Tribute to Pat Martino
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
November 1, 2021: I just saw the sad news that the great jazz guitarist Pat Martino has died.
Can't say the news was unexpected, he'd been on oxygen 24/7 and unable to tour or even play the last 3 years. Still, it's another loss of a major influence and inspiration in my own life and guitar playing, and yet another harbinger of my own mortality.
The older I get the more this happens and the luckier I am - I think.
Still, I was kind of half-way expecting and hoping for an Act 3: a miraculous recovery, score a new record deal and go back out on the road; it wouldn't have been the first time.
For those not familiar:
Pat Martino was a jazz guitarist from Philadelphia who hit in the sixties playing mostly in Hammond B3 groups and became very influential through the seventies. I discovered him in 1976 and still possess, and listen to, many of his ‘70s-era records on vinyl. He had his own unique style; he didn't sound like anyone else. He was active in a traditional jazz format, playing standards, but also composed his own stuff and was one of the first "traditional" jazz guitarists to experiment with guitar synthesizers and jazz/rock fusion back in the seventies.
He had an idiosyncratic and very guitar-centric method for the application of music theory to the guitar. In the early eighties I listened to a teaching course he produced on cassette in the late 70s. His approach was exactly backwards to what I had been taught, but got to the same place.
Around 1980 (at about age 36) he disappeared. I remember thinking, "Whatever happened to Pat Martino?"
I heard rumors that he had a brain tumor and died, that he'd had a stroke, and so on. "Wow" I thought, "That's too bad. Right up there with other jazz guitar geniuses who died young like Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian."
Well, it turns out he didn't die; he had an arteriovenous malformation in his brain that caused a near-fatal seizure in 1980. He had several brain surgeries that saved his life but left him with total amnesia and no recollection or knowledge of his career or how to play the very instrument that had made him successful.
Martino says he came out of surgery with complete forgetfulness, learning to focus on the present instead of the past or what may lie ahead. He relearned how to play the guitar from scratch. He taught himself to play a second time in part by listening to his own records!
There is a documentary about all this called, Pat Martino - Unstrung. It’s fascinating; check it out.
In 1987 a recording came out of Pat playing live in a club in Philadelphia. It was called "The Return." He didn't sound any different than before. It was the same unique Pat Martino style. As his brain surgeon said, "How many people get the chance to be a genius twice in one lifetime?"
Then, for the next few years...nothing.
His comeback was put on hold because he prioritized caring for his ailing parents.
In 1994, after the death of his parents, Interchange was released. From '94 - '98 there were 6 albums. Pat Martino was back!
2001 saw the release of Live at Yoshi's. With Hammond Organist Joey DeFrancesco, Live at Yoshi's was the #1 Jazz Album of the year and nominated for a Grammy. I loved it!
In 2011, he published an autobiography called, Here and Now! It's a good read, if you're interested. He goes into great detail about his surgery, amnesia and recovery.
Since November of 2018 he had been confined at home with a chronic respiratory disorder after coming down with pneumonia upon completion of a tour in Italy.
Pat Martino is one of the most significant influences on the way I play. When I first started to try and figure out how to play jazz back in the seventies I emulated his long, angular single-note phrasing when soloing. I listened incessantly to his records, trying to figure out his “stuff.”
I met him at least 2 times; maybe 3 but I might be conflating 2 of them. Every time he was very warm and engaged. I never got the feeling that this was obligatory PR; he was sincerely interested and focused on whoever he was talking to.
The first time he was in town for two nights with a piano player, James Ridl. They did two sets a night and Pat did a clinic the afternoon in between. I canceled my gigs and took my son, Eric (also a guitarist), to both shows and the clinic.
At the end of the first night, Pat left the stage, stood at the exit, greeted and shook hands with every single person who had attended. I introduced Eric, who was the only teenager there, and Pat said, "Well, Eric, it's nice to see you, thank you very much for coming!"
The next afternoon we went to the clinic, and then that night to the second show.
Again, at the end of the night, Pat stood at the exit, greeted and shook hands with everyone. This time, with no prompting, he called Eric by name. I was very touched; I wasn't expecting that.
Because of his surgery and amnesia, he did have some memory issues. I remember him joking;
"The last time I was in Kansas City was, I believe, sometime in the sixties with Charles Earland. Or so I'm told; I have no memory of it!"
Another time I had the opportunity to interact with him was because of a mutual friend, Brian Harmon. Brian was a killer jazz guitarist from Philly who lived in Kansas City for many years. He passed away in 2018. Brian had studied with Pat and they were good friends.
Brian, in conjunction with the Blue Room in Kansas City, brought Pat Martino to town. I canceled everything I had going that evening and arrived at the Blue Room early to get a good seat. When I walked in, Pat and Brian were sitting at the bar.
