By Elizabeth Coady
Marty Grosz sits on a bar stool in a darkened room in Chestnut Hill’s Mermaid Inn, his hands and eyes embracing his 1927 Gibson L5 acoustic guitar with possessive familiarity. He’s got white hair and wrinkles, but his eyes and wit are sharp. He’s here to play jazz standards of the 20th century for the door’s proceeds that he’ll share with a trumpeter, bassist and reeds player.
At 87, Grosz is revered in jazz quarters for the clarity of his guitar’s rhythmic notes and the playful swings and scats of his voice. Jazz, he says, is supposed to complement the human voice, not compete with it.
But Marty is more than just jazz guitarist and singer; he’s a raconteur sharing yarns accumulated over a lifetime between performing classics like “I’m Crazy About My Baby” and “Beale Street Blues.” He’s played in the White House for President Jimmy Carter, toured extensively throughout Europe, Japan and Australia, and strummed behind Woody Allen every Monday night for a year at a pub on New York’s East Side.
“He couldn’t play,” Grosz recalled of the movie director who he says wore the “same dyspeptic look” he does today. “He owned a clarinet.”
It’s been a long time since Grosz has taken a backseat to anyone on stage. On this December night, as he waxes comedic about his life and music, three accompanying musicians stand nearby listening intently and waiting for his cues. Two of them have driven down from New York for the pleasure.
“He’s a legend,” said Lynn Redmile, a photographer whose trumpeter husband, Danny Tobias, regularly accompanies Grosz on gigs. “Marty is one of the last great rhythm guitar players around,” said Tobias. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege to play with him. He’s really funny on the microphone and completely spontaneous. When he sings, sometimes he’ll just put asides in the music like Fats Waller did … I never pass up the chance to play with Marty.”
Jazz journalist Scott Yanow touts Grosz as “one of jazz music’s great comedians” and a “brilliant acoustic guitarist.”
Grosz’ legacy began Feb. 28, 1930, when he was born the youngest son of renowned German Dadaist painter George Grosz, who gained international acclaim for viciously satirizing the corruption and decadence of Berlin society of the early 20th century and layer of Hitler’s Nazi regime. “Barbarism prevailed … The times were mad,” the artist wrote of that era in his biography, “A Little Yes and a Big No.”
A Grosz oil on canvas entitled “Wild West” sold for $2.2 million, his highest-priced painting, at a October, 1996, auction at Christie’s in London. A watercolor and pen and India ink over pencil on paper entitled “Der Neue Mensch” (“The New Man”) sold in November, 2009, for $1.3 million at Christie’s in New York.
Grosz the artist drew Jesus hanging on a cross wearing a gas mask and infantry boots; he skewered businessmen, prostitutes and upper class German society with pen-and-ink and oil. “I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon … I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands,” Grosz was quoted as saying in “Before the Deluge,” Otto Friedrick’s book on 1920s’ Berlin.
George Grosz was declared public enemy number one by the Nazis for his mocking depictions of soldiers and was prosecuted three times for ”blasphemous art,” according to Christie’s. He fled Germany for America 18 days before Hitler assumed power in 1933.
Only three years old at the time, Marty Grosz remembers traveling on the ship S.S. Bremen, which had set the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic two years earlier. “One thing you don’t forget is that they had a catapult plane, a sea plane. And a guy got in the cockpit … catapulted off the Bremen and sailed away into the clouds,” Grosz recalled. “And I remember coming into the New York Harbor.”
Already famous for his incisive pen-and-ink drawings and scathing cultural commentary, George Grosz taught art at the Art Students League in New York, and the family’s rented house on Long Island was always filled with “artists, writers, eggheads.”
“He was hot stuff … because they were looking for ‘good Germans,’” Marty said of the numerous media calls his father received for commentary on World War II “He was declared an enemy of the state (Germany), but he was already out of the country by then. He got a full page picture of himself in Life magazine and Look magazine and was profiled in the New Yorker.”
Marty recounts the time when jazz legend Artie Shaw came to Grosz’ rented stucco home in Douglaston, NY, accompanied by novelist Kathleen Winsor, to acquire a piece of his father’s art. Shaw, who “had an ego bigger than Donald Trump’s,” left without buying any art. But he did give Marty his autograph on a matchbook. “I took it to school on Monday, and the kids wouldn’t believe me.”
Marty strummed his first instrument when his father fetched a ukulele from the attic when he was 8. That lasted three sessions, but he took up the guitar seriously — he is self-taught — when he was a teenager. “I bought a cheap guitar; it was ghastly. I didn’t want my parents to know I was trying to play this thing.”
Jazz figures prominently in why Grosz got kicked out of boarding school. He attended the tony Phillips Andover, where he made the honor roll and was surrounded by the offspring of the elite. He remembers the son of a publisher “never used laundry services … He’d buy a half dozen shirts and throw them in the closet. If you passed by his room, he’d say, ‘Hey you want a shirt?’”
When he was a junior, Marty reluctantly attended a football game at a rival high school. (“Most boring damn sport I ever watched in my life.”) While there, his classmates raided their competitors’ locker room and swiped small items. A friend handed him a small pendant flag, which Marty stuffed in his pocket.
“I forgot about it,” Marty said. “And it turns out that the students had been a little too criminal; they purloined a lot of stuff, and the school complained about it.”
Phillips Andover staff asked students to sign notes denying they were involved in the thefts, and Marty “refused to sign.” He was put on probation and was not allowed to leave school grounds. During that period, “I went to see every band I could in theaters and dance halls.”
As a result, Marty was kicked out of prep school. “Dumb, but things worked out anyway.” He transferred to Huntington High School on Long Island, where he graduated with the highest grades of any male student.
TO BE CONTINUED