In Memoriam: Pat Martino (1944–2021)

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Martino dazzled as a player and demonstrated amazing resilience in overcoming life’s challenges.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Jazz guitarist Pat Martino passed away Nov. 1 at age 77 following a long illness.

Known for his incredible guitar chops and a kind heart to match, Martino died after battling a chronic respiratory disorder that prevented his lungs from bringing in oxygen and required around-the-clock treatment. Martino had not worked since 2018 due to the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Word of Martino’s passing spread quickly over social media with an outpouring of love from musicians and supporters.

“He’s gonna be missed — he certainly left us all an incredible legacy of music and will always be remembered as one of the greatest guitarists of all time,” said Joey DeFrancesco, a fellow Philadelphian who had performed with Martino over the years.

“Pat Martino 1944–2021 … my teenage hero, and still … when I hear him, I try to play guitar like that, but it can’t be done,” wrote John Scofield. “He was such a nice man to us younger players. Thank you, Pat. R.I.P.”

“His legacy is a gift to us all,” said Joe Donofrio, Martino’s long-time manager. “From the moment he first picked up the guitar to his last day on earth, Pat never wavered from his true calling.”

“I am not sure I can put into words what the loss of Pat Martino means for me or for the jazz world,” said fellow guitarist Mike Allemana. “When Fareed Haque (who is probably the encyclopedia on Pat) started teaching at [Northern Illinois University], he had me transcribe Pat’s solo on ‘Sunny.’ That solo opened up a new world of music and guitar that I’ve been exploring ever since. When teaching my students, I can’t help but draw from Pat’s approach to the guitar.”

“I had the pleasure of creating an album called The Philadelphia Experiment with the great Pat Martino,” wrote drummer Questlove Thompson, another Philadelphian. “Philadelphia legend. Guitar master. Who even became more legendary when, at the hands of a seizure due to an arteriovenous malformation, had amnesia at age 36 in 1980 and had to start all over again. ... He joked with me when I asked about playing simple songs like ‘Body And Soul.’ He countered, ‘I couldn’t even play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” … let alone tell you what a lamb was.’ Can you imagine that? Shy of 40, you forget everything, including your passion. It woulda been hella easy to just wallow in depression and rely on friends and family to just tell you who you once were. But instead, he decided to not only start over again but surpassed the level that took him three-plus decades to get to. He did it, advancing way, way past his pre-amnesia levels to ensure his god status. … May he rest in melody.”

Born Patrick C. Azzara in Philadelphia, Martino was introduced to jazz through his father, who sang locally and studied guitar with Eddie Lang briefly. Martino began playing guitar himself at the age of 12 and left high school to pursue music, studying with famed teacher Dennis Sandole, who also taught John Coltrane.

He became active in the rock scene around Philly, playing with the likes of Frankie Avalon, Bobby Darin and more. His first touring gig in jazz was with organist Charles Earland, who was a friend from high school. As his reputation grew, Martino played with artists such as Slide Hampton and Red Holloway, but also R&B stalwarts like Lloyd Price.

As a solo artist, Martino was initially signed to the Prestige label and knocked out five albums of material between 1967 and 1970: El Hombre, Strings!, East!, Baiyini (The Clear Evidence) and Live! He went on to record for Muse, Evidence, Blue Note, High Note and others over the years. His last recording, Formidable, came out in 2017 on High Note.

But his greatest achievement may have been recovering from surgery for a severe brain aneurysm that also damaged his memory. Through intensive study of his music, and with the help of computer technology, Martino was able to reverse the memory loss, and resumed his recording and performance career.

Prior to his death, crowdfunding efforts had raised nearly $250,000 to help cover Martino’s medical expenses. In March, guitarist Joel Harrison dedicated an evening of his online Alternative Guitar Summit to Martino with a dozen jazz guitar masters playing Martino’s compositions. Benedetto Guitars, the company that made his signature model, built and auctioned off a guitar to contribute to the effort. DB



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