Rest in Peace, Martin Fierro
By Blair Jackson
Martin in 2006. Photo: Bob Minkin © 2008
The music world and the Grateful Dead family lost a major talent and a good, good friend when reeds great Martin Fierro succumbed to cancer on Thursday, March 13. Martin (pronounced mar-teen, but you can call him Meester, if you’d like) is probably best known by Dead Heads for playing sax and flute on the Dead’s 1973 album Wake of the Flood and then being a regular member of the Saunders-Garcia band and the Legion of Mary between the fall of 1973 and the middle of 1975. But this fun and spirited cat had a very full lifetime in music before and after his association with Garcia.
Born in Mexico in January 1942 of Native American and Mexican parentage, he moved to the West Texas town of El Paso when he was 10 and from a very early age was intrigued by music. As an adolescent he took up the saxophone, which he mostly learned by ear, and though he played in his high school marching band, he was much more inspired by early rock ’n’ roll and rhythm & blues pioneers such as Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and was already gigging with a local band in clubs by the time he was 15. Then, “once I started listening to jazz, I couldn’t quit,” he told me in 2005 when I interviewed him for the liner notes of the Jerry Garcia Collection, Vol. 1: Legion of Mary. “I was overwhelmed by it all, but I couldn’t play it, so I had to learn the idiom. Somebody came along from Philadelphia and told me how to listen first, and then little by little they taught me how to play changes, which is something I didn’t know how to do. I paid ten years of jazz dues, learning everything I could, though I still played rock and R&B, too.”
Though he enjoyed some success as a jazz player in the Southwest and in Mexico, in 1968 he heard the siren call of freewheeling San Francisco and moved to the Bay Area. Within a matter of weeks he was adding his fiery sax and mellifluous flute to any jam session that would have him. And he quickly encountered Jerry Garcia: “I met Jerry in Golden Gate Park, but I didn’t really understand who he was at first. I was there with a friend who was a conga player, and there were probably 40 other conga players there, pounding their drums and making a lot of noise. I would play along with them; a lot of horn players would do that. So this guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, you play pretty good. Where are you from?’ I said ‘El Paso.’ ‘How long have you been in town?’ ‘Oh, about a week.’ And then he said, ‘I’m playing a gig at the Matrix, over on Fillmore. You want to come down and play with us?’ We’ve got this organ player, Howard Wales.’ And the funny thing is, I knew Howard from El Paso; he was hanging out there for a while! So I said, ‘Sure, I’ll be there.’ And it wasn’t until I got there that I really understood that this was Jerry! He had Bill Vitt on drums and John Kahn on bass. We had a great time, and Jerry said, ‘I’ll be calling on you.’ We became friends immediately. It was love at first bite, man!” (For the record, I should note that this probably occurred in 1969, not 1968; there’s no record of Garcia and Wales playing together at the Matrix that early.)
Martin with John Cipollina, 1986.
Photo: Bob Minkin © 2008
During this period, however, Martin’s main gig was playing with the fine San Francisco blues-rock band Mother Earth (he appeared on their first two albums), and at this time he also solidified some musical relationships that would bear fruit for years to come: he worked with Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet (originally from Texas, too) and he met and played with John Cipollina and Quicksilver Messenger Service. In 1971 Martin and Garcia both played on Howard Wales’s jazzy instrumental album, Hooteroll?, and in the summer of ’73 Garcia asked him to play on a couple of tracks of Wake of the Flood. It was around that time that he started sitting in occasionally with the Saunders-Garcia group. Then, on eight shows of the Dead’s September East Coast tour, Martin and trumpeter Joe Ellis—both of whom were traveling with opening act Doug Sahm—also played as the Dead’s horn section on a number of songs—a move that was, frankly, not very popular with the fans. “The Dead Heads hated me,” Fierro said with a chuckle. “They really didn’t want to hear horns with the Grateful Dead.”
