Keyboard Magazine / TALENT SCOUT
interview with John di Martino by JON REGEN FEB 18, 2019
John Di Martino is an acclaimed New York City-based jazz pianist and composer who has accompanied some of the most storied artists of our time. Get to know John di Martino, our TALENT SCOUT Artist of the Week.
NAME: John di Martino
HOMETOWN: Philadephia, PA
MUSICAL TRAINING: I studied with Jimmie Amadie, Lenny Tristano, Don Sebesky and Sophia Rosoff.
FIRST GIGS: I started gigging when I was 15 years old, playing in Philly Salsa bands, jazz gigs, and club dates. I had a house band gig in Atlantic City, NJ for three years before I moved to NYC, and I accompanied different artists every week. I gained a lot of experience with varied styles of music.
MUSICAL INFLUENCES: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, and Horace Silver.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: Everything!
MY BIG BREAK: I "subbed" on a tour in Europe with Ray Barretto’s New World Spirit. Ray and I really hit it off and a year later, I joined the band and stayed for five years. We recorded with James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Eddie Gomez, and Joe Lovano. Some years later playing with Grady Tate, I met producer Todd Barkan and that led to countless recordings with Freddy Cole, Gloria Lynn, George Mraz, Ben Riley, Houston Person, David Fathead Newman, Isaac Delgado and many of my own on the Japanese Label Venus Records, under the "John di Martino’s Romantic Jazz Trio."
LATEST PROJECTS: I do a Billy Strayhorn program with Paquito D’ Rivera, and we are now planning to record the project.
FAVORITE KEYBOARDS AND WHY? I have always enjoyed the Yamaha Motif series and its descendants. For piano, I have found that nothing beats a pristinely kept Steinway, but the Yamaha CFX concert grand is a warm sounding piano.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU? I want to spend more time writing. I would also like to land a teaching position in a part of the world with a warm climate!
ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Though we learn through imitation, allow yourself to find your own unique voice. Just as our faces and fingerprints are unique, we all have an individual creative voice.
For more information visit www.johndimartino.com
JERSEY JAZZ ( JOURNAL OF THE NEW JERSEY JAZZ SOCIETY )
Talking Jazz : A Jersey Jazz Interview With John di Martino
By Schaen Fox NOVEMBER 2017
John di Martino seems to play with almost everybody. Take Janis Siegel, who said when I interviewed her, “I am also excited about working with John Di Martino. We met on one of those jazz cruises. John was playing with Houston Person and he was at the jam session every night. That is where I sat in with him, and I thought, ‘This is nice. This is a special guy.’” We spoke in January about his growing up in Philadelphia, his career centered in New York —and why his home is now in New Jersey.
JJ: Is there anything new or special you would like to talk about?
Jd: In recent years I’ve played for singers a lot. I have done maybe the last 10 recordings with Freddy Cole. I play piano and write arrangements for him. I met Freddy Cole when I was in Atlantic City for six years. We did the Detroit Festival in September. I wrote the arrangements for an entire program of Freddy with a chamber orchestra. It was really exciting! I just recorded about my fifth record with Giacomo Gates. I’ve been working with Janis Siegel. I did her last solo record, Night Songs, but also we have a Brazilian co-project between myself, Janis Siegel and Nanny Assis, who is a percussionist from Bahia. It is called “Requinte Trio” which just means “Sophisticated Trio.” I’ve recorded a bunch of records with a young gal from Australia, Simone Kopmajer. I’ve known her because we’ve been recording for years for Venus Records, the Japanese label. I have lost count of the records I have with bassist singer Nicki Parrott. I do her Venus Records work and we usually tour Japan every year or every other year. I also made about thirteen records with my own group on that label. They dubbed us the “Romantic Jazz Trio.” It wasn’t my choice, but I say, “Call me anything except late to dinner.” [Chuckles] I have a series of records with some pretty sexy covers. They are not pictures of me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I think they are a little over the top. [Laughs] I’ve been doing these Strayhorn programs with Paquito D’Rivera. He plays clarinet on this project and he is a virtuosic clarinet player. He is a classical clarinetist as well. He enjoys this because it is a departure from the repertoire he plays with his band. We have one Latin arrangement: an obscure piece with different titles, “Lament for an