“Some people operate the guitar. Joe Pass really played it”: The genius of Joe Pass, one of the 20th century's greatest jazz guitarists

Joe Pass
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Joe Pass was born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalacqua to Sicilian immigrants in New Jersey on January 13, 1929. He acquired his first guitar after being captivated by country legend Gene Autry’s appearance in the 1940 movie Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride. It wasn’t long before young Joe’s interest became an obsession, and he would practice for two hours before school and two hours after, then devote another four hours to the instrument after dinner, before going to bed. 

His father drove him relentlessly and would ask his young son to work out – on the spot – any tune that happened to be on the radio. He also encouraged him to embellish melodies as he heard them. At the time, Joe didn’t know what improvising was. To him it was “filling up the spaces.”

By the age of 14, Pass was gigging at parties and dances. His father, a steel worker, was astonished that his son was earning more than he could: $5 per night. It was around this time that Pass developed an interest in jazz. His primary influence was Django Reinhardt, whose records were now starting to appear in the United States, inspiring and frightening guitarists in equal measure. 

Pass further expanded his jazz education when he discovered electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian through his recordings with the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. From there, Pass took influence from a number of burgeoning young jazz guitarists of the 1940s, such as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and Jimmy Raney. As Pass said, “These guys added another dimension to the instrument.”

Joe Pass

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In time, Pass found inspiration in the playing of a new legend: Wes Montgomery. Little did he know that some years later the admiration would be reciprocated. In 1968, when Montgomery was at the peak of his popularity, he appeared on the talk/variety TV program The Woody Woodbury Show. When the host asked who his favorite guitarist was, Montgomery pointed at the house combo: “He’s sitting right there in your band!”

It was, of course, Joe Pass, whose journey from New Jersey’s suburbs to a Hollywood soundstage was full of twists, turns, and setbacks. In the mid 1940s, while still a teenager, he was sent to New York City to study with the guitar legend Harry Volpe. After discovering that Pass was the better improviser, Volpe began teaching his young student to sight-read, which didn’t interest him at all. 

Pass left for home, but New York’s buzz had got into the young jazzer’s blood, and he soon moved back to the city, where he spent his time taking in the great jazz scene to soak up the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, and other jazz mavericks of the era. It was also at this time that he picked up a drug habit, something that would plague his life for the next 15 years.

Pass spent these years hopping from town to town, weaving in and out of prison and rehab. He played bebop for strippers in New Orleans, often staying up for days on end and constantly pawning his guitar. He also spent time in Las Vegas, picking up any gig he could. “Staying high was my first priority,” he said when summing up these years.

The cover of Joe Pass's Sounds of Synanon album

Having endured a turbulent time in his 20s with prison and drugs, Pass found focus in his early 30s with the release of his debut album, Sounds of Synanon (Image credit: Pacific Jazz)

In 1954, Pass was arrested and sent to the Public Health Service Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1960, following his release, he entered the Synanon rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, California, where he finally started to take his life and career more seriously. Two years later, he made his debut recording, Sounds of Synanon, with five other jazz musicians at the facility. In its review, DownBeat magazine said Sounds of Synanon “unveils a star in Joe Pass.” He was 33, a ripe age to make his mark.

Indeed, much of what Joe Pass is known for today is present on Sounds of Synanon and other early recordings. Like his idol Wes Montgomery, Pass didn’t record when he was young. Having honed his craft in clubs all over the United States, he unleashed his blistering and impressively accurate technique fully formed upon the record-buying public, to great effect. 

Pass may well have been the first electric jazz guitarist to possess the technical facility to hold his own among the sax and piano players of the time. But it wasn’t just about speed or peeling off a series of fast scale runs; his ideas were melodic and well crafted, and he demonstrated a complete mastery of the bebop jazz vocabulary – a language invented not on guitars but on horns. 

Nowhere was this more apparent than on Catch Me!, the 1963 album that saw Pass mark his first session as a leader. Anyone who’s tried to play Charlie Parker–inspired lines at speed on the guitar knows it’s not easy. Pass, however, made them so smooth that it could almost be a saxophone playing them.

The legend was that Pass didn’t own an electric guitar at this time and used a loaned Fender Jaguar for his early life outside rehab. Shortly afterward, as work became more stable, he acquired the guitar that he’ll be forever associated with: the Gibson ES-175

Plenty of jazz guitarists used the 175 as their go-to instrument, and many still do. With a slightly smaller body than the Gibson L-5 (Wes Montgomery’s choice of instrument), the 175 also has a laminated top that tightens up the sound and makes the guitar less prone to feedback. 

For the rest of the 1960s, Pass spent most of his time performing for studio sessions and TV shows. The work was steady and paid well, but it was anonymous. The busiest session players during those years were jazz musicians because they knew how to play anything that was thrown at them in the studio.

To this day, most people are unaware that the biggest pop hits in America were recorded with jazz musicians. Joe Pass was one of them, but he wasn’t especially happy. By the early 1970s, he, like many others, decided to quit the scene.

Joe Pass (left) with Ella Fitzgerald at the taping of the PBS live concert TV series Soundstage

Pass with Ella Fitzgerald at the taping of the PBS live concert TV series Soundstage (Image credit: Getty Images)

In 1973, Pass met record producer Norman Granz who, with his Jazz at the Philharmonic organization, had managed to elevate jazz from the clubs to the concert halls. 

