Mr. Cope’s Cave: So You Think You Can Play Guitar…

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I saw Joe Pass perform about 40 years ago, somewhere around 1976. I was living in Ohio then, in a town midway between Cincinnati and Dayton called, appropriately enough, Middletown. I don’t know if it’s still there or not, but Dayton had probably the best jazz club between New York and Chicago—Gilly’s, not to be confused with a Texas C&W joint made famous in some movie or other.

Not much bigger than a standard McDonald's, Gilly’s had a two-foot-high stage so close to the audience that, if you were lucky enough to have grabbed one of the front tables, you could rest your feet on it. I was leaning back with my feet on the stage during one midnight show with the entire Maynard Ferguson big band just a trombone slide’s length from the soles of my feet. (If you consider that disrespectful to the performers, you are right. But it was a momentary dis; as soon as they kicked off with “Birdland,” I sat up straight and didn’t lean back again for an hour and a half.)

During the years I was there, I also saw Stan Getz from so close I could feel the cool coming from his sax, Jimmy Smith, Stan Kenton’s orchestra, Sun Ra, Jerry Mulligan, Eddie Harris, Grover Cleveland, the Buddy Rich band, the Count Basie band, the Woody Herman band, and more. I had tickets to see my (then) favorite, Cannonball Adderly, when news came that his engagement there had been canceled, owing to Cannonball’s untimely death. Mercy mercy mercy.

I was to learn later that had I known the name Gene Harris that far back, I could have heard him, too, before he ever settled in points West. He told me he played Gilly’s regularly, back in his earlier days. But I had a tendency to go see only those people I knew about then. There was usually not a cover charge, but there was a two drink minimum, and I didn’t want to take a chance on blowing that kind of dough on someone I wasn’t acquainted with, and who turned out to be a disappointment.

I had just barely heard of Joe Pass. My band director at the University of Idaho—no slouch himself when it came to getting around some changes—mentioned Pass in passing one night when he was sharing his favorite players. All I remember is that he said something to the effect, “And that Joe Pass cat… sheesh!”—then shook his head in the kind of wonderment good musicians show toward the very best.

So when I heard Pass was coming to Gilly’s, I arranged with a friend to go. The friend was himself a guitar picker of the rock variety, and one of the earliest to insist that Eric Clapton was god. I wasn’t about to argue the point, but I thought he might enjoy hearing what was going on in an alternate universe of guitar picking.

There weren’t many people there. Maybe 20… 25. My friend and I were lucky and had a table up close. I was slightly disturbed as we sat down that there were no drums set up on stage. No piano, no bass, no nothin’ except one chair and one smallish amp. I wondered momentarily if we’d come on the right night.

Pass carried his ax out with him, along with a low foot stool guitarists often use to help form a lap. He was a small, shy man. Several years later when I saw my first video game, I thought, “Huh. That Mario guy looks like Joe Pass.”

Before he strummed the first chord, he said hello to his audience with what seemed to be embarrassment, as though he were about to pitch some insurance to us and knew we wouldn’t like it. My friend, who was used to concerts opening with explosions and lasers and someone screaming into a microphone, looked doubtful.

Half a song into to it, he leaned over and whispered, “Damn, I didn’t even know you could do that on guitar,” and spent the rest of the event shaking his head, muttering “Sheesh!”

I feel lucky to have found a video of Joe Pass playing. He died in 1994, long before the advent of YouTube. Thankfully, someone found this concert film of him and Ella Fitzgerald and put it into the eternal archive of the Internet. Listen to the whole thing if you have the time. If not, pay particular attention to “My Funny Valentine” at 9:50. For my money, it’s the finest standard being played by the finest guitar man from perhaps the entire jazz era.