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Interviews

John di Martino: Piano Man In/On Demand

By Published: March 31, 2009

Because subtlety and nuance are very important. I make the comparison that playing live is more like theater and playing in the studio is more like film.

John di Martino is a New York area based pianist, composer, arranger and Venus recording artist. He is a sought after musical director and is in demand by many singers as an accompanist, having accompanied such singers as Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks
Jon Hendricks
b.1921
vocalist
, Sylvia Sims, Diane Schuur
Diane Schuur
Diane Schuur
b.1953
vocalist
and Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
vocalist
. His talents as a pianist and arranger can be heard on recordings with Freddy Cole
Freddy Cole
Freddy Cole
b.1931
piano
, Gloria Lynne
Gloria Lynne
Gloria Lynne
b.1931
vocalist
and Grady Tate
Grady Tate
Grady Tate
b.1932
drums
. Noted for his versatility, di Martino has also performed and recorded with such notables as Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell
b.1931
guitar
, James Moody
James Moody
James Moody
1925 - 2010
reeds
, Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
, the late David "Fathead" Newman
David
David "Fathead" Newman
1933 - 2009
sax, tenor
, Pat Martino
Pat Martino
Pat Martino
b.1944
guitar
, Paquito D'Rivera
Paquito D'Rivera
Paquito D'Rivera
b.1948
saxophone
and Houston Person
Houston Person
Houston Person
b.1934
sax, tenor
.



Di Martino was a long time member of Ray Barretto's "New World Spirit" group and he was a featured pianist and arranger on several recording including Barretto's Grammy-nominated CD, Contact! (Blue Note, 1997). He also enjoyed a long association with percussionist Bobby Sanabria

Bobby Sanabria
Bobby Sanabria

percussion
and can be heard on Sanabria's Grammy-nominated CD Afro-Cuban Dream: Live And In Clave (Arabesque, 2000). Born in Philadelphia, di Martino was a student of Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
1919 - 1978
piano
, Don Sebesky
Don Sebesky
b.1937
arranger
and Jimmy Amadie
Jimmy Amadie
Jimmy Amadie
1937 - 2013
piano
. He has performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Peoples' Republic of China.

All About Jazz: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

John di Martino: I got interested in music kind of early. I have a brother 10 years older who's a theater person. So I grew up listening to all these great musicals. West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof. In fact, to this day when I hear West Side Story I get a very strange emotional reaction. I remember being seven years. It takes me right back there. It's very strong. It's amazing—the power of music to do that. When I hear that music—I love it, but it's a strange feeling. It just takes you back. I think I started young, like how old was I? I get memories of studying the accordion at age seven. And then somewhere around that time studying drums a little bit; never really being serious about it. And then when I was 12, I started studying violin. I finally started to focus.



But, even then, it went on for about two years and I didn't really get serious until I was about 15. And I was always playing piano. Oh, I'm forgetting now. Twelve years old, playing violin, but I fell in love with blues. And started to learn certain principles about playing blues. I used to play blues violin and this was my first experience with improvisation. And then my ear just wanted to get deeper into music and I started to get interested in jazz. And my mother is a big jazz fan, especially the vocalists. And I had a couple of older cousins who would be feeding me recordings. In fact, my mother was actually sort of like a frustrated singer and she never pursued it as a career, but she had a great ear. So when I was really young, we looked through the fake book and we'd go through tunes and I think that kind of sealed my fate as an accompanist. Because I was listening to all these vocals and I was learning tunes at a young age which is kind of like the basis of jazz repertoire. So when I was 15 I started playing with a little local band. I was kind of natural with the piano. I mean my technique was a little interesting. That was self-taught. But I started studying with a great Philadelphia teacher.

AAJ: So you're from Philadelphia?

JdM: Yes, I'm from Philly... Jimmy Amadie

Jimmy Amadie
Jimmy Amadie
1937 - 2013
piano
was my teacher. And Jimmy really gave me the main part of my training. He taught me to be a really good sight reader. He taught me concepts of thinking about being an accompanist, thinking about accompanying in a rhythm section, everything that that you really need to think about to be a professional musician and be sensitive to situations. So I learned a lot of—my foundation came from him. And then later on when I was nineteen, I studied with Lennie Tristano.

AAJ: You studied with Lennie Tristano?

JdM: Yes, when I was nineteen I was obsessed... Well, my first discovery was Lee Konitz. I fell in love with everything. I started buying all of his stuff. My older cousins would say: Hey, did you hear him when he was with Stan Kenton? Did you hear this? So I started getting those records and listening, [like Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
'] The Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1949). So I wound up studying with Lennie and I got like the last year of his life. I was 19 years- old and that was the last year and he died. And I studied a little bit after that. I took at least one lesson with Lee Konitz, a little bit with Warne Marsh. I was just crazy about those guys.



I also studied a bit with Sophie Rosoff, a classical teacher that Barry Harris

Barry Harris
Barry Harris
b.1929
piano
referred me to. A great mentor to me was my dear friend, Bobby Tucker. He had two jobs his entire life; he accompanied Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
and Billy Eckstine. Another formative thing with me was when I was real young, like 15, 16, 17, I used to play with salsa bands around Philadelphia. And it was kind of a fluke. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood sort of, but brother was a social worker in a Hispanic neighborhood. And he said, "Would you guys like to jam with my little brother?" I had some Latino friends in high school that were feeding me Latin records. So I fell in love with that music as well. Ironically, I did it as a teenager but it became part of me so that years later when I moved to New York, I started to play a Latin gig at the Rainbow Room. That was a corny gig, you know. But on the gig was Victor Venegas, who was the founding member of Mongo Santamaria
Mongo Santamaria
Mongo Santamaria
1922 - 2003
percussion
's group. So that put another dimension to my learning and it got me into the Latin scene here.

John di Martino And then consequently I started to play with Ray Barretto. I made four records with him. I was with Bobby Sanabria for ten years. So I got really deep into the whole Latin scene. I've since been kind of out of it. I kind of systematically decided that I wanted to move to some different areas and back with the singers again which I always did. I could also tell you that when I was nineteen, I had entered a competition at Radio Free Jazz. I sent them a tape. And I won in the competition and I won a scholarship to go to Berklee in Boston. For just stupidity and I think just [the] irrational fear that I was dealing with, I didn't go.



And what I regret about that was not so much the education because I got the education elsewhere. I got it on the street which is the real education. But I think it would have been good for me to just get out of my home town at that tender age to get a perspective. I think it would have helped my development. So what happened to me is I lay around Philadelphia and Philadelphia led me to Atlantic City. And here's where my music school really became. I had a house band gig at the Golden Nugget. It's no longer called the Golden Nugget. But the house band gig was playing with a trio in a little lounge. But, check this out, it was a remnant from the old days that didn't exist any more but somehow I got to go back in time. They had a house trio and they would bring in acts and I would accompany the acts. But check out who the acts were. Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Fran Warren, Keely Smith, Sylvia Syms, Joni Summers.



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