I came across this article on Sparrow Martin while combing through the Star Newspaper archives and was reminded of yet another Jamaican musician who has never quit and continues to leave a legacy to the next generation of musicians. I have had the pleasure of meeting him a number of times and he is always full of love and smiles. He has coined nickname for me–Scary Bird. I’m a tenacious American, what can I say?! In 2011 he told me how he got his nickname while a student at Alpha Boys School. “We were told in school we are not to go out in the rain ’cause of the cold that you would catch, and we liked to play in the rain. But Sister (Ignatius) always come down when the rain starting. She would come down with her umbrella and she walk and look to see who is in the rain. So one day, I was in junior home, and I didn’t see the Sister was coming up. I was playing in the rain. So I climb up in a tree and when I climb up, it start to rain some more. And she come under the tree and said, ‘Come out of the tree, you naughty little sparrow. What would your mother do if you stayed here and drown?’ The boys now heard her so they start singing, ‘Sparrow treetop, la la la la la.’ From that come my name. When I left Alpha, I wanted a name as a musician, so I used the name because my name is Winston Martin, so the name is Sparrow Martin, and I became world famous.”
The following is the text of the Star Newspaper article from November 29, 1964:
Top Drummer ‘Sparrow’ is a Man of Many Parts
“Meet Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin, the new top drummer with Carlos Malcolm and the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms. Tall, quiet and with an easy smile, 23-year-old ‘Sparrow’ has stacked up a great many successes in a few short years of professional musicianship. He has mastered five instruments.
During his school days at Alpha, ‘Sparrow’ began on the E-flat horn, then he learned trumpet, then drums. The last, now his favourite instrument, he learned about from Lennie Hibbert. In his ‘spare time’ he learned to play the euphonium and it became ‘Sparrow’s’ specialty, with the trumpet as his second instrument for the three years he was in the Jamaica’s Constabulary Force Band. This was from 1958 when the band was formed at a time when its members were not required to be in the force.
Came 1961, and ‘Sparrow’ moved to the Jamaica Military Band and alternated the euphonium this time with the French horn, which he learned to play by the ‘do-it-yourself’ method. His ‘spare-time’ also stretched at this point to allow him to branch out into the popular music field, and his first recording he proudly states, was when he drummed for the Joe Williams group in the accompaniment for Lord Creator’s ‘Independence Calypso.’ On a more solid footing, he joined the Sonny Bradshaw Quartet and was with them for a year.
Red-letter days for ‘Sparrow’ are too numerous to list. Remember the drummer of the LTN pantomime production ‘Jamaica Way;’ the ballet production ‘Footnotes in Jazz,’ the 1963 Independence Anniversary Jazz Festival, and the all star band for the Sammy Davis Show? Then you’ve remembered ‘Sparrow’ Martin. He recalled his three-month tour with the Vagabonds to England early this year, cut short because he had to return home to go with the Jamaica Military Band to St. Kitts to represent Jamaica at the West Indies Arts Festival. For with all this ‘sideline’ activity, ‘Sparrow’ has still all along been a permanent member of the Military band.
To prospective drummers, ‘Sparrow’ advises dedication as the keynote to success. Of all the instruments he plays, he finds the drums allow him to express himself most. ‘You have to listen keenly to the other instruments, know the other members of the band, be with them, ‘read’ them. At the same time, you enjoy going with all you’ve got–your hands, your feet, your mind . . . ‘
There’s the greatest possible scope in jazz drumming ‘Sparrow’ avows as he rhapsodies about Sammy Payne, Sam Woodyard, Rufus Jones, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones.
Above all, though, as he beats it out with the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, he has a feeling of being the closest he’s been so far to his fans. ‘They’re with it,’ he says, ‘and of course it works both ways.’ He leaves the Jamaica Military Band this month to join the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms on a permanent basis.” –Joy Gordon
Sparrow came to Alpha Boys School because he was a bit unruly. He told me, “My father couldn’t mind me. I was a guy who was very rude, didn’t want to go to school.” After he left Alpha and performed with the Constabulary and Military bands, and Carlos Malcolm’s group, he event formed a group of his own, as seen here in this advertisement from the Daily Gleaner, December 3, 1980.
