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Marty Ehrlich: Jazz Saxophonist and Composer Extraordinaire

Febuary 1, 2010

Celebrated jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich talks about his career as a musician during a visit to the College.

11 Minutes 49 Seconds

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This is Christina Dumitrescu, a student at Lehman College. In this segment, celebrated jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich talks about his career as a musician during a visit to the College. Mr. Ehrlich, one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, is also a master of the clarinet and flute.



I'm a New Yorker. I've been here for close to 30 years. But I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I've been in these 30 years-- so I've been in New York, I've been a musician the whole time. It's how I've made my living. I play the saxophone, the clarinet and the flute. And I'm also a composer.

I do a lot of improvising. But the word jazz is a big word, it means a lot of different things to different people. Music and words is a bit of a complicated-- we can put on a piece of music now and then we can go around the room and I'd bet we'd have different ways to describe it. We'd have a technical way perhaps if we were trained.

We could talk from our personal history. We could talk poetically. But as a creator, often you have your own story how you put a piece of music together. You have the social context. It's interesting to me how music reflects the times it's made in.


I left St. Louis to go to college when I was 18. That was many years ago. But in that short time, this is back in the 1970s, I met and took part in a sort of musical renaissance in that town that was loosely called sort of the new jazz of the time.

And it was very politically oriented, culturally oriented. I was part of a group called the Human Arts Ensemble. We had decided the art should be about-- there was a war going on in Vietnam. There was the civil rights movement. And we thought the music talked about something much more humane than the brutalities of history and time.

A lot of the arts has always had this dichotomy between, on one hand, the tradition, and the other hand, the avant-garde or innovation. And often they're presented as-- well, you gotta choose one or the other. Which way you going? And actually, I always hated that 'cause they both made sense to me.


It was always interesting to me that the musicians I worked with who were put in the camp of-- oh, there-- they're the wild-- they're the new-- and traditionists would put them down and say, "They don't know their history." These were always the musicians who were constantly telling me, "Look, before you try to do something different, be sure you know your history."

I wrote an essay about somewhat-- I did. And this puts it in even another context, "I find myself thinking back to a feeling, to a sense of the moment coming of the age in the late 1960s when I heard the then new and still recent new jazz on recordings and heard and played it with musicians of the black artist group in St. Louis and the ACM. All its elements and its essences felt to me like a radical change in music and a direct expression of the social realities of the moment."

So I'm just gonna stop there because there's often a split that happens in the arts between people who say, "Well, that it's only popular songs that express people's political aspiration." But my sense was that this music, this new jazz I was hearing, that didn't sound like anything that I was aware of that existed before, was expressing the moment I was living in as a young man.


And that's a really powerful feeling. I think we've all felt that when you read something, hear something, see something that says to you this gives direct expression to what I'm feeling and thinking.

I didn't know the history of jazz when I heard John Coltrane. I heard it as an expression of what was happening in the world in the '60s when I was a young guy. And over the years, I began to work my way backwards to Charlie Parker, to Louis Armstrong, to Duke Ellington.

We enter into a culture and then, you know, we move from there. It wasn't song form. It didn't have a big back beat. It wasn't dance music, nor did it have lyrics. But there was something in Coltrane that touched people across racial grounds, across class differences, and across countries internationally.


It was very vocalized. It's almost religious. It sounds a little what you'd hear from a gospel-- in a gospel church, from a cantor in a synagogue, from a muezzin in a mosque. Coltrane tapped into that. Nobody played an instrument for generations in my family. But my parents played lots of folk music, lots of classical music, and a lot of Jewish music in our house. So I grew up surrounded by music. And they took me to lots of concerts. And so I had a lot of classical music in my background, too. And-- and now I'm gonna play you something. (MUSIC Playing)

Debussy was French. And I know when you study European history, you realize that all these countries have their own thing, right, the German, the French. When they weren't killing each other, they celebrated their national styles.

And Debussy was a big part of this revolution that happened at the beginning of the 20th century up until World War I. Huge changes happened in European art. You had Picasso. You had Debussy. You had James Joyce. You had people like this. And one thing about this music, when you listen to this piece, I've listened to it, like, 50 times, 100 times. And I always get lost in it. I can't remember if this melody happened already. It's almost like this piece has some type of magic to it to me.


Debussy was in the moment. It was more sensual. It wasn't about-- you gotta, you know, repress this thing till you get to the big moral ending. His thing was like, let's enjoy the moment more. In a way, he brought in something that was really connected to what was happening in America.

Well, the blues, everyone's heard the blues. Everyone knows the phrase, "I've got the blues," right? That means you have a certain feeling of something. But the blues is also a musical form. And it can be the happiest song in the world. (SINGING) There's a whole genre called jump blues. I'm hearing this. And this stuff all makes me wanna be a musician.

How do I make my living all these years? I play with a lot of different groups. I'm on about 100 CDs, recordings of other people's music. And then I lead my own bands as well. I just did a concert at Columbia University. The week before that, I had led a band in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And then the week after that, I went to Italy to do a concert.


And I have this new recording out, called Things Have Got To Change. And this is called Rights Rhythm. (MUSIC PLAYING) PJ James-- Jamese over here-- James Jazzia-- (LAUGHTER)

So let me stop there. I've tried to give you a little sense of where I live. I'll be real truthful. I have no idea what I'm gonna play right now. The first time I did it, I was scared to death. But it was so exciting when I was done, I wanted to do it again. And I've been trying to do it again now for the last 40 years. I'm gonna just start with something. And I'm gonna see what makes sense next.


(APPLAUSE) Thank you. That type of improvising I would call collage. It's often used to describe painting. First place we heard about it was, like, those things Picasso did where he put pieces of paper and newspaper and stuff in. And I'm sort of thinking it's almost like a painting I did there with different things in it. It's a little different than if I took a melody, and I tried to vary it a little.


Let me give you a quick example 'cause I'm doing a concert tomorrow in Philadelphia. It's a concert of the music of this-- one of the great jazz improviser, trumpet players named Don Cherry.


Isn't that pretty? (APPLAUSE)



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