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Martin Denny: 1911–2005

Hawaii has lost a giant of local music.


Martin Denny took a turn at the piano at the January
launch party for the book The 50 Greatest Hawaii
Albums, one of his last performances.

Photo: guy a. sibilla

Martin Denny, composer, pianist and icon of exotica, died on March 2, at the age of 94.

Although his health had been in decline for several years, Denny was playing music to the end. We last had the pleasure of seeing him perform just this January, at the launch of The 50 Greatest Hawaii Albums book at Ward Centre, where he gave a chicken-skin rendition of “Quiet Village.”

Byron Yasui, local jazz musician and University of Hawaii professor of music, backed Denny up on the bass during his set at Ward Centre. “It was like old times,” Yasui says.

Denny, who earned the No. 6 spot on our “50 Greatest Albums” list last year, for his album Exotica!, became an unofficial ambassador for Hawaii during its early statehood era. Exotica!’s jazzy, tropical arrangements, punctuated by bird calls from Augie Colon and vibraphone licks from Arthur Lyman, sparked a national craze for all things tiki, and propelled Denny to widespread fame. The single “Quiet Village” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Top 40 pop chart.

Yasui, who met the rising star in the early ’60s while they were both playing at Duke’s in Waikiki, said Denny never let success go to his head. “I used to go early to set up my bass and then go to the coffee shop next to the Black Angus. Marty would be there; we’d sit at the counter and talk about music theory,” Yasui says. “He was such a nice guy. It was always fun working with Marty.”

By the end of the ’60s, exotica’s popularity had subsided, but Denny’s music gained renewed appreciation and exposure in recent years, thanks to a lounge and tiki revival led by bands like Don Tiki.

Lloyd Kandell, one of Don Tiki’s founders, says Martin Denny was a direct inspiration in the band’s creation. “His music was so evocative and cinematic; it really painted pictures in the minds of people all over the world of what Hawaii must really be like.”

Denny was flattered and energized by the renewed interest in his music. “Martin was always so supportive of our music,” says Kandell. “He’s always been happy to perform with us, and has come to every single one of our shows. We did an update of his classic “Exotica” on our first album, and that’s Martin Denny playing piano with us right on the track.

“He was so inspirational for me, not only in his music, but in how to live life.”

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020
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