Newark native son Marty Sheller, who was an arranger, composer, trumpeter and producer in Latin music and jazz, dies at 82.
Marty Sheller, a ubiquitous force in the world of Latin-oriented jazz, first as a trumpeter with Mongo Santamaria, and then a composer, arranger, and producer, died on September 16 from natural causes, His passing was confirmed by his wife Marilyn Sheller. He was 82 years old.
Sheller represented a plethora of musicians of Jewish heritage who became enamored with both jazz and Afro-Cuban music and their fusion in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. According to the late great salsa pianist Larry Harlow: “Marty was the best. From an arranging standpoint he really understood the concept of Cuban music’s building block, clave. But like me, he wasn’t Cuban or Puerto Rican, he was Jewish. He was the one that I entrusted with orchestrating Hommy, the Latin opera I wrote.”
In 1962 Sheller came to the public’s attention as a member of legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria’s group. Sheller recalled to the author in a story for WBGO.org: “Bassist Victor Venegas and I knew each other. Before that Mongo had had a charanga group [a Cuban band with flute and violins] and had recorded a successful record, but a lot of those guys were committed to other groups. He always wanted players that were coming from a jazz background but could deal with the rhythms.”
Those small group experiments with the aforementioned alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli, and Puerto Rican timbalero, composer, arranger Louis Ramirez, would lead to a seminal recording in Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz history. “The album, Jazz Espagnole, was really supposed to be conguero Frankie Malabe’s date. Louis at that time was studying at the Juilliard school and was becoming a formidable musician,” Sheller explained to the author. “Al Santiago who ran Alegre records in the Bronx wanted to put out the album but wanted a known name on the cover as the leader in order to boost record sales. So he told us that Sabu Martinez who had a big rep from playing congas with the the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey, one of our heroes, was made the leader and played congas on the recording. Frankie appears on all the short little percussion jams between each tune playing congas with Sabu as well as bongo and handbell on some of the tracks with Phil Newsum.”
Despite Sabu’s name being linked to the recording, it sold abysmally. But the recording has become legendary for its hard bop approach a la Blakey to small group Afro-Cuban jazz. Released in 1961 here is an example from that recording: “The Oracle,” composed and arranged by Louis Ramirez. Tactical air support is by Bill Salter on bass who would later go on to fame with Roberta Flack, and Artie Jenkins on piano. Marty and Bobby are both featured with Artie and Louis Ramirez has the last word on timbales.
Martin M. Sheller was born in Newark New Jersey on March 15, 1940. At the age of 10 he was already playing snare drum but would switch to the trumpet at age 11. In an interview with jazz journalist Marc Myers Jazz Wax blog back in 2009, Marty stated: “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.”
Although known as a trumpeter, his initial love of percussion would serve him well when he later would begin to perform in New York City’s Latin music scene. After attending South Side High School in Newark, NJ he began college at Columbia University in New York City where he met, through fellow student and pianist Myron Schwartzman, alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli at a gig they got in the Catskills. It was at Columbia that Marty met another musician who, like him, started his musical journey as a young boy on the snare drum and would become a lifelong friend.
“It was 1959 and I was studying at Columbia in New York City,” Sheller told the author. “It was the summer, and I was staying in the dorm. My room was on the second floor and I was listening to an Art Blakey record. All of a sudden, I hear a knock at the door. When I opened it, I see this young plump guy with glasses and fat cheeks. It was Chick [Corea]. He had been walking by and had heard the music. We listened to records all afternoon. We’ve been friends ever since. He quickly started making a name for himself on both the Latin and jazz scenes.”
