Usually when we mark an anniversary, it is cause for celebration. Today isn’t one of those anniversaries.
Twenty-five years ago today, the world lost a man many say was the greatest bass player ever. Jaco Pastorius, at the age of 35, died days after a violent altercation at a Florida bar.
In the 25 years since Jaco’s passing, a lot has changed in the world of bass. But one thing has remained consistent: Jaco’s enormous influence.
Not only do you hear this influence in new music, the tributes and unreleased material never ceases to stop. A quick search on Youtube for “Jaco Pastorius” brings about 14,000 results today. Think about that. In an age without cell phones or cheap portable video devices, Jaco performed countless stages. If there were recordings made then, it was typically on cassette tape or reel to reel.
Thanks to Youtube and the web in general, young bass players coming up today can experience Jaco’s music like never before, and that helps that 14,000 video count continue to grow, with previously unseen Jaco videos surfacing all the time, but also the Jaco tributes, playalongs and covers from his loyal and growing fan base.
Jaco also remains a perennial favorite among No Treble readers, reaching top 10 status every year, with few articles and videos to compete with working bassists who generate lots of news throughout the year.
It seems every bassist has a Jaco story… that “Jaco moment”, a favorite song, the influence he had, or just a memory of something tied to him and his music.
For me, September 21, 1987 will always be as clear a memory as any in my life. I was in the music building of my university, spinning the dial on the combination lock to my double bass locker when someone ran down the hall to tell me the news that Jaco had died. I had pictures of all my bass and other musical heroes taped to the inside of that locker, and I just stared at Jaco’s photo, stunned. It dawned on me in that moment that I never saw Jaco perform in person, and now I never would. My hero was gone, way too soon.
In the years following, I became pretty much obsessed with collecting every recording I could find with Jaco – the rare vinyl discoveries in record stores around the country, and then the live recordings listed all those years but impossible to locate until the web emerged. Lots of gems, and a handful of not-so-great stuff too. And that’s part of the Jaco story in the last 25 years too.
My first Jaco experience was Weather Report. “Cannon Ball”, “Teen Town” and “Havona” all knocked me out. But it was Jaco’s debut, which I experienced next, that made me the Jaco fan I am today, and that only grew stronger as I discovered his work with Joni Mitchell (still among the best music in my collection), and later made my way through his vast recording list.
There was another Jaco milestone last year: his 60th birthday. At that time, I opened a discussion about the world’s greatest bass player, sharing a lot of thoughts about his legacy, and hearing from a lot of readers who added their stories.
This time around, we reached out to several bassists to get their take on Jaco’s continued influence as well as their own “Jaco moment”. We invite you to share your stories here as well.
Editor’s note: Jaco listed Jerry Jemmott as a major influence – perhaps the only bassist named in his list of influences. Jerry and Jaco eventually teamed up for Jaco’s instructional video in the 80’s.
Jaco’s flawless execution and knowledge that he formally attained on his own, is timeless. He worked hard at keeping down inherent sympathetic vibrations that occur with an aggressive approach which we both shared. I heard the fantastic BBC Radio Documentary which has four parts and hearing him with Wayne Cochran & the CC Riders was quite a real hoot. I can see him now. He had an incredible since of taste and control of his amazing ability.
My defining Jaco moment started when Jimmy Tyrel – the legendary New York session bassist who eventually became a Vice President at Columbia Records – sent me a copy of Jaco’s first CBS release. This moment became a never ending series of events once we met face to face that took place whatever and whenever he played. His total understanding of what I call the 5 components and 5 Elements of “Souler Energy”; that he could verbalize and reproduce with his bass and that you hear in his compositions and arrangements. These 5 Components are The Groove, Skill, Technique, Knowledge and Creativity. The 5 Elements are Commitment, Passion, Compassion, Physical Endurance and Mental Fortitude. He lives in all of us.
Jaco’s music is Bass notes of Love, fueled by EDGE and ATTITUDE, Pure Passion!!!
My first Jaco moment came when seeing Weather Report in person at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1979. It changed my life. Jaco slid into his bass like he was sliding into home plate. Talc powder on the floor in his jam zone so he could funk it up, moving, and groovin’. NYC skyline as a back drop behind the back line = Super Bad Ass!
Words cannot describe the magnitude of magic in ‘JACO’ the film. Still editing, much more to do. Be patient, and we will see you next year.
There are very few musicians who completely redefine their instrument. Jaco was clearly one of those musicians. Before Jaco, it was considered unusual for an electric bassist to have the intelligent melodic sensibilities of a pianist or a horn player. Since Jaco, when one hears an electric bassist with the technique and melodic intelligence of a Charlie Parker or a Miles Davis, it comes from Jaco.
