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A conversational interview with one of Latin music's most creative arrangers.

Interview: A Talk With Marty Sheller:
Arranger, Composer, Musician

by David Carp

Recently Marty Sheller was asked how many of his original compositions were registered with B.M.I.; the answer was approximately 80. When the topic of how many albums contained Marty Sheller arrangements came up he said that he had lost count a long time ago and had no accurate answer. Considering the acuity of Marty's ears and the breadth and depth of his musical knowledge this is hardly surprising. He's had the eminently deserved good fortune to have his work recorded by some of the most talented people in the music business, including George Benson, Ruben Blades, David Byrne, Willie Colón, Jon Faddis, the Fania All-Stars, Larry Harlow, Giovanni Hidalgo, Manny Oquendo and Libre, Sabu Martínez, T.S. Monk, Idris Muhammed, Luis "Perico" Ortíz, Louie Ramírez, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Lew Soloff and Woody Shaw. Marty joined Mongo's group in November 1962 as a trumpet player; by the late 1960's he had stopped playing trumpet and began making his living exclusively as an arranger, composer, conductor and producer. We present Marty's reasons for this decision; reading this in the context of listening to one of his fiery, yet logically organized and fluid trumpet solos with the Santamaría unit [e.g. Mongo at the Village Gate, OJC 490] gives evidence of his very high standards and modesty. This article is drawn from extensive interviews conducted at Marty Sheller's home in Newark, Delaware on various occasions in 1996.

David Carp: You first began playing with Latin groups around 1960. Coming from a background in jazz and American dance music, did the rhythmic feel take some getting used to?

Marty Sheller: Definitely! The first time I played with a Latin band the idea that the bass doesn't play on the one absolutely floored me! But because I had studied as a drummer originally and always had a very good sense of time and feeling for rhythm it only took me one gig's worth to start to recognize what it was and why it grooved me as much as it did. I was also lucky to meet Frankie Malabe when I started playing Latin music. He saw a guy that was very open to a different kind of music than he was used to and I saw the same thing in him. So he would listen to the jazz records I gave him, I would listen to the Latin records he gave me and Frankie was very well versed in drumming and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He was a big Mongo fan, he had a lot of those Drums and Chants records and hipped me to a lot of those things. Frankie would work with a band, would get me in the band, then he would go on to some other band and get me in that band. He did that when he was working with Harvey Averne, Louie Ramírez, Pete Terrace. I always considered myself very lucky that I had someone like Frankie to start me off with a good foundation.

DC: You were an eyewitness to the incredible popularity generated for Mongo Santamaría by the success of Watermelon Man and the record industry's attempts to recreate that success. How did this affect the music and what was your role in Mongo's dealings with record companies?

MS: For a number of years every record company, every album that came up, there was always a, shall we say a suggestion that Mongo do some non-Latin cover songs. They figured "We can't force him to do a whole album like that but we can get him to do a couple, so we'll let him do a couple of the things that he would want to do and a couple that we want." As far as I'm concerned it really caused a problem because what audience do you sell it to, who is the market? Because somebody who's gonna want something like Shotgun, they're gonna hear Afro Blue and it's gonna really be a world apart. Mongo is a true professional so there was never anything negative coming from him at recording sessions or playing stuff in person. He's a pro, he got up there and tried to swing the hell out of it, you know? But I know he would have preferred some other material. I remember when Mongo first signed with Atlantic Records, that was when the cassette recorders had just come out and Jerry Wexler was a key man, he gave Mongo a new Sony cassette player with two detachable speakers and two or three cassettes full of songs that had been R & B vocal hits for Atlantic. He told Mongo "Here's all this material, choose an album out of that." Jerry Wexler, I guess you're gonna hear it now for the first time, but when Jerry gave Mongo those tapes Mongo called me in and he said "Here, you choose it." It was sort of like "Well, I have to do this because I want to keep the record company happy but I really don't want to spend the time to sit down and listen to all of these songs and figure out which one is gonna be best, Marty knows."

DC: You became Mongo's musical director after the departure of Pat Patrick. What was your role?

