing jazz town. A lot of the people that were passing through the Bay Area went up there to perform and some of them even lived up there, like the Montgomery brothers. A lot of bands would come through and do concerts, like Shelly Manne, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. They had the state fair and I remember hearing Duke and wondering how those saxophone players got that great sound, just amazing. It was a mind blower. It was a good environment to grow up in and I was really attracted to jazz. I could never just sit there. I remember I would go to this coffee house called The Iron Sandal and there would be musicians playing. I had to get on that bandstand and start playing. I found some notes worked and some notes didn't. I could play some blues and I learned a couple of tunes, so I was accepted as somebody that could sit in and maybe do some things now and then. That was a real encouraging situation.

Did you come down to San Francisco right after high school?

I attended Sacramento State for a while, then I went to the junior college there, and ultimately, I moved to San Francisco and attended San Francisco State. I never did get a degree and eventually dropped out. When I was in San Francisco the jazz scene was so happening that all I did was stay out all night and go to all the after-hours joints playing with and listening to all the important players that were coming through town. I lived in North Beach; a few blocks away on Broadway, there was a number of strip clubs where you would play really hard for five hours a night, six nights a week. You could really blow your brains out all night long just honking away with a lot of choruses and playing a lot of blues, which was a great experience and great training. Also, on Broadway there was a number of jazz clubs, so on the intermissions I'd go across the street and my mind would get blown because there was Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Dizzy; everybody you'd want to hear was right there on the same street where I was working, so it was great. It was really a wonderful time for me, kind of a golden time.

Was there much of a jazz scene aside from the clubs that brought in the well-known performers?

I came in on the tail end of the after-hours scene. There were two main places, Bop City and Soulville, plus a number of other smaller joints. I used to run around with Eddie Henderson, the trumpet player. We'd go sit in on somebody's gig happening from nine p.m. to two a.m. and then from two a.m. to six p.m. After all of that, we'd play from six to eleven a.m. at some other clubs like Jack's on Filmores. You would catch all the New York cats coming through town. They all came out and played after their regular gigs and hung out. You met a lot of people and learned a lot of music. You played till you dropped and then you got up and did it again. You couldn't ask for a better scene and that's what it takes to learn to play. This is what it really takes. You play till you drop.

How did you fit in and survive the tidal wave of rock and everything that came with it?Mel Martin gif

Well, in the ]ate 1960s, as you know, the Bay Area did become a hot bed of pop and rock recording and I was drawn into that quite a bit. At first I thought it was silly, I was just a journeyman musician and I played jazz. The significance of it didn't hit me until I started doing jazz gigs down on Haight Street.

Then I realized there was a social revolution going on. The first time I ever voted was for JFK and then we got robbed, so politics left a sour taste in my mouth. The Vietnam War was something I didn't want to have anything to do with. I was never into making political statements or involving myself in social activities. Music has always consumed me; that's what I do.

Anyhow, San Francisco became a major center of bands coming out of this area and jazz horn players could work and apply their jazz skills. It was very open and a lot less rigidly defined than pop and rock are today. You could make it up as you went along. Initially, I didn't want to play rock but I kept getting calls. I was married and thinking about my family. I didn't want to go on the road with the big bands for no money and just stay on those busses, but then I saw these guys were traveling in airplanes, staying in relatively decent hotels, and playing some pretty up scale gigs.

Did you play with any rock bands that we would know?

I was a part of Boz Scaggs' original band and that was a very good band. We had a recording contract with CBS Records and I did the first five albums that he did for CBS. We played at the Filmores and worked consistently on the road. The bread wasn't all that long, but the situation was good. When we were home, he still paid us a salary, so that was pretty cool, and I could take my family with me on occasion.

I did that for about two or three years and then I went with a band called Cold Blood. I did an album with them called First Taste Of Sin, which was produced by Donny Hathaway. I also played with Van Morrison a little, which was fun because there was a lot of room to improvise. This was around the time of Blood Sweat and Tears; Tower Of Power was getting started and a band called Dreams was coming on the scene. It was a real fertile time and I was having a ball. I just lost sight of the fact that I really started out to become a jazz musician, which was okay because, at that time, jazz musicians were having trouble getting any serious work.

