Jazz guitar legend and longtime South Philly resident Pat Martino dies at 77

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Pat Martino
Arnie Goodman

When word hit social media on Monday afternoon that legendary jazz guitarist and beloved South Philadelphian Pat Martino had passed away at the age of 77, it wasn’t so much of a shock as it was a peaceful, sad resignation. Martino had to put studio recording sessions and playing out live aside as he had been felled by a respiratory disorder in 2018, and never fully recovered.

We had also, quite famously, lost Pat Martino before; back in the late 1970s into the early 80s when at the top of his powers, Martino suffered a hemorrhaged arteriovenous malformation – a near fatal brain aneurysm – that wiped out everything about who and what he was, and how he did it in the first place.

That Martino worked through physical and psychological therapy to relearn how to play the guitar—along with everything else in his life—is the stuff of legend. Medical case studies, the 1987 comeback album, ‘The Return’, and many records after that, are the centerpiece of his 2011-published memoirs, ‘Here and Now! The Autobiography of Pat Martino’, and a key to understanding who he was.

Who Pat Martino was, was Patrick Carmen Azzara, a guy who eventually wound up living in the same South Philly rowhome as his parents, “Mickey” and Jean, staying true to his local and familial heritage. The guitarist picked up the six strings as a kid, moved to New York City at age 15, began gigging at jazz clubs like Smalls Paradise and Club Harlem in Atlantic City, and with the cream of Philadelphia jazz organists such as Richard “Groove” Holmes, Trudy Pitts, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson and Charles Earland.

Pat Martino is pictured at the Guitar Institute of Technology in 1980.Marc-Henri Cykiert

Martino’s first two albums, both in 1967 – ‘El Hombre’ and ‘Strings!’ – showed off his avid love and talent for jazzy, rapid-fire riffing and complex, emotional (and emotionally complex) phrasing. This feeling-filled skill set made him a favorite of the soulful acid jazz movement for its deep abiding sense of groove and funky punctuation, and guided his hard bop hand toward the influences of fusion, rock, world music and the avant-garde on subsequent albums such as 1970’s ‘Desperado,’ 1972’s ‘Footprints,’ 1974’s ‘Consciousness’ and 1976’s ‘Exit.’ Several years into his healthful comeback, and after having signed with Blue Note, Martino added pop to his diet on albums such as 1997’s  ‘All Sides Now’ and 1998’s ‘Stone Blue’ all while maintaining his hand and heart for hard bop along with his freshly-relearned feel for funky licks and complicated chord changes.

When I spoke with Martino—ten years ago this week—on the topic of his autobiography and his (then) new album, ‘Undeniable,’ he was frank about all that came before, and the present he was ever-so delighted to live out.

“I don’t give much validity to what we refer to as the past,” he said zen-like when asked if discussing his medical conditions brought back its more harrowing aspects. “I don’t really believe the past exists. I see it as an illusion. The same goes for the future. When an individual is prone to being alert, there is nothing to be afraid of in regard to the past or the future that is applicable to that person’s state of mind…. Anything and everything can be done in a moment’s notice.”

During our several interviews from his longtime South Philadelphia home, Martino – his voice, his demeanor – was as warm, lively and intelligent as his guitar playing was deeply complex and soulfully challenging. Speaking to the subject of being reborn and how his open receptivity was the key to inspired inspiration, Martino agreed, yet with a caveat.

“Definitely. But let it be said that I do not consider jazz to be an idiom of music. I consider jazz to be a process, of changes in perspective, the way we view things, functionally and participate with spontaneity itself. And that is applicable to anything at any moment.”

For his brains, his heart, his spirit and his many talents, Pat Martino will be missed.

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