It’s arguable that the greatest bass player who has ever lived was the late Jaco Pastorius, whose breathtaking technique, coupled with searing innovation, inexhaustible creativity and a charismatic personality, has made him a bass legend like none other before or since.
Born on December 1, 1951 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, John Francis Pastorius III started his musical education with the jazz which his father, Jack, a professional drummer, played for him. When he was seven the family moved to the much more musically diverse environment of Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where ‘Jacko’ (as he was called) immediately began to soak up a whole host of musical styles including R&B, funk and soul, as well as music from Jamaica and Cuba. He later said, “Florida is great because there are no musical prejudices. I heard steel drum bands, Cuban bands, James Brown, Sinatra, the Beatles . . . Growing up in Florida, I never had anyone tell me, you have to play jazz, you've got to play R&B. I just listened, and whatever I liked, I liked. I listened to everyone from Elvis to Miles Davis”. Music was clearly the core of his future from an early age: also a painter, Jaco had decided against a career in art, labeling it “too tangible” and not “spontaneous”.
Intrigued and inspired by the rich blend of musical influences in Florida, Jaco (as he started to call himself, in tribute to the Latino spelling of his nickname) trained as a drummer for some time, joining a local band called the Sonics in 1963. However, his career as a sticksman was cut short when he broke his right wrist in a football game at the age of 13, leaving him with insufficient power to play the drums successfully. Jaco then switched to less demanding disciplines, studying no fewer than four other instruments simultaneously — piano, saxophone, guitar and bass. As he later recalled, "I was pretty good on all of them, but I wasn’t realIy good on any of them. I finally realized that in order to do something really well, I’d have to settle on one instrument." With his big hands, long fingers and famously double-jointed thumbs, there was only one real choice.
By the time he was 15 Jaco was playing a pawnshop-bought bass in a local band called Las Olas Brass, and as his skills developed he played in subsequent groups such as Soul Incorporated, Woodchuck, and Wayne Cochran’s CC Riders band, as well as supplying bass notes for touring bands such as the Temptations and the Supremes. His unusually dexterous playing was first fully appreciated by Peter Graves, the trombone player and leader of the house band at a Fort Lauderdale nightclub called Bachelors III. As Graves put it, "I had heard about this young whippersnapper. I was even told by some people, don't try and deal with him — he's too young, too brash. But as soon as I hear stuff like that, I say, that's exactly what I'm looking for. And when I first met him I immediately sensed this enormous talent." Jaco stayed with Graves’ band for five years, and also wrote big-band charts for the University of Miami and for Ira Sullivan's Baker's Dozen, of whom he said: “Ira [was] one of my biggest influences. It was the first time I ever got to incorporate my concept into a jazz format”. Through the University he also met Ross Traut, Paul Bley and Pat Metheny, with all of whom he played.
Until this point Pastorius was still a strictly local talent, recognized on the South Florida club circuit for his playing and the extravagant stage moves which he was beginning to incorporate into his act — and he might never have emerged from this relative obscurity if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting in 1975 with Joe Zawinul, leader of the renowned fusion outfit Weather Report. No stranger to virtuoso bass playing (his band numbered among their ranks the phenomenal Alphonso Johnson at the time), Zawinul was amused rather than impressed by Jaco when he introduced himself with the words “I'm John Francis Pastorius III and I'm the greatest bass player in the world”, a brag he had been making since the tender age of 18. “Get the fuck outta here!” was Joe’s response. However, Jaco was undeterred and persuaded Zawinul to take a demo cassette of his playing with him, as well as writing to the older man from time to time after their initial meeting. This persistence would soon pay off.
In the meantime, a second pivotal event gave Jaco a springboard to greater recognition when the funk band Blood Sweat & Tears played at Bachelors III. BS&T drummer Bobby Colomby had heard about Jaco’s bass prowess from Pastorius’ then-wife Tracy, who also worked at the club. As Jaco explained: "Everyone at the club who knew me had been telling Colomby about me. His reaction, predictably, was oh, big deal. He had met my wife, and he knew that she was married to this guy everyone was talking about. Then one night, I dropped in just to see my wife — I didn’t even know that BS&T were working there — and I saw Colomby, and we started to talk. We talked about an hour and a half, about all kinds of things, and then my wife came by and kissed me. Bobby said, you’re Jaco — I hadn’t even introduced myself”.
