Born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua, January 13, 1929, in New Brunswick, NJ; died of liver cancer, May 23, 1994; married wife Allison, 1963; married Ellen Luders, 1987; children: two.

Throughout nearly 50 years as a professional guitarist, Joe Pass managed to break through many barriers and obstacles in music as well as in his own life. Born Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua, the eldest of five brothers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, his parents moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, while he was still a child. Pass became interested in guitar after he saw "singing cowboy" Gene Autry in the film Ride Tenderfoot Ride. Autry sparked his curiosity about the instrument and motivated him to ask for a guitar for his birthday.

When he turned nine years old in 1938, Pass's father, Mariano Passalaqua, gave him a $17 Harmony steel-string flat-top guitar. Soon, Passalaqua pushed his son to practice the guitar for at least five hours a day. "My father thought I showed signs of being able to play," Pass said in Down Beat. "And his object in life was not to have his kids do the same thing he did--work in a steel mill. He wanted them all to have a better education, or some better kind of livelihood. My father would go to the music store, and if he saw any book that said 'guitar' on it, he brought it home."

By the time Pass turned 14 years old, he had joined a band called the Gentlemen of Rhythm that patterned itself after the music of the legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. The group performed at parties and dances, and Pass earned three to five dollars per night. His talent grabbed the attention of saxophone player and bandleader Tony Pastor, who let him play with his band at a local concert. Pastor wanted to take him on the road with him, but Pass couldn't quit school to do so.

A year later Pass's parents sent him to New York to study with the highly respected studio guitar player Harry Volpe. When Volpe realized that Pass improvised better than he did, he focused on teaching Pass to sight read music. But Pass became frustrated with his lessons and returned to Johnstown--though not for long. When his father became ill, he dropped out of the tenth grade and moved to New York.

"My father was very strict, but he got sick, and he could no longer exercise any restraint," Pass told Rolling Stone. "That was my chance to get out. I came to New York, and I was here in 1944 and '45 hangin' around. I played some gigs, heard Bird [saxophonist Charlie Parker] and [pianist] Art Tatum. Then, I got involved in drugs."

Pass's drug addiction, in fact, began to lead his life. He moved to New Orleans for a year, where he played bebop for strippers. "In New Orleans, I had kind of a nervous breakdown," Pass revealed in Rolling Stone, "because I had access to every kind of drug there and was up for days. I would always hock my guitar. I would come to New York a lot, then get strung out and leave."

The following year, Pass began to travel from place to place, performing wherever he could. In 1949 he joined bandleader Ray McKinley, but quit when he discovered the arrangements were beyond his reading abilities. During the early 1950s, Pass played in Las Vegas and other cities throughout the country. At the same time, he was in and out of jail for narcotics violations. "Staying high was my first priority," Pass told Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, "playing was second; girls were third. But the first thing really took all my energy."

In 1954 Pass was arrested on drug charges and sent to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. He spent four years there, then went back to Las Vegas to join accordion player Dick Contino's trio. Late in 1960, he entered Synanon, a narcotics rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, California. Two years later he played on the Sounds of Synanon compilation, released on World Pacific Records.

After three years at Synanon, Pass became more aware and appreciative of his musical abilities and started taking his career more seriously. "A lot of kids think that in order to be a guitarist, they've gotta go out and be a junkie for 10 years, and that's just not true," Pass told Down Beat. "I can't credit any of that time, saying that's when I really learned. I spent most of those years just being a bum, doing nothing. It was a great waste of time."

When Pass left Synanon in 1963, he recorded Catch Me, his first album as a bandleader, with drummer Colin Bailey, pianist Clare Fischer, and bassist Albert Stinson. The following year, he recorded a tribute to Django Reinhardt called For Django, which was followed by Simplicity two years later. He also did studio work, performed with television show bands, and from 1965 to 1967, played with pianist George Shearing.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Pass put his career into high gear. He recorded three albums in Germany and played on releases with jazz artists Earl Bostie, Julie London, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Chet Baker, and Carmen McRae. He worked as a sideman for pop stars Frank Sinatra, Donald O'Connor, Della Reese, Leslie Uggams, Steve Allen, and Johnny Mathis. Pass also subbed on the Merv Griffin Show when regular guitarist Herb Ellis couldn't make it.

In 1971 Pass suggested a collaboration of his bebop guitar licks with Ellis's bluesy approach. The two formed a team and became one of the most famous and influential two- guitar ensembles in jazz history. Carl Jefferson invited Pass and Ellis to perform at the 1972 Concord Jazz Festival, which led to the recording of Jazz Concord, Concord Records' first release. At the 1973 Concord Jazz Festival, Pass and Ellis recorded Seven Come Eleven.

