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Pat Martino: Martino Unstrung

Victor L. Schermer By

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1. Martino Reflects on Martino Unstrung 2. Filming Pat Martino's World
3. The Neuropsychology of Pat Martino 4. Review of Martino Unstrung


Pat MartinoA new documentary film about legendary guitarist Pat Martino, Martino Unstrung, focuses on his brain disease—AVM or arteriovenous malformation—emergency surgery, profound memory loss, and miraculous musical and personal recovery. It also presents intimate portraits of Martino, his music, his wife Ayako Akai, his friends across the decades, his family, and important locales in his life. It is only natural that one would want to know Martino's own reflections on a film which is not only about him but in which he actively participated both on and off screen.

Martino has been a big part of the jazz scene for so many years that it is easy to take for granted that he is one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. A virtuoso, his sound and technique on the instrument are impeccable. His musical range extends from deep and rich interpretations of ballads to fast-moving extended runs that are almost impossible to rival—from blues and standards to complex original compositions of his own and others. His mastery of the instrument and consummate teaching ability lead aspirants from around the world to study with him. Martino's understanding of guitar goes well beyond style and technique to include spiritual and theoretical insights.

Early recognized as a master, Martino has been performing and recording since the early 1960s. Unbeknownst to himself, he grew up with an abnormality of blood vessels in the brain called AVM, or arterioevenous malformation. According to medical experts, this condition worsened until, well into his career, he began to have serious mental complications which were improperly diagnosed. In the late 1970s, these symptoms proved to be caused by a brain aneurysm that required emergency surgery. As the now nearly legendary story in jazz circles goes, he woke up from the surgery with total amnesia for past events and persons. He did not even recognize the guitar or his record albums.

From that traumatic point, he gradually recovered his playing ability and resumed his career to where his accomplishments are even greater than before. He won the NARA Heroes Award for that achievement. Recently, the British film director, Ian Knox and his friend in England, neuropsychologist Paul Broks, collaborated with Martino on a film documentary about his memory loss and recovery, including an intimate portrayal of Martino and his wife, Ayako.

Martino Unstrung is one of the best documentaries about a jazz musician. Ian Knox is a terrific director. The film is spellbinding from beginning to end. It offers a moving, intimate portrayal of Martino as a person, a musical icon and someone who had undergone a traumatic loss of memory and made a miraculous recovery. It's a deeply personal testament. The following interview, conducted in person at his home studio, offers Martino's own reflections on the film and its personal meaning to him.

Chapter Index
  1. Agreeing to the Film
  2. Recovering from Surgery
  3. Examination of the Brain
  4. Martino's Life on Film
  5. Friends Les Paul and Joe Pesci
  6. Symptoms of Illness
  7. Healing
  8. Martino's Wife, Ayako Akai


Agreeing to the Film

All About Jazz: You are a high profile musician, and in a sense your music defines you, so what prompted you to participate in a film which is deeply personal and is focused on your memory loss and recovery as such rather than the music? What led you to get involved in such a project?

Pat Martino: That's a really interesting question in that normally what leads me to do anything that takes place prior to its fruition was the very thing that led me to want to interact with Ian Knox when I first saw his presence in the room I was sitting in at Ronnie Scott's in London. I was relaxing between shows, and in walked a very interesting individual whose hado, or aura, attracted attention. We turned and looked at each other, greeted each other's presence, and then sat down and talked. I asked him what he did, and his qualities were very magnetic and exciting. And it moved from there. And the film was no different from that moment.

To me, the outcome is what is left behind compared to the very moments of filming when it's been enjoyed as life itself. So, for me, each and every moment on the film is not what I see on the film, even though it's a replica. It has been captured, very much like a photograph of a loved one in a catalog. There's no life in it to me personally. I'm more interested in the enjoyment of my life, and that's what the film is all about. And that went from moment to moment to moment. Even now it still continues, and I enjoy what I'm doing.

AAJ: The film was stimulated by conversations between director Ian Knox and the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, who became fascinated by your story. So once you discussed the film with them and started fleshing it out, the central focus of the film became your brain disorder, surgery and subsequent recovery and re-starting your career?

PM: Yes. It leaned towards Broks' interests as a neuropsychologist, and I shared his interest in terms of the events that took place in my life. It was interesting to me personally as a former patient.

Pat MartinoAAJ: Beyond your personal interest, do you have a reason for wanting the public to know about what happened to you medically?