Orchid,” and “Absence,” set in a Cuban rhythm called a danzón. I did maybe the past six or seven records with Houston Person, so I’ve been doing a lot on the High Note label. I have two self-produced CDs. One is called Impromptu, a duo with the great Warren Vaché, the greatest cornet player in the world. Also a trio record called Turnaround with Boris Kozlov who I work with a lot, and Alvin Atkinson on drums. One more thing; I record for a company in Thailand called Hitman Jazz. I think they are thinking in terms of Hit Parade, but it sounds different to us. [Chuckles] I have two records out that they have commissioned me to do — all music of the king of Thailand, who recently passed. He played jazz saxophone and clarinet, and has an extensive songbook. Everybody in Thailand knows his songs. I’ve done the two records with an all New York band, and I usually go there every year and do a concert. We are finishing up one now with a Thai singer, so that is in the original language. My other big love besides music is film. I’ve always wanted to score a film, and I’ve finally had the chance. I scored five documentaries for an Austrian production called “A Glimpse of Paradise.” They are travel documentaries about gardens with sidelines into arts and crafts and things, but focused on the restoration of ancient gardens in the Islamic world. There is a series in Iran, Morocco, Southern Spain and other places. [Chuckles] It was really fun. That is work I want to get more involved in.
JJ: I’ve seen your name spelled several ways. How should the Di be spelled?
Jd: Technically it should be Di, but I like how it looks with a small di, so I do that.
JJ: You’re from Philadelphia, home town of other musically important Martinos, like Al and Pat. By chance are you related to them?
Jd: Al I don’t know, but Pat I worked with for a while. We are both from the same neighborhood. That is not his real name. His real name is Azzara. I think Martino comes from somewhere in his family. We are not related except we both have a southern Italian heritage.
JJ: Were there any other professional musicians in your family?
Jd: No. I feel that the talent comes from my mother, an amateur singer. She never did it professionally. She had a tremendous ear and an influence on me. When I first started getting involved with music, we’d go through the fake book and she’d point out all the hip tunes, sing them to me, and we would play them together. I started becoming a heavy jazz fan when I was about 12 years old. My mother gave me a lot of vocal records, people like June Christie and Gloria Lynn, who I later worked with. When I was about 19, I was obsessed with Tristano’s music. That was all I was listening to. Those guys would never play the melody. They just start blowing on the changes, but I’m telling you that my mom, without any musical training, no technical musical knowledge at all; but you could play the track, she’d listen, say, “Oh yes,” and start singing the tune. That is pretty amazing.
JJ: You did get to study with Lenny Tristano. What was that like?
Jd: One of the first records I had was by Lee Konitz. I fell in love with Lee’s playing and people said, “Well if you are into Lee Konitz, you’ve got to check out Lenny Tristano.” Then I started listening to Lenny, and my mother said, “You should study with Lenny Tristano.” I sought him out. I was late as a driver, so my brother drove me up to the first lesson. I called him saying, “Mr. Tristano can you give me driving directions?” He was blind. He said, “Well I don’t drive. You dig?” [Laughs] He was quite a character, a real bebopper. He said, “You get to the midtown tunnel some fucking way. Just ask anybody in New York how to get to the fucking midtown tunnel, okay?” After that, he gave me perfect directions to where he lived in Jamaica, Queens. I’d take Amtrak then the E or the F train out to 179th Street every week. [Chuckles] That was quite an experience. His focus was on taking great solos by great jazz musicians, and first learning to sing them with the recording; then to sing them without the recording. The next step was to play it on your instrument. He thought if you just heard their music and went right to your instrument you would wind up just imitating, but if you did this singing process you’d really internalize it. He got this because Bird learned to play every recorded solo Pres ever made. Bird took these elements and developed something totally new with them. He was very encouraging. I was a lazy kid. I remember I once played something for him, and he was very moved. He grabbed me by the hand, and his eyes watered. I remember him saying, “It is so hard to get youngsters to understand.” He felt that I had a gift, and he wanted me to work harder.
