Born November 3rd, 1945 “Mark is an unheralded Philly jazz institution: self taught, prodigiously gifted, obscure . . . yet among musicians his reputation could not be heavier; his list of credits as an accompanist and arranger reads like a modern jazz encyclopedia.” (Nate Chinen.) Numerous critics have favorably compared Kramer's style to that of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but one which is singularly his own. He is credited with inventing a rich harmonic vocabulary and a distinctive pianistic style, nearly, if not fully, in tandem with the above masters.
From age four, Mark was classically trained on violin by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In his mid-teens, Kramer shifted entirely to bass, saxophone and piano, and then focused entirely on jazz piano. In the early years, Kramer played piano regularly with Randy and Mike Brecker, Charles Fambrough, Stanley Clarke, Eric Gravatt, Sonny Fortune and many other Philadelphia jazz giants. Arguably, an unwritten portion of jazz history took place at Mark's apartment on Ridge avenue in Philly. There one would find Charles Fambrough, Eric Gravatt, Mike and Randy Brecker, Daryl Brown, Stanley Clarke and so many others assembled for hours/days of non-stop jamming and recording. Mark still plays with and/or has produced records with Fambrough (deceased 2011), Randy, and Gravatt.
Mark is best known for his work with the Mark Kramer Trio. In the 1970s, conceived as an acoustic-electric group lauding the style of 'Bill Evans' - it featured Paul Klinefelter on bass, and Mike Dougherty on drums. It would quickly mature into a complex acoustic chamber ensemble. In time, the trio's personnel changed, performed several times weekly at clubs and concert halls, and won numerous awards and commendations. After 2000 or so, Mark's activities - now international - have been divided between his trio, collaborations with the acclaimed bassist Eddie Gomez, and since 2008 drafting his own signature in music. As to the latter, after 25 CDs, Mark has created 3 new models for composition, production, and commerce, just now coming on-line.
From age four, Mark was classically trained on violin by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In his mid-teens, Kramer shifted entirely to bass, saxophone and piano, and then focused entirely on jazz piano. In the early years, Kramer played piano regularly with Randy and Mike Brecker, Charles Fambrough, Stanley Clarke, Eric Gravatt, Sonny Fortune and many other Philadelphia jazz giants. Arguably, an unwritten portion of jazz history took place at Mark's apartment on Ridge avenue in Philly. There one would find Charles Fambrough, Eric Gravatt, Mike and Randy Brecker, Daryl Brown, Stanley Clarke and so many others assembled for hours/days of non-stop jamming and recording. Mark still plays with and/or produces records with Fambrough (right up until his passing in 2011), Randy, and Gravatt.
In the late 80s, Mark Kramer's trio (mainly consisting of Bill Miller, bass and Butch Reed, drums) hosted approximately 50 world class but regional guest artist/soloists (including Junior Cook, Lee Konitz, George Coleman, Steve Turre, Bobby Watson, Al Cohn, Tal Farlow, Archie Shepp, and several dozen more) at Si Ristorantee Jazz in Philadelphia - a perfectly appointed jazz club owned by Gianfranco Cherici. These concerts were generally SRO, most were recorded, and are currently archived. During that time Mark's trio was featured in major print media weekly, and was broadcast on New Year's Eve by Tobias Poole of nationally acclaimed FM radio station WRTI. Subsequently, for 13-14 years Mark Kramer served as the Jazz Director at Ye Olde Temperance House, a club in Bucks County. PA. The Mark Kramer Trio was the house trio playing up to 4-5 nights weekly. His group (featuring over the years mainly bassists William Zinno, Matt Parrish, Gary Mazzaroppi [see Marion McPartland], DeWitt Kay, Fred Weiss, Scott Lee, Mike Richmond, Charles Fambrough/others and drummers Butch Reed, John Mosemann, Glenn Davis, Dave Moan, Joe Chambers/others) accompanied approximately 300 guest artists mostly from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. For 2 years Mark and Arnie Lawrence played together there weekly. (Lawrence was the co-founder of the New School of Music Jazz program.) Outside of Philly proper, Ye Olde Temperance House received Philadelphia magazine's coveted Best of Philly Award in 1999.
