From the Archives : Jaco Pastorius

BASS PLAYER MADE THE JUMP FROM quarterly to bimonthly with our Jan/Feb ’91 issue.
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BASS PLAYER MADE THE JUMP FROM quarterly to bimonthly with our Jan/Feb ’91 issue. We featured Jaco Pastorius, and wow … what an adventure that turned out to be. The centerpiece was an excerpt from Bill Milkowski’s biography-in-progress, which was published in 1995 and has since sold about 50,000 copies. Working with Bill put us in contact with many of his sources, including Jaco’s ex-wives, his children, various musicians, and several lawyers. Not all of these people liked each other, and I spent more time on the phone than an insurance salesman. The family members did, however, agree to submit an open letter on behalf of Jaco’s estate, asking BP readers to “assist us in the compilation of some of Jaco’s materials that exist, but might be unknown to his estate and its inventory.” We also published a portrait of Jaco by his brother Gregory, a chronology of his career, a transcription of the solo piece “Amerika,” and Chris Jisi’s annotated discography of 25 key tracks—beginning, of course, with “Donna Lee.”

My editor’s column was called “Happy Birthday, Jaco,” as the publication of the issue coincided with what would have been Jaco’s 39th birthday. In it, I wondered if the proliferation of Jaco clones might have been a contributing factor in his sad decline and death. I’m still wondering.

John Francis Pastorius III was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime talent. We’ve heard so many imitations that his singularity has become blurred—but most of us who were playing bass in the ’70s remember his impact well. Not long ago, I mentioned this to Dave LaRue. “When his first solo album came out, I was a student at Berklee,” Dave recalled. “The effect was amazing. For about a month, you never saw any of the bass students out on the street. All of us were holed up in our rooms, studying the music, trying to figure out how he did that stuff.”

A lot of players did manage to figure it out—at least parts of it—and soon the Jaco clones were everywhere. Suddenly, you had to have a fretless (whether it fit your style or not) and play solos filled with sliding chords and ringing harmonics (whether they made musical sense or not). The sound spread outward like an oil slick, moving from jazz to rock to jingles and soundtracks. According to several of Jaco’s friends and musical associates, it freaked him out. It was as if he were imprisoned in a house of mirrors. What could he do? Who could he be? He couldn’t just be Jaco anymore—everybody was Jaco.

Although the Jaco Juniors were ubiquitous, very few played with his rhythmic authority—and none had his incredible flair for locking down the groove while simultaneously soaring above it. John Goodwin, an old friend of Jaco’s, told me this: “Jaco had an expression he used a lot, and he’d always say it with that sheepish grin of his: ‘Women and the rhythm section first.’ He meant that the function and the groove were sacred. Always paramount. Never to be subordinated.”

Feeling that way, it must have been especially horrifying for Jaco to hear his technical innovations used as a means for transforming—or, more accurately, deforming— the bass function. In addition to stealing his licks, the clones were perverting his music, playing busy, grooveless claptrap. It must have been terrible for him to go into a club, put on a record, switch on the TV and hear imitators defiling the principle he held most sacred.

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Man(Ring) & Machine From May and June 1991

ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS ABOUT working at BASS PLAYER was the access it gave me to both musicians and instrument makers. As a freelance writer, I had done many artist interviews and profiles, but I hadn’t had many opportunities to talk to bass builders and learn about their work.

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Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius needs no introduction. He was an innovator, a virtuoso of monstrous proportions, and a truly unique personality. Self-taught on multiple instruments (bass included), Jaco overcame an early and debilitating arm injury, a youth of poverty, and an initial backlash to his bass technique to become the legendary musician he's remembered as today.