Marty Elkins: Engrossed in the Music

Sylvia Levine talks with the longtime jazz waitress, singer and, most recently, music therapist about her life in and around the music.

Marty Elkins image 0
Peter Leitch

Marty Elkins

Marty Elkins, long-time jazz waitress at the Village Vanguard and other clubs, and jazz singer with two CDs, is now a music therapist. I spoke with her in late 2010 about her experiences “in service of jazz.” At last we have permission to share her story.

Marty Elkins:

I was at the Village Vanguard since the late 1980s, since the week after Max Gordon passed, but I’d hung out there a lot before that, trying to sneak in without paying , like a lot of other people. My first waitressing job in the jazz milieu was at the Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall in Boston. I was in Boston nine years after college before coming to New York and I learned a lot there. I heard so many amazing bands at the Jazz Workshop: Gato Barbieri, Lonnie Liston Smith, Charles Mingus-John Stubblefield was in that band and we’d talk about it when he was at the Vanguard, Bill Evans, Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, Lou Rawls, Freddie Hubbard, it was an education to hear them. Sometimes I’d be so engrossed in the music my customers would walk out without paying and I wouldn’t notice. That was not good. So I’d try to come in for the matinees just to listen and sit on the bench on the side of the room.

I heard Al Cohn and Zoot Sims too; in fact, the first jazz record I ever heard was Al and Zoot, I think it was called Me and You. I was like, ‘What is that!?” The music was great and really opened my ears. An old boyfriend, a rock bass player, had that record. He had quite a few jazz recordings. By the time I started waitressing at Paul’s Mall I had also begun listening to jazz vocalists; the singing that really blew me away was Billie Holliday. I went nuts over a record I had somehow gotten my hands on and I remember I listened to her over and over and over for years. There was only one Billie Holliday. She was the perfect singer to me. I guess that’s what inspired me to try to become a jazz singer. That era is really where I live too. That’s where my own time feel turned out to be best and where my voice sounds the best too.

Herb Pomeroy was a mentor to me; he and his wife Betty, a singer, would become close friends. Herb was a founding educator of Berklee, a trumpet player and arranger: his line writing course was very popular. He encouraged me to try to sing; so did Dave McKenna-both of them-to just get out there and do it at any little place I could. I never studied jazz singing in school, took some lessons privately and just listened to records.

When I moved to New York, I had already heard a lot of great music. How I got to work at the Vanguard, though, was about something else. I was friends with Gerry Houston, who you’ve dedicated this series to, and she worked the door. I had met her on the big band scene or when I would go out to these faraway places on Long Island, for example, to try to sit in as a singer. She was married to Clint Houston, a bass player. He passed a number of years ago. She and I became close. You know how you get to be friends with someone and can’t even remember when you weren’t friends, how you met them, or anything, because you’ve really been friends forever? Knowing her was like that.

Well, a guy I’d been seeing was in the Monday night band and he had taken up with someone else. I was quite upset about it. Gerry decided that I should keep an eye on him by getting a job there. She would even bar the new girlfriend from the club for me. She was that loyal. “You can’t come in here!” she’d say. That’s a true friend! Not that it helped, of course. The boyfriend is long gone and I’m still there. My rival from that period and I laugh about it now. And I made other good friends in the big band: Richie Vitali is one friend of many years that I met on the big band scene. Anyway, that’s how I started my illustrious career.

I remember that it was right after Max died that I started because I was standing outside and Lorraine came out. I said how sorry I was that she had lost her husband and she said, “That’s ok, Honey,” and days later I was working there.

At first I was working just one night a week. Sometimes I couldn’t get a shift if there were people with more clout who wanted the ones I wanted. The steadiest I worked there was three shifts a week: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. I did those three shifts for quite a while before I got my day job. I had my regular customers-my Tuesday guys, my Wednesday guys, my Thursday guys. (Danny Moore was my favorite regular of all time when he was alive. I’d feel his presence in the room and he’d come on down the stairs.)These days I just have my Thursday guys. I hang on to that Thursday because, well, for the money of course, but because I just can’t seem to break away from the place. People might see me at another club, hanging out, and say, “You still work at the Vanguard?” amazed. And I say, “Well, yeah, of course.”

