Joe Pass

Joe Pass (born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua; January 13, 1929 – May 23, 1994) was an American jazz guitarist of Sicilian descent. He is considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists of the 20th century.[1][2] He created possibilities for jazz guitar through his style of chord-melody, his knowledge of chord inversions and progressions, and his use of walking basslines and counterpoint during improvisation. Pass worked often with pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.

Joe Pass
Joe Pass in 1975
Background information
Birth nameJoseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua
Born(1929-01-13)January 13, 1929
New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S.
OriginJohnstown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedMay 23, 1994(1994-05-23) (aged 65)
Los Angeles, California
Occupation(s)Guitarist, composer
Years active1943–1994
LabelsPacific Jazz, Concord, Pablo
Associated actsOscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Ella Fitzgerald

Early life

Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey,[3] Joe Pass was the son of Mariano Passalaqua, a Sicilian-born steel mill worker. He was raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He received his first guitar, a Harmony, on his ninth birthday. His father recognized early that his son had "a little something happening" and pushed him to learn tunes by ear, practice scales, play pieces written for other instruments, and to fill in the space between the notes of the melody.

As early as 14, Pass started getting jobs performing. He played with bands led by Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet, honing his guitar skills while learning about the music business. He began traveling with small jazz groups and moved from Pennsylvania to New York City. Within a few years he had developed an addiction to heroin, and spent much of the 1950s in prison. He eventually recovered after a two-and-a-half-year stay in the Synanon rehabilitation program. During that time he "didn't do a lot of playing".[4] In 1962 he recorded Sounds of Synanon. Around this time he received his trademark Gibson ES-175 guitar as a gift, which he used on tours and records for many years.

Discovery and career

Pass recorded a series of albums during the 1960s for Pacific Jazz Records, including Catch Me, 12-String Guitar, For Django, and Simplicity. In 1963, he received Downbeat magazine's New Star Award.

He was also played on Pacific Jazz recordings by Gerald Wilson, Bud Shank, and Les McCann. He toured with George Shearing in 1965. During the 1960s, he did mostly TV and recording session work in Los Angeles.

He was a sideman for Louie Bellson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Della Reese, Johnny Mathis, and worked on the TV shows The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Steve Allen Show. In the early 1970s, he and guitarist Herb Ellis performed together regularly at Donte's jazz club in Los Angeles. This collaboration led to Pass and Ellis recording the first album on Concord Jazz entitled Jazz/Concord with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jake Hanna. In the early 1970s, Pass 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.

Norman Granz, the producer of Jazz at the Philharmonic and the founder of Verve Records, signed Pass to Pablo Records in 1970. In 1974, Pass released his solo album Virtuoso on Pablo. Also in 1974, Pablo released the album The Trio with Pass, Oscar Peterson, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. He performed with them on many occasions throughout the 1970s and 1980s. At the Grammy Awards of 1975, The Trio won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Group. As part of the Pablo roster, Pass recorded with Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.

Pass and Ella Fitzgerald recorded six albums together on Pablo toward the end of Fitzgerald's career: Take Love Easy (1973), Fitzgerald and Pass... Again (1976), "Hamburg Duets - 1976" (1976), Sophisticated Lady (1975, 1983), Speak Love (1983), and Easy Living (1986).

In 1994, Joe Pass died from liver cancer in Los Angeles, California at the age of 65. Before his death, he recorded an album of Hank Williams songs with country guitarist Roy Clark.

Speaking about Nuages: Live at Yoshi's, Volume 2, Jim Ferguson wrote:

The follow up to 1993's Joe Pass & Co. Live at Yoshi's, this release was colored by sad circumstances: both bassist Monty Budwig and Pass were stricken with fatal illnesses. Nevertheless, all concerned, including drummer Colin Bailey and second guitarist John Pisano, play up to their usual high levels...Issued posthumously, this material is hardly sub-standard. Bristling with energy throughout, it helps document the final stages in the career of a player who, arguably, was the greatest mainstream guitarist since Wes Montgomery.[5]


New York magazine said of him, "Joe Pass looks like somebody's uncle and plays guitar like nobody's business. He's called 'the world's greatest' and often compared to Paganini for his virtuosity. There is a certain purity to his sound that makes him stand out easily from other first-rate jazz guitarists."[2] 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. He would add what he called "color tones" to his compositions to give what he believed was a more sophisticated and funkier sound. He would often use counterpoint during improvisation, move lines and chords chromatically, or play melodies by shifting chords and descending augmented arpeggios at the end of phrases.

Pass's early style (influenced by guitarist Django Reinhardt and saxophonist Charlie Parker), was marked by fast single-note lines. He would break his guitar picks, playing only with the smaller part. As he made the transition from ensemble to solo guitar, he abandoned the pick to play fingerstyle. He found this enabled him to execute his harmonic concepts more effectively.

He weaves his own fast-moving chords and filigree work so nimbly that it is hard to believe fingers can physically shift so quickly. Slight moustached, fairly balding, he frowns over his fretwork like a worried head waiter with more guests than tables but the sound that comes out could only be the confident product of years of devotion to the instrument... But it is when he plays completely solo, which he does for half of each set, that he comes into his own, because without hindrance of the rhythm section he can completely orchestrate each number. Sometimes it is by contrasting out of tempo sections with fast-moving interludes, sometimes by switching mood from wistful to lightly swinging, sometimes by alternating single-note lines with chords or simultaneous bass line and melody-the possibilities seem endless. Luckily, there is a new L.P. by him which captures all this on vinyl, as someone has had the unusual good sense to record him all alone. It is called Virtuoso and rightly so.

Miles Kington on Pass in an October 1974 article in The Times.[6]


Selected bibliography

  • Mel Bay Presents Joe Pass "Off the Record." Mel Bay, 1993. ISBN 1-56222-687-8
  • Complete Joe Pass. Mel Bay, 2003. ISBN 0-7866-6747-8
  • Miyakaku, Takao. Joe Pass. Tokyo: Seiunsha, 2000. ISBN 4-434-00455-7 (photograph collection)


  1. Holder, Mitch (16 January 2006). The Jazz Guitar Stylings of Howard Roberts. Mel Bay Publications. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-7866-7409-1. Retrieved 22 November 2011.
  2. New York Media, LLC (17 September 1979). New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. p. 62. ISSN 0028-7369. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
  3. "Joe Pass, 65, a Jazz Guitarist Who Performed With the Stars - New York Times". 1994-05-24. Retrieved 2011-09-16.
  4. "Joe Pass - Interview". Archived from the original on 3 September 2014. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
  5. JazzTimes review of Nuages: Live at Yoshi's, Volume 2 (Joe Pass Quartet) by Jim Ferguson (retrieved 3 October 2011)
  6. Miles Kington. "Joe Pass." The Times (London, England) 18 October 1974: p.14. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
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