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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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