After that I got involved with a sixteen piece Latin jazz funk-pop-rock band called Azteca. This was a monster band! We had Tom Harrell, Lenny White, Paul Jackson, and a whole lot of players. The first gig we had was at San Diego Stadium and we drew 25,000 people. Clive Davis got wind of that and we were signed to Columbia Records. Then we made two albums on CBS. At the same time, I was in a band with pianist Art Lande, Ron McLure or Steve Swallow on bass, Elliot Zigmund on drums, and Tom Harrell on trumpet; we were playing ten dollar gigs. That was a good band. I have some tapes that still sound good today.

You have done so much performing with so many people, how did you go about making the transition from sideman to leader?

I didn't realize what I was even supposed to do that until I was well into my thirties. I didn't know that's how you did it. I'd always worked and I thought that you just went from gig to gig. It became clear to me, though, that I wanted to do more than work for other people. I envisioned being in a group where you could literally start inventing new genres of music. This was kind of a lofty expectation in retrospect, but I decided at that point to start a band called Listen, featuring Mel Martin, which lasted for several years and made two records for Inner City Records. This was what was known as the real fusion era. What happened shortly after was formula fusion and that basically took over because it made money.

A lot of what we did was jazz, but we swung in a different sense with a lot of experimental things such as odd times. It was a very creative group. I played a lot of flute, piccolo, bass clarinet, and saxophones. I had Andy Narrel on steel drums. We had two percussionists, Richard Waters who invented the Waterphone, which you still hear in television and movie scores; Glen Cronkite on percussion; Dave Dunaway on electric bass; and Terry Bozzio on drums who went on to Frank Zappa's band. Terry was replaced by George Marsh, who was a master of odd meters.

My real motivation and desire was to do something very different, but not so far out that nobody could understand it. In retrospect I guess it was a kind of far-out band. We wrote all original material specifically for that band. We felt we were on the cutting edge and we even won a Grammy; however, at the same time, Inner City came out with Jeff Lorber's first album and that became a big hit, so all their attention went to Jeff and we didn't get the kind of promotion we needed.

I was also doing a lot of studio work including all of the disco stuff because they were using a lot of horns. After Listen things were pretty dry and stayed that way through the early eighties.

How did all of this lead to Bebop and Beyond?

The world seemed to change in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan. You had to take things more seriously if you wanted to survive. At that point I kept playing, but it really felt like it wasn't going anywhere and I felt a little bit directionless. Then in 1983 Eddie Marshall, the drummer, and I were listening to Art Blakey's band which had a young Wynton Marsalis on trumpet and two saxophones. We felt we should start a band like that so Bebop and Beyond was born.

The current personnel includes Donald Bailey on drums, Jeff Chambers on bass, Randy Vincent on guitar, Warren Gale on trumpet, and myself. I love the situation I have with Bebop and Beyond. As far as composing goes, I like to compose for specific projects and for specific players. That's the way I've always liked to write. It makes more sense to me.

The band is my primary focus and I've been able to get some grant money which helps keep it together. In about 1987 or 1988, I started getting funding from the California Arts Council, from their touring program, where they give discounts to certain qualified non-profit presenters. Politically speaking this started to really open up my eyes, the fact that there was actually money out there to subsidize jazz. This forced me to get more organized in my approach and has been a very important factor in keeping the music alive.

Mel Martin gifHow did you get involved with receiving subsidies to perform and record your music?

I pretty much stumbled into the grant thing. I had gotten my first National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1976 for composition, which was $1500; I thought it was just some lucky circumstance like the lottery. I sent in my form and I won - far-out. Then in the early eighties, I was involved in the Bay Area Jazz Society, which included a number of prominent people, not all musicians, who were trying to do something for jazz. I realized how political the scene can be, but, when you organize, you make progress and that's what gave me the idea of organizing the group. In fact it was Orin Keepnews, who was in the organization, who gave me the idea for the band. In 1986 I got $6200 from the NEA to do performances and I thought, "Wow, that's pretty cool!" Now I understand that going after subsidies is a business. It's not a matter of luck. It's a matter of talent and you have to have a very high quality of art; you have to organize as a business person would.

The Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie albums that I've done were in large part funded by the NEA, as well as the California Arts Council and the Zellerbach Family Fund. The record company kicked in some money, so these were well-budgeted projects. I had Joe Henderson and Howard Johnson on the Monk album, and, of course, Dizzy on the Dizzy Gillespie album.

We were very fortunate in being able to do some serious recording that I would never have been able to do otherwise. The purpose of those funds was to advance the group and the music, and do projects that you otherwise would not be able to do. That allows you to survive on a certain level artistically. There are a number of performing ensembles that have established themselves as non-profit and their whole performing season is supported with subsidy.

In reality, we are a non-profit organization because jazz, essentially, is that. Of course, we all need money, but that has never been my main motivation. Music has always been the motivation for me; I've always been glad about that and I'll stay true to it. However, it's very wise to look into subsidies; it's an age old concept.

I understand that you teach quite a bit. How did you get into that and do you have a particular approach to teaching?

People started finding out about me as a player and they would come to me and ask about lessons. Originally, I didn't enjoy it because I would bump up against my own limitations as a teacher. My feeling now is that anybody who has a sincere desire to learn is an acceptable student to me. Basically, I'm a dispenser of information and I have a lot of information to share.

I really had to go through my approach and come up with my own determined method. Eventually, I had to tear my own playing apart and rebuild my embouchure and my whole approach. After playing a certain way for a long time as a professional, I found out I was kind of at a dead end. My teaching methods are much more organized now, after having gone through all the different phases, as well as all of my professional and life experiences. I have a definite strategy to teaching that is sort of a two-pronged approach, including technique and the music. I try to get students to understand that you have to wed the two, but in many cases students come to me and I assess their technical abilities because, if they don't have the technique, they really can't play jazz. If you just teach technique and you don't talk about music they don't understand that they're supposed to apply that technique to the music. I try not to teach style, although some people ask me about particular styles. I come out of the basic bebop style because I believe that's the mother tongue, the foundation, and technically there's no more demanding music.

Music is a language and you need to learn the language to be articulate. The way that you learn a language is to emulate so I encourage them to find their favorite players and to study them, transcribe them, and emulate some phrasings. Everybody should study Charlie Parker and the basics of the bebop language because this is the basis for everything that has come since. Eric Dolphy is a true extension of Charlie Parker and you can hear Bird's influence in Ornette Coleman and most everybody else.

I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but, who were your first big influences?

Charlie Parker was my first big influence but I think I'm more influenced overall by pianists than by saxophonists. I've done a lot of transcribing of pianists. As far as saxophone teachers, in high school I studied with Bud Harphum; he was excellent in helping me develop the technical skills I needed as a saxophonist. I took three or four lessons with Lee Konitz when he was living in Mill Valley, CA. He would come up to Sacramento once a week. Those lessons with Lee were very profound. He talked to me about his methods of learning melodies, like learning how Sinatra phrased and the ten step method where you take a song and each chorus you add a little variety, like theme and variations, until at the end it has become a full- blown improvisation.

My other major influences are John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McLean, Stan Getz, Benny Carter, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Lucky Tompson, James Moody, Phil Woods, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and the entire pantheon of great jazz musicians.

You said earlier that you got a lot of invaluable experience hanging out and playing in after-hours clubs in the early sixties. What should young players do now since that experience is by and large not currently available?

What they do now is go to school. They get to play in these programs and get to rub up against some pretty good musicians as well. There are also a number of jazz workshops throughout the country. I'm not saying you can't learn it in school. Obviously they are turning out a lot of musicians; however, they're not turning out a lot of individuals. Everybody wants to sound good in a hurry, but it's okay to sound bad for a while until you get enough of it to sound good, so that you come up with a way that is unique to you as an individual. To come up with your own sound and your own approach is the thing that seems to be missing, so I try to help students find something of their own that they can develop. I'm part of the problem as much as the solution because I teach a lot privately, in workshops, and as a clinician for Yanagisawa.

How did you become associated with Yanagisawa?