Slinging drinks is not easy and after a lot of years it doesn’t get any easier. That’s for sure. Mickey-he was the bartender at the Vanguard forever, and I mean forever, before he retired earlier this year-used to give some of us a hard time. I’d say, “Mickey, I’m old too! Give me a break.” But that wouldn’t have been Mickey. No breaks. There’s that old joke about the guy who worked in the circus shoveling animal shit for years and someone asked him, “Why do you do this job? Why don’t you quit after all this time? You’re not going anywhere with it.” And he goes, “What? And leave show business?” That’s kind of like the Vanguard for me. It’s physically hard waiting tables and our setup isn’t exactly state of the art. And you’ve got to get everybody served before the beginning of the show or close to the beginning, hopefully. There is quite a bit of tension-can I get it done in the time that I’ve got? That can be quite an ordeal. And you know that there will always be one demanding customer waving madly at you about something! Now that there’s a computer it’s even harder. Honestly it’s a lot of physical labor for the money you make. But I love it.

I’m glad that there’s no food. If I go to another club–and I do that very rarely–I’ll be listening to the set and all of a sudden, here comes food! I’ll think, Oh, boy, ribs! and then most people stop listening, I’m sure. People just don’t multitask that well. There have actually been studies done. You either listen or you eat!

The up side of being a waitress at the Vanguard is the music you hear and the people you meet. I remember sitting at a table with Tommy Flanagan and his wife Diana, maybe Stanley Crouch was there too, and I would think, “Damn, am I one lucky girl.” All these musicians that I meet and get to hang out with, listen to their stories from the road, from the past. These are some of the greatest artists in the world. The familiarity with one another there, the comfort of the place, cannot be replicated. One of my favorite memories involved Tommy. He was between sets and we were both in the kitchen talking about tunes. I was telling him about ones I liked, this tune, that tune, and remember telling him how much I liked a weird one called “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” from the movie. He’d seen the movie and we just laughed about it. Well, in the next set he played every tune I mentioned, I swear I hadn’t requested anything! That was so wonderful, so over the top, the best thing that ever happened for me there.

Tommy’s wife Diana is a wonderful person too. She used to be a singer and she was just so supportive of me; I remember after Tommy had the heart problems she would demand that everyone put out their cigarettes-and they did. That probably saved my life, a tobacco-free zone for a week at a time.

The Vanguard is a special place, we look out for one another. One time I got into an altercation with a customer, an actual physical altercation. A cockroach had walked across her table and she got hot about it. Anywhere else I would have gotten fired for the way I behaved. But not the Vanguard. Well, not that time, anyway. I think I’ve been fired from there five times. But on this occasion, Deborah, the manager, just phoned me up and asked my side of the story and I admitted I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did and it was ok after that. It really is like a family there, as close as you can get outside your own family. Even the ones who have left after working in the club a long time, like Allyson [Paul, whose interview appeared first in this column], are still part of the family. I talked to Allyson the other day; we had tons of history together and we just pick up where we left off. We don’t have to explain anything to one another. We can just talk. We both get it. Matty, too. She’s been there longer than me and we’re friends. Matty has always been movie star gorgeous! When Gerry was alive, the three of us would have a lot of laughs.

Gerry Houston had that great dry, caustic sense of humor. She was just really funny. You have to have a certain number of social skills to work in an atmosphere like that and humor is really important. Gerry was a really good judge of people, and could get right to the heart of what was going to go down with them, and do it with humor. (Lorraine has that sense too, and a great sense of humor-she can tell just from looking at a customer if that person is going to be troublesome or irritating.) When Gerry was in the hospital (her room in St. Vincent’s overlooked the Vanguard) I would go see her quite often; she was there for a long time. But you don’t forget that kind of loyalty.

