Joe Pass

"Joe could play the melody, add the chords and make the fills. That had never been done before quite the way he did it." - Joe Diorio

Joe Pass

The 1960s were the decade that Joe Pass’ talent was first recognized to any significant degree. His recordings for the Pacific Jazz label, owned and operated by Dick Bock, brought Joe Pass to the attention of the jazz world at large. From 1961 – 1967, Bock recorded Pass in many situations – most substantial and a few questionable. Although Pass’ Pacific Jazz work seldom achieved great sales figures. at least one album “For Django” outlived its time and went on to become an undisputed classic. Pacific Jazz was the springboard for Pass into the big leagues of jazz.

Pacific Jazz & Dick Bock
In 1960, without a guitar of his own and 13 cents in his pocket, Pass checked himself into Synanon, the rehabilitation facility for drug abusers. It was an act that saved his life. Pass wasn’t the only jazz musician at Synanon. Many Los Angeles jazz musicians like saxophonist Bill Perkins and guitarist John Pisano would visit their friends in the facility for weekend jam sessions. It was at Synanon that Pass would meet his first patron.

Dick Bock had done some A & R and promotion work for Discovery Records while he was a student at Los Angeles City College. In the Fall of 1952, with less than $400, Bock launched Pacific Jazz Records. It became one of the important labels documenting the flourishing west coast jazz scene. Aside from being a businessman, Bock was also a socially conscious man.

In the spring of 1961, Pass, pianist Arnold Ross and others took part in a recording for Pacific Jazz called SOUNDS OF SYNANON (PJ-48). Soon, Bock was telling people about the great new guitarist he’d found. The album garnered Pass the New Star award in Down Beat’s 11th Annual Critic’s Poll. Bock signed Pass to a contract and for the next six years, he challenged Pass in many novel ways. Journalist Howard Lucraft, who has chronicled L.A. jazz for the past 45 years, notes that Bock “was a very positive person and knew exactly what he was doing. He took note of the ability and individuality of each musician and tried to use those things in interesting ways.”

Pass all but grew another arm when he began working with guitarist John Pisano sometime in 1963. Their relationship led to Pass’ first working band and the recording of FOR DJANGO and would continue intermittently for the rest of his life.

September 1964

Joe Pass (g), John Pisano (rhythm g), Jim Hughart (b), Colin Bailey (d)

Mention Joe Pass and Pacific Jazz in the same breath to anyone knowledgeable enough to know of the connection and the first thing you’ll probably hear is something superlative about For Django. The album pays homage to Reinhardt not by recreating the recordings of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France but by Pass and company giving a good accounting of themselves on material associated with the Belgian gypsy.

For Django was the first time Bock let Pass call his own shot. “When it was announced,” Hughart recalls, “we thought, ‘Alright! Let’s get at it!’ We were all fairly familiar with Django’s music and the tunes that he wrote. Pisano researched it and came up with copies of the tunes and brought them to the session.” Pisano adds, “For Django was a lot more harmonically interesting than the Williams but we still needed to alter chords and make updates.

We worked out some parts together on Django that really worked. The arrangement was in our heads and we wanted to play harmonies that were compatible with the melody in certain sections.” Joe Diorio evaluates the album as “fresh and kind of unique at the time. It was melodic and cooking with beautiful solos and ideas.”

An accomplished player himself, Pisano took it upon himself to be Pass’ rhythm guitarist. Guitarist Joe Diorio, who taught with Pass, clarifies their relationship: “Johnny is just as accomplished as Joe; he’s got the technique to play the chords and the lines and everything. Joe loved Johnny and Johnny had to love Joe to play the role that he did.” Pisano’s ability to find music scores and sketch out lead sheets was invaluable to Pass, who referred to the former as his “idea man.” Pisano modestly assesses himself: “I’m known for my accompanying and Joe liked what I did.”

The album has been reissued many times and seems to be a bit of a badge for the participants. Bailey attests to this: “Young guitarists like Howard Alden and Al DiMeola all know of me and think I’m a big deal because I played on For Django.” Hughart agrees. “The album,” he posits, “seems to be part of the basic library of most musicians I know of, whether or not they’re guitar players.”

John Lewis’s haunting Django fittingly inaugurates the album. It’s a beautiful combination of composition, arrangement and ensemble. Hughart is more prominent in the audio mix and it makes a big difference. It’s immediately clear that this is an ensemble, not a soloist and his rhythm section.

Joe Pass was born January 15. 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania where his father worked in a steel mill. The boy’s imagination had been captured by a Gene Autrey movie. Accordingly, for Joe’s ninth birthday his father brought home a S17.00 Harmony guitar. Determined that his son does not follow him into manual trades, his father demanded adherence to a strict practice schedule for Joe. Six hours each day – Joe worked on the guitar for five years. As an adult when Pass spoke of the regimen, he tersely acknowledged “l hated it.”

During the 1950s, Pass could often be found in Las Vegas, where he played in show bands and lounge trios. Pianist Frank Strazzeri lived there from 1954 to ‘57. Pass, like many musicians, sat in with him. “I had a trio job at a small club called the Black Magic,” Strazzeri recalls. “When Joe came around he’d sit in the corner, over in the dark practically, and just play very quietly. Even then, I don’t think he had any limitations as a player. I’d play off-the-wall-tunes that I knew he didn’t know. But, come time for him to play, he’d play ’em beautifully and in any key. He could just hear it and he’d have it. And play the changes the right way too.”

During this laboratory period, Pass was hammering out a personal style. He was playing single-note lines that were rooted in the Charlie Christian mode. In Pass, though, that impulse was filtered through the rapid-fire playing of Parker, Gillespie, Haig and the other bebop horn players and pianists. Pass also had chordal roots in Reinhardt but he’d paid close attention to the more modern, bop-inflected harmonies of guitarists like Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel.

In 1967 and ’68, Pass played in the TV studio band for The Woody Woodbury Show, led by pianist Mike Melvoin. Pass, according to Melvoin, “was extremely fast with new material. He could have been a great studio player. I talked to him a couple of times about doing it full time but he wasn’t really interested. He saw himself as a jazz musician and didn’t want to be a generalist.”

Melvoin also remembers a special guest on the Woodbury Show. “Wes Montgomery was on the show one time,” he recalls. “Woody asked Wes who his favorite guitarist was. Wes pointed to Joe and said, ‘He’s sittin’ right over there in your band.’”

In January of 1994, at what became his final recording session, Pass briefly got philosophical. “People always ask me where my music comes from and for years I used to say Gene Autry as a joke, because nobody in my family played a thing. So I just went on playing guitar all these years without thinking where it comes from. In the last couple of years I’ve realized that my playing is a gift from God.”

Amen.  – Kirk Silsbee, liner note excerpt Mosaic Records

An Evening With Joe Pass

In this 90 minute video, Joe Pass is interviewed about his playing techniques, interplay with musicians and a 1994 trio concert with Bob Magnusson on bass Joe Porcaro playing drums.

01. Opening [00:00]
02. Rehearsal [05:30]
03. Interview With Joe [13:35]
04. Right Hand Technique [17:56]
05. Accompanying Other Musicians [18:47]
06. Playing With Piano Players [24:55]
07. THE CONCERT [29:43]
08. “Satin Doll” [31:10]
09. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” [38:50]
10. “Stella by Starlight” [44:46]
11. A Lesson With Joe [47:35]
12. “Joe’s Blues” [1:05:57]
13. “All the Things You Are” [1:14:30]
14. “Solo Piece” [1:21:20]
15. Conclusion [1:24:22]