by Len Lear and Elizabeth Coady
One of the most popular performers ever to play the Mermaid Inn, Marty Grosz, is celebrating his 90th birthday and his astonishing 70-year career in music with his autobiography, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” The memoir, “full of sardonic wit with a touch of vaudeville,” was just released by publisher Golden Alley Press on March 4, the same date that Grosz played a celebratory concert at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St.
Marty has many stories to tell. In his seven-decade career, he has performed with jazz greats such as Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd, Dick Hyman, Leroy “Slam” Stewart, Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern, etc. Beginning in the 1950s, he became a prominent figure of Chicago’s jazz club scene and toured with the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Soprano Summit, The Classic Jazz Quartet and others. Marty’s lengthy discography ranges from a 1951 recording with veteran New Orleans’ bassist “Pops” Foster to his 2015 CD with The Fat Babies.
But Marty is more than just a great 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 in an earlier interview with the Local, referring to the famous movie director who he says wore the “same dyspeptic look” he does today. “He owned a clarinet.”
In an earlier gig at the Mermaid Inn, two musicians drove down from New York City for the pleasure of playing with Grosz. “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 a chance to play with Marty.”
Grosz has recorded dozens of albums on his own. Esteemed jazz journalist Scott Yanow touts Grosz as “one of jazz music’s great comedians” and a “brilliant acoustic guitarist.” Grosz was born Feb. 28, 1930, 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 later 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 an 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 auction house 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 remembered 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.”
“It’s a Sin” also contains interviews that are transcriptions from 11 live interviews between 2015 and 2019. In them, Marty opines on guitar tuning, Eddie Condon, drummers and bassists, Slam Stewart, Mingus, Chet Baker, Hoagy Carmichael, Herb Ellis and more.
For more information, visit martygrosz.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com