As a teenager, Peter Martin would get up an hour-and-a-half before school to practice jazz, then go right back to his piano after the last bell rang. All that dedication certainly paid off, as he went on to attend Juilliard School of Music, earn multiple Grammy Awards and perform with his music idols throughout the world—even in the White House. Soon, the St. Louis native will return to his favorite place to play: The Sheldon. His Peter Martin Music Series has become a crowd favorite on the famed concert hall’s schedule, which also will include performances by Americana musicians Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn (Sept. 20), Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriters Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin (Oct. 4), and folk artist Rickie Lee Jones (Nov. 8) this year. LN recently caught up with Martin to talk about the series, his CD set for release in February and some highlights of his prolific career.
Talk about your history with The Sheldon.
I first played at The Sheldon many years ago when I was in the University City High School jazz band. I also saw some great concerts there growing up, like Wynton Marsalis. Then, when I came back to St. Louis in 2005, I had an interest in organizing a relief concert. I ended up playing with Wynton Marsalis and others, and I believe it’s still in the The Sheldon record books as the longest concert ever.
What is it about The Sheldon that keeps bringing you back?
After the relief concert, I wanted to do more shows of my own at The Sheldon. It’s always been one of my favorite places to play anywhere. It’s a great-sounding room. When the sound is so good, it’s so inspiring to a musician and gives you an energy from the room; so, you can be very creative. It has the feel of an intimate jazz club, but the sound of great jazz hall. And the stage is small, so you feel the audience’s energy.
Describe the shows in your series at The Sheldon this season.
At the Blue Note Records Celebration featuring Peter Bernstein (Nov. 2), we will play some of my audience’s favorite music, with the foremost jazz guitarist of our generation, Peter Bernstein. I just did a recording with him, and it’s so effortless to play with him; so, I can only imagine what it will be like in the effortless acoustics of The Sheldon. And on March 30, I will perform with my group Newport Jazz Festival at 60, a nice cross-section of multi-generational jazz musicians. It’s an all-star lineup that has never worked together at the same time. We will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, which is the original jazz festival.
Tell us about your upcoming CD.
I’m in the middle of working on it. It will feature a lot of my original music as it was being developed, and is only now being recorded. I’m recording in a new studio called Esplanade in New Orleans. It’s an old church in my old neighborhood, and it has a great sound and vibe. I’ll be excited to present the new CD on Feb. 7 during a CD Release Party at The Sheldon.
What was your most memorable performance?
My most memorable performance was when I played at the White House for President Obama—I’m a big fan. And then there were other jazz musicians I love who performed with me like Herbie Hancock. And President Obama, the First Lady and their kids, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were in the front row of this intimate space where they normally hold press conferences. I was super-nervous. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Who has been your favorite collaborator?
I love working with (Grammy Award-winning jazz singer) Dianne Reeves. She is one my favorite vocalists of all time. It’s so much fun to work with her. She sounds so good, and it really makes me play my best.
What work are you most proud of?
I am really proud of the records that I’ve done. I also appeared in George Clooney’s 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, and played on the soundtrack with Dianne Reeves. We recorded it as an old school jazz record. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz records from my dad, and we all concentrated on playing from that historical perspective.
From being featured in films to producing music and playing live onstage, what are you most passionate about?
I love performing—that’s my first love. What I do and we do as jazz musicians and creative artists is 90 percent improv, and we love to play for audiences who appreciate that. What we do is a little different from today’s (mainstream) bands. The audience knows the tunes, but the essence of what makes jazz what it is is that it is something to be enjoyed in the moment. And the world is coming to appreciate that kind of artistry more.
Did you always envision yourself as a jazz musician?
I went through a stage when I was young where I wanted to be a pro soccer player. But, I come from a family of musicians. And when I really started to get into jazz, I was thinking, I want to do this forever. So, I started playing gigs around St. Louis. Then, I started getting calls to play with great musicians like Freddie Washington, and I really learned a lot from that. I always practiced a lot, and I still do—I have a studio down in Grand Center. It’s not like you graduate from school and you’re done; it’s a lifelong endeavor.