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.