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Joe Puma: 1927-2000
Joe Puma

Born: August 13, 1927 in New York City, New York
Died: May 31, 2000 in New York City, New York

Guitarist Whose Jazz Talents Deserved Greater Recognition

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Joe Puma, who has died after a long battle with cancer, began his working life as an aircraft mechanic in the army in 1944, and then became a draughtsman in New York, but might have guessed that he was destined to be a guitarist. His father was both a player and a maker of guitars, and his two brothers also played the instrument. Inspired by the example of the Gypsy guitar genius Django Reinhardt, he had taught himself to play as a youngster, but it was hearing Charlie Parker in 1947 which finally provided the inspiration for a career switch.

He joined the musicians union in 1948, and never looked back. In the next five years, he worked with a succession of small groups in New York, including bands led by the pianist and singer Cy Coleman, drummer Louis Bellson, clarinetist Artie Shaw (he took over from Tal Farlow in the Gramercy Five in 1954), and vibraphonist Don Elliott, who also figured on Puma’s first recording under his own name for Bethlehem Records in 1954, as did fellow guitarist Barry Galbraith.

In 1957, Puma won the New Star poll in Metronome magazine, and cut one of his best albums, Joe Puma Jazz, for the Jubilee label. His working trio of the time featured pianist Bill Evans, who later acknowledged that it was Puma who advised him to hire drummer Joe LaBarbera, then playing in the guitarist’s own group, for what became Evans’s last great trio in 1979. This historic piece of advice was handed out while the two men enjoyed a mutual liking for an evening at the harness races.

While entirely at home working in traditional jazz contexts, Puma was also adaptable enough to fit into more progressive settings, and worked with modernist figures like saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Jim Hall, flautist Herbie Mann and vibraphonist Gary Burton. He was regarded as a particularly deft and sympathetic accompanist for singers, and worked with many in the course of his career, including such eminent names as Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Chris Connor, Mark Murphy, Morgana King, Helen Merrill, and Carol Sloane.

Much of his work was done in the anonymity of the studio, but he continued to record and perform in a jazz setting throughout his career. The title track of is 1961 album Like Tweet (a record inspired by bird calls) was used in the soundtrack of the film Good Morning, Vietnam. He has recorded a number of albums under his own name, the most recent of which is It's A Blue World, featuring trumpeter Warren Vache, which was released last year, and has played on many more.

He formed a successful duo with guitarist Chuck Wayne in 1974, and worked with a variety of musicians in New York, including saxophonist Al Cohn, guitarist Jimmy Raney, and trumpeter Warren Vache, all the while maintaining a busy schedule as a session guitarist, a dichotomy which has led several authorities to suggest, as Maurice J. Sommerfeld does in his seminal book The Jazz Guitar, that “his jazz talent has never received the full international recognition it deserves”. He taught briefly at Housatonic College in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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With 3 reader comments, latest August 4, 2000