Jaco at 60: Remembering the Legend

Sixty years ago today, the world’s greatest bass player was born.

Jaco Pastorius didn’t start out that way, following his father’s footsteps and taking up the drums. But as luck would have it, he did eventually pick up a bass guitar, and a few years later, he changed the world of electric bass forever.

Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius was my musical idol growing up. The admiration started out simply for his bass playing, but as I matured, I grew to love his compositions and arrangements as much or more. I count “Three Views of a Secret” among the greatest songs ever written. Jaco was much bigger than the greatest bassist, he was the complete package few others can match.

Weather Report: “A Remark You Made”, live

My first Jaco experience was Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Black Market records. It was on both that Jaco displayed that incredible fretless sound, on Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made” and “Cannon Ball”. There was something about that lyrical fretless that made an enormous impact on me. It wasn’t the fretless though. It was Jaco and the fretless.

Soon after that experience, I bought the only Fender bass I could afford, a beat up 1971 Fender Precision that had that “Bass of Doom” look. I took it to a local repair guy to have the frets removed, and carried that bass around with me all the time, never quite understanding why I couldn’t get that “Jaco sound”. That didn’t stop me from trying, and over a quarter of a century later, I’m still trying.

From the Weather Report albums, I went to his 1976 solo debut, Jaco Pastorius. This was less than 10 years after its release, and it was early enough to still be the earth-shattering record that people who first experienced it in 1976 describe. In addition to bass, I played sax, and when I heard that opening cut of “Donna Lee”, my jaw hit the floor. And it didn’t stop, with “Continuum”, “Portrait of Tracy”, and even “Come On, Come Over”, showing the incredible diversity Jaco could bring, not to mention the mind-bending things he was doing with an electric bass.

Joni Mitchell with Jaco, “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”, live

Among my favorites are the collaborations with Joni Mitchell, particularly the Hejira album and the live Shadows and Light video and album, as well as anything that included drummer Peter Erskine, who I believe Jaco favored the most as well. Weather Report’s Night Passage remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus had two voices: Joni’s and Jaco’s.

On September 21, 1987, Jaco was taken from us, way, way too soon. I was a freshman in college, standing at my double bass locker, when someone told me the shocking news. I had lined the inside of my locker door with photos of Jaco and other bassists, and I stood there looking at those photos in disbelief.

In the years that followed, I became obsessed with buying up everything Jaco recorded, searching record store bins across the country for old vinyl, and clipping out articles from magazines that included any hints at his discography to add to my shopping list.

The Weather Report and Joni Mitchell albums were easy to find, as were the solo records. The harder ones came one by one, like Ian Hunter’s All American Alien Boy, with Jaco’s epic bass solo on the title track, the Pastorius, Metheny, Ditmas, Bley recording from 1974 (both covers!), Little Beaver’s Party Down and Albert Mangelsdorff’s Trilogue-Live!, to name a few.

So, I’m definitely old enough to remember when Jaco’s sound was unmatched and unduplicated. To some, they’d say that’s still the case. There’s a quote I remember (though I don’t remember who said it): “Jaco opened the door, and we walked through.” To me, that’s the key. It isn’t a competition or a comparison, it is a family tree. Jaco liked to say he “knew where [he] stole every note”, which was his great way of saying he remembered all of his influences growing up, as diverse as his music: Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Jerry Jemmott, Stravinsky and many many others. Jaco, with Stanley Clarke and others, showed us that we could stand in front of the band (or alone), with an instrument that was largely in the shadows before them. No more quarter notes on the root, either!

I am forever the Jaco evangelist, sharing his music with anyone who would care to listen. As time wore on and we reached the mid-1990’s, I started meeting younger bassists who had listened to a whole generation of bassists since Jaco, and those young players told me they didn’t see what the big deal was with Jaco. Many of these young bassists were slapping their hands off at Guitar Centers and other shops, talking about all the current players who were “better than Jaco”, not realizing that pretty much every bassist they named credited Jaco as their major influence. Some of these kids even went so far to say that Weather Report was “elevator music”. I couldn’t believe my ears.

I think the web, and especially Youtube, changed all that for yet another generation. The respect is obvious in the countless tributes, covers and the previously unseen Jaco videos being uncovered and shared. Jaco is still entertaining, still inspiring. When we feature Jaco here on No Treble, readers come out with the same responses I remember back in the day.

