Peter Martin's Good Vibes

By Rachel Brandt
In Culture

The emotions buzzing around a jazz venue during a live show can make or break a performance. The artists leave it all onstage with the hope the audience will respond in kind. No one knows this process better than St. Louis pianist, composer, educator and philanthropist Peter Martin. With a new album released and recorded right here in STL and a startup just launched out of the Cortex Innovation Community, Martin certainly knows what it means to spread good vibes.

Peter Martin By Attilio D'Agostino for ALIVE.

Peter Martin By Attilio D’Agostino for ALIVE.

Tell us about how you started playing piano and when you decided to focus on jazz.
I started piano when I was 3 years old. Both my parents are musicians, and I actually started on violin before piano. My mother is a Suzuki violin teacher, so I came from the school of start them early if they’re interested! But when I got on the piano I knew that was the instrument for me, although I continued on violin until I was a teenager. I heard a fair amount of jazz growing up. My Dad had some good jazz records that would play in our house and when I was in about 7th grade, something in the music started resonating with me. I wanted to see if I could learn how to play in that style. I also found some peers that were interested in jazz around that time, and we formed our first jazz combo band at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City in the 7th grade.

What can you tell us about the St. Louis jazz scene?
There’s a great scene here: high level of musicians, great audiences and nice venues. What needs work is the expansion of performance opportunities so that the good young players don’t have to leave town for more professional opportunities. But I’m seeing nice things happening. The new Jazz at the Bistro is a fantastic jazz club. The Dark Room is a great up-and-coming space. I also love The Sheldon for a concert experience. It has wonderful acoustics and a little of that club-like intimacy.

How did growing up in St. Louis influence your playing and writing style?
I was fortunate to grow up in a rich and diverse musical world here in St. Louis. My father played in the St. Louis Symphony, so I had the influence and mentorship of a bunch of great classical players. By the time I got to high school I got to learn from and play with some fantastic STL jazz musicians: Steve Schenkel, Paul DeMarinis, Willie Akins, Carol Beth True, Steve Kirby and many more. They showed me the St. Louis jazz style with the blues influence that is so important and such a part of our local sound and tradition. And of course I got a lot from records, lots of Miles Davis for sure!

What is something you wish you had known as a young musician?
Relax and let the music come to you.

Do you believe someone who is classically trained has a harder time learning to improvise than someone who started off improvising?
No necessarily, but the younger you start improvising, the easier it is. It’s like learning a language. You can do it at any age, but it may be easier and come quicker the younger you are.

Tell us about the State Dinner you played at the White House.
When they called, I thought they said “steak” dinner, but I thought it would be fun to play at the White House in any case. Turns out it was a featured 30-minute concert at the State Dinner for the Chinese president. The president and the first lady were sitting attentively about 10 feet from the stage while we performed. It was a great honor, and one of the few times in many years that I’ve been actively nervous on stage, but the gig went well.

Peter Martin By Attilio D’Agostino for ALIVE.

Peter Martin By Attilio D’Agostino for ALIVE.

Tell us about one of the best shows you’ve ever played. What made it so special?
Wow, there’s been a lot. Actually, these days, almost every gig I do is special in some way, I try hard to make that happen every night. But I organized a hurricane Katrina relief benefit concert called “Big River” in 2005 at the Sheldon shortly after we moved back to St. Louis. It was an opportunity for me to bring to town a group of New Orleans musicians that I missed and am very fond of. The concert went on for 3-plus hours, and it was quite an extraordinary evening, lots of great music and feelings. We raised a bunch of money for Habitat for Humanity’s Katrina relief projects.

Where is a place you’ve never played but want to?
Mexico City. As much as I’ve travelled, there are some big holes, including the largest city in North America!

Who are a few of your greatest jazz influences, anyone local?
The biggest jazz influences on my playing are probably Herbie Hancock, Thelonius Monk, Wynton Kelly, Art Tatum and Bill Evans. And many more, but those come to mind first!

Who is a person, alive or dead that you would love to or would have loved to collaborate with?
Stevie Wonder. I’ve met him and seen him live several times, including a fantastic show in St. Louis this year. I’m not sure if it would be as much a collaboration as me playing whatever part Stevie recommended me to play!

When you’re jamming with friends, what is one standard you always come back to?
Great question. There are a lot, but “All The Things You Are” seems to reappear quite a bit.

You recently released, “What Lies Ahead,” how does it differ from albums you’ve released in the past?
The tracks are shorter because I wanted to fit in 13 tunes. I’ve got my dream trio on this album of Greg Hutchinson (drums) and Reuben Rogers (bass), two of the best at their instrument in the world, so that’s always exciting. And it was recorded right here in St. Louis and features two of my favorite vocalists Brian Owens and Erin Bode.

What’s next for you?
I’m very excited about a startup I’ve co-founded and launched right here in St. Louis. It’s called Open Studio Network, and it’s an online music education platform. We’re expanding to include a group of world-class artists that we’re connecting with students around the world. We have subscribers in 44 countries, and are looking to make St. Louis a hub for high-end online music education technology. We’re located in the CIC building, and it’s a very exciting place to work at this time.

What do the words ‘good vibes’ mean to you?
That’s a feeling that we work with a lot in the jazz world. There are the good vibes between the musicians on stage that we try to invite the audience to participate in. It’s the challenge in every show we do—to try and spread the good vibes!

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