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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 4, 2005

Martin Denny — the sound of exotica

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

With cheers of "hana hou" filling the Hawai'i Theatre after he performed "Quiet Village" with the group Don Tiki in 2003, Martin Denny took two standing ovations in his last major performance. Although weakened by age and failing health, he had lived to enjoy the international resurgence of exotica and was thrilled with the endorsement of his music by baby boomers.

Martin Denny, who died at his apartment in Hawai'i Kai, said in 2003 that popular music is "hardly anything romantic or melodic" anymore.

Advertiser library photo • 2003

"I'm happy the music's back, because I'm frankly tired of hearing the same old thing," Denny said in a 2003 interview with The Advertiser. "Rap music. High-voltage rock 'n' roll. What will kids today remember 20 years from now? There's hardly anything romantic or melodic. I think a whole lot of good music has been lost."

The 93-year-old composer and keyboardist died Wednesday night at his Hawai'i Kai apartment; he had a weak heart, arthritis and diabetes.

The local icon was best known for developing and defining his own sound, "exotica," combining bird calls, jungle chimes, croaking frogs and Asian, Latin and Pacific riffs with jazz and pop music.

In his heyday, Denny's O'ahu-based band included Augie Colón, who was the originator of the bird calls, and Arthur Lyman, a vibraphone player who also became an exponent of "exotic" music worldwide. Both are also gone.

"He is now playing exotica music with Augie and Arthur in heaven," said Lloyd Kandell, a Honolulu musician who has been carrying on the exotica tradition with Denny's blessing through the act called Don Tiki.

"He went very peacefully, graciously," said his daughter, Christina, who was his caregiver. "Dad had multiple organ failure, and he rallied up and down in recent weeks. But he was lucid till the end, happy and comfortable. I kissed his masterful hands — and said goodbye."

Denny relied on a wheelchair to tool around to infrequent gigs in recent years. His death saddened the music community.

"Marty was one of the classiest guys in the business," said Don Ho, who shared a Waikiki stage with Denny in the early 1960s. "He would play, then I would play, and he was encouraging me, so happy to see a new kid on the block being successful," said Ho. "There was not a bone of envy in his body, not an ounce of jealousy. He has been gracious all these years; he had million-sellers and he was still supportive. We lost a good guy."

"Marty created such beautiful exotic music for the world to enjoy," said Kandell. "But he also was an inspirational example of how to live life. He was giving; he last performed at a fund-raiser (for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami) at La Pietra just two weeks ago."

"He was my buddy; we were the best of friends," said Del Courtney, a veteran musician and bandleader who'd get together with Denny for lunch on Wednesdays, health willing. "I met him 60 years ago in San Francisco; he was a name then and still is. He'll be missed by everybody."

Signature sound

Denny turned bird calls, vibes and piano into a signature sound, epitomized by his instrumental hit, "Quiet Village." At the height of his career, three or four albums held places simultaneously on the Billboard, Cashbox, and Variety best-seller lists.

Over the course of a career that began in the late 1950s, he released more than 40 albums and helped launch careers for his sidemen, including Lyman, Colón and Julius Wechter (vibes) of the Baja Marimba Band. His long-playing vinyl discs suggested a mythic, magical allure, with titles such as "Exotica," "Primitiva," "Afro-Desia," "Forbidden Island," and "Hypnotique."

His sound fused American jazz with Latin American, Asian and South Pacific influences, relying on gongs, chimes and other unconventional instruments. Denny once said his music was inspired by the romantic setting of James Michener's novel, "South Pacific." In turn, Michener once said of Denny's sound: "It uses instruments and rhythms not usually found in popular music. I like it because it reminds me of places I've been, and sounds I've loved."

"Quiet Village," originally included on Denny's first album, "Exotica," has resurfaced in the past decade to appeal to a new generation of music fans, who label the tropical-flavored tune "lounge music." His music received a booster shot when Toshiba-EMI in Japan and Capitol Records in the United States issued compilations of his "exotica" in the '90s.

His album covers always boasted alluring female models — all from Hollywood, not Hawai'i — and his recordings encompassed a variety of motifs, including Broadway and film hits.

The bird calls and frog sounds of "Quiet Village" were inspired by his Hawaiian environment, Denny said — and he didn't know he was creating a hit. "The song was purely accidental," he said. "I was opening at the Shell Bar at the old Hawaiian Village (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village), and we played the song and inserted bird calls.

"There was a pond of water near the band, and whenever we played the selection, bufos were croaking, 'Ribbet, ribbet, ribbet.' When I stopped playing, they stopped croaking. It was a coincidence. When we started up again, adding the bird calls, the croaking would resume. Cracked me up."

When he recorded "Quiet Village," he incorporated bird calls by Colón and imitated the frog sound by rubbing a coin on a guiro, a grooved cylinder. The track first appeared on the "Exotica" album on Liberty Records, and when it caught on, Denny's second album was dubbed "Quiet Village." Both albums made the Billboard charts in 1959; a single, "Quiet Village" peaked at No. 4.

Began at Shell Bar

A favorite on the Waikiki strip in the 1950s and '60s, Denny first played the old Shell Bar at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel (now the Hilton), then moved to clubs such as Don the Beachcomber's, which later became Duke Kahanamoku's, in the International Market Place. Over the years, he performed at the Kahala Hilton and the Hawaiian Regent, as well as at Canlis' Restaurant, and the Blue Dolphin — nightspots that no longer exist.

In 1959, Billboard, the music industry bible, named his band "most promising group of the year," and he was nominated for "pianist of the year" alongside such giants as George Shearing and Ahmad Jamal.

In 1990, the Hawai'i Academy of Recording Arts honored Denny with a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement Award.

Denny was born April 5, 1911, in New York City. Trained in classical music, he first studied piano at age 10 and was a prodigy of Lester Spitz and Eleanor Gorn. As a youth, he toured South America with a six-piece band and frequent visits left an impression — the Latin elements that would infiltrate his sound.

He served in the Air Force during World War II and did tours of duty in Germany and France, then studied music and composition at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.

He was a member of ASCAP, the Hawaiian Professional Song Writers Society, and the Musicians Association of Hawaii, Local 677.

His wife, June, died in 2001. He is survived by his daughter, Christina.

Services are set for March 12 at the Elks Club. Details are pending.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.