Obituary: Joe Pass
Thursday 26 May 1994
THE BOUNDARIES between jazz and other kinds of music drop away completely as far as the guitar is concerned. Leave out the odd three-chord-trick rock players and one finds that guitarists in all fields have mutual respect for those in others.
Joe Pass, a case in point, was sublimely fluent in bebop and amplified playing and even more so in the near-acoustic lyric style which he used for his exquisite ballad explorations. Although brilliant with melody, he was more interested in harmonic challenges and as a result quickly ran out of tunes to conquer. He was as eloquent as any of the greats playing today and his improvisations never required the application of polish: they were already perfect.
A proud and, one sometimes felt, a lonely child, he was loath to admit having been influenced by anyone, although he always spoke highly of Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. He had no interest in anyone before Reinhardt and was dismissive of earlier giants like Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. The main effect on him was the playing of Charlie Christian, who was bringing practical amplification to the instrument at the time (1939) when Pass began his first studies.
Whilst still a schoolboy, he toured with the bands of Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet. He became involved with a variety of drugs before spending a year in the Marine Corps. When he came out he was arrested for narcotics offences and served the first of several gaol sentences. Eventually he enrolled in the controversial Synanon, a rehabilitation home for addicts in Santa Monica, in 1961.
'When I came here,' he said, 'I had no guitar and 13 cents. So what I've got now Synanon has done for me.' Freed of his habit, he became the jazz guitarist most in demand throughout the world.
During the Sixties he had worked with groups led by Bud Shank, Earl Bostic and Les McCann amongst others. He toured Australia with Benny Goodman in 1973 and played his first solo booking in London at the Ronnie Scott Club in 1974.
As for so many jazz musicians, his career and life was shaped by impresario Norman Granz, who signed him up in 1973 and immediately produced two crucial record albums with him. The first, a solo album called Virtuoso, made his name. The second, with Ella Fltzgerald, confirmed it.
'I had never met her before the session and I had no idea whether she'd want to rehearse or what keys she sang in. But she just picked a tune and then I said 'What key?' She said 'Well . . .' and just sorta hummed a little bit. I found the key and we did a whole album like that] Without any rehearsing, just sifting through tunes. On all the duet things we did together, four albums in all, no rehearsals.'
Pass's dexterity soon led to his becoming known as 'the Art Tatum of the guitar'. Granz used him as the 'house' guitarist for his Pablo record label and pushed him into the superb melting-pot he used for his recording sessions and concert tours. Pass then recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson and Benny Carter and himself became one of the Granz greats.
He was uniquely gifted as an accompanist and Ella Fitzgerald raised her game in his company.
'Since I've known her she's always had melody on her mind, sitting in the car, backstage, in a restaurant, she's humming] She always has a tune on her mind. It's like a preoccupation with her.'
His friendship with Fitzgerald and the pianist Oscar Peterson - they toured the world together - led both men to work to raise money for the Ella Fitzgerald Child Care Centre in Watts in Los Angeles.
Apart from gracing some of Fitzgerald's best sessions he also accompanied the singers Julie London and Sarah Vaughan and his playing was perhaps largely responsible for the fact that The Great American Song Book was Carmen McRae's finest album.
He was always ready to take on that great musical challenger Oscar Peterson.
'If you say play this fast, Oscar will always upstage you and play it faster. I once told him 'Oscar, you ought to play with your thumbs under the piano, then you'd know the problems a guitarist has'.'
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