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Advocate for the Arts

MARTIN LESCH FOSTERS THE COMMUNITY THROUGH MUSIC

Martin LeschIf you speak with him long enough, let’s say you even interview him for your local magazine, you’ll eventually realize you still don’t know Martin Lesch. That’s because he rarely talks about himself.

If you’re close with him, you may have enjoyed his Szechuan cooking without knowing he’s a practicing Buddhist. You may think he never hits the beach unless you catch him on a moonlit stroll.

His unpopular opinion?

He quips, “Music is a good business to go into.”

You may have watched him jangle the keys for the last 12 years at The Jazz Corner, late into the night, without knowing he wakes at the crack of dawn to attend public discussions at Town Hall. 

Raised in New York City, Lesch’s mother convinced his father to spend his Christmas bonus on a piano, a dubious decision paid for in karma. Lesch got the lessons he asked for on his fifth birthday, quickly making friends with the instrument. He studied with an NYU professor from an early age, graduating high school a year early to attend the Berklee College of Music.

Most of his youth he was focused inward, on his craft.

As he says, “I was concerned with what music meant to me.”

But that would soon change.

Lesch came from New York on a visit to Hilton Head in 1997 and ended up on records with local musicians. When he returned to play a summer gig a few years later, he simply never left.

Knowing how taxing the New York City scene could be, with even the best musicians often strapped for cash, he planted a seed on Hilton Head’s fertile ground. He got hired to record for Grammy winner Angie Aparo.

They began running songwriting sessions and Aparo hired Lesch to hit the road, part of a fruitful seven-year journey in the music business together.

Weekdays between tours, you could find him hugging the bar at The Jazz Corner, soaking up the music of the late Bob Masteller, the club’s beloved owner and a flügelhorn player himself.

Noticing his talents and in need of a pianist, Masteller took Lesch under his wing. That started a lifelong friendship between the two and Martin became the staple pianist in the band.

“It was through Bob that I got to know the direct effect music could have on people,” Lesch says.

And yet, Bob’s influence didn’t stop at the notes.

He’d often ask Lesch to sit in on meetings with arts organizations and local non-profits. Lesch, underslept from the night past, woke early to see what it was all about.

Little did he know how much local activism would come to mean to him.

Today, besides gigging regularly, Martin is a board member of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the budding Crescendo festival and the Junior Jazz Foundation, something Masteller began that has blossomed in his wake.

In the past year the Junior Jazz Foundation, a non-profit with no paid staff, has provided more than $25,000 in grants and scholarships to local schools, Lesch said, and it subsidizes the Hilton Head Jazz camp where students from all over the country come to study jazz.

What started with nine students has grown in 10 years to over 100, whose families often join them on the island. Now, the Junior Jazz All Stars, a group of camp alumni, can be seen performing locally— “A group of phenoms given the resources to rise to new heights,” as Lesch says.

In his TEDx Talk three years ago, Lesch posed a strong question to the audience—how much were they willing to contribute to make the Lowcountry an arts destination?

The arts are thriving here, he assures us, but they need more community support and institutional structure. Golf greens and beach sand will always be a draw, but he sees the island becoming an arts mecca, pulling in tourists in the off-season who tend to spend more than their sun-tanned counterparts.

Herbie Hancock, one of Lesch’s idols on piano once said, “Creativity and artistic endeavors have a mission that goes far beyond just making music for the sake of music.”

But Martin Lesch, in his own wry way, puts it bluntly: “The thing I’ve learned most is to shut up and listen.”   

PHOTO BY KIM SMITH