The ageless — and timeless — jazz legends are keeping the beat during quarantine by rehearsing every day. ‘Music is pulling us through,” Elayne says.
The longer our city remains on lockdown, the more the minutes on the clock seem to move at a glacial pace. Monday melts into Sunday with only a passing thought. Wednesday might as well be the weekend. The current moment calls on us to embrace a different concept of time altogether, which is something iconic jazz duo Marty and Elayne Roberts have been doing for decades.
L.A.’s lounge act royalty is renown for never admitting their real ages, they go to sleep between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. and they’ve lost count of the songs in their repertoire, along with their many projects and cameos. Among them are a recent stint on ABC’s “The Bachelor: Listen To Their Heart,” a Tom Petty music video, a cameo in the ’90s hit film “Swingers,” jam sessions with the likes of Flea and Julia Roberts and, of course, their beloved nightly performances at The Dresden Room in Los Feliz. The two still get a high from the applause of a tuned-in, martini-doused audience. “It’s just more fun than you could actually get from anything — except maybe sex,” Elayne says.
But she admits, even before the call for COVID-19 isolation, their nightly performances at The Dresden had almost entirely halted. “Marty had a heart attack on Jan. 30,” Elayne says.
During one of their sets at The Dresden, Marty crumpled to the floor around one o’clock in the morning after he told the bartender he wasn’t feeling right. Paramedics were immediately called.
“Thank God, he’s fine now,” Elayne says. “But he was dead for 30 seconds. They couldn’t get a pulse or heartbeat. And I almost died of fright right then too.”
For six weeks, Elayne took care of Marty during the day and performed solo at night. “It was really hard to work without him,” she says. Then COVID-19 hit and The Dresden Room, like all other Los Angeles bars and restaurants, shuttered. Our citywide slowdown has, however, allowed Marty to take extra time to get back on his feet. “He’s just so glad to be alive,” Elayne says. “He’s in great spirits.”
These days, the couple has swapped their matching sequin ensembles for T-shirts and jeans, they go on languid walks in their Valley Glen neighborhood, spend time cozying next to Jazzy, their Maltese pup, and their daughter has come from Las Vegas to stay with them. She’s vigilant about keeping visitors away to protect Marty and Elayne’s health. The three collaborate on meals in the kitchen: veal scallopini, lasagna and chicken parmesan are some of the favorites.
“Marty’s a good cook,” Elayne says. “When he was a teenager, he worked in his dad’s restaurant as a fry cook.”
He grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Elayne was born in New York, too. But her family moved west for warmer weather when she was a kid, and she’s a Hollywood High graduate. She was a teenager when she met Marty in the 1970s, and the way she tells it, Elayne had just broken up with her drummer and was looking for a new one. Her girlfriend gave her Marty’s number. “He was a kind of a rat … I called him on a Sunday, I said, ‘Can you bring your drums over and play so I can hear you.’ And he said, ‘I’ll come over, but I won’t bring my drums.’ I said, ‘Oh no, not another lady’s man. It’s just what I don’t need,’” Elayne says.
But he did indeed bring his drums. And they got married a few months later and have been playing together for more than 40 years since. “If the club would have been open we would have had the 39th anniversary on April Fool’s Day,” Elayne says.
Their routine — which they have continued to rehearse post-COVID — is more or less the same. Marty on the drums or bass and occasionally vocals, Elayne the chanteuse on keys as the two make Coltraine, Ella Fitzgerald, Gerswhin, Duke Ellington and Sinatra ditties swing.
“Marty loves Franks Sinatra,” she says. And Sinatra even saw them play a few times. The first time, Elayne’s nerves nearly wrecked her, but the second time she shined. “I sang better than I’ve ever sung in my life … When I finished singing, he walked around the room making everybody applaud. And he threw me a kiss — and everybody made such a big thing about it.”
Before Sinatra left, Elayne ran into him near the restroom and thanked him. He gave her another kiss on the cheek. “He said, ‘Honey, you earned it. I don’t fool around about music, it’s too important.'” Elayne says.
That is a sentiment that has remained the foundation of both Marty and Elayne’s life — and relationship — for so many years.
Days at home now are spent playing music. “We’re running through a lot of our arrangements. Some of them are very complex,” Elayne says. “And in a way, it’s been good because we’re cleaning up any rough spots that we neglected, or running over it ’cause we hadn’t been doing for a while.”
They’re going to bed earlier, catching up with old friends and looking forward to the day when they get back to work — retirement isn’t in the cards yet. “It’s a difficult time with everyone locked in their houses … It feels like the ‘Twilight Zone,'” Elayne says. “But music is pulling us through.” And they continue to look to their songbook. After all, there’s always the timeless Sinatra songs by their side.
As he croons in the tune “That’s Life:” “I’ve been up and down and over and out/ And I know one thing/ Each time I find myself flat on my face/ I pick myself up and get back in the race.”