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John di Martino: Piano Man In/On Demand

Marcia Hillman By

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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, Sylvia Sims, Diane Schuur and Billy Eckstine. His talents as a pianist and arranger can be heard on recordings with Freddy Cole, Gloria Lynne and Grady Tate. Noted for his versatility, di Martino has also performed and recorded with such notables as Kenny Burrell, James Moody, Joe Lovano, the late David "Fathead" Newman, Pat Martino, Paquito D'Rivera and Houston Person.

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 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, Don Sebesky and Jimmy Amadie. 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 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'] 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 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 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's group. So that put another dimension to my learning and it got me into the Latin scene here.

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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