15 mar 2010

Feliz Cumpleaños Marty Sheller

Hoy el gran músico y arreglista Marty Sheller cumple 70 años de edad. De ascendencia judía, Sheller nació en Newark, Estados Unidos, el 15 de marzo de 1940. Es considerado en la Salsa y el Latin Jazz como uno de los mejores arreglistas, recordando su trabajo en varias producciones de la disquera Fania y con muchos otros intérpretes en las últimas décadas.

Su asociación más recordada fue con el maestro Mongo Santamaría.

Debido a su importancia, El Salsero les presenta una extensa e interesante entrevista al reconocido músico, quien saltara a la fama por su solo de trompeta en el popular tema “Watermelon Man” interpretado por Mongo.

La entrevista (en inglés) es tomada del blog
www.jazzwax.com, de Marc Myers, uno de los mejores sitios de jazz en Internet. Esta fue publicada en Octubre del año pasado.





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.

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 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 Café 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 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, 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 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, 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 Catskills 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 Tito Rodriguez, front 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].


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 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 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 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.

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 Rodgers 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 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 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

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, 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 , 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 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.


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.

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 Mongo 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 attaché case. When Mongo opened it, there were speakers that popped up and a cassette player deck inside. Jerry said, “This is the new thing, Mongo. It’s a present for you.” Later, Mongo gave me the attaché 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 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.

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. You also can hear Marty's sound, which preceded Tower of Power's, on I Can't Get Next toYou 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.

In 2007, Marty released Why Deny (PVR), a brassy album in the Mongo Santamaría tradition.

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