Colomby, who had been given the go-ahead by the head of A&R at Epic to seek out new talent, asked Jaco to audition material for a possible solo album — and was blown away by the results. Things moved fast and by 1976 Colomby and Pastorius had assembled a crack team of session players to appear on a self-titled solo album, including Herbie Hancock and the Brecker brothers.
Jaco Pastorius was, and remains, an awe-inspiring album. With its simple, mesmerizing cover portrait, its fantastic layers of instrumentation and the warm, sweet production oozing from every song, it is a record which all bass players must have. The sheer speed and dexterity of Jaco’s fingers is almost superhuman: as he himself told a reporter with typical modesty, "Oh, you gotta check it out! You got to! Listen to the first tune, the first cut on the album, and you're dead. You will not believe it! This is my claim to fame, I play Charlie Parker's 'Donna Lee', just bass and conga drums, and look out! You never heard nothin' like this, just beware! See, everyone thought it was a piano player or somethin' doing it, because I'm playing the changes so well! It's never been done on a bass like this”.
And certainly never on a defretted 1962 Fender Jazz. As the story famously goes, Jaco regarded frets as ‘speed bumps’ and made history by hoisting them out of the neck and filling the gaps with epoxy resin. As he explained, “I'm the first guy to be using a fretless [and] I'm the first to really get down and play it, because other guys can’t play it in tune, y'know? I've been playing the bass guitar for almost 12 years, and I've been playing fretless for about nine, so I've got quite a bit of mileage in my hands already. I play in tune like a cello player, and use legitimate vibrato. There are no tricks . . . it's just all in the hands!”. Indeed it was — but more than 20 years after he first remodeled his fretboard so radically, hardly any of the legions of fretless players who followed in Jaco’s footsteps can hope to equal his precision or his playing speed on the instrument. It’s little wonder that in 1976 Jaco was also asked to record sessions for major artists such as Ian Hunter, Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell.
During his solo album recording sessions, Jaco sent Joe Zawinul a rough mix for Joe’s feedback. As it happened, Alphonso Johnson had just left Weather Report halfway through the recording of their latest album, Black Market, and Zawinul needed a replacement at short notice. Famously, the veteran Zawinul thought that Jaco was playing a double bass on the demo, so mellow and warm was his bass guitar sound: as he said, "I remembered this kid Pastorius. He had just sent me a rough mix of his solo album, and I was really floored by it, particularly the song 'Continuum'. So I called Jaco and the first thing I asked him was, hey kid, do you play electric bass too? He got such a warm, rich sound on the Fender fretless, I thought he was playing an upright bass!”.
One of the songs on Black Market was titled ‘Cannonball’, a tribute to sax player Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. Zawinul wanted Jaco — like Adderley, a native of Florida — to bring the sound and rhythm of his home state to the recording, a feat which the bassist pulled off admirably. Defining that southern sound isn’t easy, but Jaco expressed it well when he said: "There’s a real rhythm in Florida . . . the water in the Caribbean is much different from other oceans. It’s a little bit calmer down there; we don’t have waves in Florida all that much. Unless there’s a hurricane. But when a hurricane comes, look out — it’s more ferocious there than anywhere else. And a lot of music from down there is like that: the pulse is smooth even if the rhythms are angular, and the pulse will take you before you know it. All of a sudden, you’re swept away".
After recording on another song, ‘Barbary Coast’, Jaco was asked to join Weather Report permanently, and the band became his home for the next six years. This period was the most creative of his life and saw him elevated to the status of world’s greatest bass player — a position which he had known all along belonged to him. Weather Report benefited hugely from Jaco’s new-found profile: as Zawinul explained, "Jaco had this magical thing about him, the same kind of thing Jimi Hendrix had. He was an electrifying performer and a great musician. And he was really responsible for bringing the white kids to our concerts. Before Jaco came along, we were perceived as a kind of esoteric jazz group. We had been popular on college campuses, but after Jaco joined the band, we started selling out big concerts and halls everywhere. Jaco became some kind of all-American folk hero to these kids". Jaco also found time to put in some scintillating work on Joni Mitchell’s landmark Hejira album later that year.
