“This will be my band, the one I’ve been playing with a long time,” said lifelong Northern California jazz musician Mel Martin—a ubiquitious presence for half a century in the Bay Area as tenor saxophonist, woodwinds player and band leader—of the eponymous group he’ll be playing with at Yoshi’s in Oakland next Monday night.
The Mel Martin Band will perform at 8 p.m. to celebrate their new recording, “Where the Warm Winds Blow,” released on Jazz Media.
“The cover shows me standing on the shores of Maui,” Martin explained, “a kind of doubletake: I play winds, and I try to get some warm sounds out of them. And I do, with some overdubbing, like I did back in the ’70s with Listen!”
Martin was recalling the pioneering jazz fusion band he led, founded in 1976, that featured such distinguished alumni as steel drum virtuoso Andy Narell and drummers Terry Bozzio and George Marsh. The band performed in clubs, parks—every imaginable venue and on three recordings—playing innovative, popular music. “We were inventing forms as they came along, because nobody said we couldn’t,” Martin said. “Why do the same thing on every track?”
Martin recalled other Bay Area jazz groups fusing different styles of music at that time: The Fourth Way, the John Handy Quintet, the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood—“and the rock scene was wide open.” He played live or recorded with Santana, Boz Scaggs (“on five albums before he was a big name”),The Loading Zone, Azteca, Cold Blood—many of the top concert, club and touring bands of that time.
But that was just one era in a life packed with playing, committed to music.
Born in 1942 in Sacramento, Martin’s parents were both singers. He was influenced by the Big Bands coming through town, especially Benny Goodman’s. “Goodman had a tenor player, Bud Johnson, who didn’t need a mic to fill the hall.” He put together a small combo, and after their first gig, obtained through his father, Martin remembers they played Mel’s Drive-In for tips.
He sat in as a teen with Wes Montgomery and his brothers. “Monk and Buddy moved to Sacramento and brought Wes back from the East ... they used to drive a pink caddy to gigs.” Martin still has a bar napkin the great guitarist wrote the changes of “West Coast Blues” out on.
Moving to San Francisco in 1962, Martin was soon playing in fellow San Francisco State undergrad John Handy’s Freedom Band. “We played demonstrations and colleges ... I knew his playing with [Charles] Mingus and his own recordings on Roulette ... He played alto sax, but influenced me as much as any tenor player.” And Martin played the clubs: “I used to work the burlesque houses up on Broadway—and across the street, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins would be playing. The Jazz Workshop and El Matador were right in North Beach.” It was the jam sessions and dates in San Francisco’s active jazz scene that made the difference. “Bop City, Soulville, Jack’s on Sutter, the Both/And ... Bop City and Soulville were my schools.”
The scene’s different now—or, rather, there’s no scene at all. “I’m not a retro guy,” Martin demurred. “But so many classic jazz artists have passed away, there’s less and less of it than in the past, so much of that has disappeared, that the word jazz has become indefineable, spread out through different genres.”
He laughed. “It’s not ‘Show me your jazz papers!’ There’s still no jazz police. But the issue is, what passes for jazz education? In the ’50s and ’60s, there was jazz on TV. Leonard Bernstein would come on Sunday morning and explain jazz. There were the Timex jazz shows; Steve Allen had jazz on the Tonight Show and Dave Garroway in the morning. And there were hit jazz records—1959 was a great year.”
Martin continued: “In the ’60s and ’70s, it wasn’t that unusual for a group to suddenly do a number in 11/8. So-called jazz radio’s more restricted now. And jazz festival presentations are watered down. If you fit in that box, you get the gig. Festivals attempted to reach back to the tradition before. I see John Handy got an award recently; that should’ve happened years ago.”
Martin reflected on the current situation in music, as well as some of its causes: “Sometimes it seems the Bay Area has a short cultural memory. It always seems like the place where jazz is about to be the thing. But there’s no real tradition. Off and on, it’s been a huge cauldron, festering with jazz. When I go to New York, I know more people than here. We were just back there, playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with great crowds, and two ex-managers of mine showed up on the same night! It was kind of historic. There’s a lot of continuity there. I like to go back and play; then I play, even talk like a New Yorker ... but I’d only last for a couple of weeks!”
Martin continued: “It’s what the corporate mentality has screwed up, really in the art of it. In everything else, too, the battles we’re having every day, over health care, with banks ... Jazz is at the bottom of the ladder, anyway. And the rules change. Now they can’t sell anything either! Which brings up the question: how does one get paid?”
Martin mentioned catching a recent appearance by the great alto player, Lee Konitz—who he called “one of my teachers early on”—at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. “He looked out at the audience and said, ‘I often wonder where all of you come from.” I said, under my breath, “From under a lily pad!”
Innovations not withstanding, Martin has helped keep the tradition alive, His band Bebop And Beyond, begun in 1984, still performs, as does the Tenor Conclave—and the Benny Carter All-Star Tribute Band, originally founded at the request of the great alto player and Big Band leader, who Ben Webster once dubbed “King.” In fact, Martin’s previous recording release was JUST FRIENDS, the Mel Martin/Benny Carter Quartet recorded at Yoshi’s in 1994, released last year to coincide with Carter’s centennial, (Carter died in 2004), some of the tracks having been included previously on MEL MARTIN PLAYS BENNY CARTER. And the title tune on Martin’s new recording to be celebrated Monday was penned by Carter.
“I’ve had some great bands, been in some great ones,” said Martin, “And I’ve played with a lot of rhythm sections. Even at best, that’s not the same as with those when we’ve had a long, intimate history. Don Friedman, coming back from New York, has been accepted as a great jazz pianist, even if he’s still not a well-known name to the public. Interestingly enough, he was pianist on one of those old John Handy Roulette records! Small world. Jeff Marrs, on drums, has played with the Marcus Shelby Big Band, with Faye Carol, and with me for six or seven years. He’s constantly growing. I took him to New York and he fit right in; we can play all night, just the two of us. Bassist Robb Fisher [who plays Tuesday evenings with jazz balladeer Ed Reed at The Cheese Board on Shattuck] and I have played together 25, 30 years. Brad Buethe’s on guitar, who’s often with me at the no name bar in Sausalito. And John Santos, on latin percussion, will be a special guest
We’ll play what’s on the album, plus some of my other original music, to update what’s never been recorded.”