Jazz Guitar Week: Joe Pass

“He looks like somebody’s uncle and plays like nobody’s business”

1929 – 1994

Difficult to have a Jazz Guitar Week without a mention of Joe Pass.  Pass was born into a working class American/Sicilian family.  His father saw early on that Joe had talent, and encouraged him to take the instrument that little bit further.  By 15, Pass was getting gigs with established musicians.  His heroin addiction saw him spending much of the 1950s in prison.  But he overcame it, and picked up his guitar again by the end of the decade.  He started recording again in the 1960s though most of his work came as a TV and recording session musician.  He worked with Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald.  In 1974 Pass recorded his first solo album, Virtuoso, and The Trio (feat Pass, Oscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson).  The Trio won a Grammy in 1975.

He died in 1994 of liver cancer.  The New York Magazine had this to say of him: “Joe Pass looks like somebody’s uncle and plays guitar like nobody’s business.”

Jazz Guitar Week: Sheryl Bailey

Sheryl Bailey started taking guitar seriously round about the time I stopped. Ah, see, nothing good comes of being distracted by boys and rugby.

“Sizzling Guitar Goddess”  [Elliot Simon]

Born in 1966, Bailey got her first Strat aged 13 (round about the time I was being distracted from guitar by boys and Leeds RL actually, and look where that led – certainly not to being a guitar goddess).  Initially, she was hooked on rock music.  But she was introduced by her teacher to Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney and Joe Pass, and never looked back.  Alongside her extensive live and recording career, she’s also a professor at Berklee College of Music.

The Jazz Originators

We’re kicking of our Jazz Guitar week with the Big Three: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery.

We’re kicking off our Jazz Guitar week with the Big Three, as probably no-one has ever known them, but certainly should.  Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery.  Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the “greatest guitar innovators”.  These three were the start of everything.

Wes Montgomery

John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born in 1923 in Indianapolis of a musical family.  His brothers Monk and buddy were also Jazz musicians, and the three of them relased a number of records together.  Montgomery learnt much of his playing listening to his hero Charlie Christian.  Montgomery was responsible, along with the likes of Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel for putting guitar on the bop-jazz map.  He was and remains hugely influential with his truly innovative playing.

This from Wikipedia, which I’m certainly not clever enough to have worked out for myself, but if you listen you’ll spot it: “According to jazz guitar educator Wolf Marshall, Montgomery often approached solos in a three-tiered manner: he would begin a repeating progression with single note lines, derived from scales or modes; after a fitting number of sequences, he would play octaves for a few more sequences, finally culminating with block chords. He used mostly superimposed triads and arpeggios as the main source for his soloing ideas and sounds.” (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wes_Montgomery)

Charlie Christian

Before Wes came Charlie.  Forget everything you’ve ever heard about the greatest innovators of electric guitar – this is your man.  Born in 1016, in Texas, he and his brothers were taught music by their father.  When their father became ill and blind, they busked to earn money to feed the family.  As a child he showed great promise as a musician, but he gave it all up for a while to become an excellent baseball player.

In 1939, after some years sessioning and jamming with big names, he landed a job with Benny Goodman who was eager to get ahead of the jazz guitar game.  He was 23 years old.  Of course by this time there had been other electric guitar soloists, but Christian paved the way for the new modern sound.

Just 3 years later, at the age of 25,  Christian contracted TB and died.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham Texas.

His international exposure during his short tenure with Goodman saw his influence spread far and wide. T-Bone Walker, Eddie Cochran, Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, Franny Beecher, BB King, Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, all influenced by him.  And for that reason, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Django Reinhardt

But before all them them, came Django.  Belgian born, French Romani, he is regarded as one of the greatest guitarists ever, and the first European jazz talent.

If you look closely at pictures of him, you’ll notice two of his left hand fingers are somewhat unusual, having been injured in a fire as a young man.  And yet, he managed to invent an entirely new style of jazz guitar.  As well as being an innovator and highly original player, he was also a prolific composer.  Many of his compositions have become jazz standards.

Reinhardt learnt guitar, banjo and violin living in Romani communities with his family.  By the time he was 15 he was able to earn money playing.  He was able to put the guitar at the front of a jazz combo before amplification took off.  In 1934, he got together with fellow European jazz great to form the Quintet of the Hot Club of France.  It quickly became an international sensation.

Django’s playing was run through with Gypsy flamenco and traditional French folk music.  His virtuosity was admired by his fellow Gypsy guitarists, but also by musicians from much further afield.  A certain young man called Les Paul learned his licks listening to Django.  It’s said that B B King was inspired to take up music full time after hearing a record.  And even the great Andres Segovia was an admirer.

George Benson and Marcus Miller

What a duo!  I love this recording.  The guitar, the bass, the voice!

To children of the 70s George Benson is a soul singer, and that’s it.  But long before he took the microphone, he was an outstanding jazz guitarist.  And when I say “was”, clearly I mean “is”.  Recently a judge on Sky Arts’ Guitar Star, his playing has become better known.  He’s certainly one of my guitar heroes.

There’s few bass players to top Marcus Miller.  Jazz composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, he’s played with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Luther Vandross and David Sanborn.  It would be easier to name big names he hasn’t been a session musician for than those he has.  But he also has an outstanding solo career, wining Best Contemporary Jazz Album for his solo instrumental album M2.  For those of you who need to know these things, his go-to is a Sadowsky-modified Fender Jazz Bass.


Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten was an outstanding folk musician and composer. She toured extensively right up to her death in her 90s.

Elizabeth Cotton isn’t a widely known guitarist, even in the Folk world.  And yet she was an outstanding musician and composer.  She toured extensively in North America right up to her death, and composed some of folk’s greatest tunes.  Smithsonian Folkways describes her as a “Master of American folk music”.    As you will see from the video she had a unique left handed guitar style.

For a time in her 30s she lived with the Seeger family.  Charles and Ruth were both musicians and encouraged her to play.  They discovered she had remarkable musical skill and son Mike (brother to Peggy and Pete) recorded her playing.  She continued to tour until her death in 1987 aged 92.

B.B.King with Jeff Beck

I make no bones about my love of Jeff Beck’s playing.  This is a dream combo for me – Beck and B.B.   Beck always brings brilliance to a song without ever upstaging the other musicians on the stage.  He’s been called the greatest guitarist, the greatest guitar innovator, the best in the world etc etc, and who’s to argue.   And B.B. of course had one of the most distinctive guitar sounds ever.   What a combo!

Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi is an astounding guitarist. She’s been compared to Jimi Hendrix for her virtuosity and inovation.

Anna Calvi is an astounding guitarist.  She’s been compared to Jimi Hendrix for her virtuosity and innovation.  Her first instrument – the one she studied at University and has a degree in – isn’t guitar at all.  It’s the violin.

She has a particular style of playing. She strums the guitar in a circular motion rather than up and down, producing a very orchestral sound.  Her influences come from the classical and jazz world as well as classic rock.  And it shows.