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Interview: Marty Sheller (Part 2)

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Three forces transformed Latin music in the fall of 1962. First, the grittier, slinky funk of Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Art Blakey had a big impact on artists, shifting Latin music away from popular Cuban dances. Second, waves of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York in the 1950s had created a new youth market for rhythms emerging from the city's Hispanic neighborhoods, particularly East Harlem. Third, hit radio and teen dance crazes like the Twist (1960) and Mashed Potato (1962) were putting pressure on Latin bands to capitalize on these pop trends. Into this swirl of creative energy stepped Marty Sheller.

A jazz trumpeter, Marty found himself increasingly playing in Latin bands by the early 1960s. The trumpet was an integral part of Latin music's personality (and still is). If you played trumpet with a jazz feel back then and could sight-read music, the odds were good that you were finding gigs in Latin bands playing clubs and dances in New York on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights with an occasional weeknight gig as well. By the fall of 1962, Marty was playing in the newly formed band of percussionist Mongo Santamaria. Marty was in the right place at the right time.

In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Marty, the masterful Latin-jazz trumpeter, composer and arranger talks about how Santamaria's hit Watermelon Man evolved, the song's importance in music history, and how he wound up with the signature trumpet solo on the hit record:

JazzWax: For those who don't know, who was Mongo Santamaria?
Marty Sheller: Mongo [pictured] was born in Cuba and came to New York in 1950. He played congas in the bands of several major Latin bandleaders in the 1950s, including Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader and others. Mongo also is the composer of Afro Blue, which John Coltrane recorded several times in the early 1960s. In the early 1960s and beyond, Mongo's band created a new sound that added a strong Latin-jazz feel to pop songs.

JW: In the fall of 1962, what's happening with Santamaria?
MS: In the late 1950s, Mongo left Tito Puente's band and was working on the West Coast with vibraphonist Cal Tjader and percussionist Willie Bobo. Mongo started to get a lot of recognition with Tjader, whose group was small and offered Mongo more opportunities to solo. The experience also gave Mongo confidence to start his own band in early 1960.

JW: How did you wind up joining Santamaria's band in 1962?
MS: When Mongo left Tjader's band, he formed a Charanga band with violins and flute. But when he relocated to New York, he wanted a more jazz-oriented group. So he put together a band with bassist Victor Venegas. They got trumpeter Paul Serrano from Chicago, Brazilian pianist Joao Donato [pictured] and Pat Patrick on saxes and flute.

JW: Wow, Joao Donato?
MS: Yes, I know. He was terrific. But Donato left in 1962, and Chick Corea became the band's pianist. Around the fall of 1962, Mongo had a new Latin trumpet player who was very good. But by this point, Mongo's new music was geared to jazz trumpet solos. So Mongo wanted another trumpeter who could play both jazz and Latin, because the band was still getting a lot of Latin dance gigs.

JW: How did you hear about the trumpet opening?
MS: I knew Victor Venegas [pictured] and Al Abreu, who had played sax in the band. They recommended me to Mongo. But Pat Patrick recommended a friend of his, Manny Duran. So Mongo called a rehearsal in the Bronx, and Manny and I came to audition. Manny and I knew each other. He was a beautiful cat. I also knew Mongo, though not well. We had met while I was playing with Pete Terrace's band. We went on at a gig following Mongo's band, and Pete introduced me. [Photo of Victor Venegas: CreativeMusicPhotography]

JW: How did you do at the audition?
MS: Manny and I played. After, Victor called me with the bad news. Mongo had asked the guys in the band who they thought would be best. Victor said most of the guys thought I would be a better fit. But Manny was a good friend of Pat's, so Manny was hired.

JW: How did Duran work out?
MS: Not so good. The band went on the road and when they got to Ohio, they were at a club for a week and the bandstand wasn't well lit. Manny was reading the music, and he couldn't really see the parts. So there were little mistakes here and there. Mongo heard them and took it to mean that Manny wasn't up to the job, which, of course, wasn't the case. Manny was a really good musician.

JW: What happened?
MS: After the gig, Mongo decided that when the band returned to New York, he wasn't going to continue using Manny. He asked Victor to call me. When Victor called me mid-week, he said the band was going to return on Friday and start rehearsing on Monday. He said that the band was going to play a few gigs that weekend. Chick Corea had already given Mongo notice and had left. Rodgers Grant [pictured] was hired but was to start at the Monday rehearsal.

JW: Which left Santamaria without a pianist for the weekend gig.
MS: Right.

JW: What did Santamaria do?
MS: When they returned to New York, Mongo was at disc jockey Symphony Sid's office with Donald Byrd. Donald heard that Mongo needed a piano player and said, “If you're really hung up, I know a young cat who reads well."

JW: Who was it?
MS: Herbie Hancock [laughs].

JW: So Hancock was the pianist for that weekend gig with Mongo?
MS: Right. During the course of the weekend, Herbie [pictured] told Mongo that he had recorded a song in May called Watermelon Man and that one of the rhythms Mongo had played would fit in with his song. I don't think Herbie's Blue Note album Takin' Off with Watermelon Man was out yet. Or if it was, Mongo hadn't heard it. Herbie vamped a bit on the piano to show Mongo how the song went, and Mongo liked it. Mongo asked him to write out the music for the band, including parts for a trumpet, alto sax and tenor sax. He asked him to bring the parts down to the rehearsal. When I walked in on Monday, my part was on the stand.

