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Joe Donofrio: Remembering Pat Martino

Joe Donofrio: Remembering Pat Martino

Courtesy Dave Kaufman and Paul Dempsey

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Guitarist Pat Martino passed away on November 1, 2021 after an extended bout of respiratory illness. As we approach the first anniversary of his passing, his long-time manager and dear friend Joe Donofrio and the South Jersey Jazz Society are putting together an exciting four days in the New Jersey coastal town of Somers Point, consisting of evening musical performances and other events to honor and remember Martino and his unique contribution to jazz. The dates are Friday through Sunday, November 3-6, 2022. And there will be international live—streaming from the Gateway Playhouse on the evenings of November 3-4-5. For event details, go here.

Donofrio was in close contact with Martino between 1997 and 2021 when the legendary guitarist was actively performing and recording again after miraculously recovering from complete memory loss brought on in 1980 by an aneurysm and brain surgery. Their manager-client connection developed into a deep and trusting friendship. Donofrio got to know Martino in ways that few ever did.

Martino was a larger-than-life individual, and it is only natural that one would want to know more about what he was like and what made him such a masterful and influential musician and charismatic personality. So, on the occasion of the upcoming celebration of his life, All About Jazz asked Donofrio to share his observations and memories of his time with Martino. Like the latter's autobiography, Here and Now! (Backbeat Books, 2011), the interview reveals Martino to be a complicated person, with interests well beyond music, compassion sometimes mixed with a short fuse, and a deep spiritual sense of living in the moment in a universe which disclosed itself to him in unique ways. And, of course, his remarkable recovery of all his powers on guitar after his brain surgery is the stuff of which legends are made.

Donofrio's First Contacts with Pat

All About Jazz: When did you have your first contact with Pat?

Joe Donofrio: As referenced in Pat's autobiography, in the summer of 1997, a mutual friend of Pat and I, guitarist John Mulhern, called me. He knew Pat was having some issues and didn't have a manager. Pat was already on a career comeback, making several recordings from 1987 through 1996 starting with The Return (Muse, 1987) and several other recordings, also mostly on Muse. John, Pat, and I met at the Brigantine Diner in 1997, and I listened to what Pat had to say. He was still struggling with his ongoing recovery plus all the issues he had with the recording All Sides Now (Blue Note, 1997). It was really stressing him out and he was very agitated. I guessed from our conversation that what he was really looking for was a booking agent, not a manager. But Mulhern felt that what he really needed was someone to look after his interests.

At the end of our meeting, I did offer to be his manager, and that opened things up for discussion. I said, "Pat, if you want, I'll try to help you. I can't promise you anything, but we can give it a year and see where it goes." He signed a year contract to January 1998, and we never discussed it again! Pat's widow, Ayako, recently found that contract and gave it to me for a memento.

My first challenge as manager was to map out a strategy for his next project, All Sides Now (Blue Note, 1997). It was a fine recording, but there was no way to tour it with all the different artists involved. So, I met with Bruce Lundvall, then president of Blue Note Records, to map out the next project.

Pat said that one of his favorite albums was Joyous Lake (Warner Bros, 1977). So, I said to Bruce, "Why don't we revisit that concept and round up the players for another recording." We got Delmar Brown back on keyboards and Kenwood Dennard on drums, both of whom were on the original Joyous Lake. James Genus on bass and saxophonist Eric Alexander, both new to a Martino recording, also joined us. That album was Stone Blue (Blue Note, 1998).

That was my first project as Pat's manager. Michael Cusuna was the producer and Kirk Yano was the recording engineer. I then went on to co-produce with Pat Martino every other recording he made through 2021.

Getting to Know Martino

AAJ: So that's how you got to know Pat, work with him, and eventually develop a deep and abiding friendship with him. Pat was a fascinating individual. I think readers would love to know what it was like being with Pat and interacting with him.

JD: His brain was still reorganizing since he was still recovering from the removal of a substantial part of his brain. So, with any relationship, it had its ups and downs. Our trust in each other grew each year and we worked through many of life's circumstances, whether business or personal. I believe I was able to help him through his trust in me and in return, I have learned so much from him, his profound and insightful approach to everyday life, and his music.

A phrase he would say frequently, which eventually turned me around, was "What does this have to do with my music?" He would say this to me every time I would ask him to try a different avenue or approach. It finally sank in that he wanted his own voice, with his music and style, that was only unique to him. Which is why you recognize Pat playing after a few notes, which is what most musicians strive for but don't necessarily achieve.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Pat's wife Ayako whom he married in 1997. She was born and raised in Japan but has lived in the USA since coming here with Pat in 1996. I believe she was the best thing that ever happened to Pat. This is a love story that would make a beautiful movie. Her devotion to his health and well-being was unheralded. With any marriage, there are difficult situations but she was there to the very end. Pat would always tell me how special she was to him and how happy she made him. Never once during his illnesses did a facility or hospice have to be arranged for him. She handled it all with him at home. Pat smiled to the end. She was the love of his life.

