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Interview: Marty Sheller (Part 3)

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Many people think jazz went into a tailspin in the 1960s. In fact, out of commercial necessity, jazz hitched its wagon to many different music forms, from pop and soul to r&b and Latin. Each merger produced different genres. Soul-jazz resulted in organ-tenor sax combos like those recorded on Prestige. Funk-jazz was pioneered by Horace Silver and other Blue Note stars. Pop-jazz emerged with Wes Montgomery's Goin' Out of My Head on the Verve and A&M labels. Latin-jazz came in a range of forms--including jazz-funk records by Mongo Santamaria for Columbia and Atlantic. Many of those albums were arranged by Marty Sheller.

Before Tower of Power, Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears and other pop groups that showcased grinding horn sections, Marty was writing charts for Santamaria that included chunky horn voicings and exciting rhythms. Two of his many arrangements for Mongo hit the Billboard Top Pop chart, and his work for dozens of other artists through the years has made him a Latin-jazz and jazz-soul icon. [Pictured above, from left: Unidentified, Mongo Santamaria, Marty Sheller, Steve Berrios and Julito Collazo in the early 1970s]

In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Marty, the trumpeter, arranger and composer talks about life on the road with percussionist Mongo Santamaria, his approach to arranging, working with three tenor sax jazz-soul giants, and the jazz project with strings that he's working on now:

JazzWax: What was so special about the boogaloo in the mid-1960s?
Marty Sheller: When the Latin-funk beat caught on, New York had a group of musicians who were as knowledgeable about jazz as they were about Latin music. Many bands needed musicians who could play Latin and jazz-funk. Horace Silver's songs were very popular at clubs because they had energy and you could dance to them. They made you move. For example, pianist Rodgers Grant in Mongo's band played funk and jazz with equal capacity. He could vamp like Bobby Timmons on solos but then play chords behind the melody like Red Garland. Latin-jazz musicians had to be versatile.

JW: How long were you with Mongo?
MS: I played with Mongo and arranged for him from the end of 1962 to the end of 1967. Then I stopped playing trumpet to devote all of my time to arranging for him and other bands. The demand for that Latin-funk sound increased significantly. Mongo encouraged guys in the band to write original material. After Pat Patrick left Mongo's band in 1964, Hubert Laws replaced him. Between me, Hubert, Bobby Capers and Rodgers, Mongo saw that he had guys who could compose and arrange. So he encouraged it.

JW: Did Santamaria speak English?
MS: Oh yes, sure. But it was difficult to understand his English at first. After being with Mongo for a while, you learned the words he pronounced differently. On stage, Mongo was reluctant to speak on the microphone, so he'd often have me do the introductions. But he had an enormous presence on the bandstand and a winning smile. When Mongo spoke, audiences got the point instantly.

JW: Why is Santamaria important?
MS: Mongo was one of a group of Cuban percussionists who came to the U.S. at a time when the mambo craze was happening. He brought the authentic feeling with him. But Mongo was one of those Cuban percussionists who really dug jazz. He wanted to create a different sound that was heavy on jazz but had an authentic Cuban feel. So Latin-jazz in the 1960s really starts with Mongo. And like James Brown, he influenced many rock bands in the late 1960 and early 1970s that added horns and played funky.

JW: In the 1960s, was working with Santamaria grueling?
MS: Mongo was a pleasure. We both recognized each other's respect for the music, and we both worked hard. The band toured nonstop and rehearsed often. Those were the days when a lot of Mongo's gigs were at jazz clubs--six nights a week, four sets a night, five on the weekend. We'd spend a week or two at a club, take one day off to travel to the next place, rehearse in the afternoon and do it all again.

JW: How was the band as a result?
MS: Really tight. A special thing happens in the rhythmic groove of a band that works that hard. Everyone knows exactly where the focus of a song is. You can get a great bunch of musicians together to record. If they're really good, the recording is going to sound good. But put the musicians on the road for three or four weeks playing four sets a night, six nights a week, and they're going to sound a lot better in the recording studio. That's what happened. We had the same personnel for four years. The crowd's reaction was always sensational. They were reacting to the energy, the passion, the jazz. That's what's interesting. Jazz never went away in the 60s nor did audience's excitement for it. Jazz just became part of other forms of music, and the result was energizing.

JW: Who picked the pop tunes for Mango to record?
MS: At Columbia Records it was David Rubinson. At Atlantic it was Jerry Wexler. When Mongo signed with Atlantic in the early 1970s, Jerry wanted another Watermelon Man. So he put together two cassette tapes of his favorite Atlantic r&b songs. He told Mongo to pick any 10 songs for the album.

JW: But how did Santamaria play the tapes?
MS: Jerry gave Mongo what looked like a large attach case. When Mongo opened it, there were speakers that popped up and a cassette player deck inside. Jerry [pictured] said, “This is the new thing, Mongo. It's a present for you." Later, Mongo gave me the attach and tapes and told me to pick the tracks and write the arrangements [laughs].

JW: Did Jerry find out?
MS: Mongo mentioned to his manager what he had done. Word got back to Jerry, who said to Mongo, “I wanted you to have it." So he bought Mongo another one. But we couldn't come up with another Watermelon Man. The times had changed. It was the early 1970s, and people were into a whole different groove.

