Jaco Francis Anthony Pastorius III, best known as Jaco Pastorius, was an American jazz musician, composer, big band leader. Till date he is widely acknowledged for his skills as an electric bass player. He revolutionized how the bass guitar is played with his extraordinary bass capabilities and was known for his playing styles of Latin influenced 16th-note funk, jazz fusion, lyrical soloing on fretless bass, bass chords and innovative use of harmonic.
Jaco was born on December 1, 1951, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to Jack Pastorius, who was himself a big band singer and drummer, and Stephanie Katherine Haapala Pastorius. He was the first of their three children. He went to high school at Northeast High in Oakland Park, Florida and he proved himself as a talented athlete with skills in football, basketball, baseball but he picked up music at an early age. Jaco was influenced by his father and originally became a drummer, but in time switched to bass at the age of 15, after suffering from an injury to his wrist. He formed his first band named the “Sonics”, along with John Caputo and Dean Noel. Around 1970, he started playing in a nine-piece horn band called “Las Olas Brass”, which covered contemporary popular numbers by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, James Brown and the Tijuana Brass.
Pastorius’ interest in jazz grew day by day, and sooner he developed a deep desire to play the double jazz. During 70s, at the age of 17, Jaco, started to appreciate jazz and bought an upright bass whose deep, mellow tune appealed to him. But it didn’t quite work for him and soon he traded it in for a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass. His first break in his musical career came when he became bass player for Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders. He also played on various local R&B and jazz records such as with Little Beaver and Ira Sullivan. After the “Las Olas Brass”, Jaco joined the R&B trio “Woodchuck”. As he developed himself as a bass player, he experimented with creating fretless basses. In 1974, he began playing with his friends, Pat Metheny (famous jazz guitarist), Bley and drummer Bruce Ditmas and created a joint album, called, “Jaco”. Metheny and Jaco also recorded a fusion album entitled “Bright Size Life”. He ended up teaching bass as an adjunct instructor in the University of Miami’s jazz department, headed by Bill Lee, father of another to-be-famous bassist, Will Lee.
His musical influences included James Jamerson, James Brown, The Beatles, Miles, Davis and Stravinsky. Among his other influences were Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Paul Hindemith, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, The Band, Santana, Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, Rocco Prestia, Tommy Cogbill, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, James T. Doggington, Cannonball Adderley and Jