Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pass, Joe (Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua)

Joe Pass expanded the guitar's possibilities in jazz with his fast, saxophone-like lines and graceful melodic sensibility. Inspired by both Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker, Pass’s melodic counterpoint and chord melodies have since become a staple of the jazz language.

Joe Pass was born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua on January 13, 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The eldest of five brothers, Pass and his family moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania when he was still a young boy.

Pass became interested in playing the guitar after he saw famed entertainer Gene Autry playing a guitar in the film Ride Tenderfoot Ride . Soon afterwards, he asked for a guitar for his birthday.

For his ninth birthday, Pass’s father, Mariano, gave him a Harmony flat-top, steel-string guitar that he had purchased for $17. Sensing that the boy had a natural talent, Mariano encouraged his son to practice for as much as five hours a day. Mariano was confident in his son’s talent, and would often go to music stores and purchase any book that had the word “guitar” on it. Mariano also encouraged his son to learn songs by ear and learn pieces that were not expressly written for the guitar.

By the age of fourteen, Pass had joined a group entitled the “Gentlemen of Rhythm,” who modeled its sound after the work of French gypsy swing guitarist Django Reinhardt. The group performed at dances and parties, where Pass would earn three to five dollars a night.

Pass’s talent caught the ear of bandleader Charlie Barnet, as well as local saxophonist and bandleader Tony Pastor, who invited Pass to perform with him at a concert. The bandleader then asked the guitarist to join him on tour, but Pass refused to leave school to do so.

A year later, Pass’s parents allowed him to go to New York City to study with noted studio guitarist Harry Volpe. Volpe soon realized that his student was a better improviser than he was, and so concentrated on teachimg him sight-reading and other skills. Pass soon became irritated with his lessons and returned home to Johnstown. Soon after his return, Pass’s father fell ill, and he decided to drop out of the tenth grade and move to New York to seek his dreams.

Upon his arrival in New York, Pass played with Charlie Parker and pianist Art Tatum amongst others, but became introduced to narcotics, which quickly began to overwhelm his life. Pass moved to New Orleans for a year, where he performed regularly but descended even more deeply into the drug lifestyle.

Because of his addictions, Pass’s life became nomadic, and he traveled from location to location, performing wherever he could. In 1949, Pass joined bandleader Ray McKinley’s group, but soon left when he discovered that the arrangements were past his reading capacity.

Throughout the early 1950s, Pass performed in Las Vegas and several other cities. During this time, he was in and out of out jail for drug-related offenses. In 1954, he was arrested for drug charges and was sent to the U.S Public Health Service Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. Pass spent four years there ,and upon leaving returned to Las Vegas to become a member of accordionist Dick Contino’s trio.

In 1960, Pass entered Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, California. Two years later, he recorded The Sounds of Synanon, which was released on World Pacific Records. After spending two and a half years at the center, Pass became more conscious of his musical abilities and began to take his career more seriously.

In 1963, Pass recorded Catch Me, his first album as a bandleader with drummer Colin Bailey, pianist Claire Fischer, and bassist Labert Stinson. The following year, Pass recorded For Django, his tribute to Django Reinhardt. From 1965 to 1967, he worked and recorded with pianist George Shearing.

From the mid 1960s through the mid-1970s, Pass performed with, among others, saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and trumpeter Chet Baker. Pass also worked as a sideman for singers Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Della Reese and Johnny Mathis. Pass began to perform on TV shows including The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show.

When Pass would perform on Merv Griffin it was usually to replace the show's regular guitarist, Herb Ellis was unavailable. The two guitarists became friends and soon began performing together at Donte’s jazz club in Los Angeles. In 1972, Pass and Ellis were invited to perform at the Concord Jazz Festival, which led to the recording of Jazz Concord; the first release for Concord Records, along with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jake Hanna. The following year, Pass and Ellis recorded Seven Come Eleven at the Concord Jazz Festival.

During the early 1970s, Pass collaborated with Bill Thrasher on a sequence of music instruction books. The resulting series, Joe Pass Guitar Style, has since become an important textbook for modern jazz guitarists. Pass’s style has been the subject of numerous method books, which include Mel Bay Presents Joe Pass Improvising Ideas and books of transcriptions.

In 1973, bandleader Benny Goodman asked Pass to substitute for his guitarist at a concert. Pass’s performance made quite an impression on Goodman, and he asked Pass to join him on a tour of Australia. Upon his return, Pass signed a record deal with Pablo Records, the label owned by impresario Norman Granz.

Pass’s first release for Pablo Records was Virtuoso, was a wake-up call about how far the guitar had come in jazz. On “Have You Met Miss Jones," Pass demonstrates his trademark mix of clear, swift lines and confident chords.

Also in 1973, Pass formed a trio with pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. In 1974, the group won the Grammy Award for best jazz performance for their album The Trio.

In 1974, Pass performed with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on the album Dizzy’s Big 4. On “Jitterbug Waltz,” the group opens the song with a groove-oriented vamp that skillfully carries into the song’s waltz rhythm. Pass provides a solid link between melodic voice and harmonic foundation resulting in a more solid ensemble sound.

In 1982, Pass performed on singer Sarah Vaughan’s record Crazy And Mixed Up. On “Autumn Leaves,” Pass provides an aggressive solo during the introduction that perfectly establishes the vital tone of the song. Pass lets pianist Roland Hanna provide most of the chordal accompaniment, freeing up the guitarist to trade solos with Vaughan. Pass’s solo phrases mirror the strength of Vaughan’s, creating a memorable conversation between the two.

In 1987, while resuming his association with Pablo Records, Pass cofounded Polytone Records with accordionist Tommy Gumina. In 1989, Pass reunited the group that had recorded his album For Django to record Summer Nights. The group would later release Appassionato in 1992.

In early 1992, Pass discovered that he had liver cancer. Early response to treatment was positive, prompting Pass to continue performing until early 1993. Despite this, his health continued to decline, forcing him to withdraw from a “Guitar Summit” tour alongside Pepe Romero, Paco Peña and Leo Kottke.

On May 7, 1994, Pass performed his last concert in Los Angeles with guitarist John Pisano. Pass died on May 23, 1994. Pass is survived by his second wife Ellen Luders and two children.

Select Discography

As Joe Pass

Catch Me (1963)

For Django (1963)

Virtuoso (1973)

Virtuoso II (1973)

Virtuoso III (1977)

I Remember Charlie Parker (1979)

Eximious (1982)

Blues For Fred (1988)

Summer Nights (1989)

Appassionato (1992)

With Ella Fitzgerald

Take Love Easy (1973)

Fitzgerald and Pass… Again (1976)

Speak Love (1983)

Easy Living (1986)

With Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy’s Big 4 (1974)

With Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen

Chops (1978)

Northsea Nights (1979)

With Oscar Peterson

The Trio (1973)

The Giants (1974)

With Sarah Vaughan

Crazy And Mixed Up (1982)

Contributor: Eric Wendell