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Terrace Martin On Jazz, Business And More

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L.A.-based musician Terrace Martin is the perfect example of the often overused entertainment term, “Multi-hyphenate.” Where others use it to pad their resume, Martin has lived it his whole career, as a prestigious saxophonist in the jazz world, a hip-hop producer (who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder, Busta Rhymes), head of a label (Sounds Of Crenshaw Jazz with BMG), singer and rapper.

Martin, who plays with jazz giants Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, as well as hip hop producer/artist 9th Wonder in the supergroup Dinner Party, is focusing on his solo work in 2023. He is releasing an album a month through the end of the year, with the most recent one being Curly.

Sage Bava and I spoke with Martin, who is playing the next four Wednesdays at the gorgeous Verse restaurant in L.A., about his recent gig at Blue Note Napa Jazz festival, his love for the business deal and helping other artists, his musical upbringing and more.

Steve Baltin: How did Napa go?

Terrace Martin: Napa was amazing, man. Napa is a family reunion ’cause everybody that shows up is family. Even if you didn’t meet somebody, everybody’s so cool and laid back and just friendly at Napa. The music is beautiful. The food is going, the people, the energy, the spirit, the soil, it felt rich. And I’m not talking about the simplicity rich as far as money. I’m talking about rich as far as soul and spirit and love. It felt rich.

Baltin: Who felt most like family to you there?

Martin: It’s funny, man, ’cause everybody felt like family. But I met new people there, which is more exciting to me, to meet new people, see different things. Me and my family, we stayed on the resort. And a lot of people stay on the resort. So every morning, it was this restaurant, like a typical hotel restaurant everybody goes to. But you would think when you walk into this restaurant, everybody knew everybody. It was so loud, everybody talking. But everybody was just talking about how great the festival was. And then finding out through talking about the festival, a lot of people found out that they knew people three, four, five degrees of separation and everything. So it really felt like a family reunion, like when everybody had on name tags and your first time meeting your second and third cousin.

Baltin: How does that inspire you musically to see people whether it’s Mary J Blige, who’s amazing, or Gary Clark Jr? He’s like one of the coolest people in the world.

Martin: I wish I had some musical deep things to tell you. But right now, I think motherf**kers are just happy with being alive, bro. Like straight up. Everybody backstage is just happy to see everybody breathing and healthy, and that’s alive. Like, when I was backstage there with Mary and everybody, the one thing I felt people were just genuinely happy to see people smiling. I don’t think it was about the music at all, more than the spirit of just people from all different walks of life, different shapes, different colors, different cultures, all coming together, just being one. And music just being the tool that was used to get us all there. But I think for me personally, the bigger conversations, the power that Blue Note had to pull people together, to start getting ideas, is really to start spreading love more than anything, and music is just a tool. It’s just a tool to let motherf**kers know that we love you. That’s it, man.

Sage Bava: That’s so beautiful. I got to ask Herbie Hancock what he thought the definition of jazz was, and he just said, “Man, it’s spirit.” How do you define jazz in this modern day as someone that deeply knows it and loves it?

Martin: First of all, the master teacher, Herbie Hancock, said what it is, it’s spirit. It’s based in spirit. And then you ask Wayne [Shorter] what jazz is, and he said, “Jazz is the only music that says, I dare you.” You ask Too Short what hip hop is, he’ll tell you hip hop is a thing that finds a home for everybody. And I brought Too Short in because the same spirit of hip hop is the same spirit of jazz, which is the same spirit of the whole Blue Note festival. But, what jazz is, to me, is whatever feels good in your body and how you want to describe it, that’s what jazz is. For me, it’s all that. It’s everything that’s pushing life forward. It’s love. It’s good times. It’s smiling, it’s bringing people together, I always tell people, love. People always say falling in love hurts and love hurts, love don’t hurt, emotions do. Love can’t hurt. Love will never, ever hurt you. The the displaced emotions will hurt you. Jazz will never ever hurt you. It’ll all positive. It’s all good. It’s courage. If it’s anything, it’s positive love and courage. That’s what it is.

Bava: I’d love to hear more about courage. And I’d love to hear now your process as an artist producer when it comes to courage and comes to creation. I’m sure it’s evolved so much over the years, but where are you now in it all?

