Joe Pass PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 20 October 2008 17:09

Joe Pass in 1975

Joseph Anthony Passalaqua

Born: January 13, 1929, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Died:  May 23, 1994, Los Angeles, California

Age: 65

Cause of death: Liver cancer.

Notable because: For many guitarists, in all probability, Joe Pass was the most versatile, well-rounded, mainstream guitarist in history.


Joe Pass was a jazz guitarist. His extensive use of walking basslines, melodic counterpoint during improvisation, and use of a chord-melody style of play opened up new possibilities for jazz guitar and had a profound influence on future guitarists.

Joe Pass, the son of Mariano Passalacqua, a Sicilian-born steel mill worker, was raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Born into a non-musical family, Pass started to play the guitar after being inspired by actor Gene Autry's portrayal of a guitar playing cowboy. He received his first guitar, a Harmony model bought for $17, on his 9th birthday. Pass' father recognized early that his son had "a little something happening" and pushed him constantly to pick up tunes by ear, play pieces not written specifically for the instrument, practice scales and not to "leave any spaces" - that is, to fill in the sonic space between the notes of the melody.

As early as 14, Pass started getting gigs and was playing with bands fronted by Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet, honing his guitar skills and learning the music business. He began traveling with small jazz groups and eventually moved from Pennsylvania to New York City. In a few years, he fell victim to drug abuse, and spent much of the 1950s in relative obscurity. Pass managed to emerge from it through a two-and-a-half-year stay at Synanon, drug rehabilitation program. During that time he slowly returned to playing. In 1962 he recorded The Sounds of Synanon.

Pass recorded a series of albums during the 1960s for the Pacific Jazz label, including the early classics Catch Me, 12-String Guitar, For Django, and Simplicity. In 1963, Pass received Downbeat magazine's "New Star Award". Pass was also featured on Pacific Jazz recordings by Gerald Wilson, Bud Shank, and Les McCann. Pass toured with George Shearing in 1965. Mostly, however, during the 1960s he did TV and recording session work in Los Angeles.

He was a sideman with Louis Bellson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Della Reese, Johnny Mathis, and worked on TV shows including the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Steve Allen Show, and others. In the early 1970s, Pass and guitarist Herb Ellis were performing together regularly at Donte's jazz club in Los Angeles. This collaboration led to Pass and Ellis recording the very first album on the new Concord Jazz label, entitled simply Jazz/Concord (#CJS-1), along with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jake Hanna. In the early 1970s, Pass also collaborated on a series of music books, and his Joe Pass Guitar Style (written with Bill Thrasher) is considered a leading improvisation textbook for students of jazz.

Pass became a drug user while visitng New Yoprk in 45. Drugs began to lead his life. He moved to New Orleans for a year, where he played bebop for strippers. "In New Orleans, I had kind of a nervous breakdown," Pass revealed in Rolling Stone, "because I had access to every kind of drug there and was up for days. I would always hock my guitar. I would come to New York a lot, then get strung out and leave."

The following year, Pass began to travel from place to place, performing wherever he could. In 1949 he joined bandleader Ray McKinley, but quit when he discovered the arrangements were beyond his reading abilities. During the early 1950s, Pass played in Las Vegas and other cities throughout the country. At the same time, he was in and out of jail for narcotics violations. "Staying high was my first priority," Pass told Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, "playing was second; girls were third. But the first thing really took all my energy."

In 1954 Pass was arrested on drug charges and sent to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. He spent four years there, then went back to Las Vegas to join accordion player Dick Contino's trio. Late in 1960, he entered Synanon, a narcotics rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, California. Two years later he played on the Sounds of Synanon compilation, released on World Pacific Records.

After three years at Synanon, Pass became more aware and appreciative of his musical abilities and started taking his career more seriously. "A lot of kids think that in order to be a guitarist, they've gotta go out and be a junkie for 10 years, and that's just not true," Pass told Down Beat. "I can't credit any of that time, saying that's when I really learned. I spent most of those years just being a bum, doing nothing. It was a great waste of time."

Pass also recorded with Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and others.

Pass and Ella Fitzgerald recorded four albums together on Pablo Records, toward the end of Fitzgerald's career: Take Love Easy (1973), Easy Living (1986), Speak Love (1983), and Fitzgerald and Pass... Again (1976).

In addition to his ensemble performances, the jazz community regards Joe Pass as an influential solo guitarist. His solo style was marked by an advanced linear technique, sophisticated harmonic sense, counterpoint between improvised lead lines, bass figures and chords, spontaneous modulations, and transitions from fast tempos to rubato passages.

Pass's early style (influenced by guitarist Django Reinhardt and saxophonist Charlie Parker), was marked by fast single-note lines and a flowing melodic sense. Pass had the unusual lifelong habit of breaking his guitar picks in half and playing only with the smaller part. As Pass made the transition from ensemble to solo guitar performance, he preferred to abandon the pick altogether, and play fingerstyle. He found this enabled him to execute his harmonic concepts more effectively. His series of solo albums, Virtuoso (volumes 1 through 4) are a demonstration of Pass's refined technique.

Joe Pass let some instrument manufacturers use his name, but he only used those instruments to fulfill its engagement against those brands, or as travelling ones. He really used to play a Gibson ES-175 guitar (mainly) and a guitar made for him by master crafter Jimmy D'Aquisto. Epiphone has produced an edition of the Emperor line of semi-acoustic Guitar in his honour. Previously Ibanez had a Joe Pass model jazz guitar, as they continue to for influential jazz guitarists George Benson and Pat Metheny


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 16:08

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