Subsequently, for 13-14 years Mark Kramer served as the Jazz Director at Ye Olde Temperance House, a club in Bucks County. PA. The Mark Kramer Trio was the house trio playing up to 4-5 nights weekly. His group (featuring over the years mainly bassists William Zinno, Matt Parrish, Gary Mazzaroppi [see Marion McPartland], DeWitt Kay, Fred Weiss, Scott Lee, Mike Richmond, Charles Fambrough/others and drummers Butch Reed, John Mosemann, Glenn Davis, Dave Moan, Joe Chambers/others) accompanied approximately 300 guest artists mostly from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. For 2 years Mark and Arnie Lawrence played together there weekly. (Lawrence was the co-founder of the New School of Music Jazz program.) Outside of Philly proper, Ye Olde Temperance House received Philadelphia magazine's coveted Best of Philly Award in 1999.
In the late 1990s Mark Kramer's trio debuted internationally with a much misunderstood recording for Telarc Records, EVITA en JAZZ - strange fruit for jazz. The CD did well commercially and is still in print. Reviewers unanimously recognized Kramer's exquisite sound. Yet, nearly all could not get past his choice of source material (Webber). In 2009, Kramer disclosed to K.S. (See authorship of this article) that he had “delighted in creating this jazz farce.” “I had estimated (quite badly, as I see it now) that this inbred/failing REAL BOOK jazz industry would embrace the art, relish the impossible craft, and love the joke.”
Over a decade later, Kramer's place as the then 4th jazz pianist in TELARC's catalog (alongside Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, and McCoy Tyner) continues to irk some jazz veterans. For example, public radio's PIANO JAZZ, blocked Kramer from appearing right up until the end, despite petitions from two record labels, and more than a few prominent friends of the show's past host.
As recounted from a guest in the PIANO JAZZ STUDIO: immediately upon receiving in 2006 a promotional copy of “Art of the Heart”, widely regarded as a brilliantly intimate duo recording by Kramer and Eddie Gomez, the show's host invited Eddie to appear with her, without Kramer. As Mark tells it with a twinkle, “Eddie's repeated requests for me to appear with him (a BASSIST) on PIANO JAZZ, were met with, 'What can he [Mark] do that I [Marian] cannot.” In jazz terms, EVITA en JAZZ had been a commercial success, despite its non-commercial art. Yet, it would prove to be a stigma years later to the already crystallized mind-set of some in the jazz-world.
Prior to EVITA en JAZZ, Kramer's trio recorded experimently the first true jazz version of a broadway show based on opera (not tin pan alley) Les Miserables en Jazz. Over the years, Kramer's trio would go on to record about 6 more jazz versions of complete Broadway/Revue shows. This represents the largest catalog of complete shows to have ever been recorded by a single jazz artist.
In about 2001, Mark left Ye Olde Temperance House, and returned mainly to perform locally in the city proper of Philadelphia. He was introduced by bassist Charles Fambrough to a local club there called Chris' Jazz Cafe (now also a favorite jaunt of NYC musicians soliciting work.) Through Kramer, then the house pianist - working closely with Chris' management - Mark's old friends George Coleman, Lee Konitz, Lew Tabackin, Eddie Gomez and others came to pay Kramer's trio a visit at Chris' Jazz Cafe. During that year Chris' won “best Casual Jazz Club in Philadelphia award.” Kramer had also been featured as a headliner at Zanzibar Blue and at other jazz clubs in the region. (Upon release of his other CDs, Mark performed at Birdland (NYC), and for extended engagements at the Iridium and other leading jazz venues and Festivals throughout the world.)
In the same year (2001), Mark mentioned to Eddie Gomez [bassist with pianist Bill Evans for 11 years] that Mark would be available on a full-time basis to travel, record, and generally revitalize their 12 year collaboration. Mark and Eddie thus quickly formed the Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer Production Company and Trio, began to catalog and remix a backlog of their recordings - three CDs worth]. In 2002, they also recorded afresh their trio's Jazz Fiddler on the Roof, co-released on MYTHIC JAZZ RECORDS and TARA records, and subsequently re-released in 2004 on the internationally distributed TWINZ record label. The show's composer Jerry Bock [Too Close for Comfort, etc.] opined that the Eddie Gomez-Mark Kramer version of the show “is a true transformation, a masterpiece; bringing tears of joy; I am honored and my gratitude knows no bounds.” In 2010 Mark and Eddie toured 8 theaters in Italy (Joe LaBarbera on Drums.) Currently Eddie and Mark are featured in each others' groups, and as co-leaders on joint projects. Eddie and Mark are also currently (as of 2013) recording new original music and planning to tour.
