Pat Martino: To Renew A Life In Jazz
CAUTION! This interview may positively change the way you think about and experience music, yourself, and even your life. You risk growing and changing! Pat Martino is not simply a master guitarist and jazz icon. He is insistent on being a whole human being, insistent on being himself, insistent paradoxically on playing and enjoying life to the fullest. He is also a deep thinker who wants to get at the truth in some spiritual sense of what makes it all come together in the way that it does. In this interview, he explains some of his ideas about musical form and structure (see his website www.patmartino.com for a fuller exposition with diagrams), about himself and his lovely wife Ayako Asahi, his musical influences, his new CD Think Tank, and his 'take' on spirituality. He also forthrightly discusses the events surrounding the aneurysm he suffered in the 1980's, which left him with nearly total amnesia, and from which he made a remarkable recovery for which he eventually was honored with the NARAS "Heroes Award" in 2002. He further reveals another medical crisis that he endured in the late 1990's, for which his wife played a major role in a second miraculous recovery. This cat has nine lives!
I interviewed Pat at his home on a sunny autumn day. He lives in a modest but beautiful row home in the same Philadelphia ethnically diverse neighborhood in which he grew up. His studio is a pleasure to be in. He takes me to his work area, where his computers and guitars are all within arms' reach. I get goosebumps seeing up close the famous Gibson Pat Martino guitar from which he evokes such incredible rapid-fire sequences of notes. He points to his remarkably diverse record collection, which he is still cataloging. He's opened up the time from his tight schedule to talk with me for as long as necessary. For that time, I am completely welcomed into his life. It is my home and my place as much as his. As in the best jazz group, the barriers between us seem to dissolve. For me, the interview becomes what philosopher Martin Buber called an 'I-Thou' experience, two human beings meeting in a hallowed way, rather than an 'I-It' relationship of objective detachment.
I am honored and pleased to be able to offer this interview to you, the reader.
AAJ: For a 'warmup,' the infamous 'desert island' question: If you were going to a desert island, which couple of recordings would you bring with you to listen to?
PM: I wouldn't bring any recordings whatsoever, primarily because I find that recordings immobilize the creative process. Recordings are reminders of what was. I'm more interested in now.
AAJ: So, how would you spend your time there?
PM: I would spend my time adjusting to every opportunity that is available for me, in any way possible.
AAJ: So you would live in the now.
PM: I must.
AAJ: Let's start out with your instrument, the guitar. You are known by guitarists to use especially heavy gauges of strings. Some have been critical of that, as if it's an extreme, an eccentricity. What is your rationale for using especially heavy guage strings?
PM: It's one of a two-sided coin. Both sides now- it is the necessity of describing to you a procedure that is the norm and one that is considered the norm but is not. The norm is to adjust to ones incapabilities; the other is not to do so, but to flow with ones blessings, no longer seen as incapable, but as a gift in itself. I have a tendency with my right hand to abrasively and aggressively attack, for the sake of dynamics and for the sake of impact. A long time ago, in my youth with Dennis Sandoli, I used to break strings because of that aggression. He advised me to begin to practice the technique and to pick lighter than that, not to attack so hard, because I was breaking strings- in other words, he implied it was a mistake to be this way. I tried that for a brief period of time, but what it produced was disappointment. So it dawned on me that the easiest way to deal with this was to get a heavier gauged string, as opposed to readjusting my own nature. So that's what I did, and I continued to replace what was inefficient with what was sufficient, until finally, the gauges that were necessary for my own identity and personality took their place as tools to use without altering or injuring my own identity in any way.
AAJ: You didn't have to give up your own attack- the strings served as a resistance.
PM: Exactly- which is much more natural than being something you are not.
AAJ: That's a wonderful philosophy.
PM: It's just practicality. I think it leads back to the initial question of what I would bring to the island. I contain within myself all that is needed. There's nothing wrong with what I have, therefore everything can adapt to it. And accordingly, the study and experience of adaptation itself becomes the secret and power of social interaction.
AAJ: You give master classes. The late, great trombonist, J.J. Johnson used to reiterate two things when giving master classes- and he had an impish sense of humor, so you never knew when he was pulling your leg, but he'd say 'Practice long tones' and 'Minimize your body movements.' Now, that seems trivial, but I can see how that's related to his 'be-bop' approach: clean, fast, straightforward, with no vibrato. So he needed an excellent tone and had to concentrate his energy. So, I'm wondering what you want to teach experienced guitarists. What do you tell them?
PM: I try to activate their interpretation of what they're witnessing before them, in terms of categorization, with regard to their own intentions. If their intentions are on the basis of craftsmanship, I direct them to instructors of the craft. If their intention is towards accuracy with respect to a broader intake from their intentions, their priority, the creative force, then I go into master classes to amplify the options and alternatives that are available to them, from the simplest point of view. So, since they're looking for more complexity in terms of expansion, growth, and education, I bring before them the necessity of these two polarized sides of the same coin, namely their intention, and the two sides are its polarity.
AAJ: That's the point- to raise them to another level. How does that come about?
PM: By showing them that the secret is that the answers to their questions are in all things around them, indeed within the distractions themselves. The only thing that's distracted is their interpretation of what their priority is.
