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Marty Sheller is a trumpeter, composer and arranger who has worked in both the Latin and jazz area of the music scene in the US. He played with Louie Ramirez, Sabu Martinez and Pete Terrace before joining Mongo Santamaria's band in 1962 and although left the band in 1968 remained Santamaria's main arranger until his very last recording.

The following interview with Marty Sheller was especially conducted for my Master of Philosophy in Music [By Research] thesis titled The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria which I completed in 2008 at the ANU in Canberra. The thesis documents the conga drum’s historical development, investigates basic hand techniques and current technical hand developments, as well as the enormous contribution of master drummer Ramon 'Mongo' Santamaria, arguably the most influential player in the history of the instrument, exploring his percussive output as well as his ensemble, composition and arranging proficiency. I conducted this interview with Marty Sheller via telephone.

PERTOUT: I wanted to start by asking you about your connection with the arrangement of the tune Afro Blue.

SHELLER: Mongo formed his band with the horn section I think around 1961, by the time I joined the band as a trumpeter they already had an arrangement of Afro Blue. I am not sure who did it. When I joined the band I did an arrangement of the tune, I don't remember if he gave me a recording of the song or whether he sang to me what he wanted, but it wasn't a completely original arrangement from my part, because it had already been arranged when I joined the band, I don't remember who did it but it was probably done the same way, by Mongo telling them what he wanted, it was probably done by pianist Joao Donato who was in the first band Mongo had and he might have been the musical director, so it is possible that Mongo might have dictated it to him, and then he did the same with me.

PERTOUT: The first version that I am aware of is the one featured in the Afro Roots album which does not contained the clave direction changes employed in later versions.

SHELLER: Yes the original recording was done when he was living in California and he was in Cal Tjader's band. As far as the clave is concerned, in the arrangement we use to play when it comes out of the middle part (the B section) it is actually ‘out of clave’, the tune goes back into the tag and it is actually out of the clave cycle, but Mongo said it was a case that musically it felt as if that it was the way it should be. Now if you wanted to be strict about the clave it should contain an extra bar at the end of the B section in order to come back properly in clave to the tag.

PERTOUT: As a matter of fact that is the way Tito Puente’s Golden All Stars performed the tune in that live album, did you arrange that version?

SHELLER: Yes and I remember that when I did the arrangement I asked Mongo about that because, the musicians are naturally going to recognise that the clave was turnaround at that point, but Mongo said that is okay keep it that way and everyone will just adjust to it and that is what we did. And that is what I told Tito Puente before they were going to rehearse and record the tune. I had the same discussion that you and I are having right now. And I said Mongo would like to leave that way and he said fine we will leave it that way.

Note: Marty Sheller was not aware of this but for the live recording Tito Puente did eventually change it adding the extra bar after the B section, as documented on the released cd of the live performance. It is also evident that some of the players notably bassist Andy Gonzalez were used to the original way of playing the tune with the incorrect clave in the tag, as after the B section Andy arrives at the tag one bar earlier than the rest of the band. When I pointed this out he was surprised and responded:

SHELLER: Oh I am very surprised about that as I don't recall that taking place as every time I remember the tune being recorded as far as I recall it always done that way. You know I did another arrangement for the singer La Lupe, she did a television show one time, it was the Dick Cavett Show and she sang two songs on it and I did the arrangements for a big band one of them being Afro Blue and I added the bar. It was purely for the television show, not available on any record.

PERTOUT: How many recorded versions of Afro Blue have you taken part in?

SHELLER: The only ones I can recall are with Mongo's band and there is a studio version and a whole lot of live versions from countless concerts that were released at one time or another and as far as I can recall they are all based on the same arrangement.

PERTOUT: How and where did you learn about clave and about arranging in clave?

SHELLER: I didn't study formally but I was very lucky in the sense of when I got involved with Latin music I became friendly with two important musicians one was Louie Ramirez and the other was Frankie Malabe. Louie Ramirez was a wonderful arranger, composer, producer, timbal player, vibes player and piano player, and Frankie Malabe was a wonderful percussionist whose specialty was the conga drum. I met them when I played in a small band that Louie Ramirez had and because we were all interested in both Latin and jazz music I would give them jazz records to listen to from my collection and they would give me records from their collections and whenever there was a query we would all ask each other questions. I spent many afternoons at Frankie Malabe's house where we would sit down and listen to a record and I would ask him questions about what was happening and he would show me like "this is what the conga player is doing" and he would play it on my knees so that I could really feel exactly what was going on and through them I got a really good basic foundation in clave. This was way before I played with Mongo by the time I played with Mongo's band I already had had the experience of playing with the Louie Ramirez band and with Pete Terrace who had Frankie Malabe and I had recorded as well with the legendary conga player Sabu Martinez, we did a Latin jazz album that Louie Ramirez and I put together where we played be bop tunes with a Latin rhythm section. By the time I got to Mongo's band I had a very good knowledge of clave.

PERTOUT: So you played trumpet in Mongo's band and then became the arranger?

SHELLER: I stopped playing trumpet in the beginning of 1968. I started working with Mongo's band in November of 1962 and about a year later I became the musical director and then even if I stopped playing with the band every time he recorded after that he had me as the musical director. I would rehearse the band, the new material and then I would conduct in the studio. And I did that till the very end. Even towards the end when I was leaving in New York and he was recording for Concord in California he would fly me over there a week or so before the recordings so that we could rehearse, because he liked to rehearse which I thought it was great, that way the band would be really tight. Plus often he would play the material live before going into the studio so by the time we got into the studio everything was very much established, everyone was familiar with the music.

PERTOUT: Were you involved in the recording of Mayeya which he did for Concord?

SHELLER: I think I did. Mayeya was something that Mongo put together, Ileana Mesa probably sung it to Mongo, I did this on several songs Mongo didn't know how to read music, he had a very good ear, and so he would say "Marty I want you to arrange something here is the melody" and so I would get some manuscript as he would sing it I would write the melody down, then we would discuss what kind of intro do you want, and if there was something in particular that he wanted he would say so otherwise he would leave it all up to me, when we got into the melody if there was a certain bass part that he wanted or a certain change of clave he would give me as much information as he heard and I would do the rest.

PERTOUT: So he was well aware of changes of clave?

SHELLER: Oh absolutely.

Telephone Interview. 7 March 2007.

© Alex Pertout.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article forms part of the thesis ‘The Conga Drum: Development, Technique, Styles, Improvisations and the contribution of Master Drummer Ramon ‘Mongo’ Santamaria’ which was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Philosophy in Music [by Research] Faculty of Arts, Australian National University.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.