From the beginnings of jazz, the guitar was considered a quirky add-on to bands and was usually relegated to only rhythmic accompaniment due to the inability of the instrument to project sound. Even after the creation of the electric guitar and the creative prodigious styles of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, the guitar still held a secondary role in jazz. As an up and coming jazz artist soon to be among the ranks of Christian, Farlow, and Kessel, a young guitar player growing up in the swing era would rapidly, however, revolutionize and change the guitar’s role in jazz music in decades to come. As were and are most jazz artists of a century of musical development, Joseph Anthony Passalaqua aka. “Joe Pass” is overlooked by the mainstream public, yet he is recognized as not only a great jazz guitarist, but a memorable jazz composer, innovator, and character.
Born into the outset of the Great Depression in an industrial Pennsylvanian town, Joe Pass lacked a musical background, yet was influenced greatly by his father, a steel mill worker who envisioned his children straying away from the path to the steel mill. Starting at age nine with a guitar provided by a family friend, Joe, in admiration of the television cowboy Gene Autrey, practiced seven to eight hours a day until around age fifteen. Pass described his early development, attributing it to his father’s persistence: “…I didn’t like it – I hated it, but my father was very firm about it; he saw a little something happening, so he figured he’d just push. I don’t remember too much how I felt about it except that I’d rather be outside playing ball and things… He didn’t know anything about music, he didn’t play an instrument; but he wanted us to become something more than a steel-worker like himself… Mind you, he deserves all the credit for how I play today” (Joe Pass Interview). When Joe was fourteen, he began playing with his first group, a trio composed of guitar, guitar bass, and a violin at parties and dances on weekends to help support the family, where he sometimes made up to five dollars a night, occasionally more than his father earned. Soon after, Joe began his music career playing with touring bands, such as Tony Pastor’s and Charlie Barnet’s, learning the music business and perfecting his skills. Aside from his own instrument’s influences that included the gypsy Django Reinhardt and pioneer Charlie Christian, critical to his influences were the many beboppers of the era. Pass modeled much of his later improvisation on bebop’s top pianists, Bud Powell and Art Tatum, along with wind players such as Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, to whom he dedicated later albums (I Remember Charlie Parker). Unfortunately, his life on the road and the influence of peer musicians soon made him prone to bad habits: “It all started when I split from home. I got the opportunity to go on the road and I went off with groups and trios. And I got introduced to drinking and all that. I was rebelling really..because it was part of the whole scene.” After serving in the military, his bad habits turned into drug habits, and he served jail time followed by a rehabilitation period at Synanon Healing (an unconventional program, now discredited). Pass spent over a decade with his guitar playing being a secondary factor in his life, and his career dwindled. However, once he emerged from this dark period with a record cut in 1962, his true brilliance as a musician appeared, beginning his long trail of successes in his lifetime (Telarc International).
Though he had recorded with Tony Pastor and his Orchestra in the 40’s, Pass’s true debut recording was Sounds of Synanon, which musically told the tale of substance addiction and its cure, an experience shared by Arnold Ross, the album’s frontman, and Joe Pass. Throughout the 60’s, Pass created or was part of twenty-some group, duo, and trio albums that demonstrated his remarkable abilities as a guitarist, working with many jazz greats including Count Basie, Duke Ellington (Duke’s Big 4, Portraits of Duke Ellington), Oscar Peterson (far too many to enumerate), Chet Baker (A Sign of the Times, duo), Milt Jackson (Quadrant and more), and Dizzy Gillespie (Gillespie’s Big 4). One of Pass’s greatest duos, Take Love Easy, featuring singer-legend Ella Fitzgerald, has been labeled one of the most gratifying jazz albums ever created. These great accomplishments, however, were simply the beginning. Spearheaded by the shrewd Norman Granz, a jazz music impresario who holds credit to numerous jazz legends signed to his labels and his own legend as an anti-racist pioneer, Pass’s career as a distinctive solo artist began in 1973 when he was signed to Norman’s Pablo label. Under this label, his success was cemented. Pass won a grammy for the 1974 release of The Trio, recorded with Oscar Peterson for the Pablo label, and soon after he had a large schedule of collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald and other “big names” which eventually elevated him to the highest tier of notoriety in jazz musicianship. Still, Pass’s calling and choice of musical context was in the solo guitar, whose recording and distribution mostly began under Granz’s direction. His first release, Virtuoso, eventually became a four-album series of both Jazz standards re-played with Pass’s flair and original on-the-fly compositions in Virtuoso #3. Another milestone album in his career was Montreux ’77, a blues-dominated performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival that demonstrated his mastery of his instrument, placing him at the forefront of jazz stardom. Pass continued actively on the jazz scene, releasing over 30 solo albums alone filled with Standards and original compositions in his two decades of glory, and constantly touring until months before his death to cancer in 1994.
