Mel Martin, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who dedicated his life to the Bay Area jazz scene, died last week at the age of 75.
Martin died of a heart attack on Friday, Nov. 17, according to his daughter Sara Breindel. Her announcement of his passing on Facebook inspired in an outpouring of condolences on social media.
“I am in mourning, shocked, and saddened beyond words. Jazz Saxophone Giant, Mel Martin has just passed,” jazz guitarist Steve Homan wrote. “It is so hard to even share this news. Your beautiful music, and the times we shared the stage, playing music together, will be with me always.”
Martin played with many legendary artists over his 60-year career in music, backing up jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald and playing alongside stars in others genres like Frank Sinatra, James Brown and Tom Waits.
Born in Sacramento, Martin fell in love with jazz at the age of 12. Though Martin’s parents loved music and played piano at home, they hoped that their only son would take over the family real estate business. But Martin never showed any interest; instead, he spent much of his time at jazz clubs watching legends like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Cannonball Adderly.
“He discovered jazz and there was no stopping him,” Breindel said.
Originally a clarinet player, Martin began playing saxophone and flute as teenager in the music program at Sacramento High School. It was around then that he landed his first big gig playing with legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. According to Martin’s bio on his website, by then, the Montgomery brothers (Wes, Monk and Buddy) were living in Sacramento and playing shows around town. Martin was already confident enough in his abilities to jam with other working musicians, so he got the nerve to ask the brothers if he could join them on flute.
“All of a sudden I was up there and I noticed I’d never sounded so good in my life. When you play with great musicians, you tend to up your game,” Martin wrote on his website. “At another gig Wes wrote out the changes to ‘West Cost Blues’ on a napkin that I still have.”
After high school, Martin moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University (SFSU), where he majored in music. He didn’t stay long, as he found the school “disappointing” compared to the excellent program at his high school.
“The streets, however, were another story,” Martin said in a 2011 interview.
Martin then began playing with fellow SFSU student John Handy in his Freedom Band — an experience Martin would later describe as his first time “working within a real jazz situation.” He spent the rest of the ’60s living the jazz life: Gigging at jazz clubs around the Bay Area, like Bop City and the Jazz Workshop, and staying up until the early morning hanging out with fellow jazz players.
In the ’70s, Martin began making a name for himself in the emerging jazz fusion scene. Among the groups he played and recorded with were Azteca, the Latin-fusion group led by legendary percussionists Coke Escovedo and Pete Escovedo; and Doug Sahm’s Honkey Blues Band, the influential Texan musician’s short-lived band in San Francisco. He also played on recordings by Boz Scaggs, Chuck Berry and Dr. John, among many others.
In 1977, Martin started Listen, his jazz fusion group whose first two albums — 1977’s Featuring Mel Martin and 1978’s Growing — brought him real acclaim, including the Musician Of The Year award from the San Francisco chapter of National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), the same organization that hosts the GRAMMY Awards. The first Listen record also won the BAMMY for Best Jazz Album that same year.
Martin was also a working composer and studio musician, writing and recording parts for a wide variety of projects, including commercials and even animated shorts on Sesame Street. He contributed music for the TV show the Twilight Zone, and movies like the the Warriors, Rumblefish and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Martin was a member of the musicians’ union and always had some kind of recording studio set up at his house. Even during periods when he was often playing live, he was still working on new music.
“His first love was definitely jazz but he played TV shows, commercials — whatever they would hire him for,” Breindel said. “I grew up with music around me 24 hours a day, in recording studios and concert halls and night clubs. There were always musicians in our house.”
After years of looking to the future of music, Martin began looking back at the legacy of jazz in the ’80s and ’90s. He started projects like the Mel Martin All-Star Big Band and the bebop tribute group Bebop & Beyond, who recorded albums of music by Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie — artists Martin backed on multiple occasions in his later years. Martin later started a tribute band dedicated to one of his heroes, Benny Carter. He received five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for his tribute and preservation work.
In his later years, Martin dedicated much of his time to teaching and mentoring younger musicians. After an 11-year stint teaching at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, he went on to tutor students at his home in Novato and at schools around Marin County. He also spent numerous hours on the internet discussing music, most notably on his popular Facebook group MEL MARTIN’S JAZZ SAXOPHONE FORUM, which currently has over 2,000 members. Breindel says her father was on his computer, reaching out to his musician friends on social media when he died.
“He did not isolate himself at all. His thing was to share the music and really connect with people on that level,” she said.
Breindel is a college-educated classical musician herself. “I wanted to rebel against my father and have all the notes written down for me,” she said, adding that there will probably be a musical celebration for her father at some point. But she feels that the big band concert Martin organized for his 75th birthday at Filoli Gardens, which included a lot of his old musician friends, was a perfect sendoff for him as he was able to play and enjoy it.
“It really felt like an honor and a tribute to my father’s life,” Breindel said. “I’m so glad he did that because now that I look back, I can see it was a bit of a farewell.”