Around the same time as the recording of “Fiddler”, The Mark Kramer Trio completed its ambitious recording of Harry Potter Jazz, vol. 1 (Sorcerer's-Philosopher s Stone) based on the intriguing score by composer John Williams. After a several year delay due to Warner Brothers, the CD was released internationally by a non-major label, once instances of compulsory licensing were demonstrated.
In early 2003, Mark co-produced, engineered, and played piano on a “Tribute to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee” featuring two local Philadelphia vocalists as well as a local trumpeter John Swana [see CRISS CROSS records] and saxophonist Larry McKenna [see DREAMBOX MEDIA]. In July-August 2003, Mark Kramer (playing along with Charles Fambrough, Lennie White, Mulgrew Miller, George Colligan, Steven Johns, and Marlan Simon) engineered “Stonejazz” a jazz tribute to the Rolling Stones -- distributed through Warner Brothers EA. The CD charted nationally in the top 20 for weeks. Later that year Fambrough, Kramer and drummer Jim Miller would record “Jazz Greetings” an unusual Christmas CD, released in 2008-9, as recently reviewed in AAJ. In about 2005, completed a near note for note trio jazz rendition of Mozart's Symphony in G minor (K.550); the world's first complete classical Symphony by a jazz trio.
Kramer and Gomez released TROUBLED TIMES (2008) and KIND of TRIO (2009) on the mostly defunct Eroica Label. Overall, Mark has recorded several dozen records as leader and sideman.
Despite his lack of formal music education, Mark has been an invited lecturer at Rutgers's University and The New School of Music on the Art of the Jazz Trio, Performance, and advanced Jazz Harmony. Together Eddie Gomez and Mark Kramer have provided demonstrations on "interactive improvisation: a metaphor for life" at major universities.
Up until 2008 or so, most of the pianist's recordings had incorporated elegant/exquisite [as reviewed] (though derivative) aspects of jazz and jazz piano. Notwithstanding, according to Mark, their intent was to globally recruit newcomers to jazz, not to impress a mainstream jazz audience. Yet, except in 2-3 cases (i.e., Harry Potter Jazz, the complete Mozart Symphony in G minor in Jazz, and possibly EVITA), the novelty approaches failed to meaningfully impact the aging field. “It is likely that my productions diminished my street cred, alienating the core mainstream jazz audience. I do not regret what I did, but I could have been more clear about my intent.”To change course, Mark has recently developed a new method for jazz composing and orchestration, along with potentially ground breaking studio production techniques. On this, Kramer wanted me [KS] to add: “On my own terms, only in partnership with what created me, do I wish to play out my remaining life in jazz. I was blessed with a gift which I've neglected for way too long.”
With all of this activity, why then is Mark Kramer still a relatively obscure jazz pianist? The unstated fact of Mark's jazz career is that as a pianist he is a relatively late bloomer, lacked the support of a connected mentor like John Hammond, and had literally been pre-occupied.
It is only in 2001-2 that Kramer went full-time into music. Thus, most of his milestones in the field of jazz took place even as he worked both as an MD and PhD (Temple), 80 hour weeks as the head of Psycho pharmacology at Merck Research Laboratories. Merck and Co. - a very large corporation, and Professor at Penn. A point of fact is that Kramer's high profile career in medical research (a first author in the premier Journal of SCIENCE) was not often known to his jazz collaborators, nor was the extent of his jazz career known to most of his scientist colleagues. Until recently, Mark Kramer kept these areas of his life separate so they would not cloud the issue of professional qualifications, lead to gimmicky reviews, such as might be advanced by people in either field. Currently, this is not an issue, as he now works almost entirely as a musician.
Also, almost nothing will stall a career so completely as losing nearly all you own. A faulty electrical bathroom fixture caused a fire which consumed totally Mark's home and recording studio in early 2004 (as he played a concert at Merkin Hall, NYC.) It was not until 2008 that he would re-construct his life, home, and studio.
Mark's transition from Nobel Hall to full-time music (without a financial safety net) is a story unto itself, which hopefully will be told in time.