Was Joe Pass a “Genius” of Jazz Guitar?

This article is a part of my graduate assignment at the Aaron Copland School of Music.

By Tom Marcello Webster, New York, USA (Joe Pass) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Very few musicians have reached Joe’s level of technical and musical mastery which he developed at a young age. Many critics and writers have labeled Joe a ‘Genius’. As you read on about his story, build an image of who Joe Pass was and decide for yourself if the label ‘Genius’ applies.

Not only does Joe stand as one of the world’s greatest guitarists of all time, he is also one of the greatest educators. His legacy lives on through the knowledge and skills he so generously shared with students around the world. In Part 2 of this story I will share with you a summary of Joe’s approach to solo jazz guitar.

Early Childhood

Joe Pass was born on January 13th 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He started playing guitar at the age of 9 when he moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey. Neither of Joe’s parents were musicians although he would often hear the local Italian guys in his neighbourhood playing accordion when they hanged out with his father, drinking wine and relaxing.

By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Talented, Young and Gigging

Joe began taking lessons every Sunday with a local teacher instead of going to church. After 6–8 months learning with a teacher he was already playing at parties and dances with older, experienced musicians.

At the age of 14 he started out in a group modeled after the Hot Club of France with violin and rhythm guitar (ala’ Django Reinhardt). Joe was always the improviser, the soloist.

Joe’s father was a steelworker and an important supporter of his guitar playing. He pushed Joe very hard to practice many hours a day and would encourage Joe to learn tunes by ear and improvise around the melody (or ‘fill it up’).

Early Musical Influences

Joe’s family didn’t have a record player but he would often go down to his local instrument store. The owner would buy one jazz record (e.g. Nat King Cole) and he would go down to listen it. In this music shop Joe listened to Charlie Parker for the first time and was blown away.

He was totally inspired.

Joe and friend would spend hours copying Parker. In his interview for “An Evening With Joe Pass” (1994), Joe talks about how he focused on Charlie Parker and stayed away from transcribing from guitarists:

“I wanted to play like a horn player. Avoided all types of guitar cliches.”
“I never copied anything that Charlie Christian played. I can’t play any of his solos, I don’t know how they go... I never copied Django.”
By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

NYC: The Next Step

By the age of 20 Joe was already a top rated guitarist in his local scene with 6 years of professional playing under his belt. Living in NJ, he was very close to the centre of jazz at the time; NYC. In 1949 he moved to NYC and began immersing himself in the scene and attending jam sessions.

Within his first year of being in NYC he developed a serious drug problem that would deeply trouble him for the next 15 years. During this period he would perform in nightclubs around the US and was jailed for 5 years because of drugs.

An Odd Twist of Fate

Perhaps his affliction for drugs was because of the era he lived in? Or was it because his father pushed him so hard to be great at guitar? Or perhaps because he was so talented, so young? There are far too many cases in history of talented musicians falling to drug problems later in life.

We don’t know the exact reasons for Joe’s drug problem but we do know that in 1960 he went into rehab in Santa Monica California and cleaned up. In an odd twist of fate, one of the clinic’s sponsors was the owner of World Pacific Records. In 1961 Joe and a few other musicians who were recovering at the clinic recorded an album in LA.

The performance below is from 1962 on ‘Frankly Jazz’, a LA TV show. This is the first video we have of Joe Pass performing.

(It’s amazing)

Isn’t it weird seeing joe playing a solid body Fender Jaguar?

Getting Known on the West Coast

1962 was a phenomenal year for Joe. He quickly established himself as a first call session and club guitarist in LA, culminating in his winning of the Downbeat Jazz Critics Poll for ‘Artist Deserving Wider Recognition.’

By 1970, Joe was well established in California. He had performed on lucrative T.V shows such as Good Morning America, recorded countless albums as a sideman and toured the US with artists such as George Shearing.

Take a second to reflect on how Joe turned his life around.

“From 1959 to the end of 1960, I spent most of my time in the interstices of society. I lived in the cracks” (Genius of Jazz Guitar, Interview, 2001)

According to Downbeat:

“In 1960, he stood on the steps… holding a gunnysack full of onions, the only thing he owned. No guitar. No money. No future. No hope. A sack full of onions and a broken life.” (Genius of Jazz Guitar, Liner Notes, 2001)

So in 1960 Joe was as low as you could get. Now reflect on the fact that in 1970 he was a leading guitarist in LA, playing high profile sessions and gigs.


Perhaps because of luck but most likely because of his talent, Joe’s rise to global jazz stardom was just beginning.

Norman Granz: the Next level

Now here is the thing, at this point Joe was well known in LA and obviously a highly regarded guitarist. But he wasn’t known on the east coast or internationally. Sure, he was performing with George Shearing but he still hadn’t reached the “genius” status we all label him with. Like is so common in so many musician’s lives, the next turning point for Joe was through a jazz promoter and record label owner.

Norman Granz recognised Joe’s incredible talent and organised and recorded a concert of Joe with Oscar Peterson and Niels Henning Orsted in 1973. That same year Granz helped Joe record an album of duets with Ella Fitzgerald among many other albums. Joe’s reputation quickly skyrocketed in the US and in Europe.

In 1973 Joe would record his solo jazz guitar album ‘Virtuoso’ that would set fire to the jazz world.

Continue on to Part 2 where we explore Joe Pass’ approach to solo jazz guitar

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