AAJ: I would add to that that Ayako has a profound knowledge of holistic health and nutrition, which Pat felt was vital to his health and well-being.

A "Ferocious" Temper—and a Compassionate Explanation

AAJ: Pat was known to have a temper.

JD: Ferocious! When I experienced it, it was volcanic. His voice seemed to come from another entity: a fire and brimstone vibe. However, the outbursts became infrequent as time went on and occurred rarely in his later years.

AAJ: First of all, given his temper, I think it needs to be said that most of the time, Pat was one of the kindest, loving persons I ever met. He wasn't an angry person as such. But I always wondered how much of his temper was due to his brain damage, and how much was a result of his Italian upbringing where folks ventilate their emotions a lot.

JD: Vic, what I experienced mostly had to do with him short-circuiting. His damaged brain just couldn't handle too many things at once. Over the years he would do or say so many endearing things to show his appreciation to people. He had a very kind and caring heart.

AAJ: However, once he recovered his mastery of the guitar, he could play like he was never affected by the brain injury. Am I right?

JD: Yes. Musically there was no sign of brain damage that I could tell. His playing was at the highest level. The process of aging in Pat's case brought his keen ability to play the right notes to the highest level, but his creativity did decline some, and he wasn't writing as much as he did in his younger years.

He loved to play ballads: he was a romantic at heart. His lush approach was undeniable. But on the other hand, he was an aggressive player who exceeded most of his peers on so many levels. He had a prize fighter's mentality. If it was the twelfth round with ten seconds left in the bout, he would knock you out!

Martino's Encounter and Music-Making with the Late Joey DeFrancesco

JD: Sadly, a cohort of Pat's, organist Joey DeFrancesco recently passed away. Ironically, his departure was on Pat Martino's birthday, August 25!

Joey's playing brought out the best in Pat. They would go at it in a very exciting fashion. We got a Grammy nomination for the CD, Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note, 2001). The tune that nailed the nomination was Miles Davis' "All Blues." Pat took the first solo and nailed it, and then Joey started a laid-back solo having a great musical conversation with the wonderful drummer Billy Hart. They were floating along, and gradually it kept building until every note spewed out of Joey's organ like a volcano. It was awesome. Then I saw that little smirk from Pat to Joey and a familiar nod. Pat played the head again and at the end he just kept playing by himself, he wouldn't stop playing, the audience went berserk, and when it was over the applause went on for ten minutes. Pat wasn't competitive, but instinctively gave out everything he had when needed.

AAJ: He followed his musical instincts. If he felt it was the right thing to do, he went with it.

JD: That track is a must-listen. I was very disappointed when Pat didn't get a Grammy for the album. I really thought he earned it, not to take away from the other nominees in that category.

AAJ: Live at Yoshi's is one of my favorite albums of all time. It's electrifying.

JD: That was just the result of putting Joey and Pat together. Historically speaking, before that recording happened, I had been encouraging Pat to do another organ recording, but he initially objected because he did so many of them early on. He had gotten away from that. He wanted to move on to something else. But then I got a call from Bruce Lundvall saying he wanted to do an organ record with Pat and Dr. Lonnie Smith. I had our agent book a job at the Iridium club with Lonnie and the great drummer, Idris Muhammad. I thought we could get a recording out of it. But Lonnie dropped out for some reason, and we got another organ player for the gig.

In the meantime, I received a phone call from Joe Fields from HighNote Records saying, "We're recording a tribute album to the late organist Charles Earland." Would Pat participate? Pat had played with Earland when he was 15 years old and was more than happy to participate and commemorate his friend. The story goes that to the dismay of Pat's parents, Earland pulled up to Pat's house to take him on the road and he had an old hearse to carry his B3 organ. There wasn't any room for Pat to sit, so he had to lay on top of the organ for the trip!

When we arrived at the Earland tribute album session, the organ player for the recording was none other than Joey DeFrancesco. Eric Alexander, James Rotondi, Vince Ector, and Kevin Jones were also on the session. After the session, I'm walking to my car to open the trunk and put Pat's guitar in, and there's Pat standing next to me. He tugged at my shoulder and he said, "I want you to talk to Joey DeFrancesco. That's who I want on my next recording."

AAJ: What happened to the recording they made that day?

JD: That album dedicated to Charles Earland appeared as High Note Records Tribute Band: Keepers of the Flame (HighNote, 2002).