Nonetheless, Martin’s and Jerry’s relationship was strengthened by the experience, and it was shortly after that that the reedsman started playing with Garcia full-time—my own first show seeing Martin with Jerry was at Pauley Ballroom at UC Berkeley in January 1974, and it was clear from the get-go that he had brought a lot of his own influences into the band’s sound. The instrumentals took on more jazz colors, and he also contributed Latin flavors to the brew. He was not afraid to really blow, and I dug his use of wah-wah and Echoplex on some of his solos.
“Jerry wanted to play even more jazz,” Martin said, “and he encouraged me to bring in new tunes. Oh, man we were playing all sorts of stuff…He was always up for anything.
“I asked him one time, ‘Do you mind if I play to my heart’s content?’ and he said, ‘No, man, I want you to. It makes me play better when you give your all, Martin.’ You play with some guys and they don’t want you to play a lot and you can’t really express yourself, but it was never that way with Jerry. We were all on the same page and we were all equals.”
Martin had no trouble finding work following the dissolution of the Legion of Mary; indeed his tenure with Garcia was like a springboard to an expanded fan base and many new opportunities. He continued to play on and off with Merl Saunders—a lifelong friend—and he also played often with various groups led by John Cipollina, including a marathon stint in the great Bay Area jam band Zero. His association with Zero also led to an enduring musical partnership with Steve Kimock, as well. In fact, the last time I saw Martin play was with a re-formed Zero (with Kimock) at Wavy Gravy’s birthday benefit at the Regency Ballroom in SF in 2007. Over the years Martin also sat in with many other jam bands, from String Cheese Incident to Dark Star Orchestra. “I just love to play, man,” he told me, “I’ll show up and it’s, ‘Oh, Martin, you gonna play with us, right?’ And I say, ‘Well, I do happen to have a horn with me…’” he laughed.
When we spoke, he joked about how he had cheated death on numerous occasions: “The worst was a surfing accident in Hawaii [in the late ’90s]. I broke my neck and my back, man. I was dead for close to ten minutes and they brought me back, and then they thought I was brain damaged or I’d be paralyzed. The next day I played a gig with Zero!” He laughed heartily—as he often did. And whether there was a touch of exaggeration in the tale or not doesn’t matter. (He did, in fact, carry a lot of physical pain with him, from that and other episodes) But it shows his zest for life, which he retained until his final days on earth.
Another one gone too soon.
You can share your memories of Martin and leave messages for his loved ones at martinfierromusic.com.
CLICK HERE To Listen to Steve Kimock and Billy Goodman Performing "You are with me" - The opening song at the Great American Music Hall - 3.13.08 - A beautiful send off for our beloved Meester (MP3 Format)
Jerry john and martin back together again
the 3 amigo's
can you hear em
rip my brother
Thanks For All The Great Music.
RIP & God Bless,
Marteen's influence into the Dead musicality was a blessing not imediatly recognized. That El Topo thing was interesting, I have a vinyl LP of it. Marteen was also great with The Magestic Doug Sahm. Rumour has it he's auditioning for Frank Zappa's Big Band at this point in time.
Thanks for mentioning that film, Dave! I meant to but forgot! VERY odd film, but great soundtrack by MF!
It's been a long time... and I'm blessed that a lot of that time was spent with Meester.
The bells in Heaven are Ringing!
check Meetsers site for some music , especially his tracks for "El Topo", which Garcia especially dug: http://martinfierromusic.com/music/ (click on the Jokebox link)
Martin will be missed, just listened to Limbo from Legion Of Mary Bonus CD, awesome sax!!
I'm sure Jerr is glad to see him though...
For the sound of your sax in all those bands I have been listening to over the years. I bet you aren't resting in peace, I think you are playing in peace with Jerry and John Cippolina right now, man I can hear it and you are all smiling big time. They have their sax player with them now. Peace brother.
p.s. great shot of Martin and John
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
I had heard he was ill, but I'm sure sad to see him go. One of the local scene's greats.