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Does Anybody Here Remember Joe?

Craig M. Cortello By

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Does anybody here remember Joe? That's the question I asked myself in May of 1994 when I learned that my hero had died. As the television show Entertainment Tonight rolled the closing credits one evening, they noted that the legendary jazz guitarist Joe Pass had passed away, while a brief clip from one of his live performances closed the show. I doubt that Mary Hart knew the magnitude of the words she read, but few of the ET viewers probably took note either.

It didn't come as a complete surprise. A couple of months earlier while honeymooning in San Antonio, I learned that Joe was appearing at the Majestic Theater in town, as part of a "Guitar Summit," a concert of four guitarists of varying styles. When we arrived, I was disappointed to find that Joe had become ill and would not be able to make that evening's performance.

On the day I learned of his death, I expected to see headlines in the papers, on the news, in magazines, and on the radio. While such testimonials may have existed, they were not the prevailing stories of the day. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I felt as though Joe deserved a better send-off, but Joe expected nothing greater. He poked fun at today's guitarists, those who believe fingers of lightning are the only prerequisites for greatness, then quipped, "Oh well, I guess times change." He was content to play out his years displaying his unique style of plucking out the standards of jazz, intertwining chords and solos, but always remaining true to the melody. His legacy is in his music, as his Virtuoso album is required study for any serious student of jazz guitar.

I was fortunate enough to have seen him in concert 2 years prior to his death. It was a miserably rainy, cold night, but I braved the elements without reservation, slipping into the movie theater turned music club in Baton Rouge, LA known as the Varsity. I grabbed a seat at the back bar, as the event was standing room only. I sat in absolute astonishment for over an hour at a stage exhibiting only a man, a chair, an amplifier, and a guitar. Joe Pass was no ordinary guitarist. He was a pioneer—a man who defined a style of solo jazz guitar before anyone could comprehend this instrument as a featured showpiece. He then went on to perfect that style.

A funny thing happened between music sets. It seems that about half of the audience attended this concert in search of inspiration, in hopes of improving their craft, (as many were musicians themselves), out of reverence to a legend, or in appreciation of jazz guitar performed at its highest level. The other half apparently came because it was the "hippest" thing in town on this evening, and they wanted to be part of the scene. Such motivation was not compelling enough to keep them around for another set, however.

So I nestled into a front row seat during the break. I suppose my disbelief drove me to get a closer look, the way a magician's audience searches for trap doors, transparent strings, or cards up the sleeve. To my delight, Joe approached the stage a second time soliciting requests from the audience. I shouted "On Green Dolphin Street," a standard from his greatest hits album, and he obliged. There were no tricks involved, simply a technique and artistry that amazed the connoisseurs who remained.

I felt a sense of melancholy as I left the club that night. I couldn't help but think that somewhere tonight there were tens of thousands of fans applauding Madonna as she lip-synched her way across the stage in a stadium normally reserved for sporting events. I couldn't understand why only a couple hundred people could appreciate the beauty of this performance the way I did. Joe certainly knew.

You see, Joe Pass had joked during the performance how the level of commercial success his records achieved paled in comparison to the level of critical acclaim his music enjoyed. He had lived the lesson that I would learn that night and would subsequently have reinforced many times—Artistic success is not a measure of popularity or sales or recognition. It is achieved from within, and when others see the brilliance of a true artist's efforts, the rewards while appreciated, are incidental and never a part of the creative process.

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