Dull, dull Paradiso
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.
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.
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