Friday, March 04, 2005

Martin Denny (RIP)

It was sad to hear that Martin Denny, the man largely responsible for creating exotica music in the 1950s and who lived to see it enjoy renewed world-wide popularity as lounge music and tiki culture, died at his Hawaii-Kai residence, five weeks short of his 94th birthday.

Denny first performed in Waikiki as a solo pianist in 1954, but in 1955 formed a trio with John Kramer (bass) and Arthur Lyman (vibraphone). Percussionist Augie Colon became the fourth member of the group after they opened at the Shell Bar in 1956. It was there that the “exotica” sound was born. The bar had a very exotic setting: a little pool of water right outside the bandstand, rocks and palm trees growing around, very quiet and relaxed. As the group played one night, Denny became aware of bullfrogs croaking. The croaking blended with the music and when the band stopped, so did the frogs. Denny thought this to be a coincidence, but when he tried the tune again later, the same thing happened. This time, his bandmates began adding bird calls and jungle screeches. The band thought it quite amusing, but nothing more than a joke.

Denny got so many requests for “the song with the jungle noises” that he worked up more arrangements that included bird calls and other sounds, and then enhanced the fanciful tropical ambiance by using “exotic” percussion instruments. It wasn’t long before globe-trotting fans were bringing him souvenir drums, gongs and other items to experiment with.

Martin Denny’s first recording of Exotica was made for Liberty Records in 1956. He re-recorded it in 1958. When Liberty released Denny's version of Les Baxter's “Quiet Village” as a single in 1959 it reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a new genre of music was launched.

Although Denny often used authentic musical instruments of indigenous people in his recordings, he was never too concerned about the authenticity of his material or interpretation. He told one interviewer, "My music has always been like fiction, no authenticity; I didn't want to make African music--I only wanted to suggest how African music might sound."

Martin Denny continued to perform for decades after the initial exotica fad passed, surviving to see a revival in the early 1990's. He continued to perform on occasion and was a tremendous supporter of the younger generation of musicians inspired by his music. He appeared at Arthur Lyman's memorial service and played at a fundraising event just a few weeks before his death.

Martin Denny - Quiet Village


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