Joe Pass: Unsurpassable

By Steve Rider

“Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

Rochester, New York

What kind of madman starts an article about Joe Pass, the renowned jazz guitarist, with a quote from Bruce Lee? Well, this one. It may seem a stretch, but I’ll tell you exactly why I felt the need to make the comparison. There comes a point when an individual has trained day in, day out for years on end that they know everything by heart. They know the moves, the postures, the angles, the positions, whether they are punches and kicks or fingers on a fretboard, so well that thought simply disintegrates into a flow of spontaneous living expression. In martial arts this is called the state of “No Mind”, and whatever the musical equivalent may be called, Joe Pass had it.
“You can’t think and play. Focus on the music, and let the playing come out.” –Joe Pass
Observe Joe, on guitar, and Niels-Henning Orstead Pedersen, on bass, playing “Donna Lee” on this vintage footage:

There you have it! Two men on stage, eyes closed, ears wide open, working their way across the frets of their respective instruments in the way that sunlight glints of the myriad peaks and valleys of ocean waves on a clear summer morning. That kind of synergy and electric flow is the hallmark of the master jazz musician. Be like water, my friend!
It’s been said that you have to know the rules before you break them, an adage that I’m certain Joe Pass would have agreed with. Joe was born on Jan. 13, 1929, in New Brunswick, N.J., and reared in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Joseph Anthony Passalaqua began taking lessons on a $17 Harmony guitar when he was 9 years old. His first music teacher was a friend of his very traditional Italian father, who had complained that Joe would never get the hang of playing the instrument. His father must have recognized something special in the boy, however, because he convinced his friend to continue with his son’s lessons.
Because of his father’s relentless insistence on practice, Joe had very little of what most would consider being a normal childhood. Joe would wake up at six-thirty and practice until he had to go to school at eight. He would come home at three in the afternoon and practice from three-thirty till dinner time, then again after dinner till late into the evening, even as late as one in the morning. Joe didn’t run around the neighborhood playing with his friends or ask out girls his age. He went to school and he practiced guitar. If he ran out of material to practice, his father would hum a tune and tell him to work on that. When the inevitable resentments surfaced, Joe’s dad would tell him that he was making him practice so that Joe wouldn’t have to be a steelworker, like his dad.

Despite the hardships and sacrifices of his childhood, through tireless effort, Joe was forged into a guitar virtuoso. He had practiced so much in his youth that in his later years, he often decried his lack of practice, “I already practiced so much as a child, I don’t need to now.” And of other musicians, “If they had practiced as much as I did, they wouldn’t need to catch up now.”

He delved into jazz but noted that many of his influences were not guitar players. Joe related this to his musical influences, “I sort of drifted towards listening to pianists, Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Art Tatum. I remember when Art Tatum had a trio with Tiny Grimes. I thought, Wow! I listened to Tiny, but it was the piano – that was the one. And then I listened to a lot of horn players – Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins, and I got more influenced by horn players than anyone else.” Perhaps it was this drive to understand each instrument’s place in the whole of the musical landscape that led Pass to achieve such flawless symmetry with his fellow players. By his late teen years and early twenties in the 1940s, Joe had moved to New York, where he worked the jazz clubs in the bands of musicians like Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet.
Following his time in New York, Joe traveled around the country playing and learning. It was this era that he would later refer to as his “dark years” where drugs had taken their hold. While searching for musical excellence, Pass had come upon the idea that with drugs he could truly feel the music. He would go on to spend a decade playing to feed his drug habit. Finally, he ended up in Los Angeles in 1960, where he earned a living for a year as a studio musician. In 1961, he checked into the Synanon Foundation in Santa Monica and finally got clean.
With the 1962 release of his first record “Sounds of Synanon”, Pass hit his stride. The “Virtuoso” albums, produced by Norman Granz’s Label Pablo, marked him as a worldwide famous jazz solo guitar player. Out from under the influence of drugs for the first time in a decade, he came into his own, joining in with players of many genres, but especially his native jazz. He gained acclaim for his remarkable performances, sliding effortlessly between syncopated chording and trilling soloing that ran the length and width of the fretboard.

Joe always preached the unity and spontaneity of the music versus solid structures, saying during an interview in 1972, “One of the main things in any group is for the players to listen to one another, rather than say: I know the blues, you know the blues…so then, we play.” Pass had a quality of energized fluidity that allowed him to fly off into the musical stratosphere and land back down on exactly the right note at the right time to keep with the rhythm being laid down by his partner. Indeed, while performing, he ceased to be a man alone. Joe Pass was one of the few courageous enough to just let the music flow out of him, turning loose a talent honed over a lifetime of exertion, tribulation, and exultation. And when he let it go, he became, indeed, like water.

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