MS: Originally it was conducting rehearsals, counting off the tempo at the beginning of each song, getting together with Mongo before the set discussing what to play during the next set, rounding up musicians to make sure everyone's on time to do the set. At that time a lot of the gigs were in jazz clubs and the first song of the set Mongo did not play, it was the rhythm section and horns. That would be strictly jazz. At the end of that whoever was the featured horn player or if it would be two or three then it would be me as musical director, would then introduce the musicians in the band and then say "And now let's hear it for Mongo Santamaría," he would come up and play. So the musical director would have to arrange who's gonna play and when.

DC: You're listed on a number of Mongo's records as conductor even after you had stepped down as musical director. How did this evolve?

MS: When I was playing with Mongo the band was working so much that you didn't need a conductor because the band would be playing the songs on the gigs so that by the time it came into the recording studio it was like playing a set. I was usually the one who gave the cues on the bandstand, Mongo would be the one on certain kinds of songs to look at me. During his solos and even sometimes if the other guys were playing if he felt that it was time to go to the next part he would give me a little look, then I would give a cue. After I had left the band whoever was the musical director would give those cues. But I was the one who would be at the rehearsal that would go over the songs and give the cues, then the guys would play them on the road and when it came time to record I would still be in the studio doing the same thing. And to this day whenever he records he wants me there to rehearse the band, conduct the rehearsal and conduct at the recording session. He's also had me at the mixes whenever it was possible.

DC: You've mentioned to me that you stopped playing the trumpet due to frustration with an incorrect playing technique. When you say "incorrect playing," is that basically incorrect embouchure?

MS: Right.

DC: Incorrect in terms of where it was placed on the lips?

MS: Well, not really because there are some great players who play a little bit to one side or the other, it doesn't have to be exactly in the middle. But no matter where you play on your chops you're supposed to push hard, you're supposed to have the lips vibrate. I was playing all the way on the side and the angle of the horn was very far down, which meant that the bottom lip was just barely touching, just acting as a guide. All the pressure was up on the top lip, as I'd go into the high register I would press harder. And what happens is that at the beginning of the evening I would have a decent sound and decent range and slowly and by the end of the gig I wasn't getting the tone that I wanted, I definitely didn't have the range that a trumpet player should have and there was no way of practicing using that embouchure to make it better.

DC: But how is it that you were playing to the side?

MS: When I was beginning on trumpet my family was vacationing in Rockaway Beach, I was jumping off the boardwalk and I landed one time in the wrong position and my front teeth hit my knee, they got very loose. When I came back to school I was playing with the mouthpiece over to the side. Now the teacher wasn't a trumpet player, he was a tenor saxophone player and I guess I had a lot of natural musical ability so that I was making progress rapidly - I mean he would give me a lesson, I would come back the next week and play the hell out
of it. So I'm sure he looked at the embouchure and said "Oh, it doesn't look right but gee, the kid is doin' so good I don't want him to stop it." So I just built upon that foundation.

DC: You were able to support yourself by working as an arranger as you phased out your playing. Did you ever study arranging privately or work through any of the known methods such as the Schillinger System?

MS: No, it was all ask a lot of questions, experiment. I was very, very lucky because Mongo wanted his music to come from within the band, many of us contributed numbers. A lot of the things that I wrote were being played on the road and recorded and I got to hear how it comes out played by good musicians. I noticed right away that there were certain things that sounded better than I thought they would and others that didn't sound as good as I thought they would and I would just re-examine what I had written and try to find out why it sounded good when I didn't expect it and why it didn't. And even to this day I have the same attitude, if I hear someone sit at a piano and play something that I like the sound of but I'm not actually sure exactly what it is I'm not embarrassed to walk up and ask "Show me what you did there." They'll show it and I'll just take a piece of paper and a pencil, draw a five line staff quickly, write down what it was, take it home, study it. I've also bought books of lead sheets of jazz players and examined how they notate their chords and studied transcriptions of solos. But no, I've never studied formally.

DC: Have you been able to make any inroads in terms of writing for the commercial media, jingles and things like that?