JJ: What sparked your love of Latin Jazz?
Jd: I fell in love with it in high school. I had Latino friends that were turning me on to The Fania All Star Records. I think I was 15 when I was playing with my first Latin band. We were doing covers of salsa hits. In the ‘70s the music of the Puerto Rican community was at a high point. It had the original Cuban energy, but there was something really unique about the contribution of the Puerto Ricans that grew up in this country in the same neighborhoods, or right next to the neighborhoods of African-Americans. There’s this influence back and forth and a very special energy to those players like Ray Barretto, who I later got to play with. There is a “grease” and a feel for the blues, the soul of American music that somehow fused with the Latin music. Cuban musicians have tremendous virtuosity, but actually they don’t have that feel; perhaps because they were cut off for so long. I’d like to make a film to try to describe the intangible, this amazing musicality that is very unique to the musicians of Puerto Rican heritage in the United States. I got some of that energy playing it up until I was about 19. It became part of my DNA; then I got totally away from it. I didn’t play any of that music again until I moved to New York. When I moved to New York, one of my early bread and butter gigs was at the Rainbow Room. I played with the American band and also the Latin band, which was led by a great flute player from Panama, Marico Smith and my education, got to another level.
JJ: Would you tell us about your years in Atlantic City? Jd: I never went to music school. I had a scholarship to Berklee in Boston when I was 19, but you do stupid things when you are a kid. I didn’t go, but I feel that my destiny of music always pulled at me, even though I tried to run in the opposite direction. Atlantic City became my music school. I learned to understand not only music, but show business and also not to be a snob about any genre of music. One thing my teacher in Philadelphia, Jimmy Amadie, always said was, “When a player puts down a style of music, it is because he can’t cut it. Try to master the music first. Then you can say, ‘I really don’t want to do that.’” That opened me up in a way. I feel like those skills continued to serve me as I moved to New York, and frankly, those connections I made are still branching out to this day. I was about 25 when I started working in Atlantic City. I got a house band gig at the Golden Nugget. This was an anachronism in the time that it existed. I started working there with Frankie Randel, a singer and pianist. The way he structured his show was, he’d be standing at the mic; I’d play about three or four songs at the grand piano; then he’d go to the piano and I’d go to the keyboard. I’d just add a little arranging color, a little strings, a little brass, maybe an electric piano solo, depending on the style of the music. I actually wasn’t very happy because I wanted to play piano. A month into the gig I said, “Frankie, I think I want to leave.” He said, “John, I can’t tell you why, but if you hang in a little longer I think you are going to like this gig.” [Chuckles] About a month later he became the entertainment director, so I was playing piano all the time and playing for great people who never really got their due, but also great people who were considered has-beens. It ran the gamut from jazz, show business folks, R&B and comedians. I remember playing for: Mr. B [Billy Eckstein], Jack Sheldon, Fran Warren, Joni Summers, Charlie Callas and Pat Cooper. It was all the people I grew up watching on the Tonight Show. I feel so grateful for that. The sound man recorded every show, and on one late trio sets, Mr. B sat in with me. I should find him and get that recording, because it was so beautiful. I remember playing “Lush Life” for Mr. B and at the end of it he said, “Not bad for an Italian.” [Laughs] I want a copy with that line in it of course.
JJ: You became close to the great Billy Eckstein and his accompanist Bobby Tucker in those years.