Perhaps the best and most exciting proof has been the discovery of a couple of young bassists – both young ladies – who we’ve featured here, performing their takes on Jaco’s music. Mina Burnside, 14 at the time, performed Jaco’s Portrait of Tracy and “BassGirl”, also 14, performed “Teen Town” and “Amerika“. A whole new generation of players, inspired and working hard on their music, thanks again to Jaco.

Jaco's Word of Mouth lettering practice and album notesI was lucky to be involved with Jaco’s family for about five years, while running Jaco’s official website from 2002 until 2007. I’ll never forget going through Jaco’s belongings in an office in the Fort Lauderdale area, seeing his handwriting practice for the Word of Mouth album cover script (it was Jaco’s handwriting!), and his notes contained in a spiral notebook for each of the tracks on that album. I designed and produced the packaging for the Portrait of Jaco box set around that time, which contains interwoven music and interviews I still consider a masterpiece. Pretty cool for a fanboy.

Though I never met Jaco, and never got the chance to see him live, I feel as though I somehow did know him. That’s the funny thing with legends and idols, I suppose. But I think it has more to do with the connection he made with his fans through his music. There’s something deeper there than can be described in words.

I miss him to this day, and often wonder how much more amazing music would have come if he hadn’t been taken from us at the early age of 35. Thankfully, he left the world a ton of great music in that short period of time. I know his music will endure for many, many years.

Happy Birthday, Jaco. The big Six-Oh.

I invite you to share your own Jaco stories and tributes below.

Note: I was collaborating on a Jaco tribute with Ingrid Pastorius over the last couple of weeks, for a special 60th birthday celebration. Sadly, Ingrid passed away on Monday. We weren’t able to finish our collaboration for this tribute, so I decided it would be appropriate to take another approach. RIP, Ingrid, and thanks for your friendship and your spirit. You will be missed.

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  1. David Brandt

    Am listening to “A Remark You Made” from 8:30 as I type. No other bassist has shaped the way I listen to music. Because of Jaco “listening” includes “feeling”.

  2. Geoffrey Cline Dreyer

    I miss Jaco and I am glad that I got to spend the last two years of his life with him, and now Ingrid is with him in rock and roll heave it is a continuum that we all believe in”ladies and children and the rythm section first!”

  3. Ed Dietrich

    First saw Jaco with Weather Report on the Black Market tour. All I could say was “who the F*&k is this guy!” He was incredible! Was fortunate enough to see him many times though the years. Always my inspiration!

  4. Micah Terry

    I had been playing bass for about 4 years when I finally heard Jaco. I had heard of him, and ended up buying Heavy Weather from a bargain bin, and my life was forever changed. The opening track of Birdland made me think “Oh yeah, this is it”. A Remark You Made instantly became one of my favorite musical pieces, and was the first song I ever learned on fretless. As I listened to his solo albums and read his book I was able to get a glimpse into the troubled genius that was Jaco. Every note he played resonated with the passion he had for the instrument, and he was most definitely taken from us way, way to soon. I can honestly say that Jaco, though gone years before I ever touched a bass, shaped me in a large part into the musician I am today. He shattered the mold that I thought a player had to fit in, and I am forver grateful. Rest in peace – and thank you!

  5. Jorge Caicedo

    My story is very similar to Micah’s..I’d been playing bass for a few years and had always heard the name so I figured I’d see what the fuss was about..Went and got WR’s Best of and heard “Punk Jazz” and my jaw dropped..I laughed b/c I couldn’t believe what I was hearing..I was fortunate enough to find the tab book for the majority of those songs as well as the book for his first 2 cd’s…I lived and breathed those tunes til it eventualLly worked it’s way into my style although I play a different genre of music..I have the Live in NY bootlegs, the Birthday Concert and his video…ANNND I also, by accident, met Felix Pastorius..talk about being blown away…I even have a Jaco shirt..lol and yes I wear it proudly…

  6. Stephen Blair

    An Allman Brothers Band free concert at Piedmont Park in Atlanta back in October, 1970 concluded with a jam session with an unforgettably dynamic bassist who, six years later, I recognized as Jaco. The style, the moves, the look, that relentless groove, and the high likelihood that he was know in that circle of players at that time added up after hearing his solo LP. I’ve always wondered if this particular preview got anyone else right between the ears.

    • Jac Greenlee

      I was there. Loved it!

    • Corey Brown

      What a great story, Stephen!

    • Stephen Blair

      Corey – thanks. The next and last time I saw Jaco perform was with the small group he had with Peter Erskine and Othello Mollineaux at a club in Atlanta – he was still on top of his game (1982). I remember the group opened with an amphetimine samba version of “Invitation”.