AAJ: Can you give an illustration of that?
PM: They come to me specifically for the guitar.
AAJ: Not jazz as well?
PM: I would say jazz as well, but jazz is an invisible coat. It's a veil of many substantial considerations. And that veil surrounds the instrument they've chosen to activate in itself. In the case of the guitar, there are many ways of seeing this. And I wouldn't rule out my opening the I Ching, the book of changes, the sixty-four hexagrams, from China. Nonetheless, if someone were to see this in a bookstore, and opened it, they would see sixty-four hexagrams, and they would see the secret to every string combination on the guitar. But the book was not there for that purpose. It was there for a much more complex source of philosophy from a different culture, a different part of the world, a different time. Now, they're under the impression as a student, that the only thing of value would be a study of Bach's 'Well-tempered Clavier.' But in the I Ching, the secret of every string combination on the guitar can be seen literally by opening one page. So here's an interface of intentions: the one who wants to learn about philosophy, and another who wants to learn about music. But there is a third factor here which is combinatorial of the two. That's what I have an interest in sharing: the ability to witness the opposites in conjunction with each other as one necessity.
AAJ: That seems very abstract.
PM: I can't help that. It's the same as the right hand and the left hand.
AAJ: Yes, I can see myself going to China and studying the I Ching, but what would be its impact on the music?
PM: Again, we're thinking about a very simple, basic thing for the guitar, the mechanism itself, the blueprint.
AAJ: Can you explain that a bit more concretely for us?
PM: OK, fine. The skeletal framework for the system of symbols that the I Ching is based upon sixty four symbols, and each has six straight lines. There are two types of lines, one is whole, the other is broken. Now, the guitar has six strings. The broken line stands for a string that isn't used. Therefore, if the fifth and sixth are broken, and the other four are not, wow, that's the fourth, third, second, and first strings of the guitar.
AAJ: That's fingering.
PM: That's string use. And any chord that can be played on those four strings, that's what that symbol represents. And any of the other sixty-three symbols, with also the inclusion of the 64th, which is 'all strings broken,' and that is just as important as any other combination because that's silence, that's the rest.
AAJ: How does this help the musician?
PM: This helps the guitarist by visually seeing the strings all at once. Without the teacher saying, well here's a chord on this set of strings. This week memorize that. Here's two chords next week for this set. Or how about this: this semester we're going to teach you at the university this string group, and we're going to deal with the sixth, the fifth, the fourth, and the third strings; the fifth, the fourth, the third, and the second; and the fourth, the third, the second, and the first. This is what the university is doing, but here, I walk in with the I Ching and say, open it. See this plate here, on this plate is every combination of guitar strings! What you're receiving this semester is symbolized here. These represent all that was ever done on this six string instrument, all that is being done at the moment, and all that ever will be done. Therefore, you're now seeing a revelation of a symbol that represents the inventiveness and the simplicity of the inventor's method, in other words, how certain things remain the same, how the square, if tipped to the side, has one of its four points facing upward, you now can see 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, and 9 o'clock. Which is similar to north, east, south, and west. Which is similar to spring, summer, fall, and winter. Which is similar to many other things that are repetitive replications of inventiveness, in terms of systematic procedure.
AAJ: So, you're generating a whole new way of seeing the guitar.
PM: Actually, I'm generating a much more ancient way. It goes back to sacred geometry.
AAJ: The way of the ancient philosophers? Pythagoras?
PM: My interest is not in the philosophy, but in the skeletal frameworks that always work. My interest is in geometry primarily because, if you see the chromatic scale, you see the 12 tones horizontally, very much like the piano, which is based upon addition: seven white keys and five black keys equal twelve. If you connect the ends, now you have an infinite circle. And when you see them that way, you now have the twelve months, the four seasons. You're also seeing the division of the circle as minor thirds. If you see it as twelve o'clock, four o'clock, and eight o'clock, you will see the triangle, another ancient basic geometrical structure. So here you have the pyramid, with the triangle as the augmented form of major thirds, in the circle, you now have four in a row. Three is the triangle. Four times three equals twelve. And when you have the four connected, you have a pyramidal dimensional shape, with the diminished underneath, and with three point triangles on the four sides of the base. So this is where the geometric nature of it comes about.
But this is very complex. The simplicity of it is to see as fast and quickly as possible that all is one thing. That the music is not to be found in separate parts as a challenge to be memorized, but is to be seen in everything, so that there are no distractions from it, no interruptions in its holistic nature.
AAJ: That sounds almost like a Jungian archetype.
PM: It is archetypal, yes.
AAJ: The 'music of the spheres.'
PM: Very much so. Holst.
AAJ: 'The Planets.' Did you, by the way, study the classical guitar?
PM: Not at all.
AAJ: To change the subject, which jazz artists have most influenced your musical development, especially those with whom you've worked most closely?
PM: When I think of the guitar, of all the things that symbolize music to me, and my own personal relationship with it, the guitar has been more symbolic than anything else. It's led me to different types of music, and because of that, different types of individuals who have been effective socially, and their successful careers have also affected me in terms of my own decisive standpoint with regards to value.
Two of the most interesting people to me were guitarists. First, early on, there was Johnny Smith. What I found most interesting in Johnny Smith was precision, accuracy. The other was Wes Montgomery, and what I found most interesting in Wes was emotional interpretations, soulfulness, art, the street, self teaching, the magic of curiosity and its result.
AAJ: That was in your youth.
PM: Yes, at a very early age.
AAJ: You had personal contact with both Smith and Montgomery?
AAJ: Did Wes inspire you to go to Harlem?
PM: Yes- but not in the sense of music in a serious context, rather in a sense of the childishness and dreamlike tendencies of a juvenile.
AAJ: That's much of what jazz is about.
PM: I think so. It's essential to understand that my first intentions had nothing to do with music. My initial intentions had everything to do with interacting with adults. I was an only child, having no siblings. The only thing I had was mom and dad, and the only thing they had of interest were their siblings, my aunts and uncles. When my house was full of a group of individuals, I was the only child there. My need was to interact with those adults I could relate to. When I couldn't find that due to culture, my age, the generation gap, I found that in Harlem. I went to seek the adults in their language. The language was jazz.
AAJ: Wait a minute! You didn't go to Harlem for a musical experience?
PM: Oh, it was for a musical experience. But it was immediately to the adults. I went as a teenager straight to what was happening without the 'growing up' period. I went to the adults, experienced musicians there, and they became parental with me. They took care of me. You have to understand where it came from initially. It's similar to a musicologist transcribing a specific solo. An example would be Paul Chambers, on a session that I did in the early seventies, with Richard 'Groove' Holmes. If the transcriber were to copy Paul's solo, he would concern himself strictly with the music. He couldn't visualize, since they weren't present, that what he played had much more to do with the instrument that was available in the studio, due to the fact that his instrument exploded coming from the cold into the studio. His bass blew up in its case! It was in pieces! So, the musicologist is describing Paul's techniques and trying to understand musically what he did, when in fact there was an old bass in the corner with old strings, and he put new strings on an instrument that had terrible action on it. And that's what caused him to play what he did! So, when we learn about the art, and we interpret that as a participant, we sometimes follow the 'recipe' without the 'secrets.'
AAJ: You're looking to find what's underneath.
PM: Absolutely. I'm more concerned with reality than I am with a repetitive basic formula that will just give a skeletal framework that someone has to depart from once it has been established. That's 'education.' It's a framework that has no identity of its own, and it has no meaning of its own. And it's the individual who then departs from that structure, totally familiar with all its component parts, and moves outward in a new direction. And that is the icon, that's the innovator.
AAJ: That brings me to what I was going to ask you about J.S. Bach. I once had the privilege of having a conversation with the great choral director and Bach scholar, Helmuth Rilling. I asked him a na've question, 'What is it that you see in Bach that was so special for you?' Instantly, without batting an eye, he said 'The architecture.' I was struck by the power of his conviction about that. When I listen to your own music, I also get a feeling of architecture, of structure as central.
PM: Very much so.
AAJ: I'm curious to know if Bach's music, the baroque way of building structure, was an influence for you.
PM: It's difficult to answer that without personal feelings, due to the fact that I was listening to the Brandenberg concertos just this morning in the shower! Over there (pointing to his record collection), I can see the St. Matthew Passion. These things are part of my enjoyment of life itself, so it's a continuance of this architecture that is a part of this every day experience. And as far as architecture itself, the skeletal framework of the building itself is based upon an invisible format that holds all the parts together. So, it's not only Bach, but it's everything that everyone has ever done and will ever do. It's all subject to the same architecture. It's their solid. It's the spine of truth. It's literally how music really works. It's why everyone goes to school, because they believe in what's happening. It's an expansion of that. The only thing that I do feel I'm missing from this architecture is once again going back to its simplicity, its polarization. Here, I'm touching my keyboard. It's seven plus five. It literally can be seen as seven plus five, the white and the black. The guitar doesn't work that way. But it taught me something about why music is taught this way. And it also taught me something about the individual and the importance that each one of us has as specialists.
The specialist is the instrumentalist who has mastered through dedication on any given instrument. The educational curriculum is based on one structure alone: 'The Well-Tempered Clavier.' Bach. And there's your architecture that was formulated once and for all, but has nothing to do with any of the singular instruments that have their own identity and their own temperaments. So in this particular context, I find it extremely interesting how at this point of the evolution of social interaction, and jazz especially being encased for the sake of improvisation, the sake of spontaneity, the magic that comes about from the dimensional expansion of perception itself. The seven plus five context, the scale, major, minor, harmonic minor, and all of its derivatives with regard to up to 512 different types of scales worldwide, all of the exotic forms. Each of these is based upon addition: seven plus five, etc. It's a social language- when in Rome do as the Romans. We all study music, we learn the modes, we learn the scales. But we learn nothing about our instrument. Here, the guitar has revealed two things: the triangle and the square (the augmented and the diminished). Not the heptagon and the pentagon, as in the piano. So what the guitar does is it expands and multiplies. It's almost like Pandora's box. It opens the door to all things pouring out all at once, as opposed to sequentially. In this context, I want to find these 'secrets' that transcend the social language of music to a higher level of continuity. I find that to be the most powerful thing to offer to the master class.
