We had the good fortune of connecting with Marlon Martinez and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marlon, how do you think about risk?
Risk opens the door to innovation. Risk shines a light on personality. Risk reveals the path to success. In my life and career, whether in practicality or in art, I have taken risks to further my craft, to define my artistic vision, and to know what matters most to me in life.
Risk requires courage and patience. Sometimes I’m able to see what challenges lie ahead, and sometimes I won’t know until I get there. I have to be willing to accept the challenges, and use them to do something on the spot. Both define my creative process as a jazz artist who improvises and composes music. As a bassist, writer and bandleader, I have to take risks in order to make my opinion, expression and musical output known to others. I don’t know what people think of me. I don’t know what people think of my bass playing- whether they will compare me to everyone else in the field, whether they will pick up on any imperfections. Listeners might be quick to categorize my sound, my compositions, etc. I chose a career path, instrument, and compositional approach where others have been pigeonholed for decades. Many artists have lost popularity and financial security, to follow the particular path I have chosen. However, I’m ok with these risks, because I believe in the music I produce. It is genuine ‘me,’ at this moment in time, whether I play a note this second, or develop a concert program over time.
Jazz is what I love and you can’t pigeonhole love. You can’t pigeonhole personality. You can’t pigeonhole this very second’s spontaneous idea. Jazz offers a million ways to express yourself, regardless of the stylistic trends and commercial categories trying to define jazz over the ages. But once you make it your own expression, you have full reign over how you want to communicate it to others. This is a massive risk, but I believe perseverance will allow me to survive.
On practical terms, I took risks to learn about jazz, creating my own art form and financial stability. I spent most of my energy in my post-grad years auditioning for prestigious symphony orchestras. I thought winning a high salary with benefits and retirement would suit me. But it wasn’t worth the competition, away from my passion. I even turned down two scholarships from reputable music conservatories to study jazz composition. But that also wouldn’t teach me what I wanted to learn in jazz, it wouldn’t guarantee jobs, and I wasn’t willing to spend my early married life paying off college debt. I took the risk of moving to New York City on my savings, to freelance and learn from the best musicians I could get to.
It was my thirst for knowledge, yearning to understand my truest expression, that drove me to the decisions I made. It was my musical skills, personal and unapologetic approach to improvisation, that kept me afloat in New York City. When COVID-19 hit the country, I had no work for a period of time and very few callbacks. But staying dedicated to what I love has also kept me afloat here in Southern California. Major risks were taken, and I feel I matured much faster as a human and artist.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’m a bass player, composer and Music Director of the Marlonius Jazz Orchestra. I collaborate primarily with jazz and classical musicians in jazz clubs, symphony concert halls, recording studios and summer music festivals overseas.
One thing that sets my work apart from others, I think, is my ability to switch gears between classical and jazz communities interchangeably. I fuse techniques and musical aesthetics from both traditions to expand my playing, compositions and programming choices. I don’t like to be boxed in a singular community. I’ve enjoyed classical-rock tours playing with Off The Score and Stewart Copeland, the iconic drummer of The Police. I’ve played many Bowie-jazz tributes with virtuosic pianist Mike Garson, and European jazz tours with the highly acclaimed string quartet, Quatuor Ebène. I’ve cherished invaluable lessons with the legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. I’m proud of heading my own big band shows and premiering my first string orchestra composition at Festival du Haut Limousin in France. I’m also proud of releasing my debut solo album Yours Truly in 2017, which also combined many musical styles.
I’m most proud of my lecture-performances on Billy Strayhorn as an Amplify Series Artist at the Colburn School! This tribute, launching in 2022, is one I’ve been developing for about four years on my own time. I’ve researched, transcribed, and studied various Billy Strayhorn’s compositions. Many Strayhorn masterpieces have been unknown for too many decades, and others have been misattributed to the great Duke Ellington, his longtime collaborator and benefactor. Although groundbreaking research unveiled Strayhorn’s prolific output 20-30 years after his passing in 1967, there hasn’t been a millennial big band committed to celebrating this unsung jazz icon. Marlonius Jazz Orchestra will perform and record many Strayhorn gems–known and especially lesser known, for today’s audiences in Los Angeles and abroad, with the generosity of the Colburn School and Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.
