Joe Pass: a virtuoso guitarist of incomparable talent

Joe Pass was the stage name of Joseph Antony Jacobi Passalaqua, an American jazz guitarist of Sicilian origin born on January 13, 29 in New Brunswick, New Jersey (USA) and died in New Brunswick, New Jersey (USA) on May 23, April 24, 1994 in Los Angeles, California (USA).

He is often referred to as “the Art Tatum of the guitar”. His solo guitar style is similar to that of the famous pianist. He has played with Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Oscar Peterson.


Joe Pass is the eldest of four children. Joe’s father, Mariano Passalaqua, was an industrial steelworker. He grew up in the Italian neighborhood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

He receives his first guitar, the Harmony (en), in honor of his 9th birthday celebration, after seeing a photograph of actor Gene Autry posing as a cowboy guitarist. He begins his first lessons in the company of his father’s friends. His father supports him when he notices that Joe spends most of his free time with the instrument. He encourages him to learn songs by ear, to play songs not specifically written for guitars, to play scales and not to use the “free space” of playing chords that lie between the notes of the melody.

By the age of 14, he was already playing at weddings and block parties, and was part of Tony Pastor’s orchestra. He played in an ensemble influenced by Django Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France and was a fan of Charlie Christian.

At the age of 20, he went to New York to listen to the best artists of the day. It was then that he began to fall into the trap of addiction. For over ten years, until the early 1960s, he fell victim to drugs3. He was arrested on numerous occasions before being admitted to Synanon, a detoxification center. During his stay there, he never stopped playing guitar.

During his stay at Synanon, the singer recorded with a band made up of musicians staying at the center. The album is entitled The Sounds of Synanon. Critics rave about Joe’s guitar playing. His stay at Synanon lasts three years, after which he relaunches his musical career. After the release of Synanon and his stay at Synanon, he began playing in the Los Angeles area with top musicians, and was eventually hired as a studio guitarist. For the next five years, the guitarist was part of recording sessions until Norman Granz, international jazz concert producer, convinced him to join his band and sign with the Pablo label. It was then that he began his career as an international musician.

In addition to recording for the Pablo label, Joe has released solo albums (Virtuoso, For Django) and performed with various groups. Joe notably performed with Oscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Zoot Sims and Ella Fitzgerald.

He died of liver cancer on May 23, April 24, 1994.


Joe Pass plays mainly in the fingerpicking style, with occasional use of the pick. His solo playing, essentially pianistic, includes a marked bass played with the thumb, chords to establish the harmonic structure, and string-to-string passages to finish the playing. His guitar playing is unbeatable and highly skilled. He can perform complex, fast bop tunes like Cherokee or How High the Moon as a soloist. The Virtuoso series (1973-1983) is an excellent illustration of his style.

He generally arranges his compositions in melancholy, gentle parts with a soft rhythm, then in more rhyming pieces where the bass is used to mark time.

The influence of Django Reinhardt’s music is often very evident, even if the music and rhythm are generally softer. He recorded his album for Django in 1964. Material

For a long time, he played on a guitar made by Italian-born New York luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto. This renowned craftsman, who apprenticed with master musician John D’Angelico, made guitars by the unit. These very rare guitars have an enormous value (not neutral). Then, guitar maker Ibanez worked with Joe to create a superb Joe Pass model JP20 guitar in the 1980s. This was the instrument he played for the last year of his life. Epiphone made the Epiphone Joe Pass Emperor II in his memory in 1994, just before his death. It is not certain that Joe ever played this instrument.