AAJ: You want the master class to discover the essence of the guitar, what it can generate.
AAJ: It also suggests a method of composing.
PM: As Villa Lobos has proven.
AAJ: Last night, I heard the pianist Leon Fleisher in recital at the Curtis Institute. He played a transcription of the Bach violin partita movement, the 'Chaconne.' He played a piano transcription, but with great power and control, so it had the quality of an organ piece. The point is that Bach's music is more readily transcribed among instruments than some other composers. I suppose that comes from the fact that he worked with an underlying set of principles, rather than for a specific instrument.
PM: That's interesting. I see a figure, and I see myself walking around that figure, seeing it from many different angles.
AAJ: Like a hologram.
PM: Now that you've seen the complexity, it might be worth going back to your initial question, so that I could answer it more simplistically, namely, that I bring in two things, the augmented three and the diminished four.
AAJ: I see that you focus on principles rather than a formula.
PM: It's a bit more logistic than it is theoretical.
AAJ: Your website covers this material quite well, with illustrative images. It's an excellent website, very user friendly, accessible. Tell us about the webmaster.
PM: His name is Richard Cann. He has a PhD in music as well as being a mathematician. He's into computers, and has been involved with Black Diamond Systems for quite some time. He was one of the first electronic music composers whose work was recorded. In fact, when the computer was the size of a wall, he was involved in electronic music when you could only produce maybe one minute of electronic music, after so many days of using the computer! So, he was very involved at that early phase, along with Morton Subotnick and others. He's very gifted.
AAJ: The website gives a listing of your record collection, which sorts out by type, so you can view classical, jazz, etc.
PM: I haven't even begun with it! It's a recent thing. I haven't begun to insert all of the pop and rock music that's influenced me. I think it's very valuable for other individuals who are curious as to what a certain artist listens to and what affects that artist.
AAJ: I heard a British music scholar on NPR- his name escapes me- give a wonderful talk on why he considers Bob Dylan a great composer. He went into great depth and detail about Dylan's work as an art form. He conveyed a great respect for some pop musicians as genuine creators. Now, your record collection is very eclectic, classical, jazz, rock. Your classical list includes composers from Bach and Mozart, to Takemitsu, Bartok, Rochberg, who taught Uri Caine, Leonard Bernstein. Some jazz artists are very much into the classical repertoire, while others are not. There was a time when a group of them got together in Gil Evans' apartment one night, and he played a recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which then had a major influence on jazz at that time. Once, in fact, Stravinsky came to hear Charlie Parker perform at Birdland'
PM: Stravinsky really loved jazz. One of his favorite bassists was Richard Davis.
AAJ: So, Stravinsky is sitting ringside, and Parker's bassist whispers to Bird, 'Hey man, Igor Stravinsky is in the audience!' Whereupon Parker inserted parts from 'The Firebird' into his chorus of 'Koko.' Stravinsky was totally surprised and overjoyed!
PM: (laughing): That's great!
AAJ: So there is cross-fertilization between classical and jazz. I'm wondering how that plays out for you, personally. Which of these composers come into your music?
PM: Gee, you know, it's difficult to be specific, in terms of it being part of the menu that I draw from. When I tour, I find that when the engagement is complete, I find it difficult to continue in one context. It's a necessity to retain a broader sense of enjoyment of all forms of art, different forms. I enjoy so many different kinds of music, different cultures as well. I enjoy Sting, I enjoy Earth, Wind, and Fire. I enjoy Elliott Carter. I enjoy so many different types of music, because it's the world that I'm in. And I would find myself foolish not to, and almost like a horse with pads on the sides of my eyes. These blinders had to be taken off a long time ago for the freedom of choosing directions of my own choice. So it is the freedom and the imagination to be able to consistently and repetitively to force myself into confrontation with, not only the abstract, but to simplify it into dissonance and consonance. To have them both stand before me at all times is a necessity. Whether it be seen in hip-hop music or in Krizysztof Penderecki makes no difference to me. It may seem dissonant in terms of first contact with it. But I need to be exposed to dissonance, primarily because the more I'm exposed to it, the more consonant it becomes, and the more I'm exposed to consonance, the more dissonant it becomes, Due to boredom, it loses its excitement and I get tired of it, and dissonance begins to enter. I see how it sculptures itself to the surrounding it appears within. And I am no longer so focused on my own intentions that I take the pads off my eyes, and I begin to see the intentions of others. And by doing this, I participate with others, and I grow from the experience. This to me is a necessity, not only to participate in it on both of its sides (its polarities), but to be able to witness it from a third point of view, which is neutral to either of them, which is honestly the most realistic point of perceptive value of them all.
AAJ: So, you wouldn't take some idea from Penderecki and insert it in your playing?
