Tributes to Bob Martin (1948-2023)

American Alto saxophonist Bob Martin, who lived in London from 1997 until 2012, has died recently at the age of 74.  Fellow musicians Steve Fishwick, Mike Gorman, Frank Griffith and Jamie O’Donnell remember an inspirational figure with tributes. In sadness:

Bob Martin. Ealing Jazz Festival 2008. Photo credit Claire Tamara Davies

Steve Fishwick:

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Bob Martin was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey USA. He started playing the Alto Saxophone whilst he was in high school, beginning his studies with the great and under-rated Gene Quill. After graduating, he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston between 1966 and 1968. Whilst in Boston he studied with Jimmy Mosher and Joe Viola. It was whilst in Boston that Bob became enamoured with the sounds of Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Jackie Mclean, Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, and his former teacher Gene Quill.

Bob joined Buddy Rich’s Big Band in 1970, staying until 1972. He joined again for a second stint between 1975-76. He also worked with bands led by Al Porcino and Bill Hardman. He joined the Bob Young Orchestra in Atlantic City in 1976, staying until 1992. During his time with Young, the orchestra performed with an impressive array of stars including Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis Junior, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight. During this period Bob satisfied his musical needs by playing jazz at The Ortlieb House of Jazz in Philadelphia with the Shirley Scott Trio, or at Zanzibar Blue with his brother Doug Martin, who is an excellent drummer. In the mid-90s he met his wife Yvonne, who has links to Hong Kong and the UK, and they decided to relocate to London in 1997.

I met Bob shortly after finishing my studies at The Royal Academy of Music in 1998. James Scannel had recommended me for Gordon Wellard’s septet and had enthusiastically told me about this American Alto player who was “the real deal” and was now living in London. I went to the recording session and wasn’t disappointed! Bob was everything he was reported to be and more. He was steeped in the Jazz culture, his conversation peppered with phrases like “Straight Ahead” and “Solid!”. He called fellow musicians “Cuz” (short for “cousin”), and my personal favourite was calling common non-musical things “Bb” as in:” It’s just a regular, Bb car” or similar. None of this seemed remotely put on or fake (in fact, he hated any kind of inauthenticity and seemed almost allergic to it). But most authentic of all was his playing. Huge sound, amazing time feel, and an incredibly fluent bebop vocabulary steeped in the tradition of all his influences. It was immediately evident that here was a musician who had lived the life and learned his craft by playing with and listening to the masters of the music. This was all very intimidating, as my own playing had a long way to go and I was very green, still trying to get established on the London scene and learn my craft. But Bob was very gracious, and I went home inspired by what I’d heard coming from his saxophone and his kind words of encouragement.

Bob Martin. Photo by Alain Cerruti courtesy of Yvonne Martin

Our paths kept crossing somehow and we ended up doing many gigs together with Frank Griffith’s Nonet and tours of France with the Glenn Miller Memorial Orchestra. I’d also go and sit in with his quartet often when he had a gig. Bob eventually started booking me for his quintet, and I learned a great deal from his instruction, but mostly from standing next to him, hearing him play, and having to try and play up to his level. There was a tough love approach to his mentorship. He could be hard…calling fast tempos, selecting difficult tunes such as Pensativa and Repetition, and insisting on playing tunes I didn’t yet know (one time I was sitting in with Bob with Clifford Jarvis on drums he insisted on playing Along Came Betty despite me not knowing it! A difficult tune almost impossible to fake if you haven’t studied it!). But he was always encouraging. It was a powerful educational approach as I always went home inspired and ready to practise whatever it was that I didn’t have together yet.

Performance highlights include a ‘pick up rhythm section’ gig in Italy which happened to have Dado Moroni on piano, and a Ronnie Scott’s Late Show with Tardo Hammer on piano. Players with international names and reputations that Bob should have been working with much more often, but such is the fickle nature of the Jazz-world.

Bob Martin (right) with Trevor Tomkins and Steve Fishwick in Isleworth. Photo credit Mark Ladenson

He was also very supportive to many players on the London scene, and he was forever championing all the other Alto players in town (“…is a hell of a saxophone player!” is a phrase I heard him say many times). Unfortunately, Bob was somewhat of a perfectionist, and despite two or three attempts at recording a quintet CD, they were always scrapped due to Bob not being happy with his own playing, even though he always sounded great. I’m happy that I did manage to get him to release his trio recording on our record label Hard Bop Records entitled “Evidence”, with Mike Gorman on Hammond B3 and Steve Brown on drums. So, there is a CD out there that is evidence of Bob’s greatness (no pun intended).

Bob and Yvonne decided to relocate to the south of France in 2012. Here he continued to play gigs and practise, and again make a huge impression on another jazz community. There are many videos on YouTube from this period, and his playing was in no way diminished, the same huge sound always there, Bob sounding relaxed and happy.