AAJ: So that's when Pat was first impressed by DeFrancesco's playing.

JD: He was well aware of Joey, as a protégé, but until the Earland session he wasn't interested in another organ record. I was thrilled, because I wanted Pat to do an organ trio record, and now we had our chance. Billy Hart was Pat's choice for the drum chair. I talked to our agent to put a tour together starting in New York and going across the country ending at the famous jazz club Yoshi's in San Francisco, so that's how Live at Yoshi's came about.

AAJ: Why did you choose Yoshi's for the recording?

JD: It was the last place on the tour, and I knew that the guys would be tight by then. In lieu of rehearsing, I felt that touring would get them tight.

AAJ: That is an exceptional recording. The magic happened. You have to wonder why they didn't work together more often.

JD: The last thing Joey DeFrancesco said to me, a week before he passed was "I'm sorry I didn't make more recordings with Pat."

Pat Martino's Brilliance of Mind

AAJ: As you describe your first few years with Pat in the late 1990s to early 2000s, it sounds like you really advanced his career in a short time and got him moving into new ventures.

JD: Well, Pat always said the opposite of the truth is also the truth. In retrospect, I really did help Pat, but he also helped me through his incredible strength and inquisitive personality, and an insatiable appetite to learn. He taught me an important lesson in life. He always emphasized living in the moment, living in the now, and a lot of that rubbed off on me.

AAJ: The rapport you had with each other was wonderful. It's obvious that he wasn't just another client.

JD: I loved Pat. For me, it was an interesting case history learning about this unique individual that only comes around every so often. At times, he would go from a simple conversation to a profound statement in a matter of seconds. When it got too deep he would lose me and I had to really think about what he had said.

AAJ: When I first interviewed him there was a point where my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe how rich and powerful his ideas were.

JD: He was the only person I'd ever met who could work on several levels at one time.

AAJ: And he was aware of "the beyond." A lot of musicians just focus on the task at hand: the music. But in addition to getting the music right, he was going mentally to all kinds of places when he played—he told me that. And when he spoke to me, he was aware of the universe! The nature of time, space, and hidden order. You can see it in the diagrams he made for teaching purposes. They utilized awareness of number sequences, geometric shapes, and the changes of the seasons.

JD: And you could see that in his life. He was constantly making adjustments, whether it be his health, personal, or business issues. Whatever situation he was in, he was very resilient and stepped up to the plate. He never ran from anything. He was a very strong individual.

AAJ: Pat was a very remarkable human being. And whatever the neuroscientists say about his brain, I think he made his remarkable recovery from the aneurysm and memory loss largely because of his special resilience and creative capacity. His life force is evident in his guitar playing, and I also think it propelled him and guided him in his recovery. It was as if he held the universe in the palm of his hand. He understood modern physics. He read Douglas Hofstadter's pioneering book Godel Escher Bach: The Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979) and used it in his teaching. He had conversations with the great architect Buckminster Fuller that he applied to fingering on the guitar.

JD: I think you could safely say that when you were in Pat's company, you knew you were in the presence of someone very special.

AAJ: One more question about Pat, and then we'll get to the celebration events. Did you read Pat's autobiography written with Bill Milkowski?

JD: Did I read it? Pat and I had many conversations while he was writing his autobiography, and he really revealed himself in many ways. Sometimes reluctantly.

AAJ: OK, here's my question. When you were working with him on it, did you learn anything that surprised you?

JD: That's a tough question. I was mainly always amazed about how much he knew about so many things. When and where did he learn all of it?

AAJ: I felt that about Pat during the times I interviewed him. And if he had a PhD it would still be amazing. But I think he was a high school dropout!

JD: Pat dropped out of school when he went to Harlem at age 15, but I was told that he was an avid reader. He had a huge library, and much later, when he left New York and went to LA, he gave all the books away.

AAJ: He read a book called The Jazz of Physics (NY: Basic Books, 2017) by a physicist and jazz musician, Stephon Alexander. Pat appears briefly in that book. The book is about how theories of the universe are similar to music theories. The book emphasizes John Coltrane's vision. Pat understood intuitively that music was an expression of universal consciousness (Pythagoras's music of the spheres).

There are so many sides to this remarkable musician and human being. He was someone of mythic proportions.

JD: Yes, but at heart he was always the kid from South Philadelphia. At the peak of his career, he still enjoyed dropping in at a local bar or restaurant and talking with the folks. He never forgot his humble origins. He will be missed not only by musicians and fans, but by many everyday folks he got close with at home and during his travels. Earlier I mentioned Pat's idea of paradox. Pat was both a legendary figure and a humble homeboy at the same time.

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