Once in a generation, a musician comes along whose individual innovations are so dramatic they fundamentally change the function and perception of their instrument. For electric bass, that person was Jaco Pastorius. John Kessler has the story, part of our Jazz Appreciation series.
Musical revolutionaries like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix reinvented their instruments. The development of jazz was forever changed by Parker’s innovations, in the same way Hendrix transformed the electric guitar and rock music with sounds nobody had ever imagined.
And Jaco Pastorius forever changed the way people would think about the electric bass, bringing a vocabulary and technique that revolutionized the instrument.
Like Parker and Hendrix, Jaco’s story is full of triumphs and inspired collaborations, but also about the mental and emotional toll that was a byproduct of his genius.
Growing up in South Florida in the 1950s, Jaco was exposed to a melting pot of music: R&B, Cuban, big band, funk, soul. As a young teen he played drums, but after a wrist injury playing football, he switched to bass, first on upright and then an electric Fender jazz bass, which he removed the frets from. By his own account, his only ambition was to play and as a teenager was gigging every night.
In the early 70s, Jaco met Pat Metheny in Miami and played on Metheny’s first solo record. About this time Bobby Colomby of Blood Sweat and Tears heard Jaco and produced Jaco’s debut album in 1976, Jaco Pastorius. Jaco was 25 years old.
The album showcased Jaco’s remarkable collection of bass techniques, each track a masterpiece. He began with a solo bass transcription of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” Perhaps the most astonishing piece is “Portrait of Tracy,” which he achieved with a kaleidoscope of bass harmonics. Nobody had ever dreamed that a Fender bass could make those sounds.
Also about this time, he saw the group Weather Report and approached leader Joe Zawinul with his standard introduction, "I'm John Francis Pastorius III. I'm the greatest bass player in the world.”
Thus began a contentious and fruitful collaboration — Zawinul hired Jaco, where he became an integral part of the band’s sound for the next five years and eight albums. As a rising star, Jaco helped bring the group to the height of their popularity. One of their best-known releases, Heavy Weather, featured “Birdland” with Jaco singing and playing the melody with bass harmonics.
Another signature Weather Report tune was Jaco’s “Teen Town,” which set a new standard for electric bass accomplishment.
Electric bass was redefined in Jaco’s hands. Normally the bass is part of a rhythm section, providing support to the melody. But Jaco was able to play all parts of a song at once, holding down a wicked groove while also providing melodies and counterpoint.
Perhaps one of his most interesting collaborations was with Joni Mitchell, who was looking for a jazzier sound, and hired Jaco sight unseen for her 1976 album, Hejira. Jaco would play on her next four records.
About this time, Jaco’s mental health was in serious trouble. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol use made things worse. He had always been eccentric, but now he was in a self-destructive decline, unreliable, homeless, unable to find a gig. He began a habit of provoking bar fights and allowed himself to be beaten up a number of times. One of those fights put him into a coma from which he never recovered. Jaco Pastorius was dead at age 35.
Jaco’s contributions have been felt far beyond the jazz world. Bassists like Flea from the Red Hot Chile Peppers and Robert Trujillo from Metallica name Jaco as a primary influence. Ask any bass player in any genre. There was the world before Jaco, and the world after.
Things would never be the same.