Omaha Loses Jazz Legend, Mentor, Close Friend Ernest “Curly” Martin
Ernest “Curly” Martin. January 4, 1944 – March 13, 2023.
There is an African proverb that says: “When an old man dies, the library burns down.” On March 13, we lost one of our most important libraries. The legendary Ernest “Curly” Martin, aged 79, has died after a long illness. Curley has been a musician to the world, a teacher to all of us, a family to many, a mentor to some, and a close friend of mine.
Visiting Curly’s home was a journey into Omaha’s history. He took me to his studio, where he practiced for four hours a day every day, lifting weights in between. We sat among his drum kits and analog tape recorders and talked about the state of the Omaha black music scene. He told stories about the Deuce, the area around 24th Street and Lake Street, during its heyday. Curly had stories like a musician who traveled the world and played with everyone from Etta James to Calvin Keys. But he also told stories about daily life in North Omaha. I heard about Allen’s Showcase Lounge and the streets that the musicians used to move from club to club. He told me who owned every store on 24th Street and every musician who played on the block and who left town to represent Omaha on the world stage. He was proud of North Omaha’s musical contribution to the world and its impact on it.
Curley would say that young people in Omaha are not taught to play instruments, nor do they have local examples of people making a living from music, as he did in his youth. His love of Omaha meant he would live out the rest of his years here and use his ability to teach, mentor and tell stories to inspire the next generation. He also continued to travel the world and play on top stages such as Blue Note in New York.
The last play he played was last summer at the Benson Theatre. He was joined by singer and fiancée Cynthia Taylor, organist Jeremy Thomas, and Curly’s more famous son, Terrace Martin. Terrace continues the tradition of musical excellence and spreads it around the world with a host of artists and friends, from Snoop Dogg to Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, who offered their condolences on the news of Curly’s passing. Kerli was the guru of the world music community.
Curley got to know Omaha again, especially to younger enthusiasts, during a year-long residency at the legendary Hi-Fi House through the vision and friendship of owner Kate Dussaud. Once a month for a year, we witnessed history as Curly introduced us to musical legends coming from Omaha such as Stemsy Hunter, Hank Redd and Vali Ali, as well as new artists who he thought were continuing the tradition – Leveid Milliner from Omaha, Ben Merliss and, of course, his son Terrace. The Hi-Fi House ecosystem and the Make Believe Studio family have solidified Kerli’s legendary status among young and old and people of all backgrounds in his hometown. Something he was proud of.
Curley was real, never hesitating to call on musicians who didn’t practice the craft that North Omaha was once known for. For some, he was a difficult person. But that was only if you imitated funk. He demanded nothing less than perfection, especially if you called yourself a musician. It signified perfection in your craft, character and professionalism. And he will let you know when you fail.
It’s easy to say that Kerley lived a long and full life, but he was young at heart and eagerly awaited new heights and goals. The last time I spoke to him, he told me to invite him to another performance at the Benson Theatre. His youthful enthusiasm for the new band he was putting together convinced me that he would be all right. He never gave up on his determination to get better and keep jamming. He was a tough old dude who would never let you know anything was wrong. The library of stories that make up the history of North Omaha burned down. I will really miss my friend.
Curly is survived by his longtime love and fiancee Cynthia Taylor, many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The family oversaw the private service, and a celebration of his life was held on March 25 on Deuce Day, attended by many family members, friends, and musicians.
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