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Marty Grosz: 80 Years of Rhythm & Swing

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This week, Riverwalk Jazz presents Marty Grosz in concert, in honor of his 80th birthday this year.This giant of jazz rhythm guitar has had a celebrated career of over 60 years.

If you ask him who's influenced his playing, he's sure to mention the 1920s guitar icon Eddie Lang. Equal parts showman, jazz scholar and raconteur, Marty is a virtuoso in a playing style that's both timeless and so far off the radar it's all but lost in today's jazz world.

There's a touch of vaudeville in the way Marty Grosz sets up his songs; and a taste of Fats Waller's rent-party humor in his singing. And yet Marty can turn on a dime and croon a tender love song— straight, with perfect jazz phrasing.

The son of a celebrated German painter—the caricaturist George Grosz—Marty was born in Berlin in 1930; then moved to New York with his family when he was a toddler. Marty says, “I came to America when I was three years old because they didn't swing over in Berlin."

In 1950, Marty cut his first record with a band that included the young pianist, Dick Wellstood, and the veteran New Orleans bassist, Pops Foster. A visit to Chicago in 1954 turned into a twenty-year residency during which he played with many of that town's jazz stars such as Albert Ammons, Floyd O'Brien, Art Hodes, and Jim Lannigan.

Marty became more widely known in the jazz world when he returned to New York in 1975 to join Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern's Soprano Summit. There followed a round of touring and recording with Soprano Summit; Dick Wellstood's Friends of Fats; Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart; and the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra directed by Dick Hyman, an orchestra with which Grosz played at the White House.

In 1986 Grosz became a charter member of The Classic Jazz Quartet, along with Dick Wellstood, Joe Muranyi, and Dick Sudhalter. Besides playing and singing with the group, Marty wrote most of its arrangements. He has appeared at guitar concerts with such players as Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, and Charlie Byrd. He enjoys playing guitar duets and often works in a duet context with a violinist or saxophonist.

Marty is an outspoken proponent of the use of acoustic instruments in jazz. In an interview segment on the show with on-air host David Holt, he says,

“My philosophy on the acoustic guitar is that they've spent a lot of time gathering the wood, little men polished these guitars, and little men filed and put them together and made precision tuning pegs and then to stick this guitar, put a thing on it, and then put it through a box, they all sound the same when you put them through the box. The box does the work, the box does the controls, you adjust the sound, you want some vibrato, you get it from the box, you got echo in the box and all that stuff. It's going to replace us sooner or later, also the box is somewhere else when you're playing, it's over there, in front of you or behind you and that feels weird to me. I like to hear the guitar in front of me, under my nose, as it were...[when] you play rhythm on electric guitar, it's too easy...you have to have that fight, overcome that pressure, the pushing and that's what gives it swing."

Marty's performances are deeply rooted in the swinging tradition of the recorded output of jazz masters of the 1920s and '30s. On our show this week, he plays and sings “Pardon Me, Pretty Baby" from Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, Fats Waller's “I Believe in Miracles," Louis Armstrong's plaintive love song “If We Never Meet Again," the Whiteman/Beiderbecke classic “From Monday On," and two novelties from 52nd Street—"Flat Foot Floogie (with the Floy Floy)" and “The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round."

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