By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
A giant of jazz
Savannah Jazz Festival headliner Pat Martino has walked a singular path
Readers of Downbeat voted Pat Martino Guitarist of the Year in 2004

The Coastal Jazz Association’s 2011 Savannah Jazz Festival might be lacking a really “big name” — that’s what a sagging economy will do — but there is something extraordinarily celebratory about the headlining concert.

That’s because guitarist Pat Martino is on the bill. He might not ring any bells in the celebrity–musician recognition tower, but Martino is considered by purists to be something of a living legend.

In Martino’s case, both of those words carry a lot of weight.

The Philadelphia native began playing professionally in the 1950s, while just barely in his teens. Throughout the following decades, he earned a reputation as a pioneer, a tireless innovator in the bop, post–bop and fusion worlds. He was a top session man, and cut dozens of acclaimed records under his own name.

George Benson recalled first encountering Martino, performing with a combo in a Manhattan jazz club in the mid ‘60s. “All of a sudden, they came to a break in the music, and this guitar leaped out of nowhere,” Benson said, “playing some of the most incredible lines I had ever heard. Had everything in it! Great tone, great articulation, and the whole crowd – it was a black crowd – went crazy. And I said to myself ‘If this is a sample of what New York is like, I’m getting out of here.’”

Although he mastered, composed and performed in numerous styles and phases of jazz, Martino always preferred the simplicity of a drummer and a Hammond B3 organ, which colors the sound and can handle the bass lines, over the traditional piano–bass–drums rhythm section. To many, this is “soul jazz.”

He still works this way today, and at his Forsyth Park show on Sept. 24 he’ll be accompanied by Pat Bianchi on Hammond B3, and Shawn Hill on drums.

The predilection for simplicity has served Martino well. In 1980, after enduring several years of crippling headaches, he underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. The procedure left him with no memory at all – not of his family, his life or career, or his ability to play guitar.

When he publicly re–emerged, six or seven years later, he had re–taught himself; some said he was better than ever. Readers of Downbeat voted him Guitarist of the Year in 2004.

More importantly to Pat Marino, as you’ll read in this interview, the harrowing experience led him to cut all the bullshit from life and focus on the important things.

I’ve seen some of your lessons online, and heard you in deep public discourse about theory, and technique, and the mathematics of music. Taking away all the technical stuff for a moment, what is music to you?

Pat Martino: In my case, I’ve seen music as a type of stimulation mechanism. It increases sensitivity in every way. It amplifies perspective with regards to the way the architecture of a number of things coincidentally match each other, in a very natural kind of way. And it leads to a very spiritual sensitivity, at a much higher level that a craft or a career that’s based upon any of the given crafts.

So to me, music is truly a universal language. It’s not so much latent with a mathematical interest on my behalf. Music is second nature to me.

And I’ve always maintained my respect for it at the same time, a deep respect, and honor for all of the artists and individuals who have mastered it. No matter what their intentions are.

In many cases, I see music as an opportunity to move into social and cultural arenas that give me the opportunity to interact with other, powerful individuals.

You lost your memory, and the technical ability to play. But was music still there, inside you? Was there a thread that still existed, or was that concept completely new to you too?

Pat Martino: If there was, it was innate. At that particular time, it was more important to recover after neurosurgery. It took time for that to re–awaken. So it’s difficult for me to be precise with regard to its essence, and where it really came from. I don’t think it came from an effort on my behalf; I think it was more subliminal.

And to be more precise about that, I think it was there when I was a child. It’s like the ecstasy that all children go through – the ecstasy is their playfulness and the enjoyment of the revelation of their own imagination.

Did you think during that period “I’ll never play again. Gotta do something else”?

Pat Martino: Throughout the years that I performed, prior to the neurosurgery, I constantly was sorry that I was a player. I think that it was being sorry to participate in the music business, solely for the sake of trying to attain success. As an artist, as a recording artist, as an instrumentalist. These concerns were fabricated on the basis of a competitive mechanism. Which was so far away from the spiritual aesthetic of the gift itself that was latent within, from childhood. It was really bruised by participating in this career–oriented business.

I don’t think I ever wanted to be that. But it was a necessity for me to learn the next step. Which was a decisive moment in my life. I came to the conclusion of how futile and wasteful it was to ponder on the past. And to pay more attention to now, the very moment that was reality itself. And to be as accurate as possible in my responsibilities in the fulfillment of that.

Can you therefore go so far as to say that the aneurysm was one of the best things that ever happened to you?

Pat Martino: Exactly. I remembered the years and years of mis–diagnosis prior to the operation itself. And the futility and frustration that came from that, the entrapment that I believed I was experiencing being in locked wards, receiving electric shock treatment and just about every kind of prescribed medication, chemically. These were nightmares for me for a number of years. Then I decided to pursue it in the courts. But I said “I can’t put myself through that.”

 And then I was in limbo, what the Roman Catholics refer to as purgatory.

Finally I made a decision to pay more attention to the moment. When I did that, I began to see how necessary it was for everything that came before to lead to that decision. When I saw that, I then began to feel that it was honorable, and it was a benefit. Everything that took place was a gift. It was a process that led to a deeper freedom in the long run.

Savannah Jazz Festival

Schedule of Events

Sept. 18: Jam Session led by Teddy Adams at Blowin' Smoke, 514 MLK. 5-8 p.m.

Sept. 19: Film screening (The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi), 7:45 p.m. at Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 20: Howard Paul Quartet w/Scott Giddens & Jody Espina, 7 p.m., Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 21: George Petit 4 and Bob Masteller & Jazz Corner Quintet, 7 p.m., Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 22: "Blues on the Green" at Forsyth Park with Bottles & Cans, Eric Culberson Band, Super Chikan, 7 p.m.; "Blues & BBQ Jam," 11 p.m. at Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 23: Evening Jazz in Forsyth Park, 5:45-11 p.m., Sharp Five, Huxie Scott & Friends featuring CJA Hall of Fame members, Stan Killian Quartet, University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble w/Allan Harris. 11 p.m., "Jazz Jam" at Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 24: "Jazz Picnic" in Forsyth Park, 4-11 p.m.: Jazz Composers Sextet, JB Scott/Lisa Kelly Quintet, Deborah Brown Quartet, The Savannah Jazz Orchestra featuring Wycliffe Gordon & Ron Wilkins, Pat Martino Trio. 11 p.m., "Saturday Night Jam" at Blowin' Smoke.

Sept. 25: "Children's Jazz Festival," 4-6 p.m. in Forsyth Park with Savannah Arts Academy Starlite Jazz Band, CJA Allstars.

Admission: All events are free