My defining “Jaco moment” came listening to my dad practicing “Portrait of Tracy”. I’d never heard a bass play “false” notes (harmonics) before. When I asked my dad what he was doing, he said, “I’m trying to learn this Jaco tune.” Since then, I myself have tried to learn not only “Portrait of Tracy”, but everything else from Jaco’s debut solo recording. I proudly call myself a “Jaco clone”. No one else since him has extended the melodic language of the electric bass as a soloist or as a composer.
In my opinion, Jaco’s greatest contribution was in bringing a high level of musical sophistication and imagination to the instrument. By doing that he opened up some wonderful possibilities for growth and increased relevance for the bass as a cultural force. I’m not sure whether or not that lesson has really taken root in the musical community, but I think that message is always there in his skillful, wide-ranging and heartfelt approach.
The times I sat down alone with Jaco were the most significant for me — getting to know him personally a bit, being able to express my appreciation, sharing ideas and having a chance to make the connection between who he was and the music he made.
For me, Jaco is one of four true innovators on the electric electric bass guitar. And when I say “innovator” I mean that the trajectory of the electric bass guitar changed. The instrument’s role was now defined differently. That hasn’t happened a lot. There have been tons of great players, and even more so now, but Jaco changed how we thought of the electric bass guitar. That will forever impact impact all future bass players… even if they don’t know it. I will not to list the other three, because I’m not interested in debating my personal Mt. Rushmore of bass guitar.
There are two defining Jaco moments for me. One happened in 1983/84 when I was a student at the University of Miami. First of all, he and my high school music teacher were the reasons why I chose that school. While I was there, I got to see Jaco perform a free concert. I think it was in Ft. Lauderdale. Steve Bailey, who was friends with Jaco, took me me to the concert. My mind was blown! Mike Stern and Kenwood Dennard were in the band. Jaco wasn’t in the best frame of [mind], but he sounded great. And he was every bit the showman! When I think of some of the what I consider to be some of the best examples of recorded bass playing, Jaco’s name shows up repeatedly. The same is true when I think of compositions by a bass player.
The other defining Jaco moment: I never used to read the newspaper as a young man. But for some reason in September of 1987 I was reading the Washington Post back in the DC area. Not only was I reading the paper, but I actually felt drawn to look at the obituaries section. I had never done that before. On that day I saw the name John Francis ANTHONY Pastorius III. I remember saying, “That’s weird, another person with the name ‘Pastorius’.” Jaco was the only person I know of with that name. But I didn’t know that ‘Jaco’ wasn’t his born name. I read the obituary and realized it was Jaco Pastorius. That’s when the legend was born!
Jaco created a unique sound that is often imitated but never equaled… it is next to impossible to play fretless and NOT sound like Jaco. He broke all of the rules about what is and what is not possible to play on an electric bass.
My Jaco “moment” happened on November 8th, 1978 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, MA. I was new to Berklee and not aware of Jaco. This was the tour that they recorded 8:30 and from the opening jungle howls of “Black Market” my life was changed forever. Back at the Berklee dorm everyone was watching the Grateful Dead on Saturday Night Live and I just couldn’t hang… my thoughts were that if we ever met people from another planet instead of sending politicians to represent our planet, we should send Weather Report!
The first time I heard Jaco was the bass solo intro to “Punk Jazz”. Steve DiGiorgio and I used to trade tapes, he sent me a tape that had few cool metal demos plus some bass oriented stuff, including Jaco’s “Punk Jazz” solo. I was really blown away, and wound up buying many of Jaco’s recordings. I’m sure from trying to learn his parts and from listening to him so much he’s influenced my playing somehow, as he has for countless others.
Jaco’s legacy, to me, is his musical voice. He really had something unique to say on his instrument. He taught me that it’s more about what you are saying than how you are saying it.
My Jaco “moment”: I was buying some bass related music, searching for inspiration, and picked up his self titled [album]. What I heard was a player seamlessly transition from solo to full band settings while maintaining his identity in any setting. I’ve been hooked ever since!
Jaco still casts a remarkably big shadow over contemporary bass playing. It still takes me by surprise how many people see ‘solo bass’ as beginning and ending with Jaco. He is, for a large sector of bass-listeners, the standard by which all other solo bass, fretless bass and fusion bass playing is to be measured. It’s a remarkable testimony to the impact he had that over three decades after he first emerged on the scene, his name is still the first point of contact for so many bass conversations.
