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An Interview with Pat Martino

[JAZZ GUITARIST]
“INTERACTION IS AN INSTRUMENT IN ITSELF.”
Three stages of Pat Martino’s nervous breakdowns:
Inferno
Purgatorio
Dull, dull Paradiso
by Greg Buium
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Pat Martino

[JAZZ GUITARIST]
“INTERACTION IS AN INSTRUMENT IN ITSELF.”
Three stages of Pat Martino’s nervous breakdowns:
Inferno
Purgatorio
Dull, dull Paradiso
by Greg Buium
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Pat Martino

Greg Buium
13 Snaps

Pat Martino is among the fabled jazz guitarists of the past two generations. His influence sweeps across musical borders, inspiring musicians as disparate as Carlos Santana and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Since his debut as a twenty-two-year-old bandleader on the album El Hombre (1967), Martino has always remained a guitarist’s guitarist, one of the instrument’s war-baby pioneers—with, say, John McLaughlin or George Benson—players who forced themselves, and the guitar, into the vanguard of jazz’s electric revolution.

Born Pat Azzara in Philadelphia in 1944, Martino was raised as a kind of musical prodigy. His father, Carmen (Mickey) Azzara, an amateur singer and guitarist, took him to hear music as a young boy, frequenting the city’s jazz matinees, meeting many of the famous traveling musicians and the elite jazzmen in their South Philadelphia neighborhood. At fifteen, Martino quit school and moved to Harlem, where he soon became a regular in a variety of organ-centered groups, a staple of uptown clubs in those days. As a salute to his father, he took Mickey’s stage name, Martino, before recording his first album. Gradually, the arc of Pat’s career took shape, as he staked his spot, first, on the soul-jazz scene, and then with a variety of jazz hybrids, from international music to fusion to psychedelia.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of Martino’s career is that it’s still intact, and thriving. In 1980, after suffering more than a decade of increasingly severe headaches, blackouts, and, in 1976, onstage seizures, Martino was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Two emergency surgeries followed, as did near-complete amnesia. Memories of family and friends vanished. Martino didn’t know who he was, or how to play the guitar. Recovering at his parents’ home in Philadelphia, he gradually rebuilt his life. He taught himself music again and, in the early 1990s, after a few false starts, resumed his professional career to great acclaim. A British neuropsychologist, Paul Broks, documented Martino’s illness and recovery in a 2008 film, Martino Unstrung.

In conversation, Martino is unafraid to explore the darkest parts of his trauma. He’s formal—a deep baritone and old-fashioned manners give him a natural distance—and he sways from spare, simple reflections to these labyrinthine tales, informed, as they often are, by his deep reading in Eastern philosophy and new age literature.

On June 19 and October 13, 2008, Martino spoke with me by telephone from his home in South Philadelphia, the same house where he grew up, and where he returned for good after his parents’ deaths, nearly twenty years ago. He now lives there with his wife, Ayako.

—Greg Buium

I. “YOU NEVER GOT ME DONE.”

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that you learned how to play jazz on the streets.

PAT MARTINO: On the streets now are certain forms of music that I don’t find compatible with my intentions.

BLVR: When you were a young man, you could find jazz in the clubs seven nights a week. You can’t find that anymore.

PM: There are establishments that have specific days of the week where there’s a sit-in and young players can drop by. There are smaller clubs that young players can go to, to hear other young players, and to seek social interaction. There are opportunities in that context, but nowhere near the way it used to be in terms of the quality or the essence of what really was the soil and the dirt that jazz came up in.

BLVR: You’ve said that a musical instrument is simply an apparatus, a way to interact.

PM: Exactly. Interaction is an instrument in itself.

BLVR: So the stuff that runs through your mind when you’re playing must be unique to each musical situation. Being in the moment is key.

PM: In most cases, the things that go on in my mind during this process are very distracting. There’s a demand to reach a stillness, to be able to function realistically, and as creatively as possible, without becoming subdued by the surroundings that it’s taking place in.

BLVR: Most people in their mid-sixties are trying to slow down, to ease their professional commitments, but there seems to be an urgency, an intensity, to your career over the past few years.

PM: There’s something extremely profound about— gosh, how can I put this—the years that were reorganized in terms of moment-to-moment responsibility to survive under the conditions that were in play. I’m very optimistic about everything that took place, don’t misunderstand. Those years caused a gap, in the sense of my initial intentions, the experience of ecstasy, what initially generated the hunger, or the need, the desire, for that ecstasy, its continuance since childhood.

BLVR: You’re speaking of the years immediately before and after your brain surgeries.

