Best Overlooked Jazz Elder

Aaron Martin
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

He dates the black-and-white pictures of himself on Facebook to 1985. A man with a goatee and an intense, penetrating stare: here in front of a piano, there holding his alto saxophone in one hand and his young daughter in another. (The latter was a gig at the Old Post Office Pavilion, and he couldn’t find a babysitter.) Those were the days of d.c. space and the D.C. Free Jazz Festival, when D.C.’s jazz avant-garde might have been at its peak. By that time, Aaron Martin was already 37 years old, had lived in D.C. all his life, and played music for most of it.

Now 66, Martin remains a leading light of “outside” jazz in D.C. He’s one third of OOO Trio, with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Sam Lohman (their album Days to Be Told comes out in the spring); has worked with avant-garde stalwarts like Anthony Braxton and Roy Campbell; and continues to be a student of the music. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of great teachers; I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “And I’m still trying to get better—it’s neverending.” Indeed, the alto saxophonist arises early in the morning to practice before work (at a downtown law firm) in his loft space at New York Avenue NE’s Union Arts, then comes back in the evening to practice some more. Sometimes he even sleeps there.

It’s paid off, allowing Martin to develop a clear but flexible and expressive tone that phrases in short bursts, into each of which he packs many melodic ideas. And it’s made him a font of musical and creative wisdom to which musicians and in-the-know listeners hang on with close attention. Though Martin is lesser-known than many of his peers, he’s genuinely welcoming of open-eared and -minded audiences, and remains optimistic about the music’s future. “The avant-garde lives in D.C.,” he says. “It ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Certainly not as long as it’s got Martin.