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Pat Martino 1944 – 2021

The venerated guitarist was a peak performer on his instrument—both before and after a potentially life-ending brain seizure

Pat Martino, Yoshi's, Emeryville, CA 2002
Pat Martino, Yoshi’s, Emeryville, CA 2002 (photo: Lee Tanner)

Pat Martino, a renowned guitarist and composer who overcame remarkable adversity to retain his place in the top echelon of jazz guitarists, died November 1 at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 77.

His passing was announced by Joe Donofrio, his longtime friend and manager, in a post on Facebook. Cause of death was not given; however, Martino had for several years been afflicted with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which had prevented him from public performance.

Martino was esteemed as an improviser, known in particular for his epic-length solos and his remarkable speed, which did nothing to dim the clarity and precision of his lines. A child prodigy, he was a professional musician by the age of 15 and by his early twenties was working with the likes of Lloyd Price, Willis Jackson, and Brother Jack McDuff. Beginning his career as a leader in 1967, Martino maintained his roots in soul jazz, but also welcomed influences of the avant-garde and fusion.

His career reached its greatest heights, however, after it nearly terminated in 1980. A severe seizure left him near death; doctors determined that the cause was an abnormal tangle of blood vessels in the left side of his brain (known as an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM). The resulting emergency surgery removed 70 percent of his temporal lobe. It saved Martino’s life. However, it also left him with severe amnesia that blocked all of his memories before the seizure—including his ability to play guitar.

With the help of his father, his own recordings, and a small home computer, Martino spent several years rebuilding his musical acumen. He documented his struggles in a documentary film, Martino Unstrung (2008), and in his 2011 autobiography Here and Now.

“My attitude was ‘let me pick [my guitar] up and see what that does,’” Martino recalled in his memoir. “And when I did that, some innate powers were ignited. Little by little, just a minute here and there … and I was back to the kid again, exploring the instrument with the kind of playfulness and openness that I had as a child. And this toy would become the escape route from the pain I had endured … the guitar, in effect, became my life preserver.”

He returned to performance in 1984, and in 1987 recorded a celebrated comeback album, The Return. His reputation soared, and Martino made nearly 30 more recordings (as both leader and sideman) in as many years, collaborated with a bevy of high-profile musicians, and toured the world several times over. His recovery also became an important case study in the fields of neurosurgery and psychology, making him the subject of multiple studies and peer-reviewed articles over the ensuing years.

Martino himself suggested that the experience with amnesia had heightened his ability to improvise, because with no memory of the past he could focus on nothing but the present. “I remember, since the operations, the importance of being actively involved in the moment,” he told JazzBridge in a 2016 interview. “Not tomorrow, not thinking about the past, not learning what I did before, and not evolving toward what I would like to be, but focusing on what I am, where I’m at, and what I’m doing in the moment and what it produces for me.”

Patrick Carmen Azzara was born in Philadelphia on August 25, 1944 to Carmen Azzara, a lapel presser and musician, and the former Genoveffa (Jean) Orlando, a housewife. His father worked in tailor factories by day and played local clubs and dances at night under the name Mickey Martino—a stage name that his son would eventually assume for himself.

When Pat was 12, his father bought him a guitar of his own, and he began learning to play from records and radio, soon forming a band with future rock & roll singer Bobby Rydell. By 15, he had a renowned teacher named Dennis Sandole (who had also taught John Coltrane and Benny Golson) as well as a manager, and had moved to New York City’s Harlem to play professionally with organist Charles Earland.

Martino soon also worked with saxophonists Willis Jackson (with whom he made his first recordings in 1963) and Eric Kloss, as well as with R&B vocalist Lloyd Price and a succession of organists that included Earland, McDuff, Don Patterson, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Jimmy Smith, and Trudy Pitts. Pitts would in turn accompany Martino on 1967’s El Hombre, his first album under his own name and a recording that, while dyed-in-the-wool soul jazz, offered tantalizing hints of modal explorations and unusual timbres. His experiments grew more pronounced on 1968’s Baiyina (The Clear Evidence), an early example of fusion with then-trending psychedelic rock, and 1972’s free-ish Live!, whose “Sunny” offered a favorite Martino solo for students to transcribe and emulate.

By that time Martino, who had experienced strange headaches and seizures since childhood, found those problems intensifying. Doctors diagnosed depression, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia, subjecting him to extreme treatments (including institutionalization and electroshock therapy) that uniformly failed. After a particularly violent seizure in a Los Angeles hotel room in 1980, the guitarist was hospitalized and scans revealed the AVM near his left ear. Told that he needed surgery immediately, Martino nonetheless traveled home to Philadelphia to have the procedure. Having done so, he awoke with no idea who he or his family was, no memory of being a musician, and no ability to play.

Mickey Martino played Pat’s old records for him and urged his son to begin practicing on the instrument again, which he finally did to please his father and to preoccupy himself in miserable circumstances. As he practiced, Martino recalled in his autobiography, “flashes of memory and muscle memory would gradually come flooding back to me—shapes on the fingerboard, different stairways to different rooms in the house[.]” He regained both his musical aptitude and (some) memories of his earlier career, and began performing again. The Return, an eagerly awaited and acclaimed recording, followed three years later.

Save for another brief retreat to care for his ailing parents (his mother died in 1989 and his father in 1990), Martino remained a strong and welcome presence on the jazz scene for the next three decades. It was during these years that he became a true jazz star: a collaborator much sought after by the likes of Joe Lovano, Eric Alexander, Cyrus Chestnut, and Joey DeFrancesco; an acclaimed bandleader whose recordings—especially his late-1990s albums for Blue Note and 2010s albums for HighNote—were celebrated; and an educator who authored several textbooks and appeared in a series of instructional videos. In 2017, however, Martino’s struggles with COPD, a respiratory disorder, forced him to retire from active performance.

He is survived by his wife of 26 years, the former Ayako Asahi. Final arrangements are forthcoming.

Pat Martino: At Home (2008 feature)

Pat Martino: Formidable (2017 album review)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.