Billy Martin is a percussionist, drummer, visual artist and educator based in the New York area, who for the past twenty years has been best known as a member and of collective trio Medeski Martin & Wood.
Before becoming part of Medeski, Martin & Wood, Martin was part of the New York City Brazilian scene in the 1980s. He performed regularly with Pé De Boi, Batucada and several Bob Moses bands for over a decade. He also joined Chuck Mangione's touring group for three years. In the next decade he continued as a percussionist for The Lounge Lizards and with the John Lurie National Orchestra, and has collaborated with artists such as John Zorn, DJ Logic, Dave Burrell and Miho Hatori. He has also started his own record label, Amulet Records, specializing in eclectic percussion albums. Martin has also collaborated with Iggy Pop, Eyvind Kang, Chris Whitley, DJ Olive, Ikue Mori, John Scofield, Maceo Parker, Calvin Weston, Marty Ehrlich, and Min Xiao-Fen.
Listen to a pod cast of the interview here
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
In Zusammenarbeit mit einem der letzten Jazz-Plattenläden der Schweiz:
Illy B is the moniker Billy assumes for his name, though his given name, Billy Martin is also active as his identification. I was first of all curious how this short name came into being and the story behind that offered a slice of the New York music milieu that helped shaped Billy's unique musical perspective. The name came from two punk rappers from Hoboken who were ahead of their time in the early 80's working as part of a Bob Moses related project, Sweet Lizard Illtet, Mike KiIlmer (aka Mike iLL) and Emelio Desifallo - who were both at New England Conservatory at the time. Mike played bass and Emelio electric violin and both studied with Moses a bit. The freestyle moment of anagramming stuck like a tag to a subway and seems to hold equal grip to his given name, which also has an interesting moment in his career development. When Chuck Mangione, first heard of Billy Martin he was partly attracted to having him audition for his band simply because his name had an iconic NY status being the same as the then famous baseball manager of the New York Yankees.
Innwood in Northern New York City is where Billy Martin was born in 1964 from parents both active in the performing arts. His father, Alan G. Martin, was an accomplished violinist having played in The Beaux-Arts String Quartet, New York City Ballet and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. The elder Martin was involved in the premier of John Cage works, the Modern Jazz Quartet under the direction of Gunther Schuller, and also performed on the Verve classic "Focus" with Stan Getz and Roy Haynes. The orchestra at Radio City Music Hall, however, had the most significance to Billy's musical development, since that is where his father met his mother, Jean, who was a Radio City Rockette in the 50's. You might ask what a Radio City Rockette? It is a precision dance company that gains its popularity from a unison look and movement style much like the Busby Berkeley dance choreography that shows up in many American films. It also has a resemblance to the chorus line dance of the European cancan. Every Rockette must be between 5'6" and 5'10 1/2" tall.
A drum set his older brother, Kenny (1957-1996), had played earlier in his life "appeared" as Billy put it when the family relocated in New Jersey in the summer of 1975. There was a diverse amount of recordings in the house, his dad collected music and also had a taste for high-end audio equipment and so Billy turned it up and started imitating the drumming and rhythms of everything and anything that was on the shelf. I found this point interesting as it was an example of Billy's innate curiosity at an early stage of his development. To him, at eleven years old, it was just as cool to jam with Ellington as Aerosmith. His parents took note of the musical inclinations and later that same year, introduced him to his first teacher on the instrument, Allen Herman. Allen kept Billy's focus on drum fundamentals with stressing technique on the drum pad. In more recent years Billy reconnected with Allen as he became more involved with finding his own path as an educator of music. After these initial studies with Allen Herman, Billy was able to further his studies with big band/show drummers Chuck Spies and Sonny Igoe who helped him learn to read charts and move around the kit with more ease, and over time provided him with the capacity to interact with the professional world of music.
His High School years also found his first outlet for performing in a band of classmates that included Dave Fields and their repertoire shared the eclecticism of the family record collection sporting everything from Van Halen to George Benson. He also was attracted to the world of orchestral music partly as a result of his dad's work in that setting, and in the summer they would travel to Saratoga Springs, NY where he would be exposed to symphonic music. Billy's curiosity of this musical world led his musical studies to include lessons with the esteemed contemporary classical percussionist, Paul Price. Though he soon found that the orchestral world of performance was not for him (counting 64 bars for the next triangle entrance was not the kind of concentration he could relate to) he fondly remembers Price's encouragement to explore composition for percussion and in 1981 Price's ensemble performed one of Billy's compositions, "Variations on Bolero".
Billy also mentioned that he filled out his growing musical interests with finding his way into the club culture in NY that included the Roxy where he interacted with a mixture of drums, roller skating and freestyle dancing. When he was younger his Mom taught him how to tap dance which may be a thread of his evolution that ties to his affection for groove and the way grooves move the body.
