“As jazz singers go, Rebecca Martin exudes the plainest sort of poise, almost radical in its utter lack of flash. When she wasn’t cradling an acoustic guitar…she held her arms clasped behind her back, as if to make sure they wouldn’t be a distraction. She sang quietly, favoring slow tempos. Her embellishments registered on the granular level, in the placement of a phrase or a light catch in her throat. She was unerringly faithful to the melodies of the songs, both standards and originals…she made them seem less like songs than like articulations of her state of mind.”
– Nate Chinen, The New York Times
Over the past 25 years, Rebecca Martin has been a professional musician, community organizer, educator, wife and mother. A native of Maine, Martin moved to New York City and lived there for a decade before migrating North and landing in Kingston, New York. There, she co-founded KingstonCitizens.org in 2006 as a way to understand the inner workings of local government and to create a platform for civic engagement in her new hometown.
“Music and community work involve different parts of my being, and it feels good and natural to exercise them both,” she says, drawing parallels between community organizing and her creative life. “Music requires time and space while organizing, details and time crunches. Both are intense.”
KingstonCitizens.org’s earliest projects included removing “souvenir” knives that turned out to be illegal weapons from a local gas station; from advocating for the city to create an updated comprehensive plan to discussing different forms of government. (READ Rebecca Martin’s Editorial in the Kingston Times) and hosting many educational forums and debates with elected officials on dozens of topics spanning from sex offenders to meadow growing. Relevant topics were selected from month to month. “We wanted to give citizens the opportunity to understand the issues better and to provide them with an action that would include them in solutions. Our focus on education was primary from the start.”
“Rebecca Martin is known in Kingston as one of the city’s most committed and effective community activists. She was the first executive director of the Kingston Land Trust, which has become a formidable force for conservation, green spaces, and community building in the city.” – Lynn Woods, The Kingston Times
Martin was snatched up in 2010 to serve as the Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust. Under her leadership, the trust was touted as a ‘national model’ by the Land Trust Alliance in the organization’s effort to develop programming that could bring the community closer to its open space. Rebecca was instrumental in starting the non-profit group’s Urban Agriculture initiatives, Kingston’s Rail Trail program, and an effort to protect African-American history and burial grounds in the city of Kingston.
After two years, she stepped down to prepare for the release of Twain (Sunnyside, 2013), a duo recording with her husband and long time collaborator, jazz bassist Larry Grenadier. The recording was featured on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section for The New York Times, and received a great deal of critical acclaim throughout the world. Martin also was nurturing several collaborations that included TILLERY (with Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato) and UPSTATE (featuring Grenadier and pianist Guillermo Klein).
But in September 2014, Rebecca would learn through a news report about Niagara Bottling, a company from California, who was pursuing a large bottling plant in the area and wanting to purchase a significant portion of the City of Kingston’s municipal water supply at Cooper Lake.
“Little to no information had been made available to the public, and very few elected and appointed officials had say over whether or not our water could be sold in this way. The public was all but shut out of the decision making process.” Martin says. “To add insult to injury, public money by way of grants and tax abatements were being offered that would amount to tens of millions of dollars. It was corporate welfare all in the name of a small handful of factory jobs, probably mostly unskilled and moderate to low wages. A second job for most. In Kingston, our water rates are based on ‘the more you use, the less you pay’. Niagara would have been the largest water user paying less than Kingston residents. A lack of updated science and future modeling made it even questionable whether or not our reservoir could handle producing the amount that they wished to purchase year after year and still provide water for residents and business alike in the long run .”
The focus on Niagara re-engaged Martin at home, and the effort started out the same as any other KingstonCitizens.org project with the group wanting to understand the proposal and all of its moving parts. But conversations quickly became lopsided, and those who supported the idea of selling Kingston’s water to a major corporation couldn’t defend their reasoning. “There were no ready or good answers to our questions. Although the idea of taking a stance was an unusual position for us, there was really no other choice as the other side had nothing to offer citizens outside of fear tactics and veiled threats.”
Martin activated and connected with several key partners and communities of local citizens and, for five months led what would become a flat-out, all-consuming educational campaign. KingstonCitizens.org and their allies effectively questioned the allocation of millions of dollars in proposed New York State grant funding and tax abatements. During the advocacy campaign, KingstonCitizens.org raised public awareness, attended countless public meetings, requested information from elected and appointed officials, wrote letters to the editors of local papers, and held public education events with representatives of the Woodstock Land Conservancy, Food & Water Watch, Riverkeeper and other influential environmental groups. Before long, KingstonCitizens.org became the center of information for citizens in the region. “A lot of people came into the fold, and it took a great deal of collaboration and coordination to effectively engage the public.” she says.
“Katt (Don Katt, former SUNY Ulster President) speculated that growing local opposition to the proposal was part of the reason for the company’s withdrawal. “I think that they saw the opposition had grown, and they feel it is better to look elsewhere,” Katt said.”
– Daily Freeman
On February 13, 2015, Niagara pulled out of its plan to establish a plastic water bottling plant in Kingston. Although it was a a great victory, what had attracted officials were the hope of manufacturing jobs, filling a two decade old vacant location and expensive repairs to century-old water infrastructure. “We were left feeling the weight of problems, known and unknown to us. It was a wake up call in learning how far behind we were on the policy front in water protection in our area. New York State is thought of as ‘water rich’. Perhaps that is true today. But we mustn’t jeopardize it’s abundance by making bad decisions. We must act responsibly.”
