Martin Denny could be described a lot of ways. An ethnomusicological pastiche artist. An embarrassing cultural imperialist. The logical conclusion of “tiki culture.” A watered-down jazz performer. A creator of overcooked elevator music. The soundtrack to every Shag print ever made.
Denny was a piano player who had little fame and a few gigs in other people’s bands before he formed his own group. Their genre was generally called “exotica,” whose meaning I’m sure you can figure out, and which Les Baxter inaugurated with 1951’s Ritual of the Savage. Picture a bunch of white Americans picking up instruments from Polynesia, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and creating the kind of music they imagine people in those places would play.
I bought one of Martin Denny’s many compilation albums (his discography includes more than 30 LPs, not counting reissues and best-ofs) in about 2006, thinking it would be cool background music for lounge-y parties and stuff like that. You know, in the imaginary world where I live in John Lautner’s Chemosphere house and regularly hook up with models and beat poets.
Get out of my living room, art book publisher Benedikt Taschen!
At any rate, while this is definitely background music, and you have to set aside concerns about cultural appropriation to listen to it, it’s still possible to enjoy a Martin Denny album, the same way you can savor a Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s or sit in the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland. Just chill a bit and imagine you’re in Hawaii. Not the real Hawaii, where you get sunburned and overcharged for soggy hot dogs, but the imaginary tropical paradise with white sand beaches and palm trees swaying in the breeze.
There’s probably an interesting sociological digression to be had here about how the mass adoption of air travel and television in the 1950s began to expose regular Americans to the cultures of other parts of the world (i.e., everything not North America or western Europe). Polynesia, in particular, was hip at this time, along with its fellow subregions Micronesia and Melanesia, likely due in part to the number of WWII vets who came home after being stationed in the South Pacific theater, as well as Hawaii’s push toward statehood, achieved in 1959.
Unfortunately, I’ve been out of graduate school for many years now, and I’m no longer sharp enough to develop or articulate any theories about this kind of thing. And really, we’re talking about a band that includes a guy whose job is to make monkey noises.
The animal sounds became the band’s trademark, and boy, did they roll with it. The song “Tsetse Fly” starts with the sound of an insect (A tsetse fly? Reply hazy; try again) buzzing around the microphone. Other animal impersonations I have identified on these records include birds, frogs, and ducks. Please be aware that Martin Denny sold millions of records.
Denny might be the one whose name is on the band, but the star is clearly Arthur Lyman, the real-life Hawaiian who played marimba and vibraphone in the band. (Denny was born in New York.) Lyman left in 1957 to form his own band, leaving Denny with a revolving door of mallet players. Don’t worry, though — the music was never very challenging.
How about those album covers? Twelve of them featured model-actress Sandy Warner, whose link to Denny was so strong she became known as “The Exotica Girl.” She was also in a handful of TV shows, like Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone.
Denny peaked pretty quickly. His later records are either retreads of his first six albums or collections of jazz, pop, Broadway, and movie theme covers, which generally pale in comparison to the originals. A year after Wendy Carlos’s landmark 1968 album Switched-On Bach, Denny cut a record of exotica tunes on a Moog. I do not recommend it.
I doubt Denny would have cared much about this assessment, though. As far as I can tell, he was just a dude who liked playing “exotic” music and living in Hawaii, and who can blame him?
So throw on some Martin Denny the next time you’re hosting your friends for rum drinks with umbrellas in them. What else are you going to listen to, Wilco again? Another Jonsi solo album? That’s hardly festive. Be awesome for a change, is what I’m saying.