“When I went to undergrad, I kind of did jazz in secret, like on the side,” said Ellie Martin. “I remember a teacher telling me once that jazz was going to ruin your voice. You’re not really supposed to do that. A lot of singers did though. You did it on the side and you didn’t say anything.”
Martin’s jazz hobby is no secret anymore. And with a new album, Verdant (self released, 2023), and a Midwest tour that concludes Saturday with an engagement at Akron’s BLU Jazz+, singing jazz has become more than a side hustle for the Toledo-based vocalist.
Ellie Martin not only shrugged off the closed-mindedness of the educational establishment, but she is also working to change it from within. She’s now vocal jazz instructor at the University of Toledo, where she studied with the incomparable master of jazz vocalese Jon Hendricks.
“He operated on a different wavelength than I’ve ever experienced with another person,’ Martin said of Hendricks, a Toledo native who died in 2017 at the age of 95. “He was very kind, a very intelligent, very caring person, incredibly brilliant lyric writer and improviser.” At the time, Martin’s mother also taught at UT. Her father, too, was an academic, so it seemed almost inevitable that Martin would get a Ph.D., in her case, from the University of Pittsburgh.
Her teachers there included the late Dr. Nathan Davis, a distinguished educator and colleague of Eric Dolphy’s, and the late and much-lamented pianist Geri Allen. “I was the only woman graduate student in jazz studies at Pitt, and it was so nice to a mentor that was also a woman,” Martin said by phone from her home in Toledo. “I got to sing at one of the recitals at Pitt with her. What a dream just to be able to sing with her. When I did my graduate recital, she said, ‘Ellie, you’ve got to record these tunes.’”
Twelve of the 14 songs on Verdant are originals, a bold flex for a debut release where most singers front-load the program with familiar standards. Writing didn’t come easy to Martin at first. “When I started, I was like, Oh, I can’t share this with anyone because it’s not perfect,” she said. “Now I have kind of let go of that perfectionism to an extent, and it’s been very freeing in that I can come up with an idea record it on my phone and then I can go do something else and come back to it. I can keep tinkering. It doesn’t have to be like you sit down and in one hour write the magnum opus of my life. That’s too much pressure.”
Martin doesn’t take herself too seriously, on the page or on stage. “When I was 25, I got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and my way of dealing or coping with the process when you’re faced with really scary health situations [is to] use laughter,” she said. “I find that is a way to connect with people, and I feel like that comes out in my music writing as well.”
Her sense of humor is reflected in the breezy referentiality of her song titles. “As Time Goes” all but dares you to add the word that completes the title of the familiar standard and “Never Will I Worry” winks at “Never Will I Marry,” a 1960’s hit by Nancy Wilson.
Martin’s band seconds her approach with a suppleness that’s the return on a long-term investment in collaboration. About Detroit bassist Kurt Krahnke, Martin said, “What I love about Kurt’s playing is he can play all kinds of stuff, which is great for my musical tastes ’cause I don’t just do medium swingers.” Guitarist and pianist Ariel Kasler met Martin at Bowling Green State University where he teaches. He made his Cleveland leader debut at Bop Stop last year in a band that included drummer Olman Piedra, who is Martin’s husband. “I met him at the New York Voices camp. He was a grad student at BGSU when I attended the camp,” she said. “We ended up getting married at the camp. I always joke with people like, ‘You should come to camp. Anything can happen. I met my husband there!’”
Ellie Martin Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m. at BLU Jazz+, 47 E Market St., Akron. $20, available here.