But after a number of years of waitressing and singing when I could, I started to think about the fact that I was in my 40s and that I just couldn’t keep limping along forever. I needed more direction, benefits, a life. What I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t really going anywhere and I went back to school in music therapy.

I had made a CD , Fuse Blues, with my old friend Herb Pomeroy on trumpet; Houston Person playing tenor; Tardo Hammer on piano; Greg Skaff on guitar, Dennis Irwin on bass, and Mark Taylor on drums. When it was released it got some good reviews, but the timing of the release was pretty bad for me. I was just graduating from the music therapy program, and I had arranged a little tour-let to promote it that was booked to take place right when my father was dying and I was sick with a cold. It didn’t really take off. It was tough. Stanley Crouch had written the liner notes-he kept me waiting till the day before they were due!-and he wrote some really warm things about me. The theme was that he knew me from waitressing at the Vanguard: Waitress makes good, that kind of thing; the record company, a German label that Warren Vache had gotten me hooked up with called Nagel-Heyer Records, thought it was a great Cinderella story–I wasn’t too comfortable with that idea, but, hey, every review mentioned the waitress angle.

I got the best day gig a person could have, I think, but in some ways it’s torture doing a day gig five days a week now–I’m a late-night girl at heart. I work at Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem with people with substance abuse problems and mental illness, a very soulful place. I do have fun with it, with playing around with music for my patients, and music is wonderful therapy for people. It does speak to them and some people are just natural musicians. The atmosphere is also very family like, I’m lucky that way in the places I work.

Even though I’m down to one night a week at the Vanguard, my Thursdays are pretty important to me. I have my regulars, as I said before. One of those, Max Kozloff, a doctor, comes every Thursday, and we’ve become friends. He’ll get to the door early, and we let him in, I’ll serve him his drinks and sit and talk with him before the club actually opens to the public. It has become a little ritual. One Thursday early, he was there with a friend, I sat with them, and Bill Charlap was there to play. He gave us a private concert that night, it was unbelievable. He explained about the lyrics to different songs, about how the lyrics of a song can make that song sound sad or happy, not just the tonality, the major and the minor of it. He played me “The Man that Got Away,” as an example. Did you know that the original lyrics were happy lyrics?

That kind of wonderful, magical thing is another reason that I would never want to leave the Vanguard. You can learn so much. And in fact, you can learn more about jazz singing sometimes listening to the great artists play jazz standards without a vocalist than listening to a vocalist.

I learned the most about singing from Lou Donaldson, for example. I’d come back to the Vanguard on my nights off just to hear him. Just the way that he did the same act night after night for so many years and never got stale was a real education. He didn’t leave much up to chance. You’d see him with the same repertoire and the same rap, but whatever it was, was working and still entertaining! People might grouse about it but they’d keep coming back to hear him. The only tune I ever wrote was named for him, “Lou’s Blues.”

I’m a bebop person and many many of the artists I’ve revered and hung out listening to or getting to know are not here anymore. Heck, even the hospital where a lot of great musicians spent their final days isn’t around anymore. St. Vincent’s closed last year, that was the Village hospital and it was less than a block from the Vanguard. If someone got sick or had a psych breakdown at the club, we’d ship ’em off to St. Vincent’s. There was a little period when we had some people faint, so many of them that we’d joke that we were going to offer, “Would you like the fainting section?” We’d send the fainters to St. Vincent’s too.

The music is changing, things do have to change. Still, whatever style of jazz you hear at the Vanguard, it is of very highest caliber. It is so good that you learn to like different kinds of jazz because the level of musicianship is so high.

Music is in the walls at the Vanguard. Jeff Levenson wrote a poem about that and we had it up for a long time. I’m blessed to work there.