Joe Pass, despite his lack of mainstream fame, has done much to influence both budding guitarists and composers by bringing his unique style and technique to the “must-listen” category of jazz. His solo releases popularized the guitar as a standalone jazz instrument, and Pass revolutionized self-contained walking bass, chords, and single-note solos and harmonies all played on the same instrument which left no musical void unfulfilled. More than an influence by simple popularity, however, Pass transmitted his influence personally to many. In addition to a composer and performer, Pass is remembered as a teacher, as is held by numerous accounts by those who knew him. Websites across the internet, such as Brad Powell’s Joe Pass Webpage, Ken Brown’s Guitar World, and Tabo Oishi’s Joe Pass Memorial Hall, all contain testimonies by students and friends who all agree that Joe, a friendly character with a great sense of humor, taught them invaluable lessons in guitar and jazz as a whole. Pass’s teaching was by no means elitist, as Brad Powell explains: “When I was barely fifteen years old, my high school band director… Mr. Smith, said: ‘Brad, listen to this guitarist, Joe Pass!’… A few months later, I contacted Mr. Pass by phone and asked if I could study guitar from him. He obliged, and I was forever influenced by his music, mentoring, and friendship.” (Powell) In the early ’70s, Joe Pass was giving lessons at rates as low as ten dollars per hour- a meager price to learn from someone so great- and from this short period, many stories arose about his kind and giving personality, along with his unconventional style of teaching. It is rumored that Pass did not know how to name chords in the I, VI, II, etc. format, an absolute music theory standard in chord progressions, until one of his students taught him. Testament to this, Joe Anthony Cadrecha, one of his many students, writes in JPMH: “During one such lesson I asked ‘How does this one type of chord move to this one?’ and JP said, ‘man I don’t know!!!! It just sounds good!!!’ [sic]” Though likely an exaggeration, the anecdote demonstrates Pass’s brilliance that reigned free of written restrictions (Brown). So great in skill and talent was Pass that in a 1980 Sydney 2-week guitar seminar where Pass held 2-hour workshops, John Williams, renowned classical musician, humbly stated, “Here I am, supposedly one of the world’s finest classical guitarists, and after seeing Joe Pass and his students, I thought I knew the fingerboard.” Pass’s ability to transpose, rewrite, and fill in melodic lines around a central tune or theme almost instantly lived up to the jazz musician’s standard, but also, along with the many other legends that influenced him, created a new dynamic standard for the guitar as the second piano in the vast compendium of jazz instrumentation (Oishi).
“You can play night after night and some nights you play something that you never played before, and those are the times that make it all worthwhile,” as Joe Pass often commented to his students, in the spirit of jazz improvisation and spontaneity. Indeed, Pass hated to play the same thing twice, which gave him the distinguished mark of a great jazz composer and all-around musician as opposed to simply an innovative guitarist. Regardless of which title is preferred, Joe Pass lives up to all of the above by his accomplishments and far-reaching influences into jazz music and education today. A true lover of music and performance, never one to compete for the title of “best guitarist” and the many other vain frills of professional musicianship, Joseph Anthony Passalaqua’s wisdom and virtuosity still hold true today, ten years after his death. “It’s better to play for others than to play fast and prove how hip you are, and I didn’t learn practicing in my living room, I learned up there on the stand.”
Joe Pass Interview. (n.d.). Retrieved August 8, 2004, from
Joe Pass. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 8, 2004, from
Oishi, Tabo. Joe Pass Memorial Hall. Retrieved August 8, 2004, from
Telarc International.Joe Pass. Retrieved August 10, 2004, from
Brown, Ken. Ken Brown’s Guitar World. Retrieved August 11, 2004 from
Powell, Brad. Brad Powell’s Joe Pass Webpage. Retrieved August 11, 2004 from