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The Zen of Pat Martino.

July 9, 2013

PatMartino05smallText and images by G.W. Miller III.

Legendary guitarist Pat Martino has always been on a journey, or so he believes.

Actually, he’s not really sure and he doesn’t seem to care about days gone by. He knows he’s here now and really, that’s all that matters.

You see, in 1980, when Martino was at the first height of his artistry and career, he had an operation that eliminated his memory.

“I lost everything,” he says.

He’d had seizures and headaches all his life but doctors had misdiagnosed him, often saying his issues were psychiatric. Then he had an aneurysm that nearly killed him.

After a CT scan in Los Angeles, the doctor told Martino he had two hours to live. So he hopped a plane back to his native Philly.

“I didn’t know why I was coming back except for my mom and dad,” recalls Martino, now 68.

His parents took him straight from the airport to Pennsylvania Hospital. He immediately underwent surgery to relieve his arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a congenital abnormality that disrupts the flow of blood.

When he awoke, he had no idea who he was.

Starting over was scary and frustrating and it changed his outlook on life. Or maybe it didn’t. He’s not certain. But he did learn about himself.

He had originally began playing guitar to please his father, a first generation American who spoke the Italian of his Sicilian ancestors. Martino’s father used to strum the guitar and sing old world love songs to Martino’s mother.

Martino started playing when he was a child and by the time he was 12, he made a television appearance with bandmate Bobby Rydell. A few years later, his father hired Jerry Blavat to be Martino’s manager. Martino began playing music at parties and events around the city but Blavat was pushing for that new sound, rock ‘n’ roll.

Martino, though, had already stumbled upon and fallen in love with the mysteries of jazz.

So when he was 16, he left his South Philly home and moved to New York.

“I really moved to jazz, a musical community,” he says. “It wasn’t a physical space.”

He was so good, young and skinny, they just called him “The Kid.” He performed alongside jazz and R&B greats like Lloyd Price, Willis Jackson, Curtis Fuller and Jimmy Heath.

He went on to perform across the country and around the world with some of the biggest names in jazz. He eventually started his own bands and made albums that inspired legions of guitarists to experiment with their style. No one plucked the strings as quickly and intricately as Martino did, especially as he veered into his fusion era.

He was a master musician at the top of his game, eventually becoming an instructor at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood.

And then he had the operation that saved his life and stole it at the same time.

“A guitar?” he recalls thinking after the operation. “I didn’t even want to get near it.”

He had moved into his parents’ home to rehabilitate but also to tend to them as they grew older.

“My father played my old records thinking it would jar something in me,” Martino says. “It was horrible. I felt like I had nothing to do with those records. It wasn’t me.”

PatMartinoAlbumSmallHe looked at his old albums next to himself in the mirror to see if it was really him.

To escape the confusion and anger, he’d hang out  at a corner bar in South Philly and watch the horse races, thinking he was anonymous. Only years later did he realize that everyone at the bar knew him. They were just giving him space.

Martino began experimenting with the guitar and found it rather therapeutic.

He claims it took him 17 years to fully regain his skill with the guitar but he was performing about two years after surgery. His first steady gig was at The Shire in Cape May in the summer of 1982.

“I performed as Pat Azzara,” he says, referring to his family name. “I didn’t want to have to live up to the expectations of being Pat Martino.”

After the first weekend performances, however, the word was out. People from up and down the East Coast flooded the tiny venue to see Martino.

He’s back to touring the world again. He’ll be in Europe most of the summer playing jazz festivals.

His music is different now, free of constraints from old conventions. Because he has no past, everything he creates is in the now. He sees music in everything, from the alphabet to license plates. It all inspires him. It always has, he thinks.

“There can be no greater success than happiness,” he says. “But happiness is elusive. And it has an opposite.”

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