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"Exotica" pop-culture bandleader, pianistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins
Martin Denny, whose kitschy blend of big-band, orchestral, Hawaiian and Latin music made him the king of "exotica" in the 1950s and 1960s, died at home on March 2, 2005. Though he was just shy of 94 years old, Denny had continued to play the piano for friends and fans up until the end of his life, even making a surprise appearance with Jimmy Buffett in 2004.
Denny, whose music experienced a wide popular resurgence during one of the 1990s retro crazes, became a professional pianist at the age of twenty. He worked in South America for several years, already absorbing some of the exotic sounds that he would later blend into a completely unique form of music. He returned to America in 1936 and played in big bands until the war broke out and he was drafted. The GI Bill finally gave him a chance to study music formally in college, even though he was already in his mid-thirties when the war ended.
In the 1950s Denny moved to Hawaii, where he played piano in Waikiki and later formed a quartet at Kaiser's Hawaiian Village. The group of piano, vibes, bass and percussion made for an exotic enough sound, but when they began to playfully emulate the sounds of frogs in a pond adjacent to their bandstand, the Shell Bar's audience couldn't get enough. Denny delved further into the odd concept, mixing bird calls and other jungle sounds into the charts and adding more percussionists to the group. The elements of camp sometimes obscured his truly sophisticated arrangements, which nonetheless earned him the respect of musicians worldwide.
Denny made his first recordings for Liberty Records in 1956, and by 1959 he had scored a #4 Billboard chart hit with "Quiet Village", which remained his most popular tune. That single spawned a decade-long run of popularity for Denny's remarkable music, not to mention a wealth of pretenders to the exotica throne. By the 1970s the musical landscape had changed and Denny fell out of fashion, but he always had a loving audience in Hawaii.
He kept active musically for another three decades, even performing now and then with Don Tiki, a group formed in homage to the Denny sound. In 1990 he received a lifetime achievement aware from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts. When the "bachelor pad" craze arrived soon afterwards, college students were once again drawn to the music of Denny, Esquivel, and other long-unfashionable bandleaders. Already in his eighties, Denny was gratified by the new attention and work opportunities that came his way.
Martin Denny is survived by his daughter, Christina, and other relatives. He was preceded in death by his wife, June.^ Top
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.