JW: Who was in the front line?
MS: Me, Pat Patrick on alto sax and Bobby Capers on tenor sax. Herbie had just written out the chord changes and the melody and harmony lines. The bass player played what he and Herbie had discussed. The only thing that we changed in the front line was that instead of hitting the first note, we slid up to it, almost like sirens.

JW: But Herbie wasn't the pianist.
MS: That's right. Rodgers Grant was there. But Herbie stayed to listen as we ran through it. Then he split.

JW: How did it go?
MS: We rehearsed that whole week. Then we did a gig at a Brooklyn spot called the Blue Coronet Club. We played Watermelon Man among lots of other things. The crowd's reaction to Watermelon Man was amazing. The next week we worked at same club for a week. The crowds kept growing each night, and they were asking for Watermelon Man over and over again. They couldn't get enough of it [Pictured: Marty Sheller, second from right, in Santamaria's band in 1963; click to enlarge]

JW: How did Orrin Keepnews get involved?
MS: Mongo was signed to Riverside Records at the time. Our popularity at the club was getting so strong, Mongo's manager, Pete Long, called Orrin [pictured], who was head of A&R at Riverside. He said, “You have to come and hear the crowd's reaction to this song." The only day Orrin could make it was Thanksgiving night of 1962. But he came, and he heard it. He was taken aback. Orrin said we had to record it. So a date was set for December 17th, a Monday.

JW: Why the Battle label and not Riverside?
MS: Orrin said the Riverside label was strictly for jazz. He didn't think Watermelon Man was appropriate for the label, since it was a pop song. So he came up with a subsidiary called Battle Records. He said that we needed a B-side. So saxophonist Bobby Capers came up with Don't Bother Me No More. Funny thing is Watermelon Man probably turned out to be one of Orrin's biggest financial hits [laughs].

JW: How did your famous trumpet solo come to be?
MS: When we went into the studio to record Watermelon Man, there was supposed to be a trumpet solo, a tenor solo, a piano solo, the melody and then out. We were approaching the song the way Herbie had recorded it with Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon. But when we recorded it that way, the song ran seven minutes.

JW: What happened?
MS: Mongo's manager Pete Long said to us, “Forget about those snakes." Snakes was the word used to mean when a jazz player runs scales for improvisation. Pete added, “You've got to cut it down to three minutes. No tenor solo, no piano solo. Just a trumpet solo. And Marty, don't play no snakes. Play funky."

JW: What did you think?
MS: At the time, there was a popular record of I Know (You Don't Love Me No More), recorded by Barbara George [pictured], recorded a year earlier. On it, Melvin Lastie played a funky cornet solo that ended with ba-bah-banh, ba-bah-bahhh--going down on the first and up on the second. I loved that little lick, so kidding around I played Melvin's phrase the other way around and said to Pete, “Like that?" he said, “Yes, that's it. Play it just like that." So that's how my solo wound up on the record and why I played that funky line.

JW: Your solo helped launch the boogaloo beat in the 1960s, which influenced jazz and soul.
MS: Whenever people praise my solo, I always give Melvin Lastie credit for his solo. I knew several musicians from New Orleans, including Idris Muhammad. We all lived in the same building on 82nd St. and Broadway. Somehow word got back to Melvin in New Orleans that I had given him credit for my solo. Well, one day Melvin came to New York to play with King Curtis. We met through Idris.

JW: How was the meeting?
MS: Melvin was a sweetheart of a guy. He [pictured] was so glad to meet me, and I was so glad to meet him. He said, “Man, I heard about you. That's really great that you mention my name and give me credit." I said, “Hey listen, that's the truth. That's where I got it from, from your beautiful solo."

JW: On your solo, you let a lot of space in but there's still enormous energy and power behind the notes.
MS: [Laughs] I've always been very concerned about doing what's appropriate when playing in a Latin band. I've heard jazz trumpeters playing whatever they wanted in Latin settings, and that just doesn't really fit in. I've always been mindful to respect the authentic Latin way.

JW: How many takes did you do of Watermelon Man?
MS: Just two.

JW: Whose female voice can be heard laughing mischievously on the track?
MS: That's La Lupe [Lupe Victoria Yoli, known as the Queen of Latin soul]. La Lupe sang with Mongo's band for a hot minute after arriving in New York from Miami and then went on to Tito Puente's band and then to a big solo career.

JW: What did Herbie Hancock say when he heard Santamaria's single of Watermelon Man?
MS: I didn't hear, but I know that when he got his royalty check he bought a car [laughs]. Plus Donald Byrd gave him some critical advice. Donald told him, “Keep the publishing rights. Publishing is key." So as a result, every recording of that song earned him income as the composer and publisher. And a lot of people recorded it at the time and still do.

JW: When did you realize Watermelon Man was hot?
MS: It came out in January 1963. By February it was climbing up the charts. By March it was No. 1 in New York and No. 10 in Billboard's Top Pop singles chart. It was a real surprise. It's funny, it wasn't the type of song Mongo would play. But we seasoned it up. After Watermelon Man, I arranged many pop songs for Mongo, and he had great success with that sound. He had hits with Yeh-Yeh!, El Pussy Cat, Cloud Nine and Feeling Alright. I arranged the last two, and all made it onto the Billboard chart.

Tomorrow, Marty talks about the 1960s and beyond, how he approached arranging pop songs for Mongo Santamaria, and what he's working on now.

JazzWax clips: To hear how one trumpet solo influenced another, let's listen to Melvin Lastie's cornet solo on Barbara George's I Know (1961) and Marty's solo on Mongo Santamaria's Watermelon Man (1962).

First, here's Marty on Watermelon Man...

And here's Melvin Lastie on I Know...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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