Jd: I was playing with Billy Eckstein, but I never replaced Bobby Tucker. They both became mentors for me. We became such good friends that they would add me on a gig playing the string parts on a synthesizer. I wasn’t into playing a synthesizer, but I just loved being around them. We spent hours just hanging out in the cafeteria in the Golden Nugget. Just to hear Mr. B and Bobby spin yarns was living history. Mr. B introduced me to Freddy Cole. Mr. B was a dear friend of his older brother Nat. It was wonderful to hear Mr. B spin yarns about all the amazing people he dealt with. He had the hippest band in the world. He had the whole history of jazz in his band. He also had a way of putting people in their place. When someone asked him, “Eckstein, is that your real name?” Mr. B explained the whole German derivation of it and after that asked, “Don’t you hate it when people ask ignorant questions?” I also worked with Billy Daniels, and I’ll tell you a funny thing about him. I would sub on his gig. I wasn’t his regular pianist. He would sing “If I Ruled the World” eloquently, but in the second chorus I would noodle the melody, and he would muse saying, “If I ruled the world, Texas would be my ranch. Maine would be my summer home… but you could keep Mississippi and Alabama.” [Chuckles] I could do a whole hour about Billy Daniels. We would play the intro to “Black Magic” for about 15 minutes. He’d be shaking his shoulders and say, “You can’t rush into this song. You’ve got to feel it.” [Laughs] They gave him a wireless mic, which he took full advantage of. He’d just bounce around the room. We played the intro and from nowhere you’d hear, “Alone from night to night you’ll find me…” and the people would be looking around to see where the voice was coming from. He’d be sitting on a chair in the back of the room. [Laughs] He wore a toupee and a woman said to him, “Billy I love your hair.” He said, “Give me a minute darling, and I’ll take it off and give it to you.” [Laughs] He was a real character, and there are not too many around anymore. [Laughs]
JJ: Please tell us about Bobby Tucker. Jd: I met him in Atlantic City, but he lived in the home he grew up in Morristown, New Jersey. He always said he had the sexiest number in the phone book; the last four numbers were 2469. [Chuckles] I said to Bobby, “If you ever work with Redd Fox, I’m sure he would introduce you that way.” Mr. B would introduce him this way, “On the piano, ladies and gentleman the brother I never had, Bobby Tucker. He’s only had two jobs his whole life: four years with Billy Holliday and about 50 years with Mr. B, and he thinks he is in show business.” [Laughs] I’m not the best at keeping in touch with people, but I’d talk to him at Christmas and New Year. The last time I saw him, he hadn’t played piano in years, but he was sitting down and showing me some things at the piano. His wife Erma was like, “Wow, that is unusual. He never plays the piano.” It was like he was in a rush to share everything with me. I consider him like my musical father. He gave me so many things like photographs. I saw this look in his eye, and I realized later that he was looking at me for the last time. That still rivets me. His wife, afterwards, told me I could come and take anything. I never did. There was one thing I would have loved to have taken, a picture from a record date of Lady Day, Jimmy Rowles and Red Mitchell. It is inscribed, “To my friend and fiend Bobby Tucker.” I think she gave all the Billy Eckstine music to the Smithsonian.
JJ: What got you to move to New York?
Jd: It was inevitable. I realized it was my destiny to come here. If I could go back in a time machine I would have moved here when I was 19. I think on some level I had a dysfunctional relationship with my teacher Jimmy Amadie. He was a great teacher, and I still hear his guidance every day, but he would say, “Oh, don’t go until you are ready.” That is the worst thing to tell a young person. The best thing is to tell them, “Put yourself in the ring and get your butt kicked as soon as possible. Then when you pick yourself up, you are better for it.” If you find you are in the wrong field, it is good to find it early. I did move to New York in ’88 and in the beginning I would run back to Atlantic City to do gigs a lot. Then I realized if I kept doing that I would never get into the scene up here. I had to burn some bridges to build some new ones.
JJ: How did you start writing for DIVA?
