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Interview: Marty Sheller (Part 1)

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The name Marty Sheller may not ring a bell. But anyone hip to Latin-jazz is aware of his enormous contribution to the music. First, that's Marty's trumpet solo on Mongo Santamaria's 1962 hit recording of Watermelon Man. The single helped launch the boogaloo, a dance beat that merged Puerto Rican and Cuban rhythms with jazz and funk. The boogaloo not only influenced Lee Morgan and Art Blakey in the 1960s but also James Brown, who incorporated the funky rhythm and horns into his riffs. Second, Marty played trumpet in Mongo Santamaria's band from 1962 to 1967, arranging and composing for many of Santamaria's big albums for Columbia Records and beyond. Marty also helped Mongo win a Grammy Award by producing Dawn in 1977.

Interestingly, Marty isn't Cuban or Puerto Rican. Nor does he speak or understand Spanish. Like many white, non-Latino jazz musicians and arrangers in the 1950s and 1960s, he found greater opportunities as a musician in the Latin idiom than in jazz. The story of how Mongo Santamaria came to record Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man and how Marty's solo became emblematic of a sound typifies Latin-jazz's shift in the 1960s as rock and soul soared in popularity and Latin-jazz adapted.

In Part 1 of my three part interview with Marty, 69, the trumpeter, arranger and composer of more than 80 BMI-registered songs talks about being exposed to jazz and Latin music in the late 1950s, struggling in college to balance his love of jazz and Latin music with his parents' wishes, and why he finally chose Latin music over law and sociology:

JazzWax: You grew up in Newark, N.J., and now live in a town hundreds of miles away in another state called Newark. Ironic, no?
Marty Sheller: [Laughs]. Yes. But they aren't pronounced the same. Newark, N.J., is pronounced “New-irk." Where I live, the town is pronounced “New-ark." It took me a while to pronounce it correctly.

JW: What was it like growing up in Newark, N.J., in the 1950s?
MS: I had a great childhood. Music was everywhere--on street corners, on the radio, in theaters. And all kinds of music. My high school band teacher John Coppock inspired me and encouraged me to play the trumpet. [Photo of Newark, N.J., children in the 1950s by Julius Spohn]

JW: Were you listening to jazz?
MS: Yes. Most of my friends listened to West Coast jazz in early 1950s. It was easier to understand. Saxophonist Buddy Terry was in my high school band and gave me Miles Davis' Blue 'n' Boogie on an extended 45-rpm. At the time, the record went right over my head. It just didn't catch me. I was too busy listening to West Coast guys, like Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Chet Baker and Shorty Rogers.

JW: Did you circle back to Miles?
MS: Yes. I graduated high school early in January 1957 and was accepted at Columbia University. But I wasn't due to start until September. During that period, I worked in the garden shop at a Sears store in Newark. The store was in the parking lot to keep the soil and water from messing up the store. They let me run the small shop. One day I asked my boss if it was OK to bring a radio. He said, “Sure." Back then, disc jockey Al “Jazzbo" Collins [pictured] had an afternoon radio show. That's when I started hearing Miles Davis again, and this time I really connected with him.

JW: So that record Blue 'n' Boogie made more sense?
MS: Absolutely. I went back and listened to it and I understood everything going on there. I couldn't believe my ears and I couldn't believe what I had missed several years earlier. One day a friend said, “Let's go into New York and listen to live jazz." So we convinced our parents to let us go. We went to the Caf Bohemia. Up on the marquee it said, “Battle of the Drums."

JW: Who was playing?
MS: The Max Roach Quintet versus the Art Blakey Quintet [laughs]. Not bad, right? We went inside and caught the last number by the Max Roach Quintet. Up on the stage was Kenny Dorham and Sonny Rollins [pictured] playing Valse Hot. I sat down and said to myself, “Man, this is something else." This music was a New York thing rather than a West Coast groove.

JW: Did you get to hear Blakey?
MS: Yes, his group with Jackie McLean and Bill Hardman came on next. Man, when they call that music hard bop, that's exactly what it was. It was ferocious. I was knocked out. After the show, Art Blakey sat on the edge of the Cafe Bohemia's high stage with his legs dangling and gave his “support jazz by going to clubs" speech. Outside, I wrote down the names of all the musicians on the bill. I had to get their records. That experience completely turned me around.

JW: What's your background?
MS: I'm Jewish.

JW: But you have the Latin feel.
MS: Many Jews and Italians became Latin players and arrangers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We loved the music and had the passion for it. At the time, there were more Latin gigs than jazz gigs, and if you wanted to earn, you had to have the fire for both.

JW: Do you speak Spanish?
MS: Not at all. I understand some but not enough to follow a conversation clearly.

JW: Did you study music when you entered Columbia University as a freshman that fall?
MS: No. I studied liberal arts. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer. But I didn't know what I was interested in. During my freshman year, I met Myron Schwartzman [pictured today], who is now an author, English professor at Baruch College and a dear friend. Back then he was a jazz pianist. At Columbia, he heard me listening to an Art Blakey record in the dorm and knocked on the door and introduced himself. We became friends. At the end of freshman year, we decided to get a gig for the summer up in the Catskill Mountains north of New York.

