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Gene Martin: 1951-2006
Gene Martin

Born: February 26, 1951
Died: December 16, 2006 in Rockville Center, New York




Copyright © 2007

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Gene Martin: A Reminiscence

by W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 2007 W. Royal Stokes

By the time I became editor of Jazz Times in 1988, Gene Martin had for several years been shooting virtually all the cover photos for the magazine. He and I were often in touch during my two-year tenure. This was before email, so Gene and I talked by telephone. We hit it off immediately. In a word, the man was simpatico personified. Our first meeting took place in the fall of 1989, when I took the train to New York to put the manuscript of my first book into the hands of my editor, the late Sheldon Meyer, at Oxford University Press. Gene and I had arranged to meet at the Oxford office. The plan was to walk from there to Penn Station, where we would have about an hour to chat before my train left for D.C. I have to chuckle recalling this arrangement, conceived by Gene, because it seemed so very New York to me. Of course, Gene was very New York. One only had to hear him speak to gather that.

We talked up a storm that day. I learned that he had been a guitarist before he switched to photography, and he related some of his on-the-shoot experiences. In one anecdote, he drove to New Jersey to pick up Dizzy Gillespie for a shoot in Manhattan. To his delight, Dizzy leaned in from the back seat between Gene and his then assistant Merry Erlich, regaling them with his life stories. Over the years I knew Gene, there would be many similar accounts.

Another occasion we shared was in January 1990, when I interviewed Bill Cosby at Cosby Studios in Astoria. Gene did the shoot for the Jazz Times cover story, written by me. In the last minutes of the half-hour photo session, Gene shot Bill and me together. It's a photo that I treasure. I ran it in my book Living the Jazz Life, which includes a profile of Cosby.

Shortly before I left Jazz Times in the fall of 1990, I assigned myself a cover story on Marcus Roberts. Setting up the interview was easy. But Marcus's schedule had him absent from New York for a month or so, and the art deadline was looming. Gene arranged a shoot in Marcus's suite in a downtown D.C. hotel, rented a car for the trip from New York, and was ready to shoot when I, with eight-year-old son Neale in tow, arrived for my interview, which Marcus and I conducted in the bedroom. Gene brought along a pair of mirrored glasses. He shot Marcus with the lenses reflecting a replica of a keyboard, which Merry had fashioned from cardboard and held up off-camera.

Gene and Merry stayed overnight and joined Erika and me in a fried chicken dinner at our home. He brought his Hasselblads and other equipment and talked about his shooting techniques. For Neale and his 16-year-old brother Sutton, meeting Gene was a great learning experience -- especially for Neale, who had observed Gene in action and soon put the first of many cameras to his eyes. He has yet to put them down, more than a decade and a half later.

Gene and I remained in touch, even tossing around the idea of collaborating on a volume of his photos, with my captions and his supplemental notes. It never came to pass, but I did convince him to include many women instrumentalists in the book. I connected him with several, including Regina Carter and Ingrid Jensen. He shot Ingrid wrapped in two flags -- Canadian (her homeland) and American. The guy did have an imagination.

We were still thinking about that book and planning to get together when this note arrived from Gene in November 2001:

Hi Royal, I hope all's well with you and that you and your family have a great Thanksgiving! I was looking forward to coming down there for a day back in September but of course after 9/11, I lost my momentum. It's quite a trying time we're living in... I hope you can put current events out of your mind and have a great day. All the best. Gene

Several months later:

I had a stroke and was blinded in my left eye. I've regained about half the vision... but that's apparently all I'll get. I was quite down at first but have made quite a comeback. I've shot some of my best work since and my work with jazz musicians was the cover story of a photography magazine (Rangefinder) in July. That's my fourth cover story so I'm pleased. My intricate lighting work was so well received that I landed a deal writing a book on lighting technique for Amherst Media, the biggest publisher of photography instruction books. This whole experience has taken up a lot of my time. The doctors still don't really know why this happened.

I've taken a bit of a new direction in my life though. I have to keep down the stress level. I spend as much time as I can in Arizona. In fact, I just got back from there.

I do hope we can get together. You should give me a call when you're in town. Best, Gene

A year or two later Gene wrote me that he had been exploring different avenues... other than what I'm known for. Like photo-journalism, which I'm remarkably good at. I just documented the town of Superior, Arizona, for a picture story for example. Naturally, instead of being in command with my Hasselblads, I'm more behind the scenes with my Nikons and Leicas. I'd love to document the process for a couple of your interviews if you'd be interested.

Gene's idea of "trailing along" on interviews for my next profiles collection did appeal to me, but we never got together on it.

That Gene Martin was a world-class visual artist of rare talents is only to state the obvious. Along with many others in the jazz world, I am deeply saddened by his passing. But I'm very happy to have such special memories of him.

Requiescat in pace.

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post's jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently at work on a memoir and his fourth collection of profiles of jazz and blues musicians.


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With 2 reader comments, latest February 17, 2008