PM: Not necessarily. I'm a very simple human being. To me the most valuable thing is action, to be active. Automatically, it's as creative as it can be because it's my top priority. No matter what I do, if it's in action, if it's happening, it's a creative act. It's my life. Therefore, anything that takes place that triggers that productivity in any shape or size. It doesn't have to be music. It can be just social interaction, I enjoy the same way as a musical performance. I'm into action.

AAJ: In other words, you approach living the way you might approach jazz?

PM: However it manifests, whatever masks it wears, it's the same thing. It's a moment of my life.

AAJ: Did you do much deliberation about the message you wanted to get across about your illness and recovery?

PM: Absolutely not.

AAJ: What made you agree to let the film makers take such an intense look at your medical condition? Most people would prefer to keep these things private.

PM: What comes to mind is rather profound for me, and I'll tell you what just occurred to me about this. To me, privacy is something that must be protected, and as such the weight of it will only remain private as long as you carry it and protect it. It's like baggage. Since that operation, I've been deeply interested in freedom, freedom of all the things that until that point were carried by me as an individual. Today, I find it unnecessary to protect the truth. The truth is what it is and it will always be what it is. It cannot be protected or hidden.

So once a person reaches a point, in my opinion, that he evaluates what hampers him, he begins to make changes. Definition. Changes of the very things that used to necessitate my protecting and hiding from others because that was my privacy. That became redefined. And by redefining it, I didn't have the weight of my privacy. It was as if I had a post office box where I would get all my mail and wouldn't have to worry about anyone else seeing it. I no longer had to pay the price of that P.O. box because I gave it up. class="f-right">Return to Index...

Recovering from Surgery

AAJ: Did you get to that position shortly after you began to recover from the surgery?

PM: Yes.

AAJ: So even though the memory loss was traumatic, it was also a release?

PM: It was a redefinition of many things that at length began a metamorphosis from define to refine. My life became more refined, my intentions became more refined, primarily because there was less baggage to carry on its back.

AAJ: So there was a lightness of being that you arrived at from not having to hide a private part of yourself. It happened to you, and it's natural to disclose and talk about it. If I understood correctly from the movie and other sources, when you awakened from the surgery to remove the aneurysm, you couldn't remember anything. You literally saw your own father and couldn't recognize him.

PM: Yes. Even though my father denied it. In Open Road [1993], Phil Fallo's video about me, my dad really refused to accept that. He said I remembered him.

AAJ: A poignant moment. And at that point you couldn't recognize your own album covers and music. So what was it like to wake up literally to nothing, to a total blank about your history? What is that like?

Pat MartinoPM: I can't really answer that because there was a side effect of the surgery, namely a short-term memory deficit.

AAJ: So you don't remember?

PM: I don't even remember what it is to not remember. There's something profound about that. It reminds me of part of the New Testament where Christ says "For a rich man to get to heaven, it's like trying to enter through the hole of a needle." And what he meant by "rich" is the baggage that's carried. You can't go through that tiny little hole with any of the baggage that you carry. And that's what it reminds me of. And that's what the loss was in terms of memory. Memory was and is to this day only the past. It has nothing to do with now, and now is the only thing that is real. So the only change that I can point at is just that. The change is in my interest, my attention, what I define as real, what I define as false.

AAJ: So you were able to see what the Zen masters tell us, which is that everything is in the present moment, and that past and future are to some extent illusions. But that must have hit you like a ton of bricks.

PM: Well they are cataloged, so the past is materialized, and one can swim in the pool of his achievements. But that is negative and obscures what could be done in terms of real time.

AAJ: Would it be fair to say that as a result of your trauma, you became acutely aware of real time in a very profound way?

PM: Yes. My only responsibility is to live. class="f-right">Return to Index...

Examination of the Brain

AAJ: Now there's a moment in the film, which I think took place right here in your home, where you're looking at an MRI of your own brain. And both you and Paul Broks, the neuropsychologist, express anxiety. What was it like to look at a graphic representation of your own brain?

PM: I would say that there was actually one thing that was very valuable about it. And that was the similarity between looking at an item that is a tool, that is very demanding to use, and the condition that it's in. The brain is simply a tool, an instrument, like the guitar. And because of that, it was similar, for me personally, to looking at a guitar as another tool that I use if it's in bad condition. The feeling that I get prior to the creative act is one that is difficult, anxious because of its condition. But that is not me. It's a tool that I use. So to look at the MRI of the brain and see these deficits revealed was not about me, but about a tool.

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