Martin: I’m at the same place I was when I was 14 where it’s just my thing is courage. But I’ve always been aware that that life is short and time is short. And my time on this earth is not forever. So I want to do everything I can. I want to live every day like it’s my motherf**king last. So it’s like, my thing is mixed with courage, but it’s more or less not giving a f**k about what anybody feels or thinks about me or my spirit, ’cause I have the courage to be myself So I’ve been able to maneuver through this game and through everything ’cause at the end of the day life is not promised for nobody. And I just want to love as much as I can while I’m here. So in loving, I’m going to stay working ’cause I love music. Music is love. I’m on earth to keep going. To have courage, spread the word that it is another side of life called courage. And don’t give a f**k about what nobody else says next to you, behind you or in front of you. Do what your stomach and your spirit tells you to do, and who gives a f**k as long as you happy. That’s how I’ve been able to maneuver.

Baltin: Have you always had that innate sense of not giving a f**k? One day I’m going to write a book called The Power of F**k Off.

Martin: The power of saying f**k off and f**k corporate is the power of saying no, “I’m going to do me.” But I’ve always had that because in the world, in the area I grew up in, all my friends, nobody played the saxophone. A few of us did. You had me, you had Kamasi [Washington], you had a few of us, but we talking about hundreds of friends that didn’t play. And so it wasn’t like I was doing the popular thing of my time playing a saxophone and marching band. So I had to not give a f**k because as a kid, kids are mean. We were all mean at one point. We’ve all either been bullied or subconsciously bullied somebody as a kid. Cause that’s a big thing these days. So back then you had to have tough skin to be an individual. And I was infatuated with gang culture, but didn’t want to be a gang banger. I was infatuated with basketball back in the day and Michael Jordan, but didn’t want to be a basketball player. I was infatuated with all these different things but didn’t want to be that. So I said, “Man, I got to make up what I want to be and what fits for me and what makes me happy.” So many of my friends fell victim to just doing what everybody thought they should be doing. They was doing what they want to do last. And when they did what they wanted to do last, time moved on. They had been chasing somebody else’s dream or trying to impress other people and doing other things for just living for everybody else other than them. And they got sad. So I was like, “Man, I can’t be sad like that.” I just vow I’ll never live my life and I teach my kids to do what your spirit and do what your gut tell you to do, but understand accountability and responsibility and if you commit, roll with it.

Bava: I’m fascinated with people that just know this to their core from such a young time. And I found through interviewing many artists, that it was just always them. Sometimes they had to get roughed up by the world and then that knowing would blossom again. Why is this so strong in you and through all of those struggles how did you just know it and preserve it?

Martin: My parents are musicians and their parents are musicians and at the same time they’re hardworking people and they’re very devoted and they’re very serious about what are you going to do to survive? What are you going to do to survive? In my family, art is looked at as this spiritual miracle thing. But it’s also looked at as a way to feed our families. I don’t look at art just like, “Oh, that’s beautiful. Look at the wind blow. Look at the colors.” No, f**k that. That’s how my babies go to school. That’s how we eat. That’s how we’re able to pay, do all these things. That’s how we are able to fly six, seven people to Napa. And one thing about my family, we never separated business from art. We love it all simultaneously, the same thing. Where most artists love the art. Which is totally fine. I respect that and I love that too. But my parents always taught me you could be a great artist, but be a great businessman as well too. So know where your art goes. Know where everything that you worked for is going. So when you leave this earth, nobody could take the money without your family getting some of it. ‘Cause you worked your ass off. So simultaneously through this whole process, I’m, I’ve been falling on my face, getting up and wiping my brow for twenty-some years. And just as much as I’ve been learning how to create a record, I’ve been learning how to track down my royalties and my publishing as well simultaneously. So I’m an artist, I’m also a record label owner, I’m a publisher. I give many motherf**kers advice of not to spend that dollar there, spend it there because it’s serious. Living is serious. Eating is serious. Health is serious. Health insurance is the biggest scam, but it’s serious. It takes so much money to survive where I have to look at the art simultaneously with the business. Cause that’s how I live and I love living. So when you say, “How did I maintain being serious?” I had my first son at 16. So I was paying child support when I was a child. So I’ve had no choice but to be serious. So when you’re serious about living and business, it makes you automatically a bit firm. And that also pours into me when I practice my whole family knows, my kids know daddy takes two hours out the day to practice. They don’t knock on the door because that’s work.Daddy is practicing. Whether daddy’s reading the book on Miles Davis, whether daddy has his horn out playing long tones or he’s sketching up beats or doing whatever it takes, those things help everything go in a forward motion in my particular life and how I’m raised. So I’m very serious and very on it and adamant because I’m in love with making deals happen. I’m in love with helping musicians. I’m in love with seeing artists eat. I love making people a lot of money, I f**king love the smile it gives when somebody sees their art can make them a few million dollars. I love that cause I know what that feels like. I give opportunity and that’s why I’m very serious ’cause when I leave this earth, I don’t give a f**k who liked my music or not. I just want you to be able to say, “Hey, that dude taught me how to fish.”.

