The Path To Jaco
It was almost four decades ago when I took a lesson with the legendary bassist Jerry Jemmott in New York. We hit it off right away. Jerry is not only a great bass player but also an incredible human being. Jerry’s brilliant bass lines with Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Ray Charles, etc., and his many R&B recordings over the years at Atlantic, were more than inspiring. They were lines to be studied and assimilated into the musical archive in the heart.
At our first lesson, Jerry recognized that I was a Jaco Pastorius fanatic. About two weeks after my lesson with Jerry, the phone rang, I answered, and Jerry said, “Hey, Mike, are you interested in taking a lesson with Jaco?” First, I made sure he was serious. And then I shit my pants. I almost had a heart attack from the excitement. You can’t imagine my reaction to that phone call. Here was the bassist that all bassists were blown away by, and I was going to get a lesson with the one and only Jaco Pastorius. Holy Shit. The greatest bassist of that era, in my opinion, and possibly the best player ever. Every serious bass player of ’70s and ’80s was either trying to play Jaco lines or were too intimidated to even bother.
In two weeks I was going to meet the master and have a lesson with him. I couldn’t sleep. I was practicing pumping 16th note lines non-stop for what seemed hours upon hours. I was already a bass addict – addicted since my brother came home with a cheap bass 7 years prior. I was playing many hours a day, and often all day. The luxuries of youth. So, now I had even more reason to practice – to get ready for a lesson with Jaco. I didn’t want to make a bad impression and not get a second lesson.
I had discovered Weather Report’s Heavy Weather album, Pat Metheny’s Bright Size life, Joni Mitchell’s Mingus, and of course, Jaco’s first solo album – Jaco Pastorius. These great albums just rotated on the turntable for about three years. They were all recorded onto cassette tape for practice sessions, so I could try to figure out the lines without destroying the records.
Like many bass players, after hearing one note by Jaco, my view of bass playing and its role in music was completely transformed. And this transformation changed my life forever. It was then I decided to be a musician and began by focusing on studying Jaco’s music. I don’t think I listened to another bass player for a few years. It seems funny now, but even though there were many inspiring bassists such as Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, Stanley Clark, Larry Graham, etc., I never heard any bassist sound like Jaco in both style and tone. No one was even in the same musical time zone.
The First Encounter
Finally, the day came time to meet Jaco. I believe it was in February 1984. I took my Fender Jazz Frankenstein bass in my reunion blues leather gig bag to the local train station and caught a train to Penn Station, NYC. I got upstairs to the street where I walked a few blocks uptown to the rehearsal studio where Jaco was giving lessons.
February in New York is pretty cold. I could see my breath in the air and I could feel my heart pounding as I approached the address. I finally reached the building and went up the stairs to the studio. I was waiting in the hallway outside the studio when I heard a ruckus coming up the stairs, it was the one and only Jaco. He shouted out, “Mr. Frost, what it is?” as he “snapped” the handshake off my fingertips. I guess this was his personal handshake technique. I was in shock.
Jaco was wearing no socks, no jacket, and he had no case for his bass. He was just carrying his bass down the street walking with it in playing position. We settled into the rehearsal studio space and we eventually plugged in. Jaco started to play a few notes and I responded to the notes that he played as we talked to each other through our basses.
He then asked me to play a major scale in thirds. He was trying to get an idea of where I was musically. After I ran through the scale over two octaves, he broke into a blues walking bass line, and without missing a beat reached over with one hand and hit chords on the piano next to us, as he was still playing bass with the other hand – without missing a beat.
He stopped, and I asked about tone on the bass, and how to get a good sound. He then demonstrated his approach and I watched like a hungry hawk. One of the greatest insights that he gave me was to be aware of my right-hand pizzicato technique.
We then both started playing a blues. As I was playing, he said “Hit it! It’s a bass!”
It was not just about physical contact, but also an attitude. Not to be timid, but rather be deliberate and precise. I now know that with any instrument, it is the attack phase that contributes to its main character.
