Pat Martino, jazz guitarist who overcame amnesia, dies at 77
By Neil Genzlinger
Pat Martino, whose trailblazing career as a jazz guitarist seemed to end prematurely in 1980 when brain surgery left him with no memory, but who then painstakingly relearned the instrument, and his own past, and went on to three more decades of innovative musicianship, died Monday at his home in South Philadelphia. He was 77.
Joseph Donofrio, his longtime manager, said the cause was chronic respiratory disorder, which had forced Martino to stop performing after a tour of Italy in November 2018.
Martino’s playing began drawing attention when he was still a teenager. Having been expelled from a Roman Catholic high school in 10th grade (“Something took place between me and one of the priests there,” he wrote years later. “If I remember correctly, it had something to do with bubble gum.”), he became a professional musician, joining singer Lloyd Price’s big band and then, in 1962, saxophonist Willis Jackson’s combo.
In 1967, when he was in his early 20s, he released his first album, “El Hombre,” on the Prestige label, and a series of well-regarded records followed. At the start of his career, he often drew comparisons to earlier jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, but by the 1970s he was forging his own sound. “Pat Martino: Breaking Barriers Between Rock & Jazz,” a 1975 headline in The San Francisco Examiner read.
On a tour supporting his first albums for Warner Bros., “Starbright” (1976) and “Joyous Lake” (1977), Martino began experiencing frequent headaches and seizures, something he had dealt with occasionally since childhood. One seizure came while he was onstage in France in 1976.
“I stopped playing and stood there for about 30 seconds,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Here and Now!” (2011, with Bill Milkowski). “During these moments of seizure, it feels like you’re falling through a black hole; it’s like everything just escapes at the moment.”
In the book, he described going through a series of misdiagnoses and ill-advised treatment, including electroshock. He retired from performing and turned to teaching at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, but his problems worsened; at one point, he wrote, a doctor told him he had two hours to live.
A condition called arteriovenous malformation, a tangling of arteries and veins, was diagnosed. An aneurysm resulted in emergency surgery to remove a large tumor; when he awoke, he had no memory.
“When you don’t remember something, you have no idea of its existence,” he wrote. “And upon awakening after the surgery, I remembered nothing.
“But it wasn’t a disorienting feeling,” he continued. “If I had known I was a guitarist, if I had known those two people standing by my bedside in the hospital were in fact my parents, I then would’ve felt the feelings that went along with the events. What they went through and why they were standing there looking at me then would’ve been very painful for me. But it wasn’t painful because to me they were just strangers.”
His parents helped him relearn his past, showing him family photographs and playing him his own albums. Picking up the guitar again was another form of memory recovery.
“I had to start from Square 1,” he told The Edmonton Journal of Alberta, Canada, in 2004. “But once I made the decision to try, it activated inner intuitive familiarities, like a child who hasn’t ridden their bicycle for many years and tries to do so again to reach a destination. There are moments of imbalance, but it’s subliminal, and it emerges after some mistakes, and then it strengthens.”
By the mid-1980s he was performing again. Jon Pareles, reviewing a performance at Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan in 1986, found Martino as virtuosic and unpredictable as ever.
“He can play chorus after chorus of bebop lines, zigzagging through the chromatic harmonies of his own tunes,” Pareles wrote. “But more often than not, he turns bebop conventions sideways. He starts a line on an unexpected beat, breaks his runs up to insist on a single note or riff, inserts odd-length leaps into standard licks and shifts accents around the beat. His playing is articulately wayward, approaching tunes from odd angles and taking rewarding tangents; he makes song forms seem slippery and mysterious.”
In 1987, Martino released a new album. It was called “The Return.”
Patrick Azzara (he took Martino, which his father had also used, as a stage name) was born Aug. 25, 1944, in Philadelphia to Carmen and Jean (Orlando) Azzara. His father, known as Mickey, was a tailor who also worked as a guitarist and singer. He would hide his guitar from young Pat, although in the autobiography Martino suggests that this “was a bit of reverse psychology on his part” — once the boy took up the instrument, his father encouraged his career and introduced him to various musicians.
Martino was in bands as a boy, including one with future pop star Bobby Rydell, who lived nearby. One of the guitar greats Martino’s father took him to meet, backstage after a concert in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was Les Paul, who asked young Pat to play a little something.
“What came out of that guitar was unbelievable,” Paul wrote in the liner notes to Martino’s 1970 album, “Desperado.” “His dexterity and his picking style were absolutely unique. He held his pick as one would hold a demitasse … pinkie extended, very polite. The politeness disappeared when pick met string.”
As Martino grew more experienced, his view of jazz evolved, largely shaped by Eastern philosophies; he did not, he told The Examiner in 1975, consider himself a jazz musician.
“Jazz is a way of life,” he said. “It’s not an idiom of music. Jazz is spontaneous improvisation. If you ever leave your house with nowhere to go, and just walk for pleasure, observing and looking around, you’ll find that you improvise.”
Martino is survived by his wife of 26 years, Ayako Asahi.