Bob lost his battle with emphysema on the 1st June 2023 aged 74. Although he hadn’t performed in the UK for the past ten years, the impact he had on the London jazz scene and the many musicians who were lucky to hear him and play with him was immense. Many of us benefitted greatly from his generosity, encouragement, guidance, inspiration, and friendship and he will be sorely missed.

Mike Gorman:

It was with sadness that I received the news from Jamie O’Donnell some days ago that the great altoist Bob Martin had passed away. I was fortunate enough to be the pianist in Bob’s quartet and quintet while he resided in the UK and also, alongside drummer Steve Brown one third of his organ trio that recorded his album “Evidence” on Hard Bop Records.

I first met Bob, I think on a Sunday lunchtime jazz gig at The Falcon Pub in Clapham during the late 1990’s not long after he moved here. Because he was American and had toured as part of the Buddy Rich Big Band there were already whisperings about this new altoist in town amongst us younger musicians of him being “the real thing”. And we weren’t disappointed!
Bob started organising regular rehearsals at The Bulls Head in Barnes where we would play through his repertoire of lesser known hard bop tunes and a few originals by friends and colleagues of his from his time in the US. I always got the impression that his charts, written out in his minimalist, slightly scrawly script conveyed his overarching drive to expend as little energy as possible on the peripheral but necessary activities surrounding music, so he could get on with the actual playing. This manifested itself on the bandstand in the form of Bob doing little to dress up announcements with entertaining anecdotes and witticisms. He preferred to get these over with so he could do his real speaking and communicating through his horn.

An example of Bob Martin’s script. Tune and date unknown

And what a sound he made! Bob had it all: language, swing, ferocious technique, projection, conviction, and a magnificent soaring quality to his phrasing inherited from the influence of Parker, Stitt and most of all: his mentor and friend Phil Woods.

One quality of Bob’s that I greatly admired in both musical and non musical contexts was his integrity. He had very little patience for obsequiousness or sycophancy and could spot it a mile away. Likewise, in a playing situation I quickly gleaned that what he wanted from his sidemen was not necessarily a strict stylistic adherence to his own area of musical
language, but respect for one’s own personality and individuality in contribution to the group effort.

One of my enduring memories of gigs with Bob is looking up mid piano solo and seeing him sitting on his high chair, alto on lap, seemingly enjoying the sound of the band by practicing his “slow click” where he would bring a graceful 2 bar loose circle of his wrist and hand to a conclusion by clicking on beat 4 of the 2nd bar. Try it… No mean rhythmic feat!

L-R Frank Griffith, Steve Fishwick and Bob Martin, Swanage 2011.
Photo credit Bill Shakespeare by kind permission of Joy Shakespeare

Frank Griffith:

Bob Martin was a wonderful player, bandmate and character. He is still sorely missed by all the British jazzers who played with him and heard him in the years which he spent on the scene in London. He made a very significant and lasting impression. Indeed it felt like the opening of a chasm when he left for France; his recent passing re-awakens those feelings of loss and sadness.

A tall, striking figure with a full mane of wavy light hair and a prominent moustache he resembled a character in a 1960s Western. And that sound: big and vibrant, laced with a bright optimism of melodic testimonials from the post bop vocabulary of his heroes, Gene Quill, Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley. I reckon that when he first blew into the alto at age 14 or whatever he got the exact same sound that his enchanted listeners enjoyed throughout his career. I will miss his humour too : he would take the p out of the way I answered the phone back in the day, imitating my elongated “helloooo” and reminding me that I was starting to sound way too British…

Bob Martin (centre) with Jamie O’Donnell (right). La Brocca West Hampstead.

Jamie O’Donnell: I feel very privileged to have known Bob and I already miss that most singing, most beautiful, most lyrical, and most heart-on-sleeve alto sound. His playing was direct and always swinging, as strong and individual a voice as any of the greats.

Altoist Gene Quill, a friend of his father, was Bob’s first saxophone teacher and Bob had really dealt with how to get a great sound from the rough vibration of air inside that piece of metal. Any time I tried anything different with my tone he’d give me a sideways smile and say “Too west coast”.

Bob was very kind to me and I would take all-day lessons at his home, sitting next to the stove as an endless pot of coffee would boil. He was a lovely, generous guy to hang with and it was always a pleasure to spend time with Bob and Yvonne. For years I played quintet gigs with Bob and Steve Brown, and these are formative moments for me. At the end of our last gig Bob mock-punched me saying “That’s what Quill would have done hearing you play those nice lines”.

Categories: News, Tributes

3 replies »

  1. These tributes were a very good read and it was great that you all took the time to so thoughtfully honour Bob.I was so glad to have had the chance to hear him in live.He was a really remarkable person, being both larger than life and understated at the same time. And was an incredible saxophone player.

  2. It’s my photo of Bob and Steve Fishwick at the Red Lion, Isleworth gig, 23 July 2012. I was fortunate to catch Bob maybe 10 times in my Julys in London, 1998-2013.

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