PM: Yes, exactly. There were many things that, one after another, seemingly of their own accord, intuitively, began to reemerge and say, “Listen, don’t forget about me, you never got me done. You never finished me.” And, whether I liked it or not, it seems that they fell into place, with opportunities that emerged to take advantage of. A great example was when Peter Williams from Yoshi’s [an Oakland jazz club] contacted me [in late 2004] and said, “Listen, we’re doing a tribute to Wes Montgomery. And for this tribute we thought about you to possibly come in on Wes’s birthday. Would you be interested in doing that?” I said, “Man, I would really love to do that.” And of course I didn’t know what I intended to do. But something intuitively caused me to respond accordingly. After I accepted the invitation, I then began to look in my record collection, and I began to pull out old records—331 ⁄3 vinyl albums—of Wes’s, and I looked on the backs of them. And I saw, in ballpoint pen, inscriptions that were placed there when I was a child, at thirteen or fourteen years old.

BLVR: I’m assuming these were records your father had kept at the family home in Philadelphia.

PM: Exactly, exactly. And I relived those moments and I saw what I really loved and what I really wanted to play.

BLVR: You hadn’t gone back to Montgomery’s music since the aneurysm?

PM: I hadn’t gone back at all before this.

BLVR: What happened when you pulled out the albums and saw your thirteen-year-old self’s handwriting?

PM: I remembered my dreams as a child. I remembered dreaming about wanting to play like that, to play music like that.

BLVR: These were among the memories you’d lost after the surgeries.

PM: Of course. I never remembered that. In fact, I had left that behind. And that turned into the album [Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery]. So the album itself wasn’t really a tribute to Wes. The album really was— how can I say this—a restructuring of my own childhood. That’s why I titled it Remember. I think that’s much misunderstood in terms of the evaluation, the critical evaluation, of what that album really was.

BLVR: What do you mean?

PM: Well, most reviews of that album had a great deal to do with my respect of and honor to Wes Montgomery. And a memory of Wes. It wasn’t a memory of Wes—it was a memory of my childhood. And it was, literally, finally finishing what I wanted to do as a child—to play the music with chops that I didn’t have when I was a child that I do have now, bringing my childhood to fruition.

BLVR: Can we go back for a moment to the aneurysm itself? You were diagnosed in 1980, but you’d been suffering from seizures and blackouts since the mid-1960s.

PM: Exactly. Well, to be specific, I was born with the ailment AVM, Arteriovenous Malformation. It took place at birth and it began to amplify year after year until finally it reached its climax, and that’s what brought about the aneurysm.

BLVR: You were misdiagnosed for many years. At different points, doctors thought you were manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or bipolar. You were placed in locked wards. Why was electro-shock therapy recommended?

PM: Depression. Again, one of the diagnoses was manic depression. So along with depression there was also the intake of prescribed medication for depression. Remember, these were the early stages of the pharmaceutical industry’s availability of different substances. So all of these things—when I look at them in a cumulative way, it’s very difficult for me to define any facet of this experience as being the result of any singular element. It was a unification of all things as one. And the one that they all became unified with is now. And because of that, I find it ludicrous to have a negative viewpoint toward any facet of it.

BLVR: Even toward some of the extreme medical situations?

PM: Exactly. Nor do I have any insight on the phenomenon that took place.

BLVR: But at the time, all of this must have compounded your depression, your anger, your feelings of complete confusion.

PM: But in a way so, too, do certain stringed instruments upon the fingertips.

BLVR: Could you explain that?

PM: They involve a series of painful stages of development that are the basis for the formation of calluses. So, too, does adaptation and temperament. To be able to survive in the midst of such confrontations forms a callus. I know I had three nervous breakdowns in the 1970s, I do remember that, and I noticed that the first was similar to Dante’s Inferno, the second was closer to Purgatorio, and the third was dull, so dull that I began to prepare for Paradiso, consciously. So when I see others suffering such human conditions, I look in retrospect and, objectively, I see extremely positive elements involved in this.

BLVR: But this is hindsight thinking.

PM: Yes, I think so. Yes, it is.

BLVR: The Pat Martino of the 1970s, at the height of his confusion, may not have spoken with the same sense of detachment that he does today.

PM: I agree with you.

II. “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO BECOME WHAT YOU USED TO BE?”

BLVR: You were diagnosed in Los Angeles. The doctors discovered the aneurysm and said you could die.

PM: They gave me two hours, yeah.

BLVR: Yet at that moment, you felt—

PM: I felt relief. Relief from the misdiagnoses. I finally had a diagnosis that fit.

BLVR: You were given only two hours to live, but you still asked to be fl own back to Philadelphia.

PM: Yes, because the only family I treasured were here.

BLVR: Your mother and father.

PM: Yeah.

BLVR: The doctors were OK to fly you across the country.

PM: Yes, absolutely. But the detail was set up for me to go straight from Philadelphia International Airport to Pennsylvania Hospital, and right into the O.R.