I dedicated most of my training as a classical musician. Studying at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in LA for six years (2009-2015) sharpened my ‘chops’ and reading as a bassist, as well as painful- yet fruitful- auditions for symphony orchestra jobs around the US. I feel I reached a level where people wanted to hire me for freelance jobs. My technique benefitted my jazz improvisations and bass lines in the many jazz groups I worked with outside of my graduate work at Colburn.
The hardest challenge has been finding where I fit in the music scene. My classical studies and orchestral experience, like San Diego Symphony and Verbier Festival Orchestra, deepened my love for composers like Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Serge Prokofiev. But jazz was my first love, and as a classical student, I wasn’t learning improvisational skills like my jazz colleagues were at their music schools. I was self taught with jazz for most of my life, and I was torn between what music to prioritize; I knew it takes time to perfect either approach. When I temporarily left my personal jazz training behind to pursue orchestra jobs, I wasn’t winning any of their auditions, despite the energy I put into them.
There was an awesome period where major acts I toured with gave me the chance to explore both passions of mine and foresee a future fusing all my approaches together. But when tours eventually halted, I found it hard to make money as a freelancer and cultivate a larger audience with my solo efforts- let alone acoustic jazz products- with the ever increasing competition for work and recognition.
I first fell in love with big band jazz in my teens. Eventually I returned to the music of Count Basie, Thad Jones, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Charles Mingus and especially Duke Ellington, after Colburn. Ellington and his black “Orchestra” garnered a respect traditionally reserved for European/white symphonic and concert composers. I loved the complexity and accessibility in Duke Ellington, and especially the music of Billy Strayhorn. Their music hit me like the classical pieces I loved. I decided that forming my own big band, and composing for it, was the truest way to express myself. Big band jazz is often viewed in a couple negative ways. Generally, the big band sound is often misrepresented as a museum piece. I don’t view any big band masters to be archaic or limited to classroom discussions alone.
Another presumption is that big bands aren’t successful today, unless they follow a certain style like a few contemporary bands whose music I don’t desire to imitate.
Another challenge is that I used to wrestle with my identity as a black and interracial artist. I relate most with black culture, from my mom’s side of the family, especially black American music– something that both my parents thrive in. However, most young black musicians I know directly pursued hip-hop, rap, R&B and fused other popular mediums. I used to feel self conscious and left out listening to jazz–even more so with classical music! Today’s diverse community often fuses hip-hop with jazz, along with other marketable styles. I’m aware that my music doesn’t lean in that particular direction too often. While living in NYC, I heard opinions and saw imagery of what some people think black jazz artists should do with their music, how they should appear, and some disregard the word ‘jazz’ in favor of something less hindered by past associations and attitudes that harmed jazz creators, primarily black artists. I finally came to the conclusion that being who I am, how I play my music, and whatever I want to call it– IS authentic black music. It embraces all the styles I have learned, and it is love that I communicate through my music, not division.
I love that I’m a millennial, BIPOC musician. I feel I get to break long standing stereotypes and stigmas around my expertise by simply being present. I’m not present by feeling swayed to embrace one approach over another. I want people to know there is room for everyone’s story and everyone’s art. Lots of people want to hop aboard certain movements, standard protocols and expected appearances. I think it’s easy to compare oneself to the masses who typically follow a grid. To be an artist means to add your touch to everything you do. Your personality has to shine through and beyond the genres, in order to be happy. I hope that whoever listens to my bass playing, big band music and genre-blurring projects, can hear me, feel me, and find comfort in that.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If my friend was visiting the area for a week, I would show them the type of diverse activities that exist in Southern California.
I would start with LA museums. I love the Getty Museum and the Getty Villa, which gives them the chance to experience Malibu beach and a view of the Santa Monica Pier on the way. We would travel to downtown LA, stopping by Korea Town for KBBQ. In DTLA, there’s MOCA, where some of my favorite Jackson Pollock works are on display.
A must visit on Grand Avenue are the beautiful music hubs I love best in the DTLA: Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Opera, and my alma mater, Colburn Conservatory of Music. Colburn School has a gorgeous campus, and offers public performances every week in their beautiful recital halls: Thayer, Mayman and Zipper Hall. South of Colburn is Little Tokyo and one of my favorite hangs: Wurstküche, a hip sausage grill with fantastic Belgian and German beers.
