Translated by Timothy Johnston
Joe Pass’ real name was Joseph Anthony Passalaqua and he was born on the 13th of January 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The additional nickname “Jacobi”, that can be found in many Jazz encyclopaedias, didn’t actually exist. Joe’s mother: “I don't know where they got that from".
Joe’s family moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania where Joe spent most of his youth. His first guitar, a Harmony for 17$, was given to him by his father Mariano on his 9th birthday, after Mariano’s wife had said: ”We ought to give him something useful”. Joe loved explaining how he wanted to have a guitar after seeing a western movie with Gene Autry. The man on the horse with a guitar impressed him a lot. Though, he would have preferred the horse over the guitar. Like many other stories about the beginning of Joe’s guitar-playing, this one might be wrong. He kept on thinking of new variations for the interviews.
At first Joe was taught by a friend of his father’s who -after a short period- said: “Forget it, the boy’s never gonna learn it”, partly because of Joe’s pretty short fingers. But Joe’s father asked him to continue teaching his son. These lessons were hardly lessons, but consisted of learning the chords to Italian songs. Shortly later, Joe was able to play a lot better than his teacher. Joe would listen to the radio a lot, especially to artists that did not play the guitar, but the piano for example. It was then that Joe heard the saxophonist Charlie Parker for the first time. He tried to play his songs on the guitar.
Mariano had a great influence on his son. He often sang Italian songs that Joe then had to play and improve on the guitar. He couldn’t play the guitar himself, but did have a musical understanding. He often pressured his son. Joe had to practise six hours a day. If his father caught him doing something else he would kick him in the bottom. This is why Joe moved in such a weird way.
I always had to watch my rear. Dad’s orders were: Practise, practise, practise! He was not a musician, but a steel worker, yet he did know what was necessary. I would ask:” What am I supposed to play?” and he would answer: “Just play this….” and whistle some little melody off the top of his head. He brought home masses of music that Joe had to learn to play. There was a radio program on Sundays and Dad had me sit down with my guitar next to the radio. There was a lot of Flamenco music in this program and Dad would say: “Listen to that and play it!” That was difficult as I was only 11 years old. I practised six hours a day for five years. Dad got up at six, woke me up at six-thirty and I had to start practising immediately until school started at eight. I came home at 3 PM and had some spare time. My dad came home at three-thirty so I had to practise again from four until supper. After that I would practise until nine. During the weekends, I sometimes even had to practise until one at night. Dad would say:”I’m just doing this so you don’t have to be a steel worker.” It came to a point where I really hated the guitar. My dad got sick and had to go to the hospital for a while so he couldn’t check on my practising. I did all the things I shouldn’t have been doing, my mother was a real softie.
This way Joe didn’t have the kind of youth that other boys of his age had He didn’t play soccer and didn’t fool about with other guys his age. But at least his father saw that he was extremely talented.
When Joe came to Springfield (Massachusetts) with Ellen again later, he remembered winning his first prize from the trade union (“guitar guild”) there. He had participated in this contest at the age of 14 and played “The Hungarian Dance No. 5” by Brahms solo and together with another boy “Chicken à la Swing”, a jazz song. “I can’t even remember how that piece went.” Joe said during an interview later. The owner of a music store in Johnstown where jazz records were played once and again- gave Joe the opportunity of this show. This shop owner was very interested in Joe’s guitar-playing. Only music school students could participate in the contest, so the man said “Joe’s a student here.” And that’s how he could win.
Joe’s parents -whether it was on purpose or not- did the right thing. Whenever smaller Italian groups came, Mariano asked them if Joe could play with them a little. In the end, he asked a friend from an orchestra: “Couldn’t Joe travel with you guys in the holidays if you took care of him?” he said yes. Joe played tangos, waltzes, jazz pieces and many more there. Joe was lucky as his companions were mature jazz-oriented musicians. They knew Ben Webster’s, Coleman Hawkins’ and Roy Aldridge music by heart. Joe was twelve and could improvise. In a cinema where the orchestra always filled in the breaks, his mother saw an amplifier on the stage that looked just like Joe’s “amp”. The conductor stepped up to the mic and announced: “We have with us today a very promising young man…..Please welcome Joe Martin!” The Americans had problems pronouncing the name Passalqua, so they just named him after his “Martin” guitar. His mother didn’t know about his performances and then saw her son onstage. It had probably been arranged by his father. Despite his strictness, he did do the right thing for his son. And even though Joe often spoke badly of his father, he realised this later.
Apart from being forced to constantly practise, Joe’s musical ear was another reason for his outstanding capabilities. Later on he practised less and when a band or musician wanted to rehearse with him before a concert he would say: “I already practised so much as a child, I don’t need to now.” He found it amusing when he heard other musicians in the hotel rooms next to him struggle to practise. “If they had practised as much as I did, they wouldn’t need to catch up now.”
Around 1949, at the age of 20, Joe primary location was New York’s 52nd street where he jammed with artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum. Unfortunately, it all broke apart because of the next years which Joe refers to as a complete loss. „That were ten lost years. “ He travelled around and played at took every chance to play but lived „in the darker corners of society“. “I thought that, with drugs, I could manufacture a feel for playing. That was a mistake, because you can only reach your maximum capability when you’re completely straight and have your faculties. Any kind of drug you take affects your physical abilities. If you're straight, you know what you can do and what you can't do. You're in control of yourself, so you can let the music take control.”
In 1960, he decided to enter Synanon's drug rehabilitation program. Three years later, he walked out clean and with a new attitude towards life. He slowly began playing gigs and recording LPs and was soon later a popular Los-Angeles-Studio-Player. After playing in George Shearings orchestra for two years he landed in Norman Granz’s Label Pablo in 1973. It was there that he finally found the room he needed to expand. The “Virtuoso” albums, produced by Norman Granz’s Label Pablo, made him a worldwide famous Jazz-solo-guitar player. His playing is still mostly associated with this art branch of art. But Joe was also an excellent single-note-player. He died on the 23rd of May 1994. Fortunately, he left a wide documentation of his playing on records and in music. In the last two decades of his life, he finally received the appreciation that he actually already had earned in the late 1950s.