One of my life’s passions is studying jazz history, as well as interplay of jazz’s evolution with that of American culture. I am trying to use my blog as a space for my musings rather than filling up everyone’s Facebook feeds. I hope you find this content interesting and that it shows another side of my musicianship, that of the researcher.
I am always thrilled to discover artists from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland has a rich history of producing great jazz musicians, so it was no surprise for me to come across yet another interesting character, saxophonist and bandleader Freddy Martin. While Martin allegedly did not consider himself to be a jazz musician, he was influential in the swing era and inspired some of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time lead alto player (and my favorite saxophonist) gave Martin the nickname “Mr. Silvertone,” in admiration of his sweet sound. Legendary tenor player Chu Berry once cited Martin as his favorite saxophonist.
Upon first listening to Freddy Martin, the sweet tone for which he was praised was so evident. I am nostalgic for (if that is even possible, since I was not alive during this time) a return to the “sweet” sound of the swing era. The warm, lyrical quality of his playing is refreshing in comparison to the straight tone and busy playing in vogue now.
Another interesting aspect of Freddy Martin’s band is the repertoire, which included several classical pieces adapted to a dance band style. The most famous of these is “Tonight We Love,” adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23. Compare the two side-by-side.
The original Tchaikovsky
The Freddy Martin Rendition
(from the movie Mayor of 44th Street, the only video I have been able to find of Martin performing “live.”)
I was surprised to see hear this cross-genre work happening at such an early date (the film was released in 1942, so the arrangement was likely written even earlier than that). I often associate this type of experimentation with the Third Stream movement, spearheaded by Gunther Schuller (who founded the jazz studies department at New England Conservatory, where I will begin studying in a few short weeks). I also think of Duke Ellington and his adaptations of classical works for jazz orchestra (Peer Gynt Suite, and perhaps most famously, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite).
Ironically, Freddy Martin released his own rendition of the Nutcracker Suite (arranged by Ray Austin), 18 years before the infamous Ellington/Strayhorn arrangements! Check out these takes on the March.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1892)
Freddy Martin (1942)
Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn (1960)
This leaves me with so many questions! Was Ellington aware of the Martin recording? Was Martin’s embrace of classical repertoire an inspiration to Ellington, as Martin’s saxophone playing was an inspiration to Hodges? Did Martin and Schuller ever have any dialogue? Hopefully, with some more digging around, I can unearth some more answers.
• Freddy Martin Obituary, New York Times
• Freddy Martin, Encyclopedia.com
• Freddie Martin, Solid!