PM: I may, I might. And that may have a great deal to do with the impact of the dynamics of the event in that solo that may literally be a cluster that is put together in such a way that it's dense, that instead of the standard two-five chord resolution, the two and five are altered in their impact, how long it lasts, the staccato- like BAM!- I might be affected by that. And of course that might take place on a day in which someone inflames me, makes me angry. This has a great deal to do with the reality of music, and so little to do with scales and modes and chords and idioms. It has everything to do with life and the freedom to be able to be able to release the very things that encase us.
AAJ: I almost feel that I'm learning a new way of living and thinking from you. Getting back to the music. Your new CD, Think Tank gives a feeling of continuity, as if all the tracks form one piece. But I can't quite put my finger on what provides that continuity. I notice that the album cover has an archetypal form on it- A Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, geometric shapes and connections. Was it then, truly a 'think tank?'
PM: It was more of a think tank than ever before, primarily because when this came up, it came up prior to a decision about what it was going to be. When interacting with, say, a record company, there are feelings that are encompassed in a corporate continuity in terms of marketing. The recording should be connected to what happened last. If I did a project that was successful in sales, then the next one should take advantage of what made it so. However, my decision to bring Think Tank about had nothing to do with my last CD, and because of that, it created an abrasive static in terms of a decisive direction. And I had to give some thought as to how to entice, excite, and bring everyone else into it with the same excitement that I had about change in itself. I've always been excited by change. There'll always be a meaning to be found in the midst of it. So that was the initial ignition. So I thought about Blue Note artists, about Joe Lovano and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and I thought it would be great to market this opportunity, to go closer into a collective multiplication. Why don't we include the others' success as well? Let's put all of us together and start from there. That became a project in itself, in terms of coordinating itineraries and everything that went with it. Very difficult. Then I began to think about the music itself, and the title tune was the first that came about. I had a student in 2001, a professional musician. He came in and wanted to talk about 'Giant Steps.' When I was preparing something for him, I tried to get him to transcend just that tune and those changes.
So here was a student who was interested in 'Giant Steps,' and more than anything, because of what it brought to him regarding facility, to be able to move through this quickly- that was the complex. I wanted the simple as well. If you ask for the complex, I will give you the complex, but I also will give you the simple, primarily because the totality of it has to be seen holistically, otherwise you only have half the coin. So I took the alphabet from A-Z, and I took the Aeolian mode, ABCDEFG, in the C major scale. And I took those notes and spanned them from A to Z so that the entire alphabet now became that A minor scale. And then I took C-O-L-T-R-A-N-E, AND C-O-L [Pat sings the notes] and T-R-A-N-E and then T-E-N-O-R [sings], and there was 'Think Tank.' There was the alphabet. And an interface of two systems that transcended a musicianship, a musical hunger for accomplishment on his behalf.
AAJ: What's the significance of the Phineas part of 'Phineas Trane?'
PM: I was on an album with Harold Mabern, and Harold wrote that song for Eric Alexander in dedication to Phineas Newborn Jr. and John Coltrane.
AAJ: What is the significance of the names?
PM: The proper pronunciation of Phineas is 'FINAS'. It was just Harold's dedication to both of them, naming it the 'Finest Trane,' so to speak. I added that to the album because primarily it was such a challenge to me to base a song on the major scale. The B flat major scale is the bridge. At any rate, Trane appeared. I fell in love with the song because I never learned from scales. Just like Wes Montgomery, I was primarily self-taught, just from melodies and not from scales.
AAJ: Joe Pass was also self-taught.
PM: Absolutely. Quite a number of artists were self taught. But then that was the second time Trane appeared. The third time, at the session itself, I had heard Christian Mc Bride playing [Pat sings] 'Africa.' Coltrane. It really hit me because he was playing two bass parts! Because on the album 'Afro Brass'- Eric Dolphy did the arrangements- there were two bass players. Well, here's Christian playing both parts simultaneously! Which he did on the CD. So again, Trane popped up. So many things came up in this context, that the music itself began to have a great continuity with its purpose. In the case of the focal point as a meaningful part of its essence was John Coltrane. Another part of it had to do with interacting with the student who brought about the tune 'Think Tank.' That student also later brought about another composition on the album, 'A Dozen Down.' This is a study of a chromatic scale in descent. The same student wanted to know about II-V-I chord resolutions. So I constructed a series that was practical for II-V-I but at the same time was strictly chromatic, revealing the various different substitutions all at once. So a lot of the material came from this context. One thing from another was sparking itself from many angles simultaneously.
AAJ: So it really was a creative 'think tank.'
PM: Yes, it really was.
AAJ: So Coltrane is a common thread. There's also the thread of bop.
PM: Yes, hard bop. And that has to do with Joe Lovano as well as Lewis Nash.
AAJ: An incredible collaboration, and letting it all happen that way.
PM: Yes, it was just an amazing thing.
AAJ: I think people would be very interested in your personal life and story, if they can be separated from the music, which I don't think is possible. You've been very open about the difficult time in your life when you suffered the aneurysm.
PM: No more difficult than now or any other time. No more difficult, no less enjoyable, two sides of the same coin.
AAJ: You don't see that time as a crisis in your life?
PM: There were crucial moments in it. But in its totality, I can't see it that way. To me that's very pessimistic. Both optimistic and pessimistic are dangerous.