JW: Just like that?
MS: Myron said he had met a sax player, who told him he had a friend who was a drummer with a gig up there. He said the group needed a piano player and a trumpet player, which meant us [laughs]. The saxophonist turned out to be Bobby Porcelli [laughs], which is how we met. Bobby, of course, is a monster jazz player and composer, and one of the few musicians who has played with the big three Latin bandleaders--Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente. Bobby was the lead alto player in their bands as well as a featured soloist.

JW: How did the job work out?
MS: We went up and played the gig that summer. We were all just living in a small room, just getting into the music. Whoever woke up first put on a Coltrane album with Red Garland. Bobby [Porcelli, pictured] would write out the music from the records with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd, and we'd play the arrangements all day long in our little room.

JW: But not at night.
MS: No, not at night. The guests were an older Jewish crowd. We played jazz during the day. At night they wanted easy-going pop things and standards they knew. By 11 p.m. the older crowd was gone. When they left, we asked the boss if we could go up and play jazz. We lived just under the casino's stage. He said, “Sure." So we had an opportunity to play together on a stage, like a group.

JW: What did you do at the end of the summer when you went back to school sophomore year?
MS: That was hard. I came back and was convinced that music is what I wanted to do. There were jam sessions all over the city, so we made all of those. I was deep into music at this point. Soon I met trombonist Barry Rogers [pictured], who played in Hugo Dickens band. Bobby soon joined the band and recommended me. Hugo Dickens used to play in black social clubs all over the city on Friday and Saturday nights.

JW: How were your grades at Columbia?
MS: Way down. My interest in music was too strong. When I had to choose a major, I wanted to pick music. But my father wouldn't let me. My parents were afraid of what music would do to me in terms of drugs and so on. But I had guilt, since my father was paying, and I had to respect that. I picked a major I thought would be easy--sociology--which would let me focus on music. But at the end of junior year, it was obvious I was wasting my father's money and my time.

JW: What did you do?
MS: In 1960, I took a leave of absence from Columbia. It lasted a year. When I returned to school in September 1961, I had spent a year living on my own playing music every day and night, which was my dream life. I made it only until midterms that fall. I told my father I had to drop out, that I couldn't take it any more, that it was a waste of time and his money. So I dropped out. Everyone told me, “You only have a half year to go to get your degree." But I was too involved in the music and didn't want to continue.

JW: Do you wish you had finished?
MS: Not at all. It was a waste of time and I would have missed out on what happened to me during that period.

JW: What did you do when you left?
MS: I started gigging with Latin bands. Some of the musicians I met through Hugo Dickens' band brought me in. One was a drummer named Lenny Seed. Lenny told me he knew someone who needed a timbales player and a trumpeter for a summer gig--which was us. Lenny and I didn't get hired, but I got a gig in a small Latin band playing at a hotel in the Catskills over the summer of 1962.

JW: Was playing Latin rhythms difficult?
MS: Not really. My first instrument when I was a kid was the drums. I was very good, so I took to the unusual rhythms quickly. I had a good sense of time and tempo.

JW: How did you keep getting Latin gigs?
MS: The musicians' union in New York back then was in the same building as the Roseland Ballroom, where Latin music was often featured. During the day, union musicians would hang out in the ballroom. Latin musicians hung out on the right side, jazz musicians on the left. I hung out with the jazz musicians, because I knew most of them. At the time, all the Latin bands used two or more trumpet players, so trumpeters would go first and always be in short supply for gigs on the weekends.

JW: How did you hear about those?
MS: Word would filter over to the jazz side that a trumpeter was needed who could read music and play Latin. So I picked up gigs that way and wound up meeting two guys who were instrumental to my career: drummer Frankie Malabe and pianist Louie Ramirez.

JW: What did Malabe teach you?
MS: Frank realized that I had time and rhythm, and he was a jazz lover. We'd listen to jazz at each other's apartments. I used to go up to his place in the Bronx and he would set up his chair in front of me so we were facing each other. He would put on Latin records and play on my knee what he'd play on the drums to show me how the tempos went. He'd say, “Here's how it fits in with the clave." I just took to it right away. He'd start off with the basic stuff that I could understand. Then he'd play other records with more complicated rhythms. I'd listen and say, “Wow, man, where's the 'one?' “ [laughs].

Tomorrow, Marty talks about his big break with Mongo Santamaria, why Herbie Hancock brought Watermelon Man to Santamaria, what Orrin Keepnews said when he heard the group play it, how the song was recorded in 1962, and how Marty wound up with the only solo on the hit single.

JazzWax clip: Here's Marty's composition and arrangement of Pirana, with Mongo Santamaria on congas, Bob Quaranta on piano, Bobby Sanabria on drums, and others...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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