Born: March 15, 1940 Primary Instrument: Arranger
marty sheller was born in Newark (pronounced “new-urk”), New Jersey, on March 15, 1940. His first instrument was snare drum, which he took up in school at age 10. “I had a definite affinity for the drum,” he recalls. “I always had a very good sense of time and tempo.” Soon, however, he switched to trumpet. “They were getting terrible bass drum players who couldn’t keep time,” he explains. “I was going crazy.”
The trumpeter made his professional debut in 1958, playing a summer gig at the Woodbine Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. That fall, he joined a band led by tenor saxophonist Hugo Dickens. “There were a lot of black social clubs that would throw dances in Harlem on Friday and Saturday nights.” Sheller remembers. “They wanted a band that could play rhythm and blues and also Latin, and in New York there was a group of musicians who had grown up listening to both kinds of music and knew how to play them authentically. There were three bands that were doing it: Hugo Dickens, Pucho, and Joe Panama. Many musicians who played in these bands went on to become very influential in the Latin and Latin-jazz scene.”
Sheller next hooked up with timbalero and vibraharpist Louie Ramirez. “I recognized in him the love of jazz, and he recognized in me the love of Latin music,” Sheller says. “We put together a Latin-jazz band that was gonna play jazz songs with a Latin rhythm section.” The group included conguero Frankie Malabe, whom Sheller cites as an important early influence. “Frankie gave me the information about the rhythmic end of it, and Louie gave me the information about the harmonic concept of the music and the arranging and the clave,” he says. But the band found little work. “There were few places that would hire a band like that,” Sheller says. Conga drum master Sabu Martinez, however, did hire the whole group, minus Malabe, to play on Sabu’s Jazz Espagnole, originally issued on the Alegre label.
Sheller was working with another timbalero-vibraharpist, Pete Terrace, when he first met Mongo Santamaria at a club in the Bronx in 1961. The Cuban conga great had recently come from San Francisco to New York with a charanga band. By November of the following year, when Sheller got a call from Santamaria, the percussionist had dropped the flute-and- violins lineup of the charanga band in favor of a Latin-jazz sound with a frontline of trumpet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone.
At Sheller’s first rehearsal with Santamaria, Herbie Hancock brought in an arrangement of a tune he’d recently recorded for Blue Note titled “Watermelon Man.” “We changed the phrasing a bit,” Sheller says of himself and his new band-mates. When they first played the tune in public, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, “the people went wild,” Sheller remembers. Pete Long, Santamaria’s manager, phoned Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records with the news and persuaded the producer to promptly record the song for release as a single. Issued on Riverside’s Battle subsidiary, “Watermelon Man” became a Top 10 pop hit. It features a trumpet solo by Sheller, not playing in his usual bop-imbued style but rather blowing simpler lines inspired by Melvin Lastie’s solo from the Barbara George hit “I Know.” “Don’t play those snakes,” Sheller recalls Long telling him. “You gotta play funky.”
Sheller played with Santamaria, as well as composed, arranged, and eventually served as musical director, through 1968, when he put down his trumpet due to embouchure problems. He continued, however, working with Santamaria as an arranger, composer, conductor, and sometimes producer until the conguero’s death in 2003. Among Sheller’s productions was the Santamaria album Dawn, which won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording of 1977.
“I thought that I would never be happy not playing the trumpet,” Sheller says, “but I found out that I got as much gratification from hearing one of my arrangements played by good musicians as I did from playing.”
Since laying down his horn, Sheller has been much in demand as an arranger and composer. His jazz- informed charts greatly contributed to the success of the salsa music issued by Fania Records from the late ’60s through the late ’80s. Besides scoring the 1989 hit “El Gran Varon” and many other recordings by Willie Colón, Sheller’s arrangements can be heard on Fania albums by such artists as Joe Bataan, Ruben Blades, Larry Harlow, Ismael Miranda, and Hector Lavoe. Other arranging credits include recordings by Shirley Scott, George Benson, Jon Faddis, David Byrne, Idris Muhammad, Giovanni Hidalgo, Steve Turre, and T.S. Monk, as well as an award- winning Budweiser television commercial that featured Jose Feliciano.
On the recommendation of Bobby Porcelli, Sheller began writing for Tito Puente in 1993. His charts are featured on such Latin-jazz albums by Puente as In Session, Tito’s Idea, Jazzin’, and Special Delivery.
“He was a pleasure to work with,” Sheller says of the late timbalero. “Jazz songs were not written to be in clave, like Latin songs, so there would be certain parts of the melodies that wouldn’t fit. I would call Tito and ask him, ‘How do you want to do it?’ His attitude was, ‘You just write it the way you want to write it, and we’ll adjust to it.’ It was a pleasure from an arranger’s point of view to have my music played by the excellent musicians in his band. They make it come alive more than just what’s written on the paper.”
On Why Deny, the world-class musicians who comprise the Marty Sheller Ensemble bring the sounds Sheller put on paper very much to life. Aficionados who’ve followed his career will surely be pleased, while those experiencing his music for the first time are unlikely to deny the enormous talent that is Marty Sheller.