Mel Martin—composer, arranger, bandleader, saxophonist, flutist—is one of the most versatile and inventive musicians ever to emerge from the San Francisco Bay Area. In his long career, he's played a part in many of the innovative movements that have emerged from that creative community. He worked and recorded with a number of the progressive rock and Latin bands of the late '60s and early '70s, including the Loading Zone, Cold Blood, Azteca, and Boz Scaggs. In 1977 he founded the award-winning Listen, one of the first West Coast jazz-fusion bands. And he's currently artistic director of Bebop and Beyond, a group he formed in 1983, as well as leading The MEL MARTIN BAND and Big Band, the Tenor Conclave, and the Benny Carter All-Star Tribute Band.
Martin's latest CD, Just Friends by the Mel Martin/Benny Carter Quintet, was recorded live at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland in April 1994 with Carter on alto saxophone, Martin on tenor saxophone and flute, Roger Kellaway on piano, bassist Jeff Chambers, and drummer Harold Jones. Its summer 2007 release coincides with Carter's centennial (August 8). Martin calls the disc "one of the best-sounding live recordings I've ever heard."
The musicianship on Just Friends is superb. Kellaway and Jones had played frequently with Carter, and Chambers and Martin have a long working relationship of their own, giving the ensemble an uncanny level of communication. As for Carter, "Benny's playing was fluid and exploratory," Martin says. "You never knew where he was going to go."
The set includes "Perdido," a tune associated with Duke Ellington; "People Time," a Carter composition with Mel on flute ("the best flute performance I've ever recorded," he says); "Elegy in Blue," composed by Carter upon the death of a close longtime friend; Martin's 3/4 original "Spritely," a feature for Mel and the trio; and the standards "Secret Love" and "Just Friends."
"The arrangements [on the new CD] were spontaneous," Martin says. "We would listen to each other, then make contributions to the ongoing conversation. That's how we'll play in the Benny Carter Tribute Band I'm putting together now with Roger [Kellaway], Andrew [Speight, alto saxophone], Robb [Fisher, bass], and Jeff [Marrs, drums]."
Mel Martin met Benny Carter at a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame gathering in 1978. "I was in the pit orchestra," Martin recalls. "Benny spoke about his work scoring films and showed clips from Stormy Weather and other movies he worked on. At the end of the gig he said hello to every member of the band and shook everybody's hand, a typically gracious gesture.
"In 1986 I went to the Verona Jazz Festival with Bebop and Beyond. Benny and I got to hang out, and he stayed in touch." In 1989 Carter asked Martin to put together a big band for a weeklong gig at Kimball's East. "It was a five-sax, eight-brass and rhythm section group; we played Benny's compositions." After a second weeklong run at Kimball's in 1990, Carter asked Martin to join his big band for two tours of Japan.
"Except for a few tunes like 'Only Trust Your Heart,' 'Key Largo,' and 'Cow Cow Boogie,' Benny's music isn't that well known," Martin observes, "but it's up there with Ellington. He's one of the most underappreciated composers of the 20th century. When I got to know his compositions on that tour, I was astounded."
The arrangements Carter created for his music inspired Martin to apply for an NEA grant to record Carter's compositions. Mel Martin Plays Benny Carter (Enja, 1994) combined music recorded live at Yoshi's in 1994 with a studio session featuring pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Victor Lewis, and bassist Rufus Reid. Just Friends lets us hear more of what Carter and Martin played on those magical nights.
Mel Martin was born in Sacramento on June 7, 1942. Both parents were singers, and early piano and clarinet lessons led him to Benny Goodman and to Glen Church's Jazz Rhythm & Blues radio program. The big bands passing through town—Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—kept his interest high. "Seeing Benny Goodman made me want to play jazz," Mel recalls. "His sax man Budd Johnson had an incredible sound; he didn't need a mike to fill the hall. I had a small combo—clarinet, accordion, and drums. After gigs we played at Mel's drive-in for tips."
While still a teenager, Martin was fortunate enough to sit in with Wes Montgomery and his brothers. "Monk and Buddy Montgomery moved to Sacramento after the Mastersounds [their successful quartet with Richie Crabtree and Benny Barth] disbanded. They brought Wes out from back East, and drove around to gigs in a pink Caddy.
"I'd go listen when they played the Swinging Lantern or the Iron Sandal. I showed up one night with my flute, got up my nerve and asked if I could sit in. They were very encouraging. After the gig, Wes wrote out the changes to 'West Coast Blues' on a napkin I still have."
