They say it in different ways, but they all say it: Marty Jennings was not simple. A double life? To those who knew him, Jennings lived in countless layers--conflicting, overlapping, deep, sometimes dark.
He was a star Oregon Symphony violinist who sported purple hair, a tuxedoed virtuoso who pulled on a Carhartt stocking cap as soon as he could. He loathed Beethoven, adored Shostakovich. He blew off steam screaming down the freeway in his red Acura, blasting hip-hop by Jay-Z and A Tribe Called Quest.
The son of two OS bassoonists, he possessed hard-wired musical talent. Jennings played in front of professional musicians as early as age 3. He skipped much of the formal training expected of classical players, but thrived in the discipline's hothouse atmosphere. Friends say that at 32, after three seasons with the symphony, he was preparing to chase bigger jobs.
Yet he once told his girlfriend that before he died, he wanted to smash his violin.
"I used to ask him, 'What's it like to be so talented?'" says Jennings' friend Joe Wickstrom, a neighbor and longtime Portland rock musician. "And he would say, 'Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I really hate it.'"
One aspect of Jennings' complexity was the heroin addiction he battled for years. Jennings' struggle seems to have reached a tragic end on the morning of July 7. Just hours after a triumphant performance during the annual Ernest Bloch Festival, Jennings died in Newport.
Authorities in the small coastal city have not yet declared an official cause of death. But in conversations with WW, a half-dozen close friends and colleagues, as well as Jennings' girlfriend of two years, say that, as far as they understand, a heroin overdose claimed the violinist's life.
Robin Allred, his girlfriend, says Jennings suffered relapses into heroin use in recent months, after years of recovery efforts. She says he overdosed twice last December, and she decided she'd break off their relationship if he used heroin again.
"Marty tried very hard to stay sober," Allred says. (She and others say Jennings sought different forms of treatment, including 12-step programs, over the years.) "He'd relapse for a day or a few days, and come out with this really strong commitment to staying sober. But it would fade with time, and that was his struggle. He'd say, 'How do I hold on to this?'"
Allred theorizes that Jennings stayed clean until he knew the two would be apart for a few days; after his Bloch Festival performance, he stayed in Newport and Allred returned to Portland.
"His last diary entry says, 'I want to get high, but I don't want to lose Robin,'" she says. "I think he thought this was a chance to use when I wouldn't find out."
Ron Blessinger, another symphony violinist, spent the first week in July with Jennings and played alongside him in the Bloch Festival. He says people close to Jennings knew about his addiction--in fact, friends WW spoke to stressed his openness. In those last days, Blessinger says, he detected no signs of trouble.
"That's really haunting me right now," he says. "Some of his most intimate friends were all around him all that weekend. I'm having dreams about it."
People from Portland's classical scene eulogize Jennings' talents; they and others also emphasize the humor and humility with which he approached work and life. The portrait that emerges depicts a man of great passion and intensity, and above all a person others loved very much.
"The music was just a small part of who he was," says Wickstrom. "It's just what people noticed."
It would be easy pop-psychology to attribute Jennings' heroin problem to a lifetime's artistic pressure. But friends say that while Jennings' relationship with his own talent was complicated, it also brought him tremendous joy.
"Yes, he had issues with it," Allred says. "But he was also very proud of it. He loved to play good music with good people."
"Marty fought hard," Blessinger says. "If he had beaten this, who knows what he could have become? He could have won a job with the Chicago Symphony--and then who knows? He really battled hard to the very end."
An Oregon Symphony official declined to comment on Jennings' drug use. The symphony will dedicate its free Aug. 17 concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to Jennings; more information on the show and a memorial fund is available at www.orsymphony.org. An extensive online memorial can be found at www.ethosquartet.com.