At the same time Marty had been playing with Harlem-based alto and tenor saxophonist Hugo Dickens. To this author’s knowledge the Dickens band never recorded, but it proved to be a valuable training ground for jazz-oriented players who had never played authentic Afro-Cuban styles. “Dickens played all of the local clubs in Harlem and the surrounding areas,” pianist Larry Harlow recalled. “Sometimes it was a small combo, sometimes it was a full big band. It all depended on how much bread the venue had offered him. But you had to play authentic R&B, jazz and Latin. By Latin, I mean Cuban music. I met a lot of guys in that band that later would become famous as sidemen in the salsa scene. Steve Berrios (drums/timbales) and his son Steve Jr., and players and a lot of African Americans that got to be proficient playing Latin music by playing in that band like Hubert Laws (tenor sax, flute), Phil Newsum (bongò, timbales), Pete Sims A.K.A. Pete LaRoca (drums/timbales), Rodgers Grant, Artie Jenkins (piano), Bobby Capers (alto sax) and more. And then there were the Jews like me and Barry Rodgers (trombone) and Marty (trumpet) and Bobby Porcelli who was Italian.”
Sheller added: “Hugo played for a primarily Black audiences. That was cool because if they gave you respect then you knew you had something happening in your playing. It was like that later when I toured with Mongo. Our audience was primarily African American. It was Bobby who recommend me to Hugo and that’s where I met Barry Rodgers. I kept getting Latin gigs through the musician’s union. At that time the ties between the jazz and Latin scenes were very close and many jazz players like me got gigs in the Latin scene and visa a versa. I then met Frankie Malabe (percussionist) and Louis Ramirez. That’s when I really began, especially through Frankie, to learn the rhythmic intricacies of the music.”
Sheller went on: “When I was with Mongo, Herbie (Hancock) brought in that tune 'Watermelon Man.’ Mongo was living in the South Bronx at that time and a lot of people say that we first rehearsed the tune at the Club Cubano on Prospect Avenue. But it was at another venue. Till this day I can’t remember what club it was where we first rehearsed it but as you know the recording we did of it became a phenomenon.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 1962, Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews witnessed the band performing the song at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, New York to thunderous applause. On December 17, 1962 he brought them into the recording studio. Sheller told Marc Meyers of JazzWax: “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.’”
“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,” Sheller told the author. “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.” With the icing on the cake provided by the humorous vocal interjections of legendary Cuban vocalist La Lupe, Mongo’s version of “Watermelon Man” was released in January of 1963. By March it was No. 1 in New York and No. 10 in Billboard’s Top Pop singles chart putting Mongo and Marty in the history books.
By 1967 Marty had begun having problems with his embouchure—the way in which a player applies the mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument—and he decided to quit Mongo’s band. “I had been playing incorrectly for years and sometimes I didn’t warm up,” he said. “That’s when I stopped playing and devoted myself to arranging.” And arrange he did for numerous projects for Mongo’s subsequent recordings on Columbia Records and later ones on Atlantic. Both companies tried to create another pop hit like “Watermelon Man” but to no avail. But subsequent arranging work for artists such as King Curtis, Shirley Scott, George Benson and others ensued.
His association with Mongo would continue for an incredible 40 years. In 1977 he produced Mongo’s Grammy-winning album Dawn (Amanecer).
Here is his composition and arrangement, “The Good Doctor,” from that album:
Continued work with the likes of Latin legends like Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, The Fania All Stars, Tito Puente and other great Latin artists followed. Like his 1996 arrangement on “What a Difference a Day Makes” with Tito and La India with the Count Basie Orchestra:
In Mongo, Marty found a vehicle for his own Latin jazz-oriented compositions. Here’s an example, “Piraña,” originally appearing on the album Mongo Magic, recorded in 1993 but performed live here on the 1994 PBS special, Heatwave, with yours truly on drums:
Marty had his own solo projects like Why Deny from 2008:
And 2017’s Libre:
His last recording project for which he wrote all the arrangements is entitled ¡Viva Monk! and will be released shortly.
According to his wife Marilyn, funeral services for this native son of Newark will be held on Monday, October 3, 2022 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 199 Wallace Avenue, Downingtown, PA 19335. Viewing will be held from 9:00 am until 11:00am and the funeral service will be held at 11:00 am. Burial will follow at Philadelphia Memorial Park Cemetery, 124 Phoenixville Pike, Frazer, PA 19355.