    • Ronald Ransom

      What a great article, and that is so true about the unspeakable connections music can provide! That is great you got to see him, and with the Allman Brothers – a historical moment! Thanks for the great article!!! RR

  7. Isaiah Adebowale

    Happy Birthday Brother JACO!

  8. Neil Alexander

    Gosh, where to begin… Well, I’ve got the one real story…

    It started with seeing Weather Report at Avery Fisher, july 11th(?) 1981….
    Later that night, it was rumored that Jaco was coming to our rehearsal (I was 21!) at the Drummer’s Collective. Ha, I thought. Conrad (bass) Steve (drums) & I were rehearsing…

    Jaco bursts in – what a ball of energy! He’s got a cassette of “Word Of Mouth”, brand new, unreleased. Plays it for us. Then…we jam! For…5 minutes? Really short. Then he says, “Come on guys, let’s go.”

    We proceeded to follow him around NYC for the next 5 hours. We went to various clubs where he met friends. He helped a guy who was injured, lying in the street – gave him some money and put him in a cab to the hospital; he bought drugs, and sold them again…. more friends, clubs…
    Finally we ended up at his hotel at 4:40 am, where he gave Joe Zawinul an accordion for his 50th birthday.

    I will NEVER forget that evening. From what I hear, everyone’s got a Jaco story. That may be true. There’s mine.
    I’ve seen him perform many times – Weather Report; Word Of Mouth big band at the Beacon Theater; the small group version at the now defunct Bottom Line. Always “that sound”.

    FYI, I have a fretless synth patch I programmed myself; I use it all the time. It’s programmed for that sweet vibrato, and adds reverb on command. (I have been known to scare bassists on gigs.)

    The last time I saw Jaco was in front of Bradley’s in NYC (also now gone), several years after I first met him. I asked if he remembered that evening. I didn’t expect him to, and of course he didn’t. He turned to his friend (a pianist, possibly Kenny Kirkland…can’t quite remember. I didn’t know who Kenny was at the time) and said “here’s your piano lessons right here, man,” and walked away. 2 years later he was gone.

    As a bandleader, I long for players that have that sound, that quality of expression. ALthough I have worked with some amazing musicians, I have trouble finding…that.

    RIP Jaco. I still love your music and listen to it all the time. It’s timeless. As John McLaughlin said of Coltrane, “Do you hear the voices that you left behind?”

    – Neil Alexander.
    – Newburgh, NY.

    • Neil Alexander

      NOTE: In the first line I said “I’ve got the one real story”. I MEANT to say “I’ve got one real story”, certainly not THE story. Forgive the typo.

    • James Musser

      Sooo COOL!

  9. Ulla Andesong

    He was special!!!- deeply philosofical- we had great long exiting – passionate mind explorations-.. he said once :About once every three years-you meet someone that you just walk to talk to like forever- but usually it’s a guy!!!- We became close friends….I think that his very high energy with his free mind was what made him magical- in every sence!!!- I so miss him!!!

  10. Ulla Andesong

    PS -Something trivial about Jaco : he taught me and my son -something his mom had taught him- and that was to brush his toung just as well as brushing his teeth!!!-And he never had any cavities !!! he was proud of his healty teeth!!

  11. Bruno Migliari

    Here’s my latest homage to Jaco: http://youtu.be/i9g04-WcwOs

  12. Macky Macaventa

    Many years ago, I inadvertently destroyed the fingerboard of my old Fender Jazz copy trying to do a “Jaco”. His genius led me to discover the fretless and taught me how to groove with the right attitude. I can never play like him. But because of him, I was able to find my voice.

  13. I was turned on to Jaco when I was 12 years old (1987). I went into my bass lesson at Guzarrdo Music in Rockford, Il, for my lesson with Greg W. my teacher at the time. He told me that “the greatest bass player in the world” died that week. he continued on to tell me a bit about him, show me the main riff to Birdland and sent me on my way. I soon got Heavy Weather and Jaco’s debut. It took me a long time to really grasp how cool it was. I loved Donna Lee and Teen Town and Portrait of Tracey, the obvious ones that a kid would dig, with their fast, scurring bass lines. As I grew older, I learned to appriciate all of it, bass skills, grooves, compositions.
    I think about Jaco the same way I think about Jimi Hendrix. Just as w Jimi there was guitar before and after–there was bass before Jaco and after Jaco.