"Jay!" called Brian, "Come over and meet Pat!"
Holy shitsky! I got to sit at a bar and casually talk with Pat Martino! Am I gushing? I can't help it; the dude is one of my musical heroes!
As I said, he was warm, affirming, completely present and engaged. There was a positive aura about him. He was interested and asked questions about my guitar playing and who I had studied with. He knew that Brian and I had played together and so on.
For my part, at the time I was interested in the concept of integrating the right and left brain, and how that applies to playing music, as well as teaching (see, Grow the Matrix!). I thought he might have a unique perspective on that given his experience, since a large percentage of his brain had been cut out!
Every once in a while when you actually get to meet one of your heroes he turns out to be a douche. That's happened to me, but not this time. Pat was as far away from that as you can possibly be.
Frankly, I was somewhat surprised at that because his image in photos on album covers and promo is dark and rather alienated; lots of black & white, sunglasses; there are few smiling, open images, especially pre-brain aneurysm.
His playing is also dark, and not just tonally; he’s a ferocious player. The phrasing and ideas spin out with little letup or relief. I heard a drummer who worked with him say that playing with Pat was like being on a runaway freight train.
And yet my personal experience of interacting with him one-on-one was the opposite. He was very open, friendly and I was very comfortable with him.
Another time I saw him live was also at the Blue Room. He was touring with Joey DeFrancesco and there was no way I was going to miss that!
I did get to speak briefly with Joey D that time but Pat was not available. My friend and wonderful sax player Gerald Dunn, who is the manager of the Blue Room, told me later that, when touring, Pat tried to schedule so as to not perform on travel days, he needed to rest.
Unfortunately, they were performing on a travel day and Pat was very fatigued and resting in the RV in which they traveled whenever he was not onstage.
He was philosophically inclined, as I am, and had codified and articulated the application of many philosophical and mystical systems (mostly Eastern) to the guitar.
“There’s a very mysterious relationship that exists within sacred geometry and music. Actually, the tuning of the guitar is a pentagram, E-A-D-G-B-E seen as a five-pointed star inside a chromatic circle...there are even social warnings from certain sects that warn us of mysticism - “Do not touch...it’s sinful for you to go there.” All the questions I’ve had are the result of my pursuit of such directions. Extremely intriguing, warnings made by those who forbade such inquisitions.” (From Pat Martino's autobiography, Here and Now!)
For instance, Pat had a teaching on the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of hexagrams, and how they can be applied to the guitar,
”...there are some profound facets to the instrument and its identity that make it almost a form of sorcery in what it contains. The idea of the six strings being similar to the hexagrams in the I Ching from the Far East. The philosophies of the Book of Changes, again, contain all the combinations of the guitar’s strings. I think these are incredible facets of that instrument’s connotations...what it seems to represent in so many ways.” (From Pat Martino's autobiography, Here and Now!)
He talked a lot about “the opposites and how they manifest on the guitar.”
In my opinion, a lot of the philosophy was interesting but I question the necessity of it as far as guitar playing goes. There are plenty guitar geniuses out there who have none of that. I’ve wondered if maybe all the mystical-speak was an affectation; a conscious grooming of an image.
Could be, but my impression is that it’s not; I suspect that’s just the way he is. He’s sincerely interested in that kind of stuff. Me too.
At the clinic I attended, he handed out a fake sheet of a standard, I can’t remember the tune. He had written in substitute changes for each chord. I immediately saw what he was doing; every chord sub he had written in was a minor chord of some kind. He was thinking in terms of minor chords when soloing.
So, for instance, if the chord is Cmaj7, he might use the relative minor, A-7. Or he might use E-7, which implies Cmaj9.
If the chord was dominant, say, C7, he would use G minor which implies C9, or A minor which implies C13, and so on.
He called it “the minor conversion technique” and went into a big spiel about major/minor, light/dark, good/evil and so on. Again, “the opposites and how they manifest on the guitar.”
I realized I had intuitively been doing the same thing; converting things into minors, not for any great philosophical or mystical reason, but for the simple reason that minor patterns are physically easier to access on the guitar fretboard.
Be all that as it may, and in light of his philosophical and mystical inclinations, I’m sure he would say that he’s simply moved on to the next dimension, and that his journey continues.
Fortunately for us who are still in this one without him, his music can still be heard.
“True Music, like all true Art, is an experience to be shared, not judged, for praise cannot make it better, as blame cannot make it worse.” - Pat Martino
Maybe someday I’ll get to meet up with him again and continue our conversation.
Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that contains a brand-new free lesson, and DEEP discounts on lesson series downloads - plus more!
For more information on site membership see Why Become A Site Member?