Conversely, it’d would be fascinating to be able to tell how many people have avoided certain forms of musical expression because of a fear of being compared to Jaco. Having heard a number of well-known bassists talk about their own concerns at ending up too close to his hallowed turf, it still seems baffling that some people see fretless bass and harmonic chords as his sole domain, despite the massive range of music that has grown out of the various innovations be brought us.
My defining Jaco “moment” was definitely hearing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira for the first time – it was given to me on cassette by the trombone player in a trad jazz band I played with in my teens. It had his own ‘best of Jaco with Weather Report’ on one side, and Hejira on the other. The Weather Report stuff was OK, but it didn’t have anything like the impact on me that the Joni record did. The marriage of her freewheeling narrative style and his beautiful snake-like melodic lines weaving around her vocals was a bolt from the blue. A real damascus road moment for teenage me.
When I think about Jaco’s impact, I continue to be amazed by how profound his influence still is amongst players of all ages and backgrounds today. Even within the last decade, I feel there has almost been a fresh redefining of his legacy that has brought his playing and musical identity once again to the forefront of the bass world; and this is in spite of the fact it’s been 25 years since his passing… That is quite a testament to the way in which he communicated with and moved people emotionally and musically. There are a lot of players that think of Jaco as having been the one that helped further define the function of the bass by bringing it more to the forefront with his solos and unmistakable fretless tone, but the truth is his impact lies far outside the realm of bass playing alone. His contributions as a composer and his infectious energies onstage as a band leader and sideman were so huge that they could not be merely faded by time nor the achievements of the innovators that followed him. 25 years later, Jaco continues to be THE brave and fearless voice that inspired bass players to boldly pursue a voice of their own.
Although it’s not a happy memory, I’d have to say the most significant moment for me was when I found out he passed away, because he died on my 17th birthday. I’ll never forget being in a bass lesson that day and having my teacher tell me the horrible news. It impacted me deeply on many levels, because I was relentlessly practicing and trying to become a great bass player almost completely due to Jaco’s influence and the way his playing and music captured me. I was very fortunate at the time, because I had a bass instructor that was equally as enamored with Jaco’s genius and had spent many years transcribing and learning Jaco tunes. He was my closest connection to Jaco’s music, and in a strange way I think its impact on us grew even deeper knowing that he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. Although I’m still pained by the fact that Jaco is no longer with us, I am so grateful we live in a time in which bass players and music fans have unbelievable access to his music and life history because of the internet. We now are able to see and hear performances that might have otherwise been hidden from us forever. He will forever remain the one that caused me to fall in love with the bass.
Jeroen Paul Thesseling
Jaco was a very innovative musician and composer. He developed a language, invented new colors on fretless bass. He created such an amazing sound and rhythm. And what about the way harmonics sounded when he played them? Probably most bassists are directly or indirectly influenced by him. Imagine how fretless would have evolved when Jaco would have been another twenty-five years with us.
My defining Jaco “moment”: His solo performance of [Jimi Hendrix's] “Third Stone from the Sun” during a Weather Report concert in Offenbach, Germany, September 29, 1978.
Jaco is that rare musician that continues to be a timeless influence on generations to come.
My defining moment came while sitting in my bedroom as a teenager… I distinctly remember dropping the needle on [the solo debut] for the first time, and I KNEW I had found the Jimi Hendrix of the bass.
I believe Jaco brought all styles of bass playing together. Of course, so many musicians love him, but I really saw bass players from different genres gravitate towards Jaco and his music. From jazz to rock to punk to fusion…all bass players understood what he was doing to the instrument and to music.
I saw Jaco play in the 80’s at Musician’s Institute for the Bass Institute of Technology department. It was Jaco, Jeff Berlin, Frank Gambale. First, Jeff and Jaco were sort of playing duets and then Jaco would fly off and play Hendrix riffs or jazz runs. Then when the group started to jam, Jaco really went crazy, playing more Hendrix to a seemingly unaware Gambale. Then Jaco would have these bursts of melodies roll through him and out his amps. After the seminar (if you could call it that), the instructors asked for a show of hands of who they enjoyed more…Jaco, or Jeff. The entire room raised their hands for Jeff. I was the only one who raised my hand for Jaco. I said to the class that I believed Jaco had more musicality and excitement in those little flurry of melodies he would play in between the jams/nonsense that no musician up on the stage could match. I still stand by it. To put it more into perspective, this was the 80’s and Jeff was the new favorite and Jaco was deteriorating physically and mentally. Jeff had so much technique but I will always believe that Jaco had so much more music in him…and before they played, I was a Berlin guy. After that performance, I was a Jaco guy forever.
What would you say is Jaco’s continuing legacy and impact for the world of bass and music today? What was the defining “Jaco moment” for you? Tell us in the comments!