BLVR: And there were two surgeries.

PM: Correct: one on Good Friday and one on Easter Sunday.

BLVR: Do you recall waking up?

PM: No. I don’t remember.

BLVR: But you had near-complete amnesia for a full month afterward.

PM: That’s where it becomes difficult to get into details. I don’t remember the exact conditions in terms of stages of change. I just remember certain points of change that were cumulative. I remember when I decided to become active as a guitarist again. I remember when I decided to have fun with the computer.

BLVR: Tell me about deciding to become a guitarist again.

PM: It was an extension of social enjoyment.

BLVR: Wanting to be around people.

PM: Yes. Not on the basis of professional achievement or a repetition of career-oriented success—to try becoming something that I used to be. I picked up the guitar for healing purposes. To lose myself in it like I lost myself in any of the toys I did when I was a child.

BLVR: Your father was playing all of your old records, too.

PM: Yes. That was very painful.

BLVR: To hear them.

PM: Yes, of course. Because it really had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with the past, and it had nothing to do with now. He was extremely concerned about the future.

BLVR: What kind of music were you playing at first? Did it sound like the Pat Martino we knew from the recordings?

PM: No. It was almost like basic classical music: simplicity, profound simplicity, very similar to Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies. Profound in the sense of its isolation as a soloist. It was a state of mind that was far from public responsibilities, idiomatic responsibilities.

BLVR: Acoustic guitar.

PM: Yeah, acoustic guitar.

BLVR: Ego wasn’t part of it, but—

PM: Oh, no. Ego was part of it. Sure. Of course.

BLVR: In what way? In the ability to master this instrument again?

PM: The ability for me to retain my own realistic state of mind, when around me was the suggestion that “When are you going to become what you used to be?”

BLVR: When are you going to become Pat Martino again?

PM: Yes. Exactly.

III. “WHEN I PUT THE GUITAR ON, I SEE THROUGH IT.”

BLVR: What do you think jazz’s place in American culture is today?

PM: The only thing I can be definitive with is an example. Take the students of jazz in our conservatories and universities. They’re studying harmony and theory, which is not jazz, that’s music. Number two, they’re studying and transcribing artists of the past—past cultures, or stages of our culture, and that is not the reality of today. So it [jazz] is not alive the way it used to be. And they’re studying something that is encaged, and they’re analyzing it to participate in something that no longer exists.

BLVR: Was it a given that you would go back to being a jazz musician? Why not other musical genres, or even other fields? Your mind was a blank slate. Still, when I listen to your music now, it sounds like Pat Martino in late middle age, as if your work had evolved naturally, as if there’d never been a pause.

PM: It happened because of practicality, realistic practicality. I do remember periods of—I’m avoiding one word that would normally be used for what I’d like to describe, and the word that I’m avoiding, which I’ll bring to the forefront just for description, is recovery. I don’t particularly care for the word recovery because it has a tendency of leaning toward a repetition of what was prior to the disruptive interruption of what causes it to be staggered. In my case, recovery should be replaced with the word refinement. During that period of refinement, the one thing that was concrete, and available, in a practical context, was the history of what this so-called “Pat Martino” did prior to its interruption. And I had the opportunity to take advantage of that, even though I found that extremely, complexly difficult.

BLVR: At that moment, did you identify yourself as this so-called Pat Martino?

PM: I had to accept that. I had to accept that in terms of its own promotion: the photos, the album covers, the relationship with Gibson, and many other things.

BLVR: It was a concrete reality, something you could grasp: there are these albums, and your father is putting them on for you.

PM: It existed whether I accepted it or not. It was history. And in the long run it became a functional tool to use accordingly.

BLVR: Even though you went through long bouts of depression, you realized, I’m stuck with this history, why don’t I just look at it directly?

PM: Well, I don’t think I felt I was stuck with it. To this very day, I remain on the outside of it, and I’m not really subject to it.

BLVR: Outside of the man who existed?

PM: Outside of being a musician or being a jazz guitarist. Or being anything that is dealing with that. It’s second nature to me. It’s very similar to any other practical facility that is at my disposal. What I use it for is to provide what it’s going to offer for the work. I see the guitar as I see a pair of glasses: When I put the guitar on, I see through it. And I see clearer in terms of that particular form of attention, as well as intention, what I want to use that for, and what I want to activate it for.

BLVR: I find it amazing that, apart from the technical skills required to play the guitar again, you’d lost all of the language, the vocabulary, of a jazz musician. That’s altogether different than, say, the physical skills needed to get around the fretboard.

PM: Sure. But please keep in mind that there were in storage quite a number of documents and materials that I had written earlier. There was text that I had worked on for years, in terms of analysis of theory, and all of these things were in storage. And when the time came that I began to find an opening, in terms of socially becoming a little bit more active, these implements were very useful, in the sense of giving me what was necessary to function within the musical community once again.

BLVR: For most of your life you had been completely obsessed with the guitar.

PM: Prior to the operations it was time-consuming, it was demanding, it was magnetically addictive. It was one thing and one thing alone: you’re a guitar player, be a guitar player, be the greatest guitar player. I was obsessed with the competition of the business I was in.

BLVR: After the operations, you had to overcome the hurdle of learning how to play again.

PM: What caused me to overcome that was when I took a job [in 1983, at a club in Cape May, New Jersey] as Pat Azzara. And I went and played, though I was under the impression, because I used Azzara, that no one would know I was there. I did this intentionally. But I was wrong and the place was packed. I was stuck.

IV. JOE PESCI, WILT CHAMBERLAIN, AND JOHN COLTRANE

BLVR: What about all of the nonmusical memories? Joe Pesci, a friend from the early 1960s, when you were a fixture at Smalls’ Paradise in New York, just came up to you on the bandstand a few years ago?

PM: Yeah, at the Blue Note in New York City.

BLVR: And he said, “Hey, Pat, remember me?”

PM: Exactly. “Do you remember me?” I said, “Of course I remember you, you’ve been in some of my favorite films.” So I told him the names of the films. And he says, “No, no. You don’t remember me, do you?” Then he told me, “I remember when you used to drink. When you were seventeen.” I said, “Wow, far out.” I said, “What drink would that be?” The drink, whatever it was, a mint julep or something. And I said, “Holy smoke.” And I got a blast of images at that moment. And later on, Ian Knox [the producer of Martino Unstrung] and a cameraman, we went up into Harlem and we went to Smalls’ Paradise, which at this time is an IHOP, it’s just nothing but an International House of Pancakes. Well, when we went up there, I then got pictures of many things, of many, many people. And somewhere in that line of memories came Wilt Chamberlain. I remembered giving Wilt Chamberlain a lesson. He was stimulated by me as a guitarist, and he said, “I want to learn how to play guitar.”

BLVR: This is when he owned Smalls’, in the early 1960s.

PM: Yep. And he came to my hotel room. And he sat at the edge of the bed and he put my guitar in his hand and, god, his thumb and his first finger wrapped all the way around. I said, “You need a telephone pole for a neck. [Laughs] You’ll never be able to play this.” [Laughs]

BLVR: John Coltrane was a formative influence. Do you remember meeting him?

PM: Yeah, sure. It was Dennis Sandole [a Philadelphia guitar teacher] that introduced me to John Coltrane. I met ’Trane and I met Benny Golson there [at Sandole’s studio]. I met James Moody there. I met so many—Philly Joe [Jones] and Paul Chambers.

BLVR: Tell me about the first time you met him.

PM: The first time I met him I was just astounded at the opportunity to have met a giant. And Dennis took this little boy, I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and said, “Pat, I want you to meet John Coltrane. John, this is Pat Azzara [laughs], and he’s studying with me and he’s a great guitar player.” And ’Trane was very warm at that time. A little later on, maybe a month later, he took me out for some hot chocolate down the street. We talked and he said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Make sure that you’re going to enjoy doing what you want to do.” He says, “It may not be the way that you want it.” But he says, “Are you having fun?” I said, “Yeah.” He talked to me like a father.

BLVR: You must have been an impressive little kid.

PM: Yeah, I guess so. Being carried around by Dad like a child prodigy.

BLVR: Did you talk much in those situations or were you just quiet, soaking everything up?

PM: I soaked up everything around me, primarily because I found it very uncomfortable being a prodigy. In a sense, I still feel that to be uncomfortable, because I still feel [like] a prodigy, because that’s what I was born and raised as, and at this point in my life what I’m really there enjoying is the moment, and everybody in it. A lot of times, their respect for me as a guitarist is inhibiting.

BLVR: I guess you’ll never shake this.

PM: No, you can’t ever shake that. I just want to enjoy the moment, with everybody there.

BLVR: After the surgeries, you must have felt like a prodigy once again, learning how to play from scratch.

PM: Then I wanted to live up to being a guitarist, a jazz artist. Now I just want to continue enjoying, and compassionately enjoy everyone no matter what they ask. If it’s an autograph, yeah, fine. I don’t mind. I love doing it. I like to embrace at this point. It’s a lot more practical at this point in my life than it was when I was younger. I think when I was younger I was still caught up in the circus—in portraying the part, and competing with other players and worrying about whether I would get the gig and so on and so forth.

BLVR: When you think back now, are there still breaks in your memory or has everything come back?

PM: No, there are many things that are missing. I constantly have people contact me in one way or another, to remind me of things that I would have never remembered. It’s an ongoing surprise.

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