Jazz Guitarist Joe Pass Turns 85 Today, So Here's the 'Virtuoso' with Ella Fitzgerald

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com | Jan 13, 2014 03:30 PM EST

Today, we celebrate guitar virtuoso Joe Pass' birthday. The jazz heavyweight would have been 85 years old.

Pass was born Anthony Jacobi Passalacqua and lived in New Brunswick, N.J. during his formative years. From a young age, Pass showed an unwavering interest in learning how to play the guitar. His father, Mariano, who was less than a musician, saw the young guitarist's talent early on and decided to push his son towards a life of music. The young Pass practiced six hours a day and was pressed by his father to learn pieces by ear that the two heard over the radio.

One of Pass' earliest collaborations was with saxophonist Charlie Barnet in 1947.

Upon graduating high school, Pass would become addicted to heroin, spending the next 10 years of his life combating a drug habit. (Pass stayed mostly quiet about his problems, though he did state in interviews that the '50s were a waste of a decade and had no contribution to his style or talent--something that most jazz musicians of the time attributed to the drug.)

In 1962, Pass began doing session guitar work and ultimately landed himself a spot in many big bands, backing the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughn. In 1973, he performed with Gerald Wilson, Les McCann, George Shearing and Benny Goodman.

A year later, Pass would release his Virtuoso album. The critical reception was so positive that the record labeled him a premiere jazz guitarist, becoming a standard for decades to come.

His duet with Ella Fitzgerald, specifically Fitzgerald and Pass...Again (1976), would go on to win the pair a Grammy in 1997 (posthumously for Pass)--placing him as one of the most notable and influential guitarists of the century.

[N.B. The audio quality has since deteriorated, but here is a video of Fitzgerald and Pass performing "Cry Me a River" in 1975.]

Joe Pass died of liver failure in Los Angeles, Calif. in 1994. He was 65.

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