JW: How did you approach pop songs like Cloud 9 and Workin' on a Groovy Thing?
MS: Mongo would make suggestions, but then it was up to me. I was very familiar with all the r&b records of the day, but my feeling always came out of Mongo's rhythm section. R&b has a strong rhythmic beat, so it wasn't hard to fit Mongo's congas and other Latin percussion in there. The key was to keep the horn parts punchy, to keep the flavor and energy.

JW: How would you describe your sound?
MS: When I listen to an r&b tune, I listen first to the rhythmic groove. I have to establish that first. Then I'm listening for the turning points or hooks. Then I start placing other things on top of it. It's almost as though I were approaching a song like a lead sheet--first the melody, then rhythmic groove and then the horn voicings to complement the melody. Remember, we were doing mostly instrumental versions of hits that had vocals. I would arrange so that nothing distracted from the melody. Figures I wrote let the rhythmic groove swing. I knew a song's melody cold, I'd arrange horn phrasings so they didn't get in the way of the melody. When it was a soloist's turn to play, I'd write background figures and riffs that would compliment him.

JW: You also arranged jazz sessions. How was Shirley Scott and the Soul Saxes in 1969?
MS: Wow, we had Ernie Royal on trumpet and Hank Crawford, King Curtis and David “Fathead" Newman on saxes. Shirley was on the organ and Bernard Purdie was on the drums. Man, what a sound. I would have liked to have had more input on the material, though. The producer did the choosing, so my hands were tied. More Today Than Yesterday was strong, but the others could have been better picks. It was a pleasure working with those guys, though. No ego problems at all.

JW: Did you know the saxophonists personally?
MS: Yes, and they all knew Mongo. One time King Curtis [pictured] had asked Mongo if he could do a couple of Mongo's songs and borrow his horn section--Hubert, me and Bobby Capers--to record them. Mongo said sure. So we went into the studio. There was a song that Rodgers Grant wrote and arranged for Mongo. The sound checks went well. We played a few bars and it sounded good. So we said, “Let's make a take." When we were finished, it was a killer. We all knew it and we were all quiet as we waited for the guys in the booth to say something.

JW: What did the producer think?
MS: Someone from the booth said, “OK fellas, let's do one more." King Curtis was stunned. He said, “Why? That was great!" The guy in the booth said, “Just to have one more." King said, “What do you want us to do differently?" The guy said, “Nothing. I thought it was great. Just do it the same way again." King said, “If you want to hear it again, play the tape." And we went on to record the next tune [laughs].

JW: You also arranged George Benson's Tell It Like It Is in 1969.
MS: Creed Taylor or George had heard my arrangement for Cloud 9 that I had written for Mongo's Stone Soul album earlier that year 1969. Sonny Fortune had played on it as did drummer Bernard Purdie. They called me and wanted me to arrange a song on George's album. Creed didn't know me but when he saw I was into jazz, he wanted me to do the entire album. George doesn't read music but has great ears. We'd record the band first and he'd overdub his parts. That was the first time he sang on a record.

JW: What's coming next from Marty Sheller?
MS: Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and I love Clifford Brown's album Clifford Brown and Strings, and “Mags" is going to record an album of beautiful standards with strings that I'll be arranging. He has a beautiful sound and a hip harmonic concept, so I'm really looking forward to this project. Clifford's album was also a favorite of Woody Shaw's, and Woody had me arrange We'll Be Together Again in 1980 in that style, with strings. For Mags, I've completed When Your Lover Has Gone and My Old Flame. Next up is The Duke, which will have a Latin rhythmic groove. [Pictured: Marty Sheller, left, and Joe Magnarelli]

JW: So how did you learn to arrange?
MS: Trial and error. I was very lucky in the sense that I was always around good musicians. What helped a great deal is that over my career, most of the things I've arranged have been recorded. Which means I was able to hear them back. A lot of arrangers never hear what they wrote because the arrangements were never recorded. What also helped is I've always had a desire to learn. I still do. To this day I'm never embarrassed to ask someone, “Show me what you just played."

JazzWax tracks: Many of Mongo Santamaria's records on Columbia and Atlantic featuring the pen of Marty Sheller are hard to come by. Most have not been released on CD and are available only on used LPs. Another classic that has not been issued on CD in the U.S. is Dawn (Vaya Records) from 1977, which Marty produced. The album won a Grammy Award.

You can get a taste of Marty's touch on Feelin' Alright (1969) for Atlantic, particularly On Broadway and By the Time I Get to Phoenix. It's a download at iTunes and Amazon. You also can hear Marty's sound, which preceded Tower of Power's, on I Can't Get Next to You from the same album.

Marty also swings Latin on an arrangement of What a Difference a Day Made for the Count Basie Orchestra in 1996, with Tito Puente and vocalist India as guest artists. The track is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon off of Jazzin': Count Basie Orchestra.

In 2007, Marty released Why Deny (PVR), a brassy album in the Mongo Santamaria tradition. You can download it at iTunes or Amazon. Or the album is here on CD.

JazzWax clip: Here's Marty's hit arrangement of Mongo Santamaria's version of the Temptations' Cloud 9...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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