How Jazz Guitarist Pat Martino Learned to Play Again

By the time Pat Martino underwent surgery after suffering a nearly fatal brain aneurysm in 1980, the jazz guitarist already had more than a dozen albums under his own name and two decades of playing professionally, having started his career in his mid-teens. Yet following the operation, he hardly remembered anything or even recognized his own parents. In a devastating turn, he had no memory of playing guitar or of his career.

But over the next seven years, Martino learned how to play guitar again, partly with the help of his old recordings that his father would play during Pat's recovery at his parents’ home in Philadelphia.

“I listened to the recordings through the floor,” Martino says. “My father used to play them. I finished my operation in 1980, and I was living with Mom and Dad at that particular time just to recover, because I hadn’t totally lost my memory, and quite a number of other aspects of it were extremely demanding.

“And my father used to love to play my music, the recorded music," he continues. "I didn’t even realize that was me that was playing at first. I was exposed to it quite a bit, but I had no interest in the past. My interest, as it is today, was always in now, from after the operation. That was the greatest facet of recovery. And there were some highly depressive periods that I went through to recover.”

Martino says that playing the guitar again became the most rewarding experience, and it helped him to recover. It was like the guitar was his favorite toy once again, he says, and it brought him back to the very beginning in terms of his enjoyment — not for the business or for the career-oriented musician that he used to be.

“It seemed that all the things that I done prior in the past really had flourished,” Martino says, “and they took care of themselves. I didn’t have to seek that reputation that I had in the business; I’d already achieved that. And at this stage of my life it became a very rewarding experience for the first time. I was free of competition. I was free of having to worry about a number of things. So it was a very helpful experience.”

These days, Martino tours with drummer Carmen Intorre and organist Pat Bianchi (a former Denver resident who was the longtime house pianist at El Chapultepec); the trio will play at the Mount Vernon Country Club on Thursday, February 25.

“I think Pat is just an exceptional player,” Martino says of Bianchi. “He’s just really unreal. He’s a great player, and he’s even better as a human being — he’s a wonderful person as well.”

Martino knows a good jazz organist when he hears one, as he’s played with some of the best in the business, including Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson and Richard “Groove” Holmes. And the 71-year-old Martino is a masterful guitarist himself, who was inspired early on by Wes Montgomery and Johnny Smith, who lived in Colorado Springs for many years until passing away at the age of ninety in 2013.

Martino says he started listening to Smith in his early teens. “I just loved his precision,” Martino says. “He was just so beautiful as a player. He was such a romantic player as well. So I grew up with an interest in Johnny. And before I moved on to other players, like horn players, he was one of the first guitar players that I really enjoyed.”

The Pat Martino Trio performs at the Mount Vernon Country Club on Thursday, February 25.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon