Jazz artist Martino overcomes amnesia for second take on life


Jazz musician Pat Martino’s storied career could easily be turned into a compelling biopic. A long, historical outing cut in half by amnesia that was overcome by music therapy using the patient’s own recordings has “Hollywood screenplay” written all over it.

Perhaps the reason a silver screen adaptation has not yet been attempted is because Martino’s musical journey is still unfolding in unexpected ways.

The guitarist, who is scheduled to play a series of concerts in Tokyo in early November, was born in 1944 to an Italian-American family in Philadelphia and picked up the guitar in his pre-teens.

“I saw the guitar as just another toy. Of all the toys that I enjoyed and that provided imagination, the guitar continued to do so and continues to do so till this day,” Martino says. “Today, I don’t practice guitar — I play with it. It is still my favorite toy.”

He left school in the 10th grade and began studying under the late composer and music educator Dennis Sandole. After lessons, he would often chat about music theory with another of Sandole’s pupils who would buy him cups of hot chocolate. The fact that this fellow student was none other than John Coltrane, perhaps the most important innovator in the history of jazz, wasn’t an obstacle for the teenager. Today he looks back at his time with Sandole, Coltrane and others he met in his formative years by saying, “It wasn’t the study of music, but the study of the human experience and social interaction, and the psychology of adapting to the opportunities that were presented to me.”

Martino began playing professionally at the tender age of 15 and almost immediately teamed up with some of the best players in the business. In early 1960s America, jazz musicians were strictly segregated by race not only in concert halls and on television, but, absurd as it was, even on the radio. Martino was a pioneer in breaking down these boundaries, immersing himself in soul jazz and moving to Harlem, New York, where some of his earliest collaborators were the African-American musicians Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, Red Holloway and Jack McDuff, many of whom were twice the guitar prodigy’s age.

The ’70s was a productive time for Martino as he recorded more than a dozen albums for the Prestige and Muse labels while actively touring and making appearances at The Newport Jazz Festival and other milestone events that defined the new direction the genre was taking, away from the hard bop of the previous decade and toward fusion jazz.

Then in 1980 came the diagnosis of a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. Surgery saved his life but almost completely wiped out his memory. “I was dropped cold, empty, neutral, cleansed and naked back into my own life” he later recalled.

When Martino came to after the operation, he barely recognized his parents standing next to his hospital bed, and had no recollection of ever having touched a guitar. Music therapy has often been employed to help reverse memory loss, but in this case the patient listened to his own recordings, which presented themselves as “an old friend.” Nascent computer software was employed to slow down his lightning fast solos, which he began learning again.

The majority of Martino’s memory — and all of his remarkable skill on the fretboard — came back, though today he speaks of learning the guitar “the first time” and “the second time.” His first album recorded after the surgery, released in 1987, was appropriately titled “The Return.” Today the musician admits that there are “failures in his retainment,” things he can’t remember from his childhood or his early career.

His approach to dealing with his long-term recovery is, like his approach to music, philosophic rather than clinical. He has coped with the black spots in his memory by, “trying to enjoy the moment as a child does, beginning with what he enjoys the most, which is playfulness, to be able to play with his favorite toy.” The guitar allows him to not only “live in music,” but also “live in the moment, and everything contained in the moment is absolutely magnificent.”

In this second phase of his life and career, Martino has become a respected music theorist, and spots at his guitar- master seminars are highly sought after, making him something of a “guitarists’ guitarist.” But that is not to say that there is nothing for a nonplayer to enjoy at a Martino concert. Since the earliest stages of his career, the guitarist has collaborated with some of the top jazz organists, and for his Tokyo shows he will be teaming up with Tony Monaco, a master at coaxing funky sounds from his vintage Hammond B-3 organ, and New York-based drummer Jason Brown. The guitarist’s wife is Japanese, and he has often toured Japan, building up a loyal fan base that is sure to pack the house at his Cotton Club gigs. Martino uses music to create a unique moment for, as his says, “The longevity and continuity of my own ecstasy.” Tokyo audiences will have the chance to share in that moment.

The Pat Martino Organ Trio plays Tokyo’s Cotton Club at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 3; 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 4-6. Tickets cost ¥8,400-¥10,500. For more information, call (03) 3215-1555 or visit www.cottonclubjapan.co.jp or www.patmartino.com.