Baltin: So when did you first learn the music can heal and help you?

Martin: I grew up in the church. My grandfather’s an evangelist. We went to church four times a week. We believe in God, so we know the power of our creator. So we know the only way to live is to give, it’s a feeling I’ve never not felt. I was six years old and we would exchange gifts in elementary and I would make sure my mom would buy everybody action figure ’cause I wanted everybody to have the same action figure so we could all be happy. And I think it started there of everybody being cool, nobody arguing, everybody’s smooth, everybody having a good time, everybody’s happy. It’s a feeling of of being part of helping somebody become happy that I’m addicted to.

Baltin: Take me quickly through the process of deciding to release an album every month.

Martin: Thank you. I’m inspired by so many of the Bay Area rappers out there, because with Bay Area hip hop, they were big on catalog. So it was more about dropping records every three weeks, once a month for years. And you know, when you go to those used, those, well it used to be Amoeba, I think it’s still, yeah, Amoeba’s out there. But when you go to those back in the day, those CD sections, that’s how you could tell who had the biggest catalog. And I was always impressed how like Mac Dre, Sick Jacken had all these huge catalogs out there. JT the Bigga Figga in underground hip hop. I’m like, “Why don’t we ever do that?” So for years I started releasing just a gang of records.I think when the pandemic hit, I was releasing a record damn every three weeks for a while. I’ve always just been into releasing a lot of records ’cause I’m just in love with having a lot of catalogs. The great Warren Campbell always taught me, if you are a recording artist, your job is to record. So I record everyday and I always have a lot of music and a lot of different albums and everything. So now I’m just going to put them out one by one. I’m happy that I got my partners over at BMG with my new label. Sounds of Crenshaw Jazz that really are saying, “Hey man, let’s let you run it. Let’s see how it goes.” And I’m just going to keep dropping albums until it’s over.

Bava: I’m always fascinated to learn the place where an artist’s inner voice was found and how inspiring that is for others. So if you’re open to sharing how and where that came from.

Martin: Like I said, my family plays music, so it was always around. But in all fairness, that’s not how I fell in love with the music. I think my family and my father and my mother introduced me to art, to music, but that’s not how I fell in love. The day my body started feeling weird and I couldn’t eat food when I heard music. And I didn’t know that this was the in love feeling and I know it’s real ’cause I’ve been in love a few times with physical people. And this was a thing that felt before I fell in love with a woman. I fell in love with hip hop. And I remember I loved hip hop my whole life. Loved it and loved it, but this one day, man, it was the first day I got in seventh grade it was the orientation at Culver City Middle School. And it was a DJ that first day of middle school, his name was Big Boy. I was on the PE field about 10:15. Me and my best friend met this day ’cause of this record. We’re standing next to each other, not knowing each other. Big Boy plays the intro to “Check the Rhime,” A Tribe Called Quest. The group that two years later was going to make me fall in love with the alto saxophone was A Tribe Called Quest. So that’s why every time I talk to Q-Tip — he called me out of the blue the other day. I just said, “Man, I love you and I appreciate you for what you did to me.” I said, “I will always know you better than you know me ’cause you raised me as a artist and a fan.”

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