MS: For about five, six years I was doing arranging for jingles that were produced by one of the real gentlemen in the business, a fellow named Bernie Drayton. Bernie had accounts with big companies, Seven Up, Amtrack, things like that and he explained to them that a lot of their customers were Hispanic and it's demeaning that in order to advertise to them they would just take the music track that was done for the American jingle and overdub Spanish language voices singing and talking. He said "If you're gonna be advertising for young people you're gonna do rock music, if you're gonna advertise for the West Coast/Texas/Mexico thing you're gonna do that. Why not get arrangers who do the arrangements for the salsa bands and have them do some of the jingles?" For several years I did those kind of things which were not the typical jingle, the purpose was to try to make it swing. When I say "typical jingle" I mean the kind where the music isn't very important, it's kind of corny and in the background, whereas the ones I did with Bernie Drayton, the music was an important part of it.

DC: How much input have you had on who gets hired to play?

MS: In a lot of cases, with Willie Colón, with Mongo, with a lot of other different people I did have input, I got some really interesting people on jobs that they might not have ever gone to. On one of Willie Colón's recordings I got a drummer named Alphonse Mouzon who's a terrific jazz drummer, he was playing with McCoy Tyner at the time and Willie needed some overdubs on traps and I got him. One time Bernie Drayton said to me point-blank "We have some Latin players that we've used whenever we have a Latin-style thing in the American field, we've used people like Victor Paz. Who else would you recommend?" Well, sometimes I would put a band together where the three trumpets would be Victor Paz and "Bomberito" Zarzuela and Tony Cofresí and Barry Rogers and Sam Burtis on trombone, Jorge Dalto on piano, Sal Cuevas on bass, Nicky Marrero or Jimmy Delgado on timbales. I even got Mongo to do one, Angel Allende used to play congas and you know, guys like that doing jingles was an interesting thing. Naturally when there's an established band, where it's the same guys who do the gigs and do the recordings then there's not that but a lot of the others ones that are more produced I can offer suggestions.

DC: Let's talk some more about your relationships as an arranger with bandleaders. For example, Willie Colón.

MS: When I first started with him he was recording for Fania. Gerry Masucci called me and said that he liked Willie's arrangements but that it took him a long time to do them. He wanted to hire me to get together with Willie, Willie will tell me "This is what I want for the bass, this is what I want for the piano, you notate it." So what happened is that the first two arrangements that we did together were exactly like that, he knew exactly what he wanted and I merely transcribed his ideas onto music paper. In the third arrangement it got to a certain point where he wasn't sure and I offered some suggestions and he liked it. And from then on it would start that way, that he had a concept of the introduction and what he wanted behind the melody and after the melody and whenever I made a suggestion, "How about changing this chord, how about doing it this way?," Willie is the kind of a guy who has no ego problem as far as that was concerned. And as I would suggest something if it were something that he liked the sound of but didn't know it reminded me of the way I used to be - he would say "Show me what that is" and I'd show him on the keyboard. He's gotten so busy that he's gotten away from arranging and I've been trying to convince him to do it because he's really good at it. The album that he did that was called "Willie Solo," he did some writing for a larger orchestra and people come to me sometimes and say "Man, I know that was you that wrote those string parts." But it was all Willie.

DC: Do you have this kind of relationship with anyone else?

MS: Not that often, I used to also work that way with RubŽn Blades. Both of them would do their homework, the material would have been thought out. They would send me a tape that would start off with them speaking to me, "Hi, Marty, hope everything's goin' OK, here's the song." I always would ask them for a basic translation, I'd get an idea of what it was about 'cause I don't speak the language. They would say "Here's an idea I have for the introduction" and would play it and then would sing the song with some chords behind them and then offer suggestions, that "maybe when it goes from here do something like this and maybe put a solo on top, I'm not sure whether it should be a trombone solo" or something like that. I would take all of that and before I start doing the arrangement would get in touch with them again and say "Well, here's what I thought, how about this?" And it always came out good, I've been happy with all of the things that I've done for Willie and RubŽn because it was very precise what they wanted - the better idea I can get of what they want, the easier it makes it, you know? But besides them it's pretty much they just give it to me, let me do whatever I want.

Marty Sheller's most recently released work can be heard on Steve Turre's eponymous new Verve album; his arrangement of Ayer lo vi llorar beautifully frames the still-vibrant voice of Graciela. Fans of Horace Silver's music (Marty Sheller has always been a big one himself) can look forward to some Sheller arrangements on Silver Serenade , an upcoming Timeless/Keystone disc featuring the Bronx Horns.

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