Saturday, December 9, 2023

Life is a Work of Art for Toledo Jazz Artist Ellie Martin

With her first album “Verdant,” Ellie Martin channels the joys of motherhood and the strength gained from surviving cancer, into a work that shimmers with life. 

Martin has been singing jazz at clubs like Murphy’s Place since she was 25, but her musical journey and life have intertwined in unexpected ways. Her first album, “Verdant,” is bursting with both the joys and sorrows she’s experienced, waiting to finally come alive with her own music. Having studied and taught music for most of her life, this album is original material that she took out on the road on a mini tour that included Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

Now, though, Martin is located in Toledo, where she teaches performance and jazz voice at the University of Toledo and at the Toledo School for the Arts 

“I came from an academic family, but my dad had an artistic side and wrote poetry,” Martin said. “My mom loved to listen to Motown, so I got some hip music influence from her.” 

She says she was “the black sheep of the family” who gravitated toward the arts. While her parents were supportive, they also were concerned that, following her musical ambitions, she might not be able to make a steady living. 

From Classical to Jazz

Music education was one way to assuage those concerns. When applying to college, Martin sought programs that offered both classical and jazz. She wound up studying in Montreal, home of the world-famous Montreal Jazz Festival — a city teeming with great clubs and musicians. 

While Martin is appreciative of her classical training, she found the music itself too constricting. 

“I always knew I wanted to write my own music, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was yet,” Martin said. “I was drawn to Joni Mitchell and wanted to be more individually expressive.”

Inspiration came from hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on a duet album. 

“I loved how it swings so hard, and how they interact with each other,” Martin said. “I always had a thing for jazz but was steered away from it by a classical teacher who told me I’d ruin my voice.” 

In secret she’d hang with the jazz kids in Montreal, going to jazz clubs and studying jazz voice with a teacher on the sly. 

Trust the Process

Martin says writing is much more fun than arranging someone else’s songs. 

“With writing you have a blank canvas to play with,” Martin said. “With someone else’s song, you work within another person’s color palette.” 

She also shared her thoughts on her songwriting process, saying, “I tinker at the piano until I find a chord progression, then a melody and then lyrics. On rare occasions I’ve had the melody and lyrics come first. My song, ‘Step into Your Essence,’ is the only one where the melody and lyrics came first. I was out walking with my daughter and this melody came into my head with words, and I wrote [the song] in a day. That’s unusual for me, but that song just happened.”

The Album

On “Verdant,” Martin wanted to choose songs that played to the strength of her band. Her husband, drummer Olman Piedra, is from Costa Rica and adds a Latin influence. Martin confesses that she loves the drama of Latin music, which influenced songs like “Dancer’s Serenade,” and “Living for the Now” — a samba written for her daughters, aged two and four. 

“Verdant” album cover.

“What’s a better groove for toddlers than samba, they’re such high energy!” Martin said. 

One of the reasons Martin loves jazz is the genre’s ability to pull from other musical influences like flamenco, blues and even pop. 

“Verdant” reflects Martin’s experiences as a woman, a mother and cancer survivor, and focuses on the beauty that comes out of hardships. Her cancer battle reminded her that life was beautiful, but short, and we should do what we love. 

“My experiences gave me a feeling of renewal, and so I called it ‘Verdant,’” Martin said. “I wrote ‘Love Somehow Will Heal’ about my friend, Lisa Garcia. She was my advocate and passed away from cancer at 36. That was the hardest song on the album to sing. Even though she’s gone, I carry her in my heart. ‘Moments,’ the last track on the album, is about the connections we have with people we love long after they’re gone.”

Verdant is very much alive: the culmination of considerable talent channeled through the vibrant life of its composer. Listen to Verdant at

Recent Articles