by Elizabeth Coady
Ed. note: We recently ran an article about Marty Grosz, 87, jazz guitarist extraordinaire who performs regularly at the Mermaid Inn. His father, George Grosz, was a world-renowned artist who left his native Germany with his family when Hitler took power in 1933. Here is more about Marty:
After high school, Marty and a friend set out to hitchhike to California with $10 combined. They made it as far as Chicago, where they scraped by on odd jobs and Marty played any gig he could land. He returned home to New York after a year with enough money to buy a new suit. His parents thought he ought to enroll in college, so he signed up for Columbia School of General Studies. He rented a room for $5 a week in Morningside Heights. “Mrs. Malloy, one tooth in her mouth, was my landlady.”
Grosz lasted several weeks at school before he was drafted for the Korean War. After boot camp, he spent two years based at Landsberg Prison, where Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were serving out their sentences.
After the war, he returned to Chicago almost immediately, where he lived for the next 20 years playing jazz clubs, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. He briefly worked at Spiegel catalog and even was a holiday extra for the post office. He attended the University of Chicago for several months until he “couldn’t take it any more.” He met his wife-to-be, Rachel Whelan, then married to an alcoholic scientist, while playing in a club.
“She was unhappily married; let’s put it that way,” Marty said. “She was looking for a way out. She was looking for Mr. Right.” The couple had two sons, and the jazz musician became stepfather to his wife’s son from her previous marriage.
Marty was content living in Chicago, but in 1975 he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: Bob Wilber, a jazz band leader (he is now 89) invited Marty to play the guitar with his newly-forming quintet, Soprano Summit. Marty’s one condition: no amplified guitar. “And all of a sudden, I’m in New York.”
Marty’s career took off rapidly at that point. He toured with Soprano Summit and later with the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, the Classic Jazz Quartet and the Orphan Newsboys. He toured nationally and internationally from the ’70s through the ’90s.
George Grosz didn’t live long enough to see Marty achieve acclaim in jazz circles. The elder Grosz loved ragtime and jazz, and he would visit his teenage son’s bedroom to listen to it. “Sometimes he’d say give me a little concert with records; he was quite moved by them,” Marty recalled. “He was so taken with what passed for jazz in Germany before 1930 that he wanted to take banjo lessons.”
George Grosz and his wife Eva returned to Berlin in 1956 in a vain attempt to recapture the artist’s earlier success. But in his later years alcohol had become a crutch. And on July 6, 1959, he died after reportedly falling down a flight of stairs in his wife’s parents’ West Berlin flat.
“He passed out; he was drunk and choked on his vomit,” Marty says. “Same thing that killed Tommy Dorsey. Same thing that killed a lot of people.” Dorsey, who was reportedly addicted to sleeping pills, choked to death in his sleep after eating a heavy meal, according to multiple internet sources.
Marty no longer has any of his father’s artwork hanging in his home. “I sold it all,” he said. “I didn’t have much to begin with. But I needed the money. Pop told me, ‘I leave you some pictures. You can dine out on them.”’
Over the years, Marty and his now-deceased brother Peter or his estate have initiated three lawsuits in an attempt to reclaim control or possession of their father’s artworks. He flippantly calls art dealers ”art stealers” and cracks that suing “doesn’t bring in the shekels. You’re going to be in a wheelchair with tubes coming out of your mouth before anything happens.”
A suit against the Museum of Modern Art to claim ownership of three George Grosz works in the museum’s holdings ended with a court ruling that the statute of limitations had elapsed; a lawsuit against Viennese art dealer Serge Sebarsky for purchasing George Grosz’ works at below-market prices for himself was settled in 2006. “It’s always difficult to sue a dead man, but we got some stuff out of him, some paintings back,” Marty revealed.
Now 22 years older than his father was when he died, Marty lives with his surviving son in downtown Philadelphia. Another son died of a drug overdose when he was in his 20s. “There was nothing we could do,” he says. His wife of nearly 50 years died of Alzheimer’s in 2008.
Interspersed between Marty’s wisecracks is an occasional woe-is-me remark. Asked what he’d like people to know about him, he remarks “that despite my age, I’m as spry as an antelope, and my handsome visage has conquered countless female admirers.” But in the same conversation he laments getting older. “I just sit around gnashing my teeth. What else can you do?”
A contrast between light and dark appears obvious when you compare George Grosz’s heavy subject matter and his son’s joyful music. But the impression is deceiving. Marty calls himself a “square peg in a round hole” and offers this insight: ”Deep down I’ll always be a left-winger. I’m not comfortable in the homes of the rich. I’ve been in them. My mother even said once, ‘You have a molt in your eye. You see things more critically than your peers.’ She said, ‘You’re just like your father.”’