Yanagisawa makes the best curved soprano saxophone. During last two trips to Japan, I visited the factory, spending a full day there. Mr. Sakurai, from Yanagisawa, came to my performances and brought instruments, mouthpieces, and necks. They have a number of neck options with different diameters and different precious metals. You can get gold-plated brass, silver-plated sterling silver, and gold-plated sterling silver necks. They also have silver horns where the body is solid silver with a brass bell and crook. Their design is very sound. The silver horns have unbelievable resonance, dynamic range, and tonal variety. No brass saxophone can touch them; they're really on the cutting edge. They also listen to advice.

Given that you teach so much what kind of practicing do you do?

I'm very goal-oriented, so it depends on what projects I'm about to do. I'll practice and research the music of a particular artist that I'm going to be performing with, but I don't really have a technical regimen that I follow at this time. I do have certain things I use in my teaching and, when you teach a lot, you practice a lot. I'm constantly going over fundamentals with the students and I play with them as much as possible

For myself, I like play-a-long recordings because it puts me into a state where I'm blowing almost as if I'm performing. Basically I try to keep the horn in my mouth and play as much as possible. I use a book that an eighty-three years young student of mine, Art Newmann, gave me. It's called the Norman Bates Saxophone Method, not Norman Bates from "Psycho." It's a method that revolves around articulation exercises based on the D syllables and they're very extensive. They really get you tonguing up a storm. Flexibility and articulation can't really be separated from tone production and projection.

I've developed my own playing to the point that I don't spend a lot of time warming up or going over fundamentals, although I still do long tones and harmonics and things like that. I've found that one undergoes a lot of physical changes over the years that makes playing more comfortable.

Do you have any tips on how to handle all the doubles?

Well, I don't do as much doubling as I used to because I'm not on call for studio work. If I know I'm going to have a certain gig coming up where I'll be playing a certain instrument, then I'll go over the basics on that prior to the gig. Flute playing does require a good deal of practice; however, the saxophone can really wipe out your flute chops. What I work on most at this point is expression. I'm sure there's plenty of room for improvement technically, but I don't feel I have to push those boundaries quite so hard these days.

There are so many different approaches to improvisation, do you have a particular approach that you feel is unique or special?

My main goal is to play something different each time I play. It needs to be spontaneous. I don't like to play where it sounds like it's already been worked out. Of course, we all have similar things we use; Bird did, all players do; it's like vocabulary. We're talking now, but we're not thinking of how we're going to put this together; we're just going from sentence to sentence, thought to thought, or paragraph to paragraph. Music is like that. There are not a lot of new notes, only twelve, but you want to make a new and memorable statement each time.

My goal at this point is to make as clear an expression of ideas as possible, so that they can be better perceived by the audience. It has to be totally coherent. It cannot be something that is abstract to the point where people will say, "Gee, I think he played pretty well." They need to know what it was I was trying to play. I guess that comes into the area of style, and basically making an effort to work with every little detail and nuance of what your soloing is about. You have to make sure that the tone is always right there and that it's making an imprint on people's minds. They have to feel the sound and the phrasing has to be done as well as you can make it.

You've certainly participated in just about every aspect of music I can think of. How do you see jazz and your place in it?Mel Martin gif

Jazz is something that you have to take very seriously to be involved in and I think jazz is how you express your point of view. It has nothing to do with anything else. We are hired to communicate something beautiful and profound. I think music is an art form. I always land on the side of art. However, if you don't have an audience you're not in business; therefore, music is also entertainment. Dizzy was the prime example; he was able to reach his audiences in an instant, capture them in his hand, drop some heavy art on them, and they loved it. The sincerity, that's the most important thing; that's what really counts and what your success will ultimately be determined by. Benny Carter taught me that.

Where I am now is like getting my Doctorate. The work I did with Dizzy was very profound for me. He was at the tail end of his career and I was able to catch him in a way that was very moving to me personally. It was very inspiring just to be around him, to get to know him, and actually record and perform with him. Through those kinds of things I've learned a lot. My relationship with Benny Carter, who is eighty-five, is maybe even more profound because I've become very close with him personally. He is the perfect role model as an all- around musician, businessman, and survivor. His encouragement has meant a great deal to me.

I don't consider myself anything like an innovator. I'm just a guy who loves this music, wants to play it and be part of jazz, that's all.

©copyright Joe Rosenberg 1993

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