He then showed me how to strike through the string and allow the finger to land the following string. It was completely mind-blowing as I listened to how my bass sound changed instantly from just from that one concept. That alone saved me years. It added an incredible amount of foundation tone and bottom punch to the note. I was so nervous, I was playing with this vibrato and he told me, “Cut that vibrato shit out!”
I still laugh at that today and still “cut that shit out” today. Of course, vibrato has its place, but not the nervous kind.
We continued playing the blues, and as I walked, he soloed, and then we switched. It was hard to concentrate on walking because I wanted to concentrate on what he was playing.
After playing the blues, I asked if I could try his bass. And he said, “Yeah, check it out.” It was his early 60’s sunburst fretted Jazz bass. The strings were right on the frets, and I asked him if I could to adjust the height of the strings. He said, “Yeah, as long as the screw slots in the saddles are all lined up in the same direction.” I didn’t question it, I just made sure they were all lined up.
So, here I am adjusting and playing Jaco’s bass sitting right across from him face-to-face. As I was setting up the action on his bass, he picked up my Fender Frankenstein jazz bass and started aggressively playing harmonics on it. He did that neck bend thing. I thought he was going to snap the neck right off my bass.
We then switched back instruments and started to play through some blues and discussed different concepts. The main one I remember was using the symmetrical diminished scale (half step-whole step scale). We even played “Teen Town” together and he quickly corrected one of my bad notes and barked at me “if you’re going play it, play it right.”
Finally, there was a knock at the door from the studio manager reminding Jaco there were two other students out in the hall waiting for their lessons. We got so carried away we went a half hour overtime. I believe he knew I was a dedicated Jaco fan and I would be sharing his bass concepts with other bass players.
He encouraged me by giving me some incredible compliments, which I may or may not have deserved. And I could detect he was very sincere and loving of music. I was truly blessed to have had that first encounter with him on such a positive note.
On the way out, he told me to get a book by Dotzauer, J. Friedrich – 113 Studies for Solo Cello, Volume 1 & 2. I went right down to the local music store, Sam Ash Music in Hempstead, NY, and got the book right away.
On my way out in the hall, Jaco told the two students who were waiting for him, not to study with him, but they should study with this cat Mike Frost pointing his thumb at me.
That’s how encouraging he was. We were all speechless, especially the two kids. I don’t think that is what they wanted to hear. To be honest, I don’t think he was into giving lessons unless cats were really well prepared.
I am so glad I had my Sony Walkman with me to capture some of the moments.
It was about 8 years later that I released my first solo album called, Mike Frost – Inner Voice. On that CD I did a version of “Continuum” and put Jaco’s recorded voice saying, “You know what to do, you take your time, most of all, take your time.” But no one realized it was him. I should have put that in the liner notes. I thought it would be obvious who it was, but I guess only the Jaco fanatics would recognize his voice, and most of them were not listening to my CD! Ha ha ha.
My lesson with Jaco was the greatest musical experience I received. The lessons I got after the lesson lasted for years. I reflected on the experience over and over, and it gave rise to many good fruits. It was burned into my mental continuum and I kept viewing it over and over in my head. I continued to see and hear things in my minds eye months and even years later.
Recently, my son Stephen started playing bass and suggested that I release this personal moment in time to the public. For historical reasons, I have agreed. The YouTube video below is an excerpt from this first lesson. There is more on the recording that I may or may not release in the future. There are some edits, just to be sensitive. I decided there was some conversation that best remains private.
I was blessed to have seen Weather Report live about a dozen times and also experienced the Joni Mitchell “Shadows and Light” tour at Forest Hill Stadium in New York.
Yes, there was a second lesson, but let’s leave that for another article sometime in the future. Writing is not my strong point.
Thank you for spending the time to read and listen about this experience. As I said, I have been very reluctant to share this because this is really personal to me. But may every one that listens and reads this receive some benefit and inspiration from the many musical moments that Jaco has given us.
Peace, Love, and Music.