Electric bassist Jaco Pastorius is yet another artist in the history of jazz who managed to influence a generation of musicians, despite a life cut tragically short.
In this article, jazz journalist Geno Thackara takes a look at 10 defining moments in the career of one of the greatest bass players of all time.
It’s always hard to talk about figures like Jaco Pastorius without making them sound downright mythical.
With his trademark fretless electric bass in his hands, he had one of those instrumental voices that’s inimitable and unmistakable.
It may sound over the top to say that he was an astounding virtuoso or even a genius, helped revolutionize the world of jazz, and actually reinvented the possibilities of his instrument.
Nonetheless, that’s no exaggeration – nobody before him even conceived of doing so much with only four strings, and just about everyone since has still struggled just to catch up.
Pastorius was always a colorful character with a stage presence verging on acrobatic.
Like all living legends, though, he was also a human being.
As his personality continued to become larger than life, so did his troubles and flaws.
The arc of his life turned out to be a troubled and ultimately tragic one – if bipolar disorder made his manic phases fascinating and productive, it also led to alcoholism, instability, and a propensity for violence which became fatal in the end.
Still, though his career was all too short, it was packed with a lifetime’s worth of brilliant work and invention.
Here’s our capsule summary of this whirlwind life, touching on some famous and less obvious highlights.
Las Olas Brass
As the son of a singer and drummer, John Francis Pastorius III naturally had music in his blood from the start.
Fittingly enough for someone who was always unlike anyone else, he became known under a distinct moniker instead.
“Jocko” first emerged as a sports-related nickname from his parents, which a simple spelling error later turned into “Jaco.”
An ingrained sense of rhythm soon had him taking up the drums himself, which was how he ended up playing soul tunes with an outfit called Las Olas Brass during his time in high school.
As chance would have it, a fresh and more skilled drummer approached the group – right at the moment when their bassist had decided to leave.
Pastorius saw an opening to fill a different slot instead, and the rest would truly become history.
The Fender Jazz Bass
Although buying an upright bass made a great start to his new role, such an instrument wasn’t well-suited to the climate of the Pastorius family’s home in Florida. The temperature and humidity increasingly took their toll until the day the instrument’s wooden frame simply cracked apart.
While he could have replaced or repaired it, he made a sideways step instead.
Rock, folk and jazz musicians were all discovering the possibilities of amps and fuzzy tones at the turn of the 1970s.
The cracked upright gave way to a stylish black-and-tan Fender Jazz electric bass guitar, which would become Jaco’s signature instrument for the rest of his life.
While some aspiring players might look for feedback from friends or record labels, Pastorius decided to approach another established jazz musician – in this case Alice Coltrane, who was an accomplished avant-garde pianist in addition to being famous as the legendary John Coltrane’s widow.
Jaco chose Pee Wee Ellis’s “The Chicken” – the kind of soul staple that most people probably recognize whether they know it by name or not – and put together a home demo where he played all the instruments.
Coltrane was very impressed by the results and wrote back with a nice letter of encouragement – a pretty notable compliment for a player who hadn’t quite turned 17.
Wayne Cochran and C.C. Riders
The jazz bassist’s early 20s were packed with music jobs ranging from touring gigs to teaching slots – any work that would help support his wife and their growing family.
While Pastorius had played many a show and made his home demos without learning to read music, joining Wayne Cochran’s professional touring revue was a job at a whole new level.
These jam-packed few months were an intense crash course in music theory, charts, arrangements, and the business side of performing.
It was somewhere around this time that he also decided to remove the frets from the neck of the bass.
The result was a tone both punchy and endlessly malleable, which stayed a key ingredient in that one-of-a-kind sound.
Meeting Joe Zawinul
Naturally, a player with such eclectic taste would be drawn to a group like Weather Report, whose brand of jazz-rock fusion incorporated everything from funk to avant-garde weirdness and rhythms from all over the world.