Jd: Out of the blue, Stanley Kay took a liking to me. I was playing with one of his protégés in the band, Karolina Strassmayer. She is now with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany. I don’t think he had heard my arrangements, but just saw something in me. He said, “Johnny I want you to write for the band. He had an idea for “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” and that was one of the first charts I did. I have ten or more charts in their book. He was one of the first to trust me as a big band arranger. I’ve done some writing for their small group as well. I’ve enjoyed writing for them.
JJ: I heard you joke about your connection to the tune “Johnny Come Lately.” Would you explain that?
Jd: One of the early records I got was by Chet Baker/Russ Freeman and there is a duo version of “Lush Life” that I love. The next Strayhorn number I fell in love with was “Passion Flower.” Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic,” was a big pop-fusion hit record. It has a beautiful Bob James arrangement of “Passion Flower” with Grover playing it on soprano sax. He had a really unique soprano sound. The first time I heard “Johnny Come Lately” might have been the Strayhorn record by Wynton Marsalis. “Johnny Come Lately” has become a regular part of my trio repertoire. Let’s put it this way, I’m not one of those people that gets to the gig an hour early.
JJ: Do you have any career souvenirs at home that a visitor might see?
Jd: Sure. I have a picture of Bobby Tucker in my studio, and I have a picture of myself and James Moody. I have one with Kenny Burrell, but I don’t know where I put that. I have pictures of some of the greats like Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on my wall to keep me inspired. And I have a poster from a tour in Japan. The way they did it was cool, so I kept that.
JJ: Is there a film, book or play you feel will give us non-musicians an accurate idea of what a musician’s life is like?
Jd: I always felt that Amadeus gives the idea of the life behind the scenes; the internal stress that takes place, the jealousy of Salieri, yet there is nobody he loves more than Mozart. Also The Turning Point, about the young ballet dancer, gives a feeling about what it is really like.
JJ: What got you to move to New Jersey?
Jd: In 1988 I moved to New York. I mostly lived in Brooklyn with a year and a half in Queens. Then I moved to New Jersey and lived with my girlfriend, Sarah for two years, after that, I bought a condo in Union City. I think I’ve been here about 12 years. The rents in Brooklyn just drove me out, because I went through a time where my career wasn’t so prosperous. Oddly enough after I moved to Jersey, my career seemed to take off again. I really love living in New Jersey. I’m less than a mile from the Lincoln Tunnel, and when you come out of that tunnel everything just seems more peaceful. I like the idea that I can go out of the rat race and then go back into it. I really love River Road, which Houston Person hipped me to. He is like a taxi driver from the old school. He drove all over the United States, so any time I need some secret route to get somewhere I ask him. He was a Newark person for years. Anytime I have to go anywhere in a northern direction, I go up River Road. There are so many great things I do off that road, like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the Japanese market Mitsua. And all the sessions I did at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder’s with Houston, you take River Road to the end and there you are. I love Korean food so I go to this great restaurant in Fort Lee called Dong Bang Grill. There is even a Korean sauna called King Sauna that I love. Jersey has a lot of nice things, and I feel really good about living here.
JJ: How did the ban on smoking in clubs affect you?
Jd: Yeah. I have chronic allergies. When I started playing in clubs, I’d come home and I had to inhale steam because I couldn’t breathe. The ban was really good for me.
JJ: You said earlier that you wanted to run from music as a kid. What did you want to run to?
Jd: There was nothing to run to, I was just dealing with irrational fear. I’ve always been a writer and could have gone to Eastman, but didn’t for some reason. It’s like destiny said, “No, you have to be a musician.” All of us who are in this are in it because we love it. There is no other reason to do it. If you are just thinking about what is the most financially practical thing there are a lot better things to do. [Laughs]
JJ: A sad truth, but a good point to end with. This was great fun talking to you. Thanks for doing the interview. \
Jd: Thank you for making me famous. [Laughs] I really do appreciate it. Talk to you soon.
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