Ernest “Curly” Martin. January 4, 1944 – March 13, 2023.

There is an African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” We lost one of our most important libraries on March 13. The legend Ernest “Curly” Martin, 79, died after suffering a long illness. Curly was a musician to the world, a teacher to us all, family to many, a mentor to some, and a close friend of mine.

Going over to Curly’s house was a journey into Omaha history. He would lead me down to his studio where he practiced four hours a day every day and lifted weights in between. We would sit among his drum kits and analogue recorders and talk about the state of Omaha’s Black music scene. He would tell stories about the “Deuce,” the 24th and Lake Street area, in its heyday. Curly had the kind of stories that a musician who’s travelled the world and played with everyone from Etta James to Calvin Keys would have. But he would also tell stories about everyday life in North Omaha. I would hear about the Allen’s Showcase Lounge, and the alleys the musicians would traverse to hop from club to club. He would tell me who owned every store on 24th Street, and every musician who played the block, as well as those who left town to represent Omaha on the world stage. He was proud of North Omaha’s musical contributions to the world and its impact on it.

Curly would say that young people in Omaha are not being taught how to play instruments and don’t have local examples of people making a living playing music, like he did when he was young. His love for Omaha meant he would live the rest of his years here and use his ability to teach, mentor and use storytelling to inspire the next generation. He also continued to travel the world and play top stages like the Blue Note in New York City.

The last show he played was last summer at the Benson Theatre. He was joined by singer and fiancée, Cynthia Taylor, organist Jeremy Thomas, and Curly’s even more famous son, Terrace Martin. Terrace is continuing the tradition of musical excellence and spreading it to the world with a host of artists and friends from Snoop Dogg to Robert Glasper to Kamasi Washington, all of whom sent condolences at the news of Curly’s passing. Curly was a guru to the world’s music community.

Curly was re-introduced to Omaha, particularly to younger enthusiasts, while doing a yearlong residency at the legendary Hi-Fi House thanks to the vision and friendship of owner Kate Dussault. We got to witness history once a month for a year with Curly introducing us to music legends who came from Omaha such as Stemsy Hunter, Hank Redd, and Wali Ali, along with new artists he thought were carrying the tradition — Omaha’s Lewade Milliner, Ben Merliss, and of course his son Terrace. The ecosystem of the Hi-Fi House, and the Make Believe Studio family solidified Curly’s legendary status with young and old and people of all backgrounds in his hometown. Something of which he was proud.

Curly was a real one, never hesitating to call out musicians who weren’t practicing the excellence that North Omaha was known for back in the day. He was a hard man to get along with for some. But that was only if you were faking the funk. He demanded nothing less than excellence, especially if you called yourself a musician. That meant excellence in your craft, your character, and your professionalism. And he would let you know when you were falling short.

It’s easy to say Curly lived a long, full life, but he was young at heart and looking forward to reaching more heights and goals. The last time I talked to him, he told me to book him for another show at the Benson Theatre. His youthful excitement about the new band he was putting together convinced me that he would be all right. He never waivered in his determination to get better and keep jammin’. He was a tough, old dude who would never let you know anything was wrong. A library of stories that make up North Omaha’s history has burned down. I will truly miss my friend.

Curly is survived by his long love and fiancée, Cynthia Taylor, many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The family observed a private service, and a celebration of his life happened on the Deuce on March 25, attended by many family members, friends, and musicians.

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