June 18, 2024

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Marty Grosz: Local music legend son of famed anti-Nazi artist: Video

Marty Grosz sits on a bar stool in a darkened room in Chestnut Hill’s Mermaid Inn, his hands and eyes embracing his 1927 Gibson L5 acoustic guitar with possessive familiarity. He’s got white hair and wrinkles, but his eyes and wit are sharp. He’s here to play jazz standards of the 20th century for the door’s proceeds that he’ll share with a trumpeter, bassist and reeds player.

At 87, Grosz is revered in jazz quarters for the clarity of his guitar’s rhythmic notes and the playful swings and scats of his voice. Jazz, he says, is supposed to complement the human voice, not compete with it.

But Marty is more than just 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 of the movie director who he says wore the “same dyspeptic look” he does today. “He owned a clarinet.”

It’s been a long time since Grosz has taken a backseat to anyone on stage. On this December night, as he waxes comedic about his life and music, three accompanying musicians stand nearby listening intently and waiting for his cues. Two of them have driven down from New York for the pleasure.

“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 the chance to play with Marty.”

Jazz journalist Scott Yanow touts Grosz as “one of jazz music’s great comedians” and a “brilliant acoustic guitarist.”

Grosz’ legacy began Feb. 28, 1930, when he was born 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 layer 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 a 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 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 Grosz remembers 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.”

Already famous for his incisive pen-and-ink drawings and scathing cultural commentary, George Grosz taught art at the Art Students League in New York, and the family’s rented house on Long Island was always filled with “artists, writers, eggheads.”

“He was hot stuff … because they were looking for ‘good Germans,’” Marty said of the numerous media calls his father received for commentary on World War II  “He was declared an enemy of the state (Germany), but he was already out of the country by then. He got a full page picture of himself in Life magazine and  Look magazine and was profiled in the New Yorker.”

Marty recounts the time when jazz legend Artie Shaw came to Grosz’ rented stucco home in Douglaston, NY, accompanied by novelist Kathleen Winsor, to acquire a piece of his father’s art. Shaw, who “had an ego bigger than Donald Trump’s,” left without buying any art. But he did give Marty his autograph on a matchbook. “I took it to school on Monday, and the kids wouldn’t believe me.”

Marty strummed his first instrument when his father fetched a ukulele from the attic when he was 8. That lasted three sessions, but he took up the guitar seriously — he is self-taught — when he was a teenager. “I bought a cheap guitar; it was ghastly. I didn’t want my parents to know I was trying to play this thing.”

Jazz figures prominently in why Grosz got kicked out of boarding school. He attended the tony Phillips Andover, where he made the honor roll and was surrounded by the offspring of the elite. He remembers the son of a publisher “never used laundry services … He’d buy a half dozen shirts and throw them in the closet. If you passed by his room, he’d say, ‘Hey you want a shirt?’”

When he was a junior, Marty reluctantly attended a football game at a rival high school. (“Most boring damn sport I ever watched in my life.”) While there, his classmates raided their competitors’ locker room and swiped small items. A friend handed him a small pendant flag, which Marty stuffed in his pocket.

“I forgot about it,” Marty said. “And it turns out that the students had been a little too criminal; they purloined a lot of stuff, and the school complained about it.”

Phillips Andover staff asked students to sign notes denying they were involved in the thefts, and Marty “refused to sign.” He was put on probation and was not allowed to leave school grounds. During that period, “I went to see every band I could in theaters and dance halls.”

As a result, Marty was kicked out of prep school. “Dumb, but things worked out anyway.” He transferred to Huntington High School on Long Island, where he graduated with the highest grades of any male student.

Ed. note: We recently ran an article about Marty Grosz, 87, jazz guitarist extraordinaire who performs regularly at the Mermaid Inn. His father, George Grosz, was a world-renowned artist who left his native Germany with his family when Hitler took power in 1933. Here is more about Marty:

After high school, Marty and a friend set out to hitchhike to California with $10 combined. They made it as far as Chicago, where they scraped by on odd jobs and Marty played any gig he could land. He returned home to New York after a year with enough money to buy a new suit. His parents thought he ought to enroll in college, so he signed up for Columbia School of General Studies. He rented a room for $5 a week in Morningside Heights. “Mrs. Malloy, one tooth in her mouth, was my landlady.”