Martin now hopes that KingstonCitizens.org’s successful multi-faceted advocacy campaign to protect the community’s municipal water supply will serve as a replicable model for other communities facing similar challenges. “Communities nationwide are dealing with the same threats for the same reasons,” Martin says. “Privitization can be presented as a quick fix to municipal budgets. But at what cost? Water infrastructure is owned by the people who invested in it for generations. I believe that water itself is not a commodity, and should be held in the public’s trust as a public right.”
“…a generation of jazz singers, some of whom see Ms. Martin as a touchstone. Among them are Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens, with whom Ms. Martin formed a collective called Tillery two years ago, after they struck an instant chemistry late one evening around her dinner table. “She’s been a great guide and mentor and sister in my songwriting,” said Ms. Parlato, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004 but hadn’t written her own songs before befriending Ms. Martin.”
– Nate Chinen, The New York Times
All the while, keeping in the spirit of collaboration and in tandem with her community work, Martin had a handful of recordings in the making.
The first with an expected release in 2016 is TILLERY, a trio Martin began in 2010 with critically acclaimed singer-songwriter-guitarist Becca Stevens and GRAMMY-nominated jazz singer Gretchen Parlato. Another collaboration, called UPSTATE (Sunnyside Records) features Martin, Grenadier, pianist/composer Guillermo Klein and drummer Jeff Ballard, that will showcase the compositions of Martin (lyrics) and Klein (music). Both TILLERY and the members of UPSTATE will travel throughout the states and parts of the world to support their releases.
Rebecca continues to write original music for several other projects slated for release in 2017.
Composing, she says, is a meditative, non-linear process where meaning evolves. “I don’t wait to be inspired, I simply provide the space for melody and words when I go to my guitar. There isn’t any pressure on songs. It is very much like the process of child rearing or community work. You just have to trust that the correct result will come through patience and repetition.”
“…Noone mentioned Rebecca was a singer. They didn’t have to. It wasn’t just the soft lilt of her voice, but the way she held onto words for an extra beat and then let them tumble out in a rush of soft exclamations. Even if she were in the background, it was hard not to see her as being center stage….the confines of a band, even a casual one, was out of character for Rebecca, just as it would be out of character for Georgia O’Keefe, Amelia Earhart or Joni Mitchell. She moved out of the band the way you’d move out of an apartment that was too small or too noisy…Rebecca’s own elegant songs and smoky voice seems to leave nothing out; sex and death and breakfast and wind in the trees and tax forms and laughter and night. All at once.”
– Brian Cullman
“At around 16, I knew that I would leave rural Maine for New York City one day.” says Martin. Rebecca credits growing up in a recording studio in Bethel, Maine where she ‘cut her teeth’. When she moved to New York City, after several years working at MTV, her first release – in 1995 with the band, ONCE BLUE – established her influence in the world of singer-songwriters. GRAMMY-award winning songwriter Jesse Harris and Martin co-led Once Blue and their band made two well-received recordings for EMI Records featuring the early talents of some of today’s most influential jazz musicians: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Street, Jeff Ballard, Jim Black, Kenny Wollesen and Steve Cardenes. The albums blended the genres of singer-songwriter and jazz. “It was a great experience to have as young as I was, but it came at a cost.” says Martin. “I found myself in the midst of a big commercial release, in the eyes of many the ‘next big thing’. Being a scrappy artist was what was thrilling in the music making process for me, and I found myself completely uncomfortable and not handling so well the pressures of music as a commodity or being under anyone’s thumb. It just wasn’t for me and I chose to leave.”
Martin left ONCE BLUE and continued to pursue her solo career, and since 1998, has released six recordings under her own name, most of which have been selected as “critics picks” for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other important publications around the world.
In 2006, after having her first child, that she was approached by legendary drummer PAUL MOTION, who asked if she would perform with him, without a chordal instrument, on one of his popular “On Broadway” series. “That experience changed my whole approach to writing and singing” she said. The band, that featured Motian, Martin, Chris Potter (tenor saxophone) and Larry (Grenadier) would go on to perform their work at Carnegie Hall and several week stints at The Village Vanguard. “Paul was one of my early inspirations when I came to New York back in the early 90’s. It was his trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, in fact, that was my first jazz concert.”
Later, Martin was invited to perform her own original music at the Village Vanguard for a week, making her the first singer-songwriter to perform there in more than 40 years. “It was nothing short of an honor.” she says.
“Rebecca Martin may be of a school unto herself; the closest she might come to Americana would be such as the works of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsburg.
– Raul de Gama, Jazz da Gama
Martin describes herself as “a creative tumbleweed” when looking over the past 25 years. “My life has always been about three things: music, organizing, and family. They are my core and each not only lead me into unexpected places, they also feed off of one another. They are their own fragile ecosystem.”
As for what’s next in the community organizing department, Martin remains open. “I learned a great deal working on this water issue here in Kingston,” she says. “One of the reasons we chose this city as our home was because it had its own reservoir. That’s a very unique situation and I don’t take it for granted.”
Collaboration is the fluid theme that runs through Martin’s life and her approach to work. “You have to find your independence to fill your own needs and then in turn to be a good partner or collaborator.” she says. “In music, the public gets a finished product. But in real life, lots of mistakes are made and in community work and relationships, those are exposed. Music has informed me, however, that each moment counts in song and that the most inspiring music is made from our mistakes on stage. That wisdom is absolutely true in everything that we do as human beings. Own it, forgive yourself and get on with it.”