Granz paid his musicians well, and he built an impressive roster with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. He also formed Pablo, a record label, to create hundreds of albums with stars such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie.

Pass signed with Granz’s label in late 1973 and shortly afterward released the groundbreaking and influential album Virtuoso. Comprising 11 jazz standards and one off-the-cuff blues, the album remains a classic every guitarist needs to hear.

Granz put Pass, with no backing band, in a studio and set the tapes running. The result was both extraordinary and entirely improvised. Most solo guitarists would have probably worked out a few routines, but not Pass. If he’d recorded all the tunes again the next day, they would have sounded completely different.

The cover of Joe Pass's 1974 Virtuoso album

Virtuoso, Pass’s 1974 jazz masterclass, comprised mostly covers, plus one original tune, Blues for Alican (Image credit: Pablo)

Each tune was taken apart and reassembled on the spot. Pass embellished the melodies with a heady combination of fret-melting single-note runs and block chording, all delivered with such skill and playful abandon that surely Django Reinhardt himself would have smiled in appreciation. It was the album that truly put Pass on the musical map, and it remains one of the Pablo label’s best-selling releases of all time.

Joe Pass’s work with Ella Fitzgerald revealed another side to his musicianship, a sensitive, complementary accompaniment to Fitzgerald’s sublime vocals

Pass would record three more volumes of Virtuoso. In the meantime, Granz teamed his new sensation with piano giant Oscar Peterson and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen for the Grammy-winning album The Trio. The three musicians would tour throughout the ’70s and ’80s, taking Pass all over the world. 

During this time, he also collaborated with Ella Fitzgerald, recording four studio albums with her between 1973 and 1986, as well as several live releases. This revealed another side to Pass’s musicianship, demonstrating a sensitive and complementary accompaniment to Fitzgerald's sublime vocals. Fitzgerald and Pass enjoyed a deep connection and friendship that shone through on everything they played together.

It’s to the benefit of all serious guitarists that Pass also produced several instructional books in his lifetime. Created in the 1980s, and still in print today, these manuals each focus on a different aspect of his impressive range of skills, and it’s rare to find a jazz guitarist who hasn’t tried to absorb some of his genius by poring through the volumes. 

Later, Pass worked with Hot Licks to produce a pair of illuminating instructional videos: Solo Jazz Guitar and The Blue Side of Jazz. These too are still available and full of tips from the master, all delivered with charming humor and dry wit.

In the early ’90s, Pass’s health started to decline, and in 1992 he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He continued to play and record up until 16 days before his death, on May 23, 1994, at the age of 65. His last recording was a collection of Hank Williams songs with guitarist and vocalist Roy Clark. In total, Pass appeared on more than 70 albums as either leader or sideman.

Joe Pass (left) performs onstage with Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen in the 1970s

Joe Pass (left) performs onstage with Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen in the 1970s (Image credit: Getty Images)

Much of Pass’s later career was dedicated to teaching. He toured college campuses and held masterclasses and workshops all over the world, espousing his philosophy to make jazz guitar simple and accessible to all who are interested. 

In one of his masterclass videos, Pass is asked about his choice of chord shapes. A smile appears as he reveals that he doesn’t go for long finger stretches or too much in the way of harmonic extensions. “I like the simple shapes,” he says. “‘The grips,’ I call them. If it’s hard, I don’t do it!”

Many guitar players will perceive Joe Pass’s music as far from simple, and yet it does have a simplicity to it, one that gets straight to the point and to the heart of a song. Pass had that rare ability to play exactly what was right in any given moment. Yes, there are at times a lot of notes, but they were never gratuitous. He wasn’t interested in impressing other guitar players, although he most certainly did. 

Pass's drive was to serve the music first and foremost. His incredible improvisational skills and technical prowess were saved for the perfect moment. It might be a cliché to say “they told a story” when describing how certain legendary musicians play, but it’s an accurate way to assess his approach. Some people operate the guitar. Joe Pass really played it.  

Joe Pass: the guitars

An Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor model

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Joe Pass played a Gibson ES-175 for most of his career, although two signature models carry his name. The Ibanez JP20, in production from 1980 until 1990, was loosely based on a D’Aquisto Excel that he also liked to play. However, Pass didn’t prefer it to his beloved 175, saying, “They pay me to play it and I get a free replacement if it gets beaten up.”

His signature model that is most well known is the Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor, shown here, which was produced shortly before his death in 1994. Although discontinued in 2015, it was for many years one of the best entry-level archtops money could buy.

Top class Pass: essential listening

The cover of Joe Pass's For Django album

(Image credit: Pacific)

An essential listen has to be Pass's 1964 album For Django, featuring tunes written by or associated with Django Reinhardt. Although influenced by the Gypsy jazz legend, Pass made no attempt to emulate him, and this album is considered, in its own right, to be one of the greatest jazz guitar records ever made.

Another recommended album is Virtuoso, a solo record released in 1974. Pass went on to make four volumes under that title, and while they’re all worth a listen, there’s something extra special about volume one.

Finally, there is 1976’s Fitzgerald & Pass... Again, Pass’s second album in duet with Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a masterclass in understated accompaniment, with his fabulous and inventive guitar weaving in, out, and around Fitzgerald's beautiful vocals.