Maurice Martinez

The legend is gone.

John Pope tells us his story

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Maurice M. Martinez Jr., a longtime teacher who also was a poet, author, jazz scholar, filmmaker and drummer, died Sept. 12 at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was 88.

The cause has not been determined, said his wife, Marjorie Lu Martinez.

A native New Orleanian who earned an undergraduate degree at Xavier University, Martinez lived in Wilmington because he was professor emeritus of education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Martinez, who grew up when segregation was the law, had “a passion for untold stories and the fight for social justice and an insatiable curiosity about all life has to offer,” his son Torin Martinez said. “He had a deep appreciation for jazz music and New Orleans culture and Black Indians.”

Citing his myriad interests, Roxy Wright, a longtime friend, called Martinez a renaissance man.

“How can somebody be everything? He was,” she said.

She and other friends traced Martinez’s insatiable curiosity to his parents, Mildred and Maurice Martinez Sr., who founded the Martinez Kindergarten School in New Orleans’ 7th Ward.

“It wasn’t a day-care center,” Wright said. “It was a school. Both of my children attended; they were reading at age 3.”

Martinez, who was known in some circles as “Marty Most, Jazz Poet,” earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan and spent 51 years teaching — eight years at Joseph S. Clark and George Washington Carver high schools in New Orleans, 24 years at Hunter College in New York City and 19 years at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

His interests moved beyond academe. While at Hunter College, Martinez was artistic director for several concerts sponsored by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, including “Trumpet Traditions” with Wynton Marsalis and “Carnival in New York” at Lincoln Center.

In Wilmington, Martinez was the host of a 15-part series on National Public Radio, “North Carolina Blue Notes,” about famous jazz, blues and R&B musicians born in North Carolina, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach.

Every year, he returned to his hometown for the Jazz & Heritage Festival, where he interviewed Mardi Gras Indians, Torin Martinez said.

“He built deep relationships in that community,” the younger Martinez said. “He saw an expression of culture, of self-empowerment and, in some ways, a fight for relevance and equality. He saw a lot of beauty, a lot of community, and he saw a social movement. There were limited opportunities for people of color to express themselves and find their own truth. This was a pocket of empowerment and release that no one could control.”

In addition to writing articles about the Indians, Martinez wrote a book about them, “No I Won’t Bow Down On That Dirty Ground: A History of the Black Mardi Gras Indians,” and made a movie, “The Black Indians of New Orleans.”

He also wrote three college textbooks and a memoir, “BlackCreole: Too White to be Black, Too Black to be White,” as well as “From the Dirt Streets They Came: Photography of New Orleans by a Native Son” and a book of poetry, “New Orleans Blues.”

In the early 1960s, Martinez was a regular — and an occasional bass drummer — at the Quorum Club, an Esplanade Avenue coffeehouse offering music and conversation that flouted city law forbidding interracial mixing. Police raided it in the summer of 1964 and arrested 73 people, most of whom were charged with disturbing the peace. Charges eventually were dropped.

“I was so glad that I was part of that movement,” Wright said, “My life was enhanced because we were able to learn about other cultures.”

Martinez and Harriet Ottenheimer, a former folk singer, produced a documentary to show the importance of the club, which closed after the raid. No one is sure of the exact date.

“The Quorum Club had a positive tone,” Martinez said in a 2004 Times-Picayune interview. “That’s what we’re trying to show in the film. There was a certain positive climate that was generated by the people who participated and attended the Quorum — a positive climate in a negative social order that discriminated against people of color, gay people, longhairs, liberal thinkers.”

Although Martinez possessed an impressive intellectual pedigree, “he had an innate ability to help people feel seen, heard and loved,” his son said. “He would light up every room and leave everyone he touched brighter. My dad could walk into a crowd of strangers and create connections almost magically. He was able to share stories from his own life and connect them to things that deeply mattered to people around him. He exuded joy.”

Survivors include his wife, Marjorie Lu Martinez; two sons, Maurice Miles Martinez of Orlando, Florida, and Torin Joseph Martinez of Fayetteville, Arkansas; a sister, Joseph Weston of Whippany, New Jersey; and three grandchildren.

A wake will be held Oct. 14 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home, 3933 Washington Ave.

A Jazz Mass will be said Oct. 15 at 10 a.m. at Corpus Christi Church, 2022 St. Bernard Ave.

Burial will be in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 at 3421 Esplanade Ave.

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