While majoring in music at San Francisco State in 1962, Martin met John Handy, a fellow undergraduate, and played in his Freedom Band. "[John] had played with Mingus and had his own records on Roulette. He was a big influence on me. We played demonstrations and colleges. There wasn't a lot of money involved, but we played stuff by Mingus and Handy."
Martin learned how to play bop with the musicians who hung out at Bop City, Soulville, the Jazz Workshop, Shelton's Blue Mirror, Jack's on Sutter, and later the Both/And. "The greats would go there after their gigs to hang with the local musicians, eat chicken and waffles, and play jazz," he recalls. "Clubs had jams from 2 to 6 a.m. and from 6 to 11 a.m. You could catch a gig on Friday, then go to a club and play all night, get some sleep and do it all over again on Saturday. Bop City and Soulville were my schools."
Starting in the late 1960s, Martin began a period of playing with progressive rock and Latin bands, among them the Loading Zone, Cold Blood, Azteca, and Boz Scaggs. In 1977 Martin formed Listen, an important part of the early West Coast jazz-fusion scene. "The Fourth Way, Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, and the John Handy Quintet were all based here," Martin points out. "Chick Corea was putting Return to Forever together, and Herbie Hancock started the Headhunters in San Francisco, so there's a rich lineage of fusion in the Bay Area."
Listen made three albums—two for the Inner City label, Listen Featuring Mel Martin (1977) and Growing (1978); and She Who Listens (1979) for the small Scottish label Move. Martin received a Musician of the Year award from the San Francisco chapter of NARAS (Grammy) in 1977 as well as a Bammy for Best Jazz Album of 1977 for Listen Featuring Mel Martin. Illustrious Listen alumni include steel pan player Andy Narell and drummer Terry Bozzio.
Martin has been artistic director of the group Bebop and Beyond since 1983. Eddie Marshall, John Handy, George Cables, Ed Kelly, and Warren Gale have passed through its ranks. The band's discography includes Bebop and Beyond (Concord, 1984); Bebop and Beyond Plays Thelonious Monk (Blue Moon, 1990); Bebop and Beyond Plays Dizzy Gillespie (Blue Moon, 1991), with special guest Dizzy Gillespie; and Friends and Mentors: Bebop and Beyond Plays the Music of Mel Martin (Quixotic, 2000).
Mel Martin has received five National Endowment for the Arts grants—a Compositional Grant in 1976, and subsequent funding to preserve the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Benny Carter for the recordings Bebop and Beyond Plays Thelonious Monk, Bebop and Beyond Plays Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Martin Plays Benny Carter,and the brand-new Just Friends. He has been honored by the San Francisco Jewish Museum as part of their Jewish Presence in Jazz Series. Other projects include the Tenor Conclave, currently on hiatus, a sextet with Tim Armacost, Rob Roth, Mark Levine, Robb Fisher, and Akira Tana, focusing on the repertoire of great saxophonists of the past, particularly Joe Henderson; and the Mel Martin All-Star Big Band, which plays new arrangements of standards as well as the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Jimmy Heath, and Mel Martin.
As performer, composer-arranger, and multi-instrumentalist (soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones; flute and alto flute; clarinet and bass clarinet), Martin has contributed to the CBS television series The Twilight Zone and the films Rumblefish, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Warriors, and Street Music. Martin has assembled (and performed in) big bands for McCoy Tyner and Dizzy Gillespie, and played with the Freddie Hubbard Quintet and Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra.
Martin, who taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Stanford University from 1984 to 1995, is a highly respected national clinician. He has produced the Bebop and Beyond Advanced Jazz Workshops for the Marin Jewish Community Center, and conducts workshops at his studio in Novato and in the Marin County public schools. "I feed my students classics from the jazz repertoire and discover some of the young talents that will take the music into the future.
"I've always loved music," Martin adds, "from jazz to rock to classical, and I've been blessed to be able to make a living at it." After six decades of playing, Mel Martin is still exploring the limitless possibilities of musical expression with the same enthusiasm he felt when he first picked up a clarinet as a boy.
THE MEL MARTIN QUARTET @ The Kitano
66 Park Avenue, NY, NY 10016 (212)885-7000 ( 800)548-2666
Shows at 8 & 10PM $25 cover, $15 minimum.
Mel Martin - saxophones & flute
Taylor Eigsti - piano
Steve Laspina - bass
Steve Johns - drums