AAJ: In preparing for the interview, I asked myself what I really want to ask you about that time, and as we're talking today, my sense of what I want to ask are changing. Indulge me. You may experience some of the questions as challenging or over-inquisitive.
PM: Sure, I'll be perfectly honest with you.
AAJ: As you know, I'm very interested in neuropsychology. But also, I think we can all learn from your experience. I wanted to know about the permanence of your amnesia, your memory loss. Did the doctors tell you that you could recover some of the memories?
PM: They told me that in time, it would slowly but surely come back.
AAJ: The memories are all there, but not available to the conscious mind.
PM: Yeah, they say the memories are all there, but inaccessible. However, one of the side effects is lack of retention, a deficit in short term memory. The amnesia revealed itself after the operation. I was told that I recognized no one, even my mom and dad. I came back to this house after the operations, and one thing that was part of the house was the history of my career. My father had all of my guitars, which were returned from California, where I had been living. Since I had the operation in Philadelphia, I flew back here. All of my things were flown back, and everything else was taken care of by my family. So here I was beginning to recover surrounded by something I had nothing to do with, because it meant nothing to me, but I could not disagree that this was the truth, that I was a guitarist, that this was my career, that I knew how to play guitar, that these were my albums, these were pictures of me. This is Les Paul. Yes, Les is on the phone and wants to talk to you. Here's a picture of you and Les. Here's an album- and Les did the liner notes- that's who this is. Inside, that meant nothing to me- I couldn't relate- this was just another name that was meaningless to me.
This continued, and each and every time I opened myself up to someone like Les, George Benson, Bobby Rose, Franky Day, and so many others. All of these people touched upon something in their comments that caused an explosive subliminal release inside me that revealed the truth about something we had in common. And slowly but surely, piece by piece, interrelationships began to revive themselves. But still, I had no interest in music. This was due to my father's respect for me as a jazz artist, I developed an expectation that was actually distasteful for me. This was something I was expected to do by others, when all I wanted to do was recover- not become something I'm not.
AAJ: Your father really wanted you to take up the guitar again, not so much yourself.
PM: Of course. All the instruments were here. And furthermore, his ritual on Saturday was to listen to all my recordings in the house. So he would go to the basement, turn on his record player, and I would hear the music coming through the floors, which I disliked very much, primarily because at that time, the music had nothing to do with me. So this went on and on, until I moved. I went to Japan for a while. Then I went to Amsterdam for a few months.
AAJ: These weren't musical tours, just trips you took?
PM: Yes, and I did consider living in these places. But both times I was called back home to be of assistance. My father called and said, 'Mom isn't doing well.' The second time he called: 'Mom is bedridden now, and I think she's not going to be with us long.' So I came back from Amsterdam the second time. And then I remained here, and ironically, in the midst of my own recovery, it could no longer be a priority. Both mom and dad were getting older. So I put my own recovery on pause and did whatever needed to be done. In 1989, my mother passed away, and then in 1990 my father passed away. At which time I still had no interest in music, even though I tried to the best I could in 1987 to play again publicly. I'd already picked up the guitar in the process and doodled with it. Along with the medications I'd been given after the operation- antidepressants- I also had certain forms of therapy. I was at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital for a while. I spent time at Einstein Mt. Sinai in a locked ward.
AAJ: A locked ward?
PM: Yes, because rage was coming out of me. I was enraged- everything had fallen apart. I had gone through these things and finally was released. And procrastination continued, until the procrastination produced boredom, which in turn became the canvas for the decision itself. That's when something started happening. I decided to this for myself.
AAJ: Without the sense of what the music might mean to you? Sort of mechanically?
PM: Mechanically, yes. The psychiatrist at the Institute suggested I get involved with a computer. So I got a small Macintosh Apple with the tiny screen, and in that 127k system was a music program. And I started playing with that like a toy, just like when I was a child, the only difference was mom and dad no longer could say, 'Stop playing and do your homework!' I'd already done my homework. Now I could play. That was the first stage of re-development: playfulness, where I began to lose myself and lose my depression in graphic doodles on this little machine. And when the music program came into it and I could take the cursor and weave the arrow of the mouse across the keyboard, all the notes would come out and they'd go right on the staff! I was impressed. I began to become more and more playful with that stage of playfulness, until finally I began to manipulate the notes themselves, in the same playfulness, with no responsibilities in terms of a career.
After I took care of my parents' estate, I had a decision. I was going to go back to Amsterdam, but I decided to stay in Philadelphia, primarily because I left Philadelphia when I was fifteen, and I was comfortable now that things were taken care of, so I remained. Getting back to the true power of development and the most valuable conclusion of my own interpretation of it was that I remembered a time initially when I was extremely volatile in terms of blame and judgment about all of the physicians and psychologists who had worked with me in the earlier years prior to the proper diagnosis of the aneurysm, which came from a CT-scan. Prior to that, the doctors thought I had manic depression and had me in locked wards. Hey even gave me electric shock treatments.
AAJ: That was prior to the surgery for the aneurysm?
PM: This was long before that, when I was getting seizures.
AAJ: How could they misdiagnosis this?