Sparrow Martin had a successful career in music before bringing his knowledge to the youth as band master at the Alpha Boys School. “I used to do recordings and I left all of my musical life and it feels good,” he told me about taking on the role as band master in 1989. He still leads the boys band today even though Alpha Boys School is now known as Alpha Institute and is a day school only, no boarding after over a century of housing and schooling the students. When I drove by the school on South Camp Road last week, even the sign had changed to proclaim the new name, Alpha Institute. And Sparrow continues to school his boys in music and today leads his own band of musicians, a group that in 2011 he was just starting to put together in his creative mind. He told me in 2011, “I am very excited about the New Skatalites, the Young Skatalites, because I think it is going to be very big. These guys are young. I was with them, there are five of them who are ages 23 to 25. When they founded the Skatalites band, these guys were over 30 years old and you guys have more of an advantage because you are young,” he said. That band is not called the Young Skatalites but instead is Ska Rebirth. They were formed in 2011 and I had the pleasure of seeing them perform in 2013 during a rehearsal. They performed Skatalites tunes classics like Guns of Navarone and Rockfort Rock.
Just last week, another group that Sparrow leads, the Alpha All Stars, performed for Reggae Month with Travis Wedderburn on trombone, a young graduate of Alpha who promises to be the next Don Drummond, and Alpha Old Boy and Skatalites’ Lester Sterling on sax. Who is that on drums? Yes, Sparrow himself!
Below is an article ran in the Jamaica Gleaner on April 30, 2012:
Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin, OD, has had a highly distinguished musical career and is now celebrating 50 years in the music industry.
Since 1989, he has been the musical director of the Alpha Boys’ School Band. In 2007, he was awarded a Bronze Musgrave Medal for his eminence in music, and was only just awarded at the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons Limited’s Jamaica 50 Living Legacy Award for contributing invaluable service to Jamaica since Independence. It is indeed noteworthy that Sparrow was one out of two musicians so awarded.
Now focussed on his brainchild, Ska Rebirth, a band formed in June 2011, the band is said to be Jamaica’s only existing ska band.
Sparrow leads the charge as its band master, and is also on drums, and has a complement of nine persons. The other band members are: Odane Stephens (keyboards), Kemroy Bonfield (saxophone), Rayon Thompson (saxophone), Camal Bloomfield (saxophone) Lance Smith (trumpet), Kemar Miller (trombone), Rohan Meredith (bass guitar) and George Hewitt (lead guitar).
More than half of the band members are graduates of Alpha Boys’ School, the home of ska music. The band is deeply committed to keeping the indigenous music form, ska, alive in Jamaica and the rest of the world; following in the tradition of their mentor, the legendary Skatalites.
“What we are doing here is not just starting a band!”, says Sparrow, in between one of his signature off beat, on beat, snare drum slaps, during a Ska Rebirth rehearsal session, “We are starting a movement, one which will bring back the original sound of ska from its roots and home, Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston, Jamaica, and spread it once again across the entire world, this is the real SKA Rebirth!!”
Since inception, Ska Rebirth has performed four times: On the talent stage at the 16th Annual Jazz Festival in January 2012, where they thrilled the audience who danced to the memorable ska sounds.
Flexibility with music
They also entertained at the Jamaica Cricket Association Annual Awards Dinner held at The Jamaica Pegasus on February 18, 2012, displaying their flexibility with background music during dinner and a lively entertainment segment. Among the distinguished guests there were the prime minister and governor general.
They again graced the stage during a joint venture that was held with Vinyl Record Collectors Association, Jamaica Chapter, on February 25, at Heather’s Garden Restaurant on Haining Road. Here the band showcased its versatility in a live show, doing a number of jazz and blues cover pieces, tantalising ska beats and backing the renowned ‘Stranger Cole’.
The band’s most recent event was a lunch-hour concert hosted by the Institute of Jamaica on March 29, targeting school children at the primary level. The children were thrilled with the novel sounds of ska and were eager to show their moves in the dance competition.
Here is an interview with Sparrow Martin in 2007 on YouTube.
Here is a rehearsal of Ska Rebirth performing in 2013 on YouTube.