With Weather Report, an enormously talented group of musicians, Jaco was free to express himself to the very limits of his talent. And he knew how good they were together, saying proudly: “We can write music, plus we know how to play it. A lot of the music, people will say, that sounds like it's improvised — and that'll be the written part! Crazy. We do tons of stretching out in the music, on every tune, but it's on top of a good form, you know? Like I got this tune, 'Punk Jazz', man, and at the beginning, look out, because this is some stone jazz, and we come in sounding like a symphony, but it's just Joe and me playing. It's unbelievable”.
As 1977’s epic, Jaco-co-produced Heavy Weather album (which featured two Pastorius classics, ‘Teen Town’ and ‘Havana’) saw Weather Report reach a commercial peak, Jaco’s bandmates noticed that an unspoken father/son relationship was developing between the bassist and his mentor Zawinul. Pastorius, always a firebrand on stage and never predictable off it, had started to display some slightly unnerving behavior, the early signs of what would be diagnosed today as a form of bipolar depression caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain.
As long as he remained under the protective wing of Zawinul, however, Jaco could be relied upon to look after himself: but when he left Weather Report in 1982 to tour with his own band, Word Of Mouth, a self-destructive streak emerged and his colleagues found him difficult to handle. As his drummer and friend Peter Erskine recalled, “Some of the best players in New York were in that band, but Jaco was completely sabotaging the group left and right. Somehow it managed to sound good on the record, and Jaco wound up sounding great himself, but a lot of us were pretty unnerved at the shows. That's when he really got heavily into painting his face with magic markers, stripping and running around naked. It was pretty awful. And it was scary. The look in his eyes . . . everything just seemed wrong".
Although Jaco’s decline has often been attributed to his use of drink and drugs, the truth is that these merely exacerbated his symptoms as his condition took hold, and as the 80s wore on his progress became more and more erratic. In 1982 he was arrested for riding around Tokyo naked on a motorcycle, and was physically removed from the stage at the Playboy Jazz Festival after falling and knocking over equipment. The following year he fell 25 feet from a balcony in Rimini, Italy, leaving him with a broken left wrist and three cracked ribs.
Although Jaco kept his act together enough to record numerous memorable sessions in the 1980s, his mood swings and episodes of bizarre behavior made him almost impossible to deal with. He was arrested for breaking into his father’s house in 1985, then checked into rehab and spent six weeks in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York the following year. Despite successful tours with guitarist Bireli Lagrene, by ‘87 he was living rough on a New York basketball court, gate-crashing gigs (where he would often insist on sitting in with whoever was playing), starting fights and landing himself in trouble with the police for shoplifting and driving without a license. Although he was prescribed medication for his condition, the deaths of two childhood friends caused him to go into a deep depression and he discontinued the treatment.
When the tragic end came, it came quickly. On September 12, 1987, Jaco was ejected from a Santana concert after trying to force himself on stage, and went to the Midnight Bottle Club in Fort Lauderdale. As a members-only venue, the club refused him entry, to which he responded by trying to kick its front door down. Angered by his persistence, one of the club’s bouncers — a martial arts expert named Luc Havan — chased Jaco away, caught up with him and beat him cruelly, leaving him unconscious in the street. Pastorius was admitted to the Broward General Medical Center in a coma, with a fractured skull and one eye dislodged from its socket, with the prognosis that he would be paralyzed on one side even if he survived the attack. However, a week later a blood vessel burst in Jaco's brain, leaving him with zero brain activity. His parents were asked to make a decision and on September 20 he was removed from life support. Jaco died the following day, aged just 35. Luc Havan was arrested for homicide but was eventually only convicted of manslaughter: in the end he served just four months in prison — or as Pastorius’ second wife Ingrid put it, one month for each of the children that Jaco left behind.
Despite this shocking final chapter, Jaco’s memory lives on, in the remarkable body of work which he gave us and in his children, all of whom are musicians. As bass players, we are fortunate to have his unique personality and magnificent musicianship to inspire us: Jaco is truly an icon for our times.
The greatest bass player who ever lived? You decide. But as he expressed it himself, “I have no competition, because I'm not competing” — the epitaph of a wise man.
Quotes in this article come from Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, Dell, 1978) and interviews with Jaco by Neil Tesser (Downbeat magazine, 1977), Jack Zink (1977), Clive Williamson (1978) and Ray Recchi (Fort Lauderdale News & Sun Sentinel, 1981).