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How Jaco Pastorius Launched A One-Man Revolution On The Bass

Rene Perez
AP Photo
Jaco Pastorius strums his bass guitar at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on June 28, 1982.

You probably know “Birdland” by the group Weather Report well enough to sing along with the melody.

What you may not know is the melody is being played on an electric bass by JacoPastorius, the subject of today’s discussion.  


About the time Jaco joined Weather Report in 1976, he also released a solo album that displayed his virtuosity and his vision.

He didn’t just raise the bar for the bass; he revolutionized the instrument, which was apparent from the first song of his debut album. Here’s Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.”

"Donna Lee"

It’s easy to hear that Jaco was an extraordinarily gifted musician, but talent wasn’t the only thing that set him apart.

He was basically a one-man revolution on the bass. He was self-taught, he had no real predecessors, and because of that amazing talent, he had no peers. He was out there by himself. Take a listen to the 1977 song "Havona,” which Jaco performed with Weather Report.


We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that Jaco could play really fast — he was a total virtuoso. But he also had a lot of heart and a tone that was specific to him.

In an effort to make the electric bass more like a stand-up bass, Jaco removed the metal frets from the neck of his bass, which allowed him to get a tone more like a trombone or a French horn. You can really hear that in this Weather Report track “A Remark You Made.”

"A Remark You Made"

He’s made some incredible music as a band leader and as a member of Weather Report. But he also played remarkably on Joni Mitchell’s album “Hejira.” On the track “Refuge of the Roads,” Jaco wove his bass in and around Mitchell’s voice.

"Refuge Of The Roads"

It’s so beautiful, the way Jaco’s bass kind of soars above and around that melody. In essence, Jaco didn’t separate the bass and the melody; his genius was that he actually combined them, giving the electric bass a new role as a lead instrument.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.
Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.