Elaine Martone at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards in 2020
Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
How Elaine Martone Overcame Self-Doubt And Became A Legendary Classical & Jazz Producer
Elaine Martone had her sights set on a life in the orchestra early on, but her quest to become a musician was missing one thing. With a degree in performance in hand from Ithaca College, while working her way into shape to audition for orchestras as an oboist, she took on a job at the classical music label Telarc as a way to earn a living while auditioning. She settled in Cleveland, Ohio, because the Cleveland Orchestra was there, and oboists with whom she studied.
But although her musical talents ran deep, "I lacked self-confidence," Martone tells GRAMMY.com. "And if a musician doesn't have confidence in themself, nobody's going to give that to them."
Rather than let that hurdle be her downfall, she dug deeper into her work at Telarc to figure out how she could create and bolster that confidence in other musicians. Martone built a GRAMMY-winning career as a recording producer specializing in classical and jazz. "Funnily enough, I'm actually producing the Cleveland Orchestra's online season now," she chuckles. "My life has made a nice full circle."
At the time she joined Telarc, the label had been in business less than three years. Founded by Jack Renner and Robert Woods (who Martone later married), the label was built for audiophiles and passionately focused on its music niche. "This was before the advent of CDs, but we were already recording with digital technology. By the time CDs came out, we were poised with high-quality recordings. And it was in Cleveland, an unusual place for a record label," Martone says with a laugh. "I knew I was on the ground floor of something cool."
Martone quickly grasped the intricacies of the recording process and learning to edit and produce recording sessions—an unusual role for a woman in the industry, both then and now. But Telarc was a new enough venture with plenty of opportunities, and its founders nurtured and encouraged her growth. Over time, the staff grew to about 50 and Martone ran the production department of 12.
"I never felt held back as a woman. I felt very lucky to grow a department and hire the right people," she says. "A key skill for my work as a producer is that I'm nurturing. I like being of service, including mentoring young women. Women represented about half of my staff."
Throughout her decades-long career, Martone indulged in her passion for orchestral music and produced essential records for legends in that genre and others. Due to her nurturing style, she made close friends along the way, producing the last 18 albums by jazz bassist Ray Brown. Since 2000, she also collaborated to great acclaim with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano and has worked with the GRAMMY-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, among many others.
Early on, Martone set her sights on winning a GRAMMY before she turned 50. "My husband has 13 GRAMMYs, and he started winning them when he was 30," she says. "So, I had a long way to go to 'catch up'. In 2006, I won Classical Producer of the Year, which is the most coveted award in my field. I also have a Latin GRAMMY, and I won a jazz GRAMMY for McCoy Tyner's Illuminations. Especially as women, we denigrate ourselves thinking that if we hide a little bit, people won't take shots at us. But I decided I wasn't going to do that back then, that I was going to play full out, and that I was going to win. Five GRAMMYs later, it's a big honor and a privilege."
Martone's ability to build relationships has been particularly key to connecting through the pandemic. "The sense of community that I've felt through the GRAMMY organization and MusiCares has been incredible and has helped out a few friends that were really in need," Martone says.
Connection-building was necessary for her production career as well. Having produced the Cleveland Orchestra in the past, the organization reached out to Martone directly to produce their virtual season. "They're arguably the greatest orchestra in the world, and they're right here," she says. "They had the bonus of my 41 years of experience. I've needed to use all of that. I have been so proud of all of us in this creative community because we kept hope and inspiration alive."
Taking that inspiration, Martone approached the Orchestra's virtual season seeing opportunities to create a new experience rather than seeing limitations. "Cleveland Clinic was advising the Orchestra, and that included not using winds or brass," she says. "So we started with 42 string musicians distanced nine feet apart. That's no way to make a very good ensemble, but the thing that's beautiful about the Cleveland Orchestra is their sense of blend and ensemble and being able to respond very nimbly. Producing what amounted to two records a week in this virtual season has been a production schedule on steroids."
Another of Martone's pandemic highlights has been producing new records from the GRAMMY-winning percussion ensemble Third Coast Percussion and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson. "Elisabeth messaged me and said she was interested in a record with all women composers, composers who were neglected like Amy Beach and Fanny Mendelssohn," Martone explains. "We worked remotely during the Pandemic. The Oregon Music Festival is also considering a recording at Abbey Road in November, also with all women composers and has asked me to produce. I feel inspired and energized by these projects."
Whether in her earliest recording sessions or the heart of the pandemic, the factor uniting Martone's experiences has always been her love of the creative process—and of being in the same space as people reaching their peak. "When I'm producing, I can't be thinking of anything else at the moment," she says. "I'm in the state of flow, almost an active meditative state. That's helped me work on over 200 records. Making a difference for others and having fun makes for a life well-lived."
For the past 60 years, the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter has recognized and celebrated the creative accomplishments of our members across the Midwest, fought for their collective rights, and supported them in times of need. We are proud of our legacies and excited to continue looking ahead. Here's to the next 60.