PM: I was enraged and extremely judgmental about it all. Finally, when I was given the diagnosis as a readout from the CT-scan, a joy actually came to me at that moment. The joy was because I had endured, and temperance was felt for the first time as a virtue. I saw this as a valuable experience, with no need for blame anymore, because I knew what it was, and I gained strength at this point. This is prior to the surgery and the amnesia. That was forgotten, but did release itself in time to come, and I did remember that moment.
So, it came down to very simple facets that have a great deal of meaning in terms of recovery from any form of ailment, I would think, and I've tried to interact with a lot of people about that, in terms of visiting different hospitals.
AAJ: As a result of your experience, what would you like to convey to others have undergone amnesia, and all those who have suffered trauma in their lives?
PM: Well, not only do you forget all of the things that are supposedly important to you, but forget all of the things that are not important to you. So there's some irony in this. You may have what you thought was valuable, but in the process itself, you gain so much value, primarily because you are a clean slate, the board has been wiped.
AAJ: Like the Zen master who raps on your back with the stick?
PM: Yes, yes, exactly. And you reach a point where you're at the beginning. And what I found at the beginning was what I wanted at the beginning. I wanted to play like any child wants to play. My parents did well: they taught me how to survive. Now, I had forgotten how to survive. But all I had done in the process layed the framework, the architecture for the stability in my life. That never went away, that's solid. But the one thing I began to treasure was the ability to be playful again in a childish way with no interruption from others. And I gave more credibility to the child, in terms of childishness itself, and no longer worried about my career, or ever reaching a stage where I felt that I accomplished all that I set out to do. There was nothing to set out to do. In fact, everything was right in front of me at all times. There was nowhere to go any further. There was nowhere to look back. There was no need to look back. I didn't remember the past. I had no interest in finding something for the future. I was more interested in putting an end to the depressive moment of right now that was on me so deeply and so intensely. And at that point, I started to re-experience jazz at the moment. It happened with the guitar. It happened with just about everything.
AAJ: That's very beautiful. One of the top psychiatrists in the trauma field, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, has emphasized the importance of play and playfulness in recovery from trauma.
PM: You can't attain that as an 'adult'- that's your childish self, the self that has been subdued by our social and cultural demands. The part of you that wants to ride that bicycle, and culture will not allow you to do this, because you have to be at work at 9 o'clock. All of these things subdue the healing element.
AAJ: That's a way of saying how much the social neurosis operates in our lives.
PM: Of course. When you were born, you were exactly where you were supposed to be and how you were supposed to be. Just as you are now. (Chuckles')
AAJ: That also fits with the Zen idea that the true self is beyond words, beyond memory, desire, and understanding. There is a self, a being, a presence that exists prior to all that. You had a chance to access that self (or non-self, as some say) in a very direct way and use it to heal.
PM: Yes. I step back and look at dissonance and consonance, I look at my self, I look at my ego looking at the same central point of value, truthfulness, and purpose. And it's an amazing experience.
AAJ: We're getting into the area of spirituality. You've praised Coltrane for the way his spirituality was present in his music and vice-versa. You seem to have a similar kind of striving.
PM: Very much so.
AAJ: Do you have a specific philosophy, meditative practice, and/or religious preference?
PM: I was born and raised a Roman Catholic. I went to parochial school until tenth grade, then to public high school. I then went out to Harlem, and the only thing that was transcendental during that period of transition in Harlem was love. Love came from the people who found it necessary to watch over me. Being where I was, as young as I was, with so little experience, I noticed their concern and their compassion. And it transcended any kind of financial attainment and achievement with regard to judgmental critique on behalf of the magazines, the record companies. The one thing was that they cared. I learned how important it was to care for others. To go out of my way. To make the moment magical. To do something loveable was to provide love within myself. When that started to take place, what I had sought from religion itself became unnecessary to find in the midst of its rituals. It became unnecessary to seek in the community for this. It became more of an active element of life itself. It's hard to say 'spiritual.' It is spiritual but at the same time it's loving life itself. It has its moments of forgetfulness. Those are the moments that it becomes spiritual. Only those moments. Because those are the moments that labels for what it stands for re-reveal themselves due to prior interests.
When I'm feeling the power of love itself, and I'm feeling the fulfillment and joy of my own life at that very moment, I'm feeling what I refer to as God. I'm feeling what I refer to as love, the love of all things. I'm feeling what I refer to as 'I Am,' the Name of God, in the biblical sense. I'm feeling at that moment that I Am what I want, where I want to be. When I'm not in that plane, when I'm humanized, so to speak, then it's necessary to use such words as God. As love. In fact, any words. And these things bring the importance to focus on what is most important to me, my true self. Even though I may not be able to come into the mess that I've created, I must be Conscious in the midst of what I've created myself.
These are issues that I see in a more mechanistic context in terms of the senses. And that's where spiritualism and religion are necessities.
AAJ: To transcend the senses?
PM: Yes. This is really where it's at. This is what makes it so beautiful and so joyful. It's when this succumbs to other necessities that it is the constant.
AAJ: So you see spirituality in life, not so much in a specific set of beliefs or practices?
PM: Yes, in life. It's similar to 'A Course in Miracles.' And that is one of the sources that I find extremely applicable whenever I'm blinded.
