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Joe Pass, Guitar Virtuoso

Getty Images / Redferns / David Redfern

Joe Pass, Guitar Virtuoso

Many a jazz legend turned to Joe Pass when they needed a guitarist: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson and Frank Sinatra to name just a few. On his birthday, we look back on Pass's life and music.

Born Jan. 13, 1929, in New Brunswick, N.J., Pass grew up in Pennsylvania as the son of a steel worker. On his ninth birthday, his father bought him a $17 guitar and Pass showed an immediate affinity for the instrument. Encouraged by his dad to learn tunes by ear, by 14 he was playing professionally. Not long after, he moved to New York City to pursue a music career full time.

But after such a promising beginning, his career stalled out before it could gain any momentum. Though he played in a few swing bands around the country, there would be no big break for him. Instead, he became addicted to drugs and alcohol and wound up playing in Las Vegas hotel bands. He was busted several times for narcotics possession, and would spend three years in a mental health facility. The 1950s were essentially a lost decade.

His resurgence began in a Synanon rehabilitation center in California. After kicking drugs there, in 1961 he recorded Sounds of Synanon with Arnold Ross, another resident of the facility. This record led to a decade of studio work in Los Angeles, where he cut albums with Chet Baker, Herb Ellis, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1964 he also made a splash with the Joe Pass Quartet by recording a selection of tunes inspired by legendary Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Not long after, he recorded The Stones of Jazz, taking on Keith Richards and Mick Jagger compositions like "Paint It Black" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with largely forgettable results. Though he worked steadily throughout the 1960s, recording as a sideman for Sinatra and Johnny Mathis among others, doing work for commercials, film and television, appearing on The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show – and even winning a Grammy for his work with Peterson and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on The Trio – his big break wouldn't come until 1974 when he was 44.

That big break was his album Virtuoso. Signed by producer and Verve Records founder Norman Granz in 1970, Pass was encouraged to record without accompaniment, releasing an album of jazz standards in which he took on melody, basslines and solos all with a single instrument. In so doing, he finally showed the world at large his singular ability. The album broke the Top 20 Billboard Jazz charts and is now considered to be one of the most influential jazz guitar recordings in history. Armed with a keen harmonic sense and a wealth of techniques that included abandoning picks for fingerstyle plucking, Pass showed that, with the virtuosity the album's title unapologetically proclaimed, the guitar could be a jazz solo instrument as worthy as the piano. From this point forward, roughly a quarter of Pass's recorded output would consist of just him and his guitar (typically a Gibson ES-175).

In 1975 Pass played a solo set at the Montreux Jazz Festival, with the performance released as a live album. On Virtuoso No. 2, released the following year, he gave solo treatment to songs by recent jazz artists like John Coltrane, Chick Corea and even rockabilly songster Carl Perkins. He would record two more albums in the virtuoso series – the third consisting of original compositions, the fourth acoustic covers of artists as far ranging as Harold Allen and The Beatles – and release an album-length tribute to Charlie Parker. He also recorded six albums of duets with Fitzgerald.

He continued performing right up until his death from liver cancer on May 23, 1994.

Asked once for jazz guitar advice, Pass gave an answer that also served as good summation of late career success after a life nearly lost to substance abuse.

"If you hit a wrong note," he said, "make it right by what you play next."