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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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St. Louis Jewish Light

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7,000 jazz musicians can’t be wrong. How St. Louis’ Peter Martin is transforming music education

Bill Motchan
Peter Martin.

Every day, music lovers from 125 countries learn to play jazz piano and other instruments from some of the genre’s top artists. It all happens online through Open Studio Jazz, one of the largest virtual jazz communities. The St. Louis-based enterprise is the brainchild of Peter Martin, an acclaimed Jewish pianist and educator.

Martin has performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and alongside luminaries including Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride and Joshua Redman. In 2011, he played at the White House for a state dinner when President Barack Obama welcomed the president of China. George Clooney’s film “Good Night, and Good Luck” features Martin on piano.

In addition to performing, Martin is now focused largely on Open Studio Jazz and making jazz more accessible for hobbyists who want to improve their skills. Live classes are available for voice, piano, bass, guitar, drums, trumpet, saxophone and vibraphone. More than 7,000 jazz students are currently active on the platform.

“The most gratifying thing for me has been the number of people that we’ve reached and changed their lives, empowering them,” said Martin, 53. “They cannot only learn to play jazz better, but get connected with the music as players, no matter what their level is in a way that’s really fun and satisfying every day.”

Jazz can seem elusive to master for many novice musicians, with its complex harmonies and improvisational nature. Martin has sought to strip away those mysteries and make jazz more approachable for the everyday player. He’s met a number of Open Studio members who are retired and play for enjoyment.”

“It’s really just empowering people to have fun in their development,” he said. “We talk a lot about the journey, not about going to play at a great gig. They’re not trying to play at the Village Vanguard. They just want to get better every day and have fun with it. We do treat it seriously, though.”

In addition to serving as CEO of Open Studio, Martin is a very active teacher. His knowledge and love of the genre is infectious whether he’s explaining how to play anything from a complex orchestration to simple bebop. His personality is ideally suited to making students feel comfortable, according to New Orleans jazz legend Jeremy Davenport.

Peter Martin.

“I’ve known Peter my whole life, and he has always had the gift of humor and he makes things enjoyable,” said Davenport. “I think it really made the Open Studio endeavor perfect where you’re dealing with a complex set of variables, trying to play jazz piano. He adds a real human enjoyment factor, which is hard to do when you’re dealing with high art. Peter makes it human and very enjoyable. He also simplifies it makes the whole concept of jazz more approachable for people.”

Davenport and Martin grew up in University City, and both developed as young musicians when they were students at Brittany Woods Middle School. Their fathers performed in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and while they played classical music for a living, both loved jazz.

“My dad was always interested in jazz and had some really good records,” Martin said. “A lot of the pop stuff I was listening to had a strong jazz influence—Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. Then when I went to Brittany Woods and played in the jazz band. That was really my first real encounter with trying to play jazz.

“Jeremy and I both started playing jazz at the same time,” Martin said. “At U. City High School, they had a really good jazz band that we looked up to and got a chance to hear. It was the mid-1980s and the U. City music program was so well dialed in. We had a lot of great teachers like Hi Martin and John Brophy. There was a good infrastructure. We had band practice every day, and there was support from parents and musicians in the community.”

Martin was always disciplined in his practice and he had exceptional skills. That was evident when he received the Presidential Scholar in the Arts Award from President Ronald Reagan after graduating from high school. He received a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied until moving to New Orleans in 1990, when he began a solo career.

In 2012, Martin taught at Northwestern University’s jazz department while he was touring extensively. That’s when he began experimenting with online jazz instruction.

“It was super early in online education and there was very little available with music,” Martin said. “I started making videos for my students to reinforce their lessons, instead of just answering their questions in emails. I used a little flip cam that I would set on the edge of the piano to record really short lessons.”

That led to Martin’s popular YouTube series known as “2 Minute Jazz” that offer tips and techniques for jazz musicians to improve their craft. Those videos were easy to follow and used a split-screen, showing both Martin’s hands on the keyboard and the notes on the music staff. When Martin launched Open Studio, the lessons were recorded just like the YouTube videos, but more detailed like a face-to-face piano lesson. Open Studio has now moved into live lessons using Zoom and other systems, where students can gather in a group setting with an online community.

At the beginning of COVID, Open Studio had a significant spike in membership when many people were looking for opportunities to learn new skills from the safety of their homes. Piano retailers had good sales years in 2020, too. Professional musicians even benefitted from Open Studio’s technical expertise when Martin created online live concerts. He also developed a popular podcast, “You’ll Hear It” with co-host Adam Maness. With nearly 90,000 downloads per month, it’s one of the biggest independent music commentary podcasts and regularly listed in the top 10 on Apple’s podcast platform.

Martin’s primary focus now is growing Open Studio and offering a system for jazz musicians to continually improve their own playing. That system works well for a large online community, which is evident by the low churn. The average Open Studio member remains active for 17 months.

“It’s definitely been fun to make it more accessible for how people can approach practicing and learning,” he said. “If you follow our systems, you’ll get really good, but it will take more than five minutes a day. Even more important than improving, they will do better in their practicing and get more enjoyment out of it.

“That’s super important for music, even for the higher professionals. I’ve played at a lot of prestigious clubs and Carnegie Hall, and while that’s fun, really the practice, the preparation, is where you spent 95 percent of your time. If the only thing you love is the gig, that’s a very small part of your musical output. I learned music because I enjoyed it. We help teach how you can set yourself up to have a musical life. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Peter Martin is one of the featured artists performing at “The Passover Project: A Musical Seder” at City Winery on Thursday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m. The family-friendly fundraiser for the Jewish Light will include an interactive seder, songs, poetry, grooves, readings and magical Passover story teachings. Tickets are available here.

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About the Contributor
Bill Motchan, writer/photographer
Bill worked in corporate communications for AT&T for 28 years. He is a former columnist for St. Louis Magazine. Bill has been a contributing writer for the Jewish Light since 2015 and is a three-time winner of the Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish Journalism. He also is a staff writer for the travel magazine Show-Me Missouri. Bill grew up in University City. He now lives in Olivette with his wife and cat, Hobbes. He is an avid golfer and a fan of live music. He has attended the New Orleans Jazzfest 10 times and he has seen Jimmy Buffett in concert more t han 30 times between 1985 and 2023.