Pastorius saw the group on a 1974 stop in Florida, after which he got to meet the band and talk with its co-leader and keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
With his usual outsized personality, Jaco simply introduced himself as “the greatest bass player in the world.”
It was a half-serious boast he’d given countless times since his teen years. Still, one never knows when normal-seeming conversations might pay dividends somewhere down the line.
Bright Size Life
A gig teaching bass at the University of Miami led to a meeting of future legends when jazz guitarist Pat Metheny began teaching there as well.
The two became fast friends and continued to collaborate as long as life allowed.
Metheny’s first album was a low-key guitar-trio session in the relatively early days of ECM Records. His original pieces and ear-candy guitar tone showed the arrival of another iconic sound in jazz fusion.
Nonetheless, Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses are equally important factors in crafting the experience of Bright Size Life.
While jazz-rock fusion was still growing louder than ever, this outing kept the electricity without the volume. It’s plenty bright and vibrant, but the energy of their interplay makes a subtle splash rather than a giant wave.
This bigger and more colorful splash was recorded before the Metheny session but not released until several months later.
Every facet of the leader’s abilities is on kaleidoscopic display in his wildly ambitious debut album.
Classy strings and Latin rhythms share space with catchy funk and bouncy bebop.
Pastorius starts off with a jaw-dropping read of Miles Davis’s “Donna Lee” that fits all the melody and harmonics into a single bass part backed up only by congas.
Those boggling two-and-a-half minutes were just the beginning.
The remainder showcased a gallery of jazz royalty, from Lenny White and Herbie Hancock to the Brecker brothers and Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter.
More importantly, the album made clear that Pastorius had a musical mind as brilliant as his playing ability. The whole dazzling package launched his name as a force to be reckoned with in the music world.
Joining Weather Report
True to its name, Weather Report’s music and lineup never stopped changing, which meant that they found themselves with an empty chair to fill now and then.
One of these occasions came when Joe Zawinul had just had a chance to hear the bassist’s solo album for himself and quickly decided to give the bassist a call.
He came on board in time to contribute a song to the in-progress recording of Black Market, then settled in as a member just in time for their biggest success.
The next followup Heavy Weather soon went gold, followed by several further recordings and tours that had their share of highlights, even if the group never reached the same peak.
Shadows and Light
When Joni Mitchell drifted away from her pop-songwriter beginnings into stranger territory, she made sure her fellow travellers were also versatile and adventurous enough to help pull it off.
Jaco Pastorius made a sudden and invigorating presence on the singer’s landmark Hejira.
This led to contributing to her next pair of recordings as well, including a jazz tribute to the great bassist Charles Mingus that included more of his Weather Report bandmates.
If there’s one moment to beautifully sum up the whole phase, though, it was the evening of September 9th, 1979.
The live album and concert film from that night is a joyful event with a top-shelf jazz group that reunited Jaco with Pat Metheny.
Even though the bassist’s problems with depression and alcohol were growing by then, Shadows and Light captures one of the good times when the music was going right.
His 30th birthday
Despite becoming increasingly unhealthy and unreliable, Pastorius managed to record his second album Word of Mouth in 1981 and assemble a big band for occasional touring.
Of course, his milestone birthday that December was a special reason for a party, and so that evening’s Word of Mouth Orchestra was a super-brassy gang full of great players and good friends.
The posthumous release of The Birthday Concert shows what a fine celebration it was, kicking off with (what else?) “The Chicken” and raising the roof with joyous highs like “Liberty City.”
There were a rough few years ahead until his problems finally got him into too much trouble at age 35.
Still, with such gems to appreciate, the tragic ending can make us appreciate the highs of this extraordinary life that much more.
That’s it: 10 defining moments from the legendary musician.
For those looking to learn more about the life and death of Jaco Pastorius, there are some interesting resources out there (aside from his recordings of course).
The Jaco Pastorius documentary JACO was released in 2015, produced by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo.
There’s also a biography, by author Bill Milkowski, entitled Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius which comes highly recommended by hardcore fans of the electric bass legend.