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Pat Martino, Philly jazz guitar great, has died

Mr. Martino, who lived in the South Philly house he grew up in, performed for more than six decades.

The jazz world mourned Pat Martino's passing.
The jazz world mourned Pat Martino's passing.Read moreINQ SUWA

Pat Martino, 77, the renowned and influential Philadelphia jazz guitarist known for the fluidity and speed of his impeccable playing throughout a six-decade career and who relearned how to play guitar after suffering a brain aneurysm in 1980, has died.

Mr. Martino, who was born Patrick Azzara, died Monday after a long illness in the same South Philly rowhouse where he grew up, his longtime manager Joseph Donofrio said.

The guitarist had been suffering from chronic respiratory disorder since 2018, Donofrio said. Mr. Martino had been breathing with the assistance of oxygen and unable to play the guitar since finishing a 2018 tour in Italy.

The jazz world mourned Mr. Martino’s passing. Philadelphia guitarist Kevin Eubanks called him “a great inspiration” and a “beautiful guitarist” on Twitter. “Thanks for all the beauty you shared.” Center City venue Chris’ Jazz Cafe posted on Twitter that Mr. Martino, who frequently played the venue, was “a beloved member of our jazz family. We will miss him and the beautiful music he brought to the club.”

“He changed the way you play the guitar,” said Philadelphia jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, who toured with Mr. Martino and played with him and drummer Billy Hart on the 2001 album Live at Yoshi’s. “He took his influences like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and people like that and he just made his own way of playing. He and George Benson are the most influential guitarists.”

On Mr. Martino’s albums like El Hombre, recorded with organist Trudi Pitts in 1967 when he was 22, through Formidable, released 50 years later in 2017, “nobody played like that,” DeFrancesco said, speaking from his home in Arizona. “His playing was very clean and clear, and at the same time he swung. He had the grease on his playing. He was very special.” Along with Montgomery (who was a major influence on Martino), Burrell, Benson, and Grant Green, Mr. Martino “is one of the top five guitarists of all time,” DeFrancesco said.

Mr. Martino was a prodigy who studied with renowned Philadelphia music educator Dennis Sandole, who also taught John Coltrane, whom Martino was friendly with. As a teen he played music with South Philly friends like drummer and pop star Bobby Rydell and moved from South Philly to Harlem when he was 15 to play with his heroes.

“He had perfect pitch,” said John Mulhern, a student of Mr. Martino’s and a friend for nearly 50 years. “He had a gift.”

George Benson has frequently told the story of when he first encountered Mr. Martino in the 1960s in a New York club called Small’s Paradise.

“I was out on the town, thinking I had conquered New York,” Benson recalled on a video posted on YouTube. “And I saw this young kid … and this guitar leaped out of nowhere. And some of the most incredible lines I had ever heard. Everything in it. Great tone, great articulation and the whole crowd — and it was a black audience — went crazy. And I said to myself, if this is a sample of what New York is, like, I’m getting out of here.”

Martino was born with an arteriovenous malformation, an abnormality of blood vessels in the brain and frequently suffered seizures before nearly dying from an aneurysm when he was teaching in California in 1980. Surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital saved his life, though he lost much of his memory, including the knowledge of how to play the guitar, which he relearned in a painstaking process that took years.

In 2011, when his autobiography Here and Now written with Bill Milkowski came out, he told The Inquirer that the aneurysm was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

“What’s on my mind is a greater focus with more intimate accuracy on each and every moment so that I can truly focus on what life is really all about,” he said. “The mind has a way of thinking about things that have nothing to do with the moment, but if I can love my life in that moment, I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Mr. Martino is survived by his wife, Ayako. There is no plan for a memorial service, but there will be a musical celebration of Mr. Martino’s life in Philadelphia in the coming months, Donofrio said.