Grosz lasted several weeks at school before he was drafted for the Korean War. After boot camp, he spent two years based at Landsberg Prison, where Nazis convicted at Nuremberg were serving out their sentences.

After the war, he returned to Chicago almost immediately, where he lived for the next 20 years playing jazz clubs, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. He briefly worked at Spiegel catalog and even was a holiday extra for the post office. He attended the University of Chicago for several months until he “couldn’t take it any more.” He met his wife-to-be, Rachel Whelan, then married to an alcoholic scientist, while playing in a club.

“She was unhappily married; let’s put it that way,” Marty said. “She was looking for a way out. She was looking for Mr. Right.” The couple had two sons, and the jazz musician became stepfather to his wife’s son from her previous marriage.

Marty was content living in Chicago, but in 1975 he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: Bob Wilber, a jazz band leader (he is now 89) invited Marty to play the guitar with his newly-forming quintet, Soprano Summit. Marty’s one condition: no amplified guitar. “And all of a sudden, I’m in New York.”

Marty’s career took off rapidly at that point. He toured with Soprano Summit and later with the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, the Classic Jazz Quartet and the Orphan Newsboys. He toured nationally and internationally from the ’70s through the ’90s.

George Grosz didn’t live long enough to see Marty achieve acclaim in jazz circles. The elder Grosz loved ragtime and jazz, and he would visit his teenage son’s bedroom to listen to it. “Sometimes he’d say give me a little concert with records; he was quite moved by them,” Marty recalled. “He was so taken with what passed for jazz in Germany before 1930 that he wanted to take banjo lessons.”

George Grosz and his wife Eva returned to Berlin in 1956 in a vain attempt to recapture the artist’s earlier success. But in his later years alcohol had become a crutch. And on July 6, 1959, he died after reportedly falling down a flight of stairs in his wife’s parents’ West Berlin flat.

“He passed out; he was drunk and choked on his vomit,” Marty says. “Same thing that killed Tommy Dorsey. Same thing that killed a lot of people.” Dorsey, who was reportedly addicted to sleeping pills, choked to death in his sleep after eating a heavy meal, according to multiple internet sources.

Marty no longer has any of his father’s artwork hanging in his home. “I sold it all,” he said. “I didn’t have much to begin with. But I needed the money. Pop told me, ‘I leave you some pictures. You can dine out on them.”’

Over the years, Marty and his now-deceased brother Peter or his estate have initiated three lawsuits in an attempt to reclaim control or possession of their father’s artworks. He flippantly calls art dealers ”art stealers” and cracks that suing “doesn’t bring in the shekels. You’re going to be in a wheelchair with tubes coming out of your mouth before anything happens.”

A suit against the Museum of Modern Art to claim ownership of three George Grosz works in the museum’s holdings ended with a court ruling that the statute of limitations had elapsed; a lawsuit against Viennese art dealer Serge Sebarsky for purchasing George Grosz’ works at below-market prices for himself was settled in 2006. “It’s always difficult to sue a dead man, but we got some stuff out of him, some paintings back,” Marty revealed.

Now 22 years older than his father was when he died, Marty lives with his surviving son in downtown Philadelphia. Another son died of a drug overdose when he was in his 20s. “There was nothing we could do,” he says. His wife of nearly 50 years died of Alzheimer’s in 2008.

Interspersed between Marty’s wisecracks is an occasional woe-is-me remark. Asked what he’d like people to know about him, he remarks “that despite my age, I’m as spry as an antelope, and my handsome visage has conquered countless female admirers.” But in the same conversation he laments getting older. “I just sit around gnashing my teeth. What else can you do?”

A contrast between light and dark appears obvious when you compare George Grosz’s heavy subject matter and his son’s joyful music. But the impression is deceiving. Marty calls himself a “square peg in a round hole” and offers this insight: ”Deep down I’ll always be a left-winger. I’m not comfortable in the homes of the rich. I’ve been in them. My mother even said once, ‘You have a molt in your eye. You see things more critically than your peers.’ She said, ‘You’re just like your father.”

Photo: Richard Barnes, guitarist (right), and Marty Grosz are seen in a tribute to Eddie Lang of South Philadelphia, the “father of the jazz guitar,” in October, 2010, at Chris Jazz Café in center city.

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