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Pat Martino: At One with His Favorite Toy

By Published: April 24, 2006

"It just so happened that at that time in Lloyd Price's 18-piece big band, the arrangements were being done by Slide Hampton. And in the band was Jimmy Health, the Turrentine brothers, Stanley and Tommy, Red Holloway was in the band. Charlie Persip was the drummer. Julian Priester was in the band. It was a band of all-star jazz players. We would play for an hour or an hour and a half sometimes—just the band with some really modern jazz arrangements, original stuff. Then Lloyd would come out for one half-hour or 40 minutes and do a show.

"Whenever the band wasn't working, everyone went in their own direction. That's where I would perform with Willis, or Jack McDuff, or Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. It was a great time in our culture. Very volatile."

For the young Martino, his age didn't matter, nor did the rigors of everyday life a teenager would have to encounter in the big city. His elders looked after him. And he was where he wanted to be.

"I lived in a dream and jazz was heaven. Jazz was Disneyland to me. I wanted to meet these people. I wanted to meet Jimmy Heath. I wanted to meet Jimmy Smith. I wanted to meet Wes Montgomery. I wanted to meet Les Paul. A lot of people. All the people who, as a little boy, I looked up to. The stars. The successful ones; the dreams come true."

His reputation among jazz giants grew and he could count among friends the likes of Les Paul and George Benson. The youngster was in the middle of a burning jazz scene and he had many influences on guitar.

"The first was Les Paul. The second was Johnny Smith. The third was Wes Montgomery. In between Johnny Smith and Wes Montgomery were influences that were not as profound as the three that I mentioned, but just as powerful in their own way," he says. "One of those was Hank Garland. Another was Howard Roberts. Another was Joe Pass. These six players on the guitar were major influences to me. ... Aside from the guitar, my main influences were Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce. Gerald Wilson with the big band. More than any of the influences mentioned, the greatest influence to me was John Coltrane. There were many things."

The gigs were steady, the Big Apple generally welcoming and Martino was among the finest of his craft. He played with the likes of Sonny Stitt. A gig with John Handy took him to California, where he also started doing some teaching. He was signed by Prestige and recorded a string of albums including El Hombre (Prestige, 1967) and East! (Prestige, 1968). But in 1976, at the age of 32, the headaches started. Severely. And there were blackouts.

"It brought things to a halt by 1977. At least in terms of performance. Then I moved to California, to Los Angeles, and took a position as part of a faculty," says Martino. But troubles continued. He was misdiagnosed as manic depression, even schizophrenic. Wrong medications. Electric shock treatments. Confinement in a psychiatric ward and close to suicide. There were periods when he could function, but continued problems landed him in the hospital. The brain aneurysm was discovered.

Operations in a Philadelphia hospital left the artist in a coma. The brilliance of his creative energy, it appeared, was at an end. His very life hung in the balance. But Martino did not succumb. He awoke. He lived. He was discharged.

But he did not recognize a soul. Not his parents. Not his friends. He didn't know he was a guitarist, much less one of stature. Martino went to his parents home to recover, but amnesia made the process painful. His father showed him copies of his albums. Showed him the instruments. Friends like Les Paul called. While memory slowly came back, Martino's desire to play did not. In fact, if anything, he was repelled, feeling that he was being pushed into something in which he had no interest. Dark times continued.

"That was very painful. It produced a very painful situation for me, because I was recovering at Mom and Dad's house. Because of this, I was subject to and had to endure listening to my old records come through the floor when I was upstairs in my own little bedroom in isolation. I heard my father playing my records. I didn't want to hear that. I didn't like it. I saw the albums and I saw the guitars and I saw a responsibility of something everybody wanted me to do. And I didn't feel that I had to do that, to please them. I had a lot pain going on and I didn't want to please anyone. I wanted to overcome the pain and hopefully at some point enjoy being alive. So that's what it meant, my albums and my career and all of that. I didn't really want to get into it."

It wasn't anyone's prodding that brought Martino back to music. He went back on his own. Maybe music met him half way.

"Finally it got so painful," he says simply, "that I went into the guitar itself. It was the only thing that started to become enjoyable. It turned into an ecstasy once again."

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