Born Joseph Anthony Passalaqua in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1929, Joe Pass grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town during the Great Depression. His Sicilian-born father, Mariano, made it a family goal that his children would not have to follow his footsteps into the steel mill. Young Joe, impressed by the six-string-slinging cowboy of the silver screen, Gene Autry, received his first guitar from a family friend, and started playing when he was nine years old. Soon he found himself practicing seven or eight hours a day. Joe’s father could sense the budding talent in his son and pushed Joe to practice from books, radio, records, and tunes that were whistled around the house. Teaching himself scales and practicing them until they were second nature, Joe became as facile with the guitar as some boys are with a baseball bat. "You have to have the instrument in your hand till it feels like an extension of yourself," he told interviewer George Clinton, "and for me holding the guitar for seven hours a day-and hating it, did just that."
By the time he was 14, Joe was playing parties and dances with a small string combo. His early guitar influences were the gypsy phenomenon Django Reinhardt, whose style Pass has never really emulated, and the great Goodman discovery, Charlie Christian. Such others as Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, and Jimmy Raney would also leave their impression on Pass, but Reinhardt, Christian, and later, Wes Montgomery, remained the "big three" in his pantheon of guitar inspirations. But the pianists of the 1940s and ’50s-especially Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Art Tatum-and such horn players as saxophonists Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie became models of improvisation for Pass as well.
During that period, Pass had migrated to New York, and was gigging around town. As with many beboppers of the era, the jazz life took its personal toll on Pass and in 1960, after miscellaneous touring, a relocation to Las Vegas, and some time off the scene, Pass moved to Los Angeles. He became an active studio player, working with such artists as Julie London and Frank Sinatra, before reemerging in 1962 with his first album, Sounds of Synanon. From his new home base in Southern California, Pass worked with many West Coast groups, including the bands of Bud Shank, Gerald Wilson, Bobby Troup, Clare Fischer, Earl Bostic, Les McCann, and others. For two years he toured and recorded with pianist George Shearing. Leonard Feather called Pass "the most exciting new talent on jazz guitar to emerge since Wes Montgomery came to prominence in the 1950s."
But it was producer Norman Granz, who first heard Pass in 1970 and signed the guitarist to the Pablo label in 1973, who brought this "new talent" to international prominence. Pass won a Grammy in ’74 for The Trio, which he recorded for Pablo with Oscar Peterson. A steady schedule of concertizing and recording dates with Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as collaborations with the likes of Benny Carter, Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Milt Jackson, Count Basie, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Rowles, Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge, and Duke Ellington, made Pass one of the most active and acclaimed modern jazz guitarists. His extensive Pablo catalog includes tributes to Ellington, Parker, and Fred Astaire.
In addition to his increasing number of club dates, Pass was in demand for regular tours of Europe and became a mainstay at major jazz events from the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, to counterparts in Montreal, Toronto, and Concord. With each passing year, his projects became more varied. On one European trip, Pass recorded with the Vienna String Quartet, made plans to record with the Vienna Philharmonic, and played six cities in Italy with Danish bassist Pedersen and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.
His 1985 Whitestone album demonstrated how Pass can merge his classic mainstream stylings with the contemporary sounds of a rhythm section that included bassists Abraham Laboriel and Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, and keyboardist Don Grusin. After re-signing with Pablo last year, Pass released an acclaimed solo guitar tribute to Fred Astaire, Blues for Fred. Last year’s One for My Baby was a quintet date with Plas Johnson on tenor sax, pianist Gerald Wiggins, bassist Andy Simpkins, and drummer Tootie Heath. "It was a great kick to be working with a full rhythm section again," Joe told writer Leonard Feather, "and it was a challenge to play with musicians who were more or less new to me.... It was truly a cooperative, compatible group."
A favorite context remains the solo guitar, and Pass’s mastery of his instrument was such that the challenge was no longer one of technique - although we can still marvel at the way he supplied his own bass lines and chords while devising his single-note solos - but one of interpreting the song in new and meaningful ways. Like a great hitter facing a powerful pitcher, Pass stepped up to the plate fearlessly. But whereas a batter fails to get a hit three out of four times, Joe Pass connected on every swing - one of the purest swings of all time.