That year legendary bandleader Benny Goodman asked Pass to substitute for his guitarist at a concert. Pass's performance so impressed Goodman that he asked him to join his tour of Australia. When he returned from the tour, Pass signed a record deal with Norman Granz's newly formed Pablo label and immediately started recording Virtuoso, his first solo album. The album launched a series of Virtuoso LPs and made Pass the golden boy of jazz in 1975. Also around that time, Pass teamed up with pianist Oscar Peterson for a jazz version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In 1974 he had shared the Grammy Award for best jazz performance by a group with Peterson and Neils-Henning Orsted Pederson for their work on The Trio.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Pass became the most recorded jazz guitarist, producing solo records as well as accompanying other jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Stephane Grappelli, Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, and others. In 1989 Pass reunited with the group that had recorded For Django--rhythm guitarist John Pisano, drummer Bailey, and bassist Jim Hugbart--to record Summer Night. They went on to release Appassionato in 1992.

Early in 1992 Pass discovered that he had liver cancer. He responded well to treatment at first, and continued to perform until early 1993. But his declining health forced him to withdraw from his tour with Pepe Romero, Paco Pena, and Leo Kottke. He released his last album, Joe Pass & Co., with guitarist Pisano, bassist Monty Budwig, and Bailey, in 1993. On May 7, 1994, Pass played his last performance, with Pisano at a nightclub in Los Angeles. "He sounded better than most guitarists," Pisano told Guitar Player, "but afterwards, he looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, 'I can't play anymore.' It was like a knife in my heart."

Joe Pass died on May 23, 1994. In a Guitar Player tribute, writer Jim Ferguson summed up Pass's career as a guitarist: "Bebop, Latin, ballads, blues, originals, solos, duos, trios, big ensembles--Joe did it all. No player in recent memory has made so many recordings in so many styles and contexts.... In all probability, Joe Pass [was] the most versatile, well-rounded, mainstream guitarist in history."

by Thaddeus Wawro

Joe Pass's Career

Began playing guitar professionally with the Gentlemen of Rhythm, Johnstown, PA, c. 1943; played in New York City, 1944-45; performed in New Orleans, 1946; toured the U.S., 1947-54; recorded first album as bandleader, Catch Me, 1963; signed with Pablo Records, 1973; released first solo album, Virtuoso, 1974; released more than 30 LPs and performed on many more, 1974-93.

Joe Pass's Awards

Grammy Award for best jazz performance by a group, with Oscar Peterson and Neils-Henning Orsted Pederson, 1974, for The Trio.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 12 years ago

I listened to Joe Pass when I was young, but it was over my head. Forty years later I have a great appreciation for his playing and I hear it with a much more discerning ear. Absolutely fantastic.

about 14 years ago

joe was the oldest of 3 brothers and 1 sister..joe was married first to his childhood girlfriend and neighbor Gloria Bako and he has a daughter Joanne from that marriage in 1951 ( this is not meant to be a comment but a correction in the bio) THANK YOU

over 14 years ago

Joe was huge. I have expanded my knowledge of guitar tremendously by simply working through Joe's "Chord Solos" book. That one book taught me more about guitar than anything else in my playing - which is now spans 30 years.

almost 16 years ago

i feel cheated that i only found joe pass late into my 20s. i had been looking for a role-model in jazz for my guitar-playing but could never quite find someone who capitvated me. i loved coltrane. i loved chet baker. i loved stephane grappelli. but no guitarists (at the time the tinny sounds of old django recordings did not appeal to me the way they do now!). because i had no master, my playing plateued (and i thought i was great!). only after i heard 'virtuoso' by accident did i understand how few people can really play a guitar. the closest i had come before was mississippi john hurt because i couldn't believe it wasn't two guitarists. but mr. pass had a little over mississippi john which has presented me with a wonderful new challenge in my 30s--to play like joe pass!!! thank you, joe. you're it!!! nobody after you!!!

almost 16 years ago

Beside being one of the most influential jazz guitarists ever, Joe was a warm and wonderful person. In 1976 I called him and asked for a lesson. After a bit of questioning, he agreed. I spent a couple of hours at his house and learned enough to keep me busy for years. At the end of our casual lesson I asked him what I owed him. He said $40, but asked me if I was working and if not, not to worry about it. I was proud to pay him. We kept in contact for years afterward. He was a true gentleman and a regular Joe. God bless him.

over 16 years ago

Joe Pass is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, Thank you Joe!