By Christopher Hess
MAY 3, 1999: "Oohhh yeah. I admit I was really wild then. I've slowed down, though -- to a halt," says Martin Banks, laughing a slow and deep "heh heh heh" at the memory. He's talking about the time he spent in New York City during the Fifties and Sixties, during the explosion of modern bebop jazz. He's talking about the chance of a lifetime.
"I was born and raised here in Austin," says the 62-year-old local jazz trumpet player. "We had a movie theater on the Eastside called the Harlem Theatre that I used to go to as a kid so I could look at the shorts in between the regular movies. They would always run bands playing, and I'd always watch for my father in one of those bands, because he played with a band out in Chicago that John Coltrane was in. I'd watch to see if could I see him in one of the bands. I always used to see Count Basie and Duke Ellington's bands, they were up there all the time, and I always wanted to play in those bands. Fortunately enough, I was able to play in all of them."
Banks left home at 15, moving out west to San Francisco for school and extended horn therapy, but the sounds of New York beckoned. A stint with Ray Charles bought the youngster his first airplane ticket -- a one-way ride to where it was all going down.
"Duke heard me playing in Lionel Hampton's band," recalls Banks in the living room of his South Austin home. "This was '64-'65. I remember him coming in to the Metropol. We were the top band playing, and that was the first time I had ever seen Lionel Hampton cut the band off in the middle of a song -- "Flying Home" -- to acknowledge Duke Ellington being in the club. I remember he was standing there in his black suit down at the bar. Two or three years after that, I was playing at the Apollo Theatre and Mercer [Ellington, Duke's son] came to me and said, 'Pops wants you in the band.'"
Needless to say, the young trumpeter seized the opportunity. After all, it didn't get any better than the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
"I played in an early Sun Ra band and we used to sound just like Duke," says Banks. "That was like 1956. All the bands in the Fifties and Sixties, if it was a black band and if it was jazz, they tried to sound like Duke, 'cause he was the root of everything. All your things came off of him -- the modern things."
In signing on with the Ellington Orchestra, Banks got a taste of life at the top of the musical heap: "That was the first band I was able to take my whole family with me on all the road trips. I took my son when I played my first gig with them at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Johnny Hodges sat in front of me on the bus, and my youngest son at the time was sitting with Johnny up there all the time. Johnny kept him for about a week, heh heh heh.
"We played a whole bunch of those big affairs. I had lived in Washington, D.C., but I had never been to the National Cathedral. I had been to the zoo, heh heh. I remember the sound that the band had in there, it was perfect. It wasn't amplified at all, but it was perfect. I wish I'd been myself then. I was wild at that time, and it didn't sink in what was happening. It was more like a dream, like a hallucination or something. I did get to play in the band, that's one of the greatest achievements any jazz musician could get, for real jazz."
Though Banks' resume also includes playing in the bands of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, B.B. King, and a host of others, it was his brief time in Ellington's Orchestra that represents his career's apex.
"Duke's band was entirely different," he says. "It was all about musicianship, and those cats were different kinds of guys. ... Plus that was the most money I ever made in my life. He owned his own band, had cats on salary.
"That was like the ultimate goal in any jazz musician's life, to play in that band, because that was the pinnacle of jazz. So I did get to play in that band, but when Mercer told me that he wanted me to stay in the band, that's when I was kind of in a little hot water around New York and I couldn't leave town. He was going to Europe for about three weeks, and I couldn't leave New York at the time. But I got to play all around with them for about three months."
Banks admits to having a fairly severe, though brief, drug habit while in New York City, a condition common to many jazz musicians at the time. The treatment he underwent to kick the habit -- swapping methadone for heroin -- was nearly as restrictive as the drug itself.
"The doctor told me I couldn't go [to Europe], I had to stay in New York. That's when I found out I was a prisoner of taking this stuff, like guinea pig type stuff. I didn't never have to leave New York, so I never thought about it until it was time to leave. This was something I'd always been waiting for, and the doctor told me I couldn't leave. I fixed him because I detoxed myself off of that medicine.
"It wasn't just heroin, it was everything. I caught myself and realized that stuff is like a crutch. You really don't want to stop, so you want a crutch. I don't do nothing. During that time everything was going on. LSD was out there, it was all kinds of stuff. I experimented with all of them. The worst was the kind that you couldn't play your instrument, something that knocks you out where you can't do anything. The worst one? You know what the worst one was? Alcohol. That was the worst one."
Banks cleaned up and went on with his career, playing his horn for the big bands of Frank Foster, Maynard Ferguson, Earl Bostic, and others, and recording with a long list of luminaries including Hank Crawford, Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp, and Jimmy Witherspoon before returning to his home in Austin. Ellington, though, keeps top billing.
"Duke was the ultimate. Everything that he was about was brilliance, musically. He played his own style, and he had everyone in the band play their own style. He incorporated all that into one thing -- and you couldn't go no higher than that."
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