Visiting Disneyland is a classic LA activity. Buying a park hopper between Disneyland and California Adventures is my go-to, but there’s enough to experience in either park. Check out the Disneyland Band, loaded with top-notch LA instrumentalists; some of them play with my band Marlonius Jazz Orchestra and work in the LA studio scene for TV and film! Depending on the time of year, the NAMM Show is held at Anaheim Convention Center- perfect for music geeks like my friends!
For a quieter, suburban experience, we would drive down to Orange County. Aliso Creek Beach and the Montage Laguna Beach is a perfect way to enjoy CA beaches without the tourism and excessive traffic! Plus you get cleaner air, white sand, rolling hills and beautiful pathways right on the coast. We would definitely visit Gelato Paradiso in Laguna Beach, my favorite gelato and sorbet, and drive uphill to Top of the World, the best hilltop view south of the Hollywood Hills.
One of my favorite Indian curry restaurants is Natraj’s Indian Bistro in Rancho Santa Margarita. Natraj’s has an amazing lunch buffet, and it’s conveniently nearby Lake Mission Viejo, a beautiful walking site with the Saddleback Mountain as the backdrop. We cannot forget In-N-Out Burger! My personal favorite is store #94 in Laguna Niguel. For an OC diner experience, I go with Black Bear Diner or Ruby’s Diner. One of my go-to upscale restaurants is Houston’s Irvine, for their quality steaks, burgers and dark, cozy atmosphere.
For a remote experience in Southern California, we would visit the Barton Flats Campground in the San Bernardino National Forest. This is a great camping site and the view of the mountains is spectacular! For a remote religious experience, I love driving out to St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado Canyon for solitude. This is home of the Norbertine Fathers, a 900-year old monastic order. Visitors participate in their liturgy, and other prayer gatherings, where the Norbertine Fathers sing choral hymns in authentic, Latin Chant.
At the end of the California trip, I would take my friend to Ameoba Music in Hollywood, knowing that most of my friends are music fanatics and Vinyl collectors. Ameoba is close to Capitol Records, a monument we must see! Before they leave they must attend at least one live performance around the LA area, maybe at the Hollywood Bowl or Orange County Performing Arts Center… Marlonius Jazz Orchestra plays at Feinstein’s At Vitellos in Studio City, Colburn School, and Festival Of Arts Laguna Beach.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I dedicate this shoutout to my wife, Rachyl Martinez, for loving me unconditionally, who has wholeheartedly committed to encouraging my artistic endeavors even if it is risky and challenging. I also dedicate this particular shoutout to mentors who have encouraged me during COVID-19 in 2020:
Stanley Clarke said “you have to be the first guy to love what you’re doing.” I realize my particular interests aren’t the most expected and readily accepted in some circles. Stanley inspired me to nurture my truest expressions. It requires digging deeper into my feelings, taking time to learn why I like and don’t like certain paths, even if many others in the competitive field think and act differently.
Paul Coletti also emphasized individuality as an artist and person during this time. Through my talks with him, I’m reminded that I’m irreplaceable, and so is the path I choose for myself. Paul expressed that it takes time to know what you want in life, and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to you. I’ve thrived off of opinions for a time, and it’s time for my own opinions to lead me. Thanks to him, I’ve also learned how important it is to take time off from work, to gain more balance in life.
Jason Brown is a masterful string luthier I met at Lemur Music. He always making my instruments feel and sound the way I want them to- they speak clearly! Jason has inspired me to believe in what I’ve got to say, and to keep knocking for major opportunities. Even when there is no response in the beginning, persistency is what makes others notice you and eventually give you a chance.
I also want to thank Alyce Claerbaut, Galen Demus and the board of Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc., for their support in my tribute to Billy Strayhorn. I have a strong desire to bring Strayhorn’s big band music to my generation and broader audiences. Thanks to their encouragement and tremendous resources, I’m able to fulfill what I’ve been wanting for a very long time. I’m honored to be a part of their community, and I can’t wait to hear more stories about the master himself, through their personal experiences.
Brandon Kou Massey, Orion Gordon, Toshi Sakurai, Veronika Reinert, Martin Chalifour