Personalities | Joe Pass | Jazz Virtuoso | Guitar Heroes

California native Joe Pass (1929–94) developed a thoroughly precise jazz technique that propelled him to virtuoso status alongside pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he made a series of essential recordings for the Pablo label in the Seventies.

Pass was raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He took up guitar after being inspired by singing cowboy Gene Autry. He received his first guitar, a $17 Harmony model on his ninth birthday. Pass’s father encouraged him to develop his skills, and by the age of 14, Pass was playing with bands. He began travelling with small jazz groups and moved to New York. He began to abuse drugs, however, and spent much of the Fifties in obscurity. After two years in a drug rehabilitation programme, he slowly returned to playing and emerged in the Sixties.

Pass recorded a series of albums for the Pacific Jazz label and in 1963 received Downbeat magazine’s New Star Award. He played on Pacific Jazz recordings by various artists, and he toured with George Shearing. But his main gig in the Sixties was TV and recording-session work in Los Angeles. He was a sideman with Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and others, and worked in many of the bands of late-night TV talk shows. In the early Seventies, Pass collaborated on a series of music books, including Joe Pass Guitar Style.

Producer Norman Granz signed Pass to Pablo Records in 1970. In 1974 Pass released his landmark solo album (later expanded to a four-volume set) Virtuoso. Also in 1974, Pablo released the album The Trio, which featured Pass, Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The Trio won a Grammy for best jazz performance. Pass also recorded Pablo albums with Benny Carter, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, and four albums with Ella Fitzgerald towards the end of her career.

Pass used an amazing jazz vocabulary and a command of dynamics and tempo, combined with a sophisticated harmonic sense and a knack for creating counterpoint between improvised lead lines. Pass played a Gibson ES-175 guitar and later a guitar made for him by master crafter Jimmy D’Aquisto.

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