His Big Band experience also led him into musical territories he was unaware of, most significantly encountering a chart with "samba" beat written on it. This unknown musical geography became one of the doors leading him into a life in music. It was in this period that the Drummer's Collective in New York enticed up and coming drummers with an impressive array of professional talent, drum styles and percussion teachers and so Billy, who found an advertisement for Samba lessons at the Collective on the back page of the Village Voice classifieds sought to fill the gaps of his musical knowledge. He discovered much more in this world than a Samba beat; he also discovered a real love for percussion. He threw himself into it fully, devoting himself to this percussion tradition, temporarily putting aside the trap set all together, and before too long found himself substituting for his own teacher.
By now he had emerged from High School, eschewing any formal college study, and instead launched directly into the professional music world. The Drummer's Collective proved to be a connecting point for musicians and this led to his eventually becoming a member of two prominent Brazilian bands in NY, Pé de Boi and Batucada the latter of which he co-founded. Batucada is also the name of a substyle of samba and refers to an African influenced Brazilian percussive style. By way of the time spent at Drummer's Collective along with his noticeable talent he would meet other musicians, which including Jaco Pastorius and also drummer Bob Moses who was always interested in expanding his own musical palette. Bob was looking for a percussionist for his band and invited Billy to join. He worked with Bob for many years, in various groupings including Mozamba, and this experience proved formidable in finding himself musically.
I was very curious about the time spent on the road in this period with Chuck Mangione, often referred to the father of a now looked down upon strain of jazz commercialism called smooth jazz. It was via his mother, whose friend's daughter was dating a friend of Mangione that led to her mentioning her son played percussion at a dinner they had together, and on the basis of little more than his amusement with Billy's famous name (that as mentioned before was the same as the NY manager of baseball team the Yankees) he gave him an audition and liked him well enough to ask him to join the group, to which Billy, who perhaps not realizing what a huge opportunity this was and more interested in the drum chair, reacted casually with "well let me think about it"....Mangione did not take offence only laughed at his reaction and in the end Billy became percussionist for the band and hit the road fairly regularly for the next few years.
What was significant musically in this experience for Billy was that Mangione gave Billy a solo every night for fifteen minutes, a quite generous piece of musical room jazz (YouTube clip of Billy playing an extended solo with Chuck Mangione, in Wiesen, Austria July 8, 1988). To put this in perspective, the regular size of the audience for most concerts was 1000 or more people and in this significant musical space he had to create a solo which held the audience's attention.
I was interested to know more about the parallel evolution of his work as a visual artist which includes printmaking, painting, pencil drawings, pastel drawings and more recently work in video. He told us his earliest memory was making cards with his father and brother and also doing watercolors with a baby sitter who lived across the street in Innwood. He vividly remembers her painting fish in this medium. When the work with Mangione came to an end, he started connecting with musicians in the downtown scene, again primarily as a percussionist including Bobby Previte, Sam Bennett, John Zorn, DJ Logic and for a while spent time living with John Lurie and worked in the Lounge Lizards and Lurie's National Orchestra. Lurie also enjoyed drawing and as well had a few original works by Basquiat in his apartment which really inspired his desire to develop his visual expression. He cites as well the impact from encountering the work of Van Gogh, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Paul Klee (who had a huge influence in his early stages), Duboffett, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell.
Starting in 1991 the collective trio for which Billy Martin is most well known, (John) Medeski, Martin & (Chris) Wood found when first jamming together an instantaneous chemistry that Billy felt strongly enough about to push this new found formation out the door at its very beginning by instigating a year's worth of touring across the United States in an RV van. Billy's sensibilities were by then highly influenced by mixture of groove music's that had a dance feel and an contrapuntal structure such as the Meters, a variety of Hip-Hop musics, King Sunny Adé and various Afro-Pop and of course his now developed Brazilian musics. Both John Medeski and Chris Wood were coming from a more a traditional jazz, post bop swinging sensibility. John and Chris were interested to get closer to Billy's backbeat feel and conversely Billy was interested in the jazz strengths of Chris and John. The group has made an impact and crossed genre-based audience lines even absorbing the wandering so called Grateful “Deadheads” who related to the jam band feeling MMW gravitated towards.
Billy clearly possessed an energy for making things happen. It was natural that he would explore his array of artistic expressions on his own. He formed his own recording and production company, Amulet Records, from which he has produced a thirty different recordings (including some recordings by musicians he has a relationship with) often with his own cover art.
Life on Drums his new educational DVD on the Austrian based label Vongole films. Billy had this to say about this recent production. “I wanted to make a movie about my take on the art of drumming and its also a reaction to the mostly bad instructional videos out there which focus mostly in a very dry way on technical matters, which is fine but there is not much out there about the creative side of drumming.” The movie is what he calls an anti-instructional video, mixing together performances that bring you cinematically close to the detail of his approach as a soloist with conversations with his first drum teacher Allen Herman which traverse a variety of musical and technical perspectives on the musical possibilities of drumming. The video employs some of Billy's graphic gifts in disseminating and conveying some very specific information about his rhythmic organization and the origins of some of his influences.
Our interview hosted by Gabor Kantor at Luzern's Musik Forum followed a day long master class at the Hochshule Luzern's jazz department and was part of a trip to Europe that included a variety workshops and master classes. To learn more about Billy Martin's musical offerings please visit his web site www.billymartin.net.
Gerry Hemingway (January 8, 2011)