Remembering Marty Allen and Bill Kirchner

Marty in the studio, with friend.

No, not the comedian and the saxophonist.  Those are two different fellows.

Marty Allen was a pianist and dear friend who moved to Austin from the Bay Area some seventeen years ago.  A remarkably gifted musician with a highly original approach, Marty worked with many people, and as a soloist, until he died unexpectedly of heart failure in February 2003.  He played four seasons with the AJW and recorded on three of our recordings.  He also played in my casual band, the Hepcats, and recorded on our Too Hep to Hop CD.  And he recorded his own trio album live at the Elephant Room, Jazz Time for Texas.  He had other sideman work, but I’m not sure how much he got to stretch.

Marty was one of the most ego-less musicians I have ever met.  Chick singers loved to use him, because when he went understated it was tasteful, forgiving, and not at all showy.  So the audience wouldn’t have to shift their attention away from the vocalist.  Chick singers hate it when that happens.

He held down a solo gig for a while at the Old San Francisco Steak House, way up north Austin.  This was a classic wallpaper gig, where the pianist worked unnoticed, upstaged by a woman on a swing over the diners’ heads.  The restaurant chain seemed to be going for an 1850’s California Gold Rush theme, where that sort of activity was apparently commonplace.

Anyway…a gig’s a gig, but I always wondered why Marty wasn’t being used more.  So I started using him.

Marty may have been understated in his playing and soft-spoken in demeanor, but that was misleading.  He wasn’t showy; he didn’t pound; he didn’t stretch out with excessively long solos.  His improvisations usually started out fairly conventionally, in a Bill Evans-influenced way.  But in that second or third chorus, it became Marty Unmoored–best summed up by trumpeter Jimmy Shortell on a school gig we played about ten years ago, when he leaned over at just such a point and said, “Marty is going away for a while…”

It was true.  Marty would play one or two choruses in an inside manner, and then he would head out…to Lands Unknown.  But the transition would not be jarring–more like he became untethered from the constraints of conventional harmony, and gently drifted…where?  Up?  Out?  In?  Truthfully, none of us knew where he was going or where this stuff came from.  And just when you thought he was gone for good–he was back.  ii, V, I, done.

I have never heard anyone else play in quite this manner.  The closest thing we had to it locally was the wonderful pianist Doug Hall, who also passed away way too soon.  But Marty’s voice was his own.

Lots of pianists can ‘take it outside’, but it often feels contrived or jarring.  With Marty, it was an organic part of what he did, and he succeeded in integrating it musically without altering the mood.  Quite a magic trick before seasoned musicians–a suspension of harmonic belief–but he pulled it off, some twenty times a night.  Much to the bewilderment of many a bassist.

After we had been working together for a while, I met Marty’s partner Bill.  In my East Texas country boy way, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that Marty was gay.  But he sho’ nuff was, turns out.

Bill was one of those gay men you might affectionately refer to as a ‘hoot’.  I first met him when Marty brought him to a gig we played in Taylor TX.  Since Marty was from Corpus originally, they were going to travel south after the gig to visit family.  By himself, Marty seemed straight enough–but one look at Bill was enough to remove any doubt.  Hearing him speak only sealed the deal.

Months later, bassist Jim Spector summed up the initial reaction I also felt.  “I thought–who’s that gay guy standing next to Marty?”

Bill was an artist as well–a painter of rich invention.  I’m looking at one of his works right now, because it hangs on the wall over my monitor.  Intriguingly, his visual sense reflects Marty’s aural one–an approach you might call “Pepperland on Acid”.

No, even more acid.

Bill used a lot of bright colors, and populated his canvases with fantastical creatures composed of very controlled elements.  Some are recognizable–shells are shell-shaped, bees are bee-shaped, etc.  But then there are fish shaped like haystacks, and bushes that resemble a nest of eyes, and fronds topped with variegated phallic stamens.  He eschewed shading, instead using dappling, dots & dashes, and repetition to give depth.

How did I acquire this painting, one of my most cherished possessions?  Bill was kind enough to give it to me–but not directly.  After Marty died so suddenly, Bill was devastated.  He began wasting away, which we attributed to a lack of appetite.  We kept cajoling him to eat.  Only months later did we find out it was cancer.  He joined Marty within a year.  In his will, he allowed each of his friends to choose a painting–a particularly touching gift.

He also willed $10,000 to the Austin Jazz Workshop.  It happened to coincide with a year that everyone took a large hit in their city funding.  So without ever knowing it, Bill kept this project going at a crisis point.

One time, Marty and I played a gig in Mexico and Bill tagged along for the ‘road trip’ adventure of it.  It was just over the border in Nuevo Laredo, at the home of a government official.  We knew it had to be a government official because of the obscene opulence hidden safely behind the 12-foot adobe walls.  That, and the fact that they were dropping about $10,000 on band and catering  to celebrate an infant’s christening.

So, we’re in a foreign country–a border town, no less–and Bill asks to be dropped off at a bar he remembered.  Our plan is to drop him off, play the gig, and come back and pick him up.  Bill, it should be said, is over six feet tall–but when you see him, he looks like a gay man carrying a purse.  Which is appropriate, since that is what he was.

This was not a gay bar.  But Marty and Bill seemed to think this plan was hunky-dory, so we dropped him off and disappeared down side streets and into the compound.

The gig was fine; they really liked us.  So much so, in fact, that when we finished our four hours, the caterer (who was also our shepherd over the border) came up and said they wanted a two-hour extension, and could we move into the library, where they were having port and cigars?

There are times when you can say no.  This was not one of those times.  So off we trundled to the library, to play for the party’s after-party.

By now, Marty was starting to get a little nervous.  We were drifting into that danger zone, the time period where gringos foolish enough to be out and about in border towns should be in groups.  And should probably not be openly gay males.

After six hours, our hosts had finally had enough.  We were paid royally and released.  Marty and I made a beeline back to the bar where we had dropped off Bill.

He wasn’t there.

OK, so.  Our exhausted caterer host, part of our little caravan, was wistfully eyeing the border back to Los Estados Unidos.  Maybe our friend had walked back across…?

No, decidedly not.  We began scouring the streets in the vicinity.  It was about 3:00 a.m., which is like noon in Nuevo Laredo.  We inched along, steering around inebriated pedestrians, broken bottles, and nursing dogs, straining for a view of a 6′ 4″ gay man.  After twenty agonizing minutes we spotted him, casually window-shopping.

“BILL!  Get in the car!” Marty called out in a mixture of relief and exasperation.  “What the hell were you doing out here?  Why didn’t you stay in the bar?”

“Oh, it started out fine but then a bunch of young people came in and it turned into a disco, so I left.”  Bill arched an eyebrow, in a what’s-the-big-deal manner.  At that point, Marty was too exhausted to throttle him.

I miss them both, and think of them often.  For a taste of Marty’s playing, check out Jazz Time for Texas.  I still have a box of them around here somewhere; leave a comment if you want a copy.


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