AAJ: So you use 'A Course in Miracles?'
PM: I use 'A Course in Miracles.' I use the Bible. I use the Koran. I use the I Ching. I use the Kabbalah. I use Annie Besant's 'The Ancient Wisdom.' I use all these things that remind me of the truthfulness of creative mobility.
AAJ: To lighten things up a bit, I've always wondered whether an accomplished jazz musician such as yourself continues to use a daily warmup and practice.
PM: To some degree, but it's extremely important to maintain ones relationship to ones favorite toy. And my favorite toy is the guitar. (Chuckles.) And the joy of it comes from holding it in my hands, and playing with it and fiddling with it. And I need to do that daily. I do that unconsciously. I awaken in the morning and have a cup of tea or coffee, and I pick up the guitar, put it on my lap, and I just activate it with my hand, just like a boxer who punches a bag to keep his muscles up. I do that, sipping on my coffee, while hearing a word or two on radio. And it all happens spontaneously.
AAJ: Do you know Jimmy Bruno?
PM: Sure. Jimmy's a very close friend.
AAJ: Do the two of you ever swap notes?
PM: No we haven't, as much as both of us would like to do. I'm sure we shall at some point. We do sometimes share ideas we find exciting. We're both active at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
AAJ: Do they have a guitar department?
PM: They do, yes. It's excellent. Tom Giacabetti, Mike Quaile, and Craig Ebner are over there. Quite a number of really great players.
AAJ: I read about your lovely Japanese wife, Ayako Asahi, and I saw her at Zanzibar Blue when you performed there. Could you talk a bit about your relationship? Do you work together?
PM: We play! We don't 'work.' We love each other very deeply. We love everything we do. We're together 24 hours a day. The only time we're not together is when I'm on the road, if and when she doesn't come with me. She is totally involved in the continuance of good health. She's totally involved in growing wheat grass, fruits and vegetables. She's teaching me so much about diet. She's teaching me so much about adapting to something that I would rather not adapt to- in other words alleviating habit, confronting dislike itself as a 'friend.'
PM: There's nothing I've disliked more than asparagus (laughter). And eggplant. (laughter.) Nowadays, I really enjoy them. I've learned to love them. Because, even though I said to her, 'I don't like that,' she made it again (more laughter). And again after that. And each time she made it, she made it differently until I fell in love with it. The Japanese culture is very interesting. So in that way, I've learned a lot about myself in terms of re-adaptation.
AAJ: Asparagus and eggplant. (Extended laughter.)
PM: And that applies to so much many things in life. It's just personality- so that's how I work! I remember I used to eat because there was an emptiness in my stomach. I just wanted to fill it up. I used to eat for the taste of it, the experience of the senses, not what it did for me. These learnings are what are coming to me through the relationship. These adaptations to a longevity, a greater strength.
I remember a time when I weighed 86 pounds and they were going to give me a lung transplant. From pneumonia. I flew in from Paris in 1999 with pneumonia, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. They put me in intensive care. They had me on oxygen. The doctors at Jefferson decided I needed both lungs transplanted. They shipped me over to Temple, for further procedures. Right at that point, my wife couldn't take it and took over, and in a period of five weeks, I went up to 165 pounds in six weeks. Between Ayako, my wife and Marian Garfinkel, a masterful yogi, doing basic yogic positions and diet. Everything has changed, without the lung transplant, with no medication whatsoever. Life is a miracle. Everything is a miracle. There is nothing but miracles. The only thing other than miracles is distractive. That's what everything is: miraculous. The entire process. I would think that the first scream of the infant is the reaction to distraction from the miracle of living.
Ayako and I have a fantastic relationship. She's learned guitar. She uses the guitar in yogic positions. She uses the guitar to stretch, a Gibson L4, a heavy guitar like an ES175. She'll take it and lie flat on the floor on her back, with the guitar on her chest, and she'll be playing 12 tone scales across the neck. And she's doing this to alleviate pain in her spine that she suffered as a child when she fell and was injured. Her back pains can't be healed. So instead of prescribed medicines, she'll pick up the guitar. It's amazing how much we share with each other.
AAJ: You both discover new parts of yourself.
PM: Yes, that's great. It's really healthy. And all of this, in a sense, protrudes into the music. Most musicians see a circle around their music. That they have to step out of this life into the other. I don't see that. But I know it's there. I'm forced to have faith that that sort of thing always takes care of itself, and that everything turns into music and that one thing helps another. So it's a constant acceptance of everything that happens, and it happens as it should happen. It's a living process. And the reason I describe it that way is on account of the categories that these questions have reveled into.
Spiritualism is another circle. Active living protrudes itself across that circle. And musicianship. Myself as an 'American;' an 'Italian.' These are all circles of truth. These are all things that I am. But life itself protrudes all of these labels and terms. And it's difficult to say what is of any importance other than 'now,' and whatever is taking place is a different manifestation of the same thing. And there's a familiarity in that. And that's where the comfort comes from in any form of development. When I pick up the instrument I'm comfortable with it. It's second nature. It's a vehicle. In itself, it's no longer important at all.