Joe Pass discography

As leader

  • 1963: Catch Me!
  • 1964 :
    • Joy Spring
    • For Django
    • The Complete Pacific Jazz Joe Pass Quartet Sessions
  • 1965: The Stones Jazz
  • 1966: A Sign of the Times
  • 1967: Simplicity
  • 1969: Guitar Interludes
  • 1970: Intercontinental
  • 1971: Guitar Interludes
  • 1973 : Virtuoso
  • 1974 :
    • Portraits of Duke Ellington
    • Live at Donte’s
  • 1975 :
    • Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass at Salle Pleyel
    • Joe Pass at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1975
    • The Big 3
  • 1976: Virtuoso No 2
  • 1977 :
    • Virtuoso No 3
    • Montreux ’77 – Live
  • 1979 :
    • I Remember Charlie Parker
    • Digital III at Montreux (compilation)
  • 1981: George, Ira and Joe
  • 1982: Eximious
  • 1983 :
    • Virtuoso No 4
    • We’ll Be Together Again
  • 1984: Live at Long Beach City College
  • 1985 :
    • Whitestone
    • University of Akron Concert
  • 1987: Sound Project
  • 1988 :
    • Blues for Fred
    • One for My Baby
  • 1989 :
    • Autumn Leaves
    • Summer Nights
  • 1990: Appassionato
  • 1991 :
    • Virtuoso Live !
    • What’s New
  • 1992 :
    • Live at Yoshi’s
    • Joe Pass in Hamburg
  • 1993: My Song

Posthumous albums

  • 1994: Songs for Ellen, recorded in 1992
  • 1998: Joe’s Blues, recorded 1968 / Unforgettable, recorded 1992
  • 2000: Songs for Ellen, recorded in 1974 during the same sessions as Live at Donte’s
  • 2001: The Complete Pacific Joe Pass Quartet Sessions (Mosaic Records)1
  • 2001: What Is There to Say, recorded in 1990
  • 2002: Meditation: Solo Guitar, recorded in 1992
  • 2004: Virtuoso in New York, recorded in 1975

As co-leader

With Herb Ellis

  • 1973: Jazz/Concord and Seven, Come Eleven
  • 1974: Two for the Road

With Oscar Peterson

1973: The Trio by Pablo Records

Live album, recorded at the London House jazz club in Chicago. For this album, Joe Pass, Niels Pedersen and Oscar Peterson win a Grammy Award in 1975 for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group.

1974: The Giants by Pablo Records

Studio album. With bassist Ray Brown.

1975 Porgy and Bess by Pablo Records.

Studio album.

With Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen

  • 1978: Chops
  • 1979: Northsea Nights


  • 1961: Sounds of Synanon
  • 1977: Quadrant, with Milt Jackson
  • 1978: Tudo Bem! with Paulinho Da Costa
  • 1981: Checkmate, with Jimmy Rowles
  • 1991: Duets, with John Pisano
  • 1994: Roy Clark & Joe Pass Play Hank Williams, with Roy Clark

As a sideman

With Les McCann

1962: Somethin’ Special
1963: Jazz as I Feel It

With Gerald Wilson Orchestra
  • 1962: On Time / Moment of Truth
  • 1963: Portraits
With Moacir Santos

1972: Maestro

With Ella Fitzgerald
  • 1973 :
    • Take Love Easy
    • Newport Jazz Festival: Live at Carnegie Hall
  • 1974 :
    • Fine and Mellow
    • Ella in London
  • 1976: Fitzgerald and Pass… Again
  • 1981: Ella Abraça Jobim
  • 1982: The Best Is Yet to Come
  • 1983: Speak Love
  • 1986 :
    • Easy Living
    • Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You
With Oscar Peterson
  • 1974: The Good Life
  • 1975: The Oscar Peterson Big 6 at Montreux
  • 1978: The Paris Concert (1978)
  • 1979 :
    • Night Child
    • Skol
  • 1982: Face to Face
  • 1983 :
    • A Tribute to My Friends
    • If You Could See Me Now
  • 1986 :
    • Oscar Peterson Live!
    • Time After Time
    • Oscar Peterson + Harry Edison + Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson
    • Benny Carter Meets Oscar Peterson
  • 1962: Chet Baker Sings, with Chet Baker
  • 1963: Folk ‘n’ Flute, with Bud Shank
  • 1975: Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers, with Zoot Sims
  • 1978: How Long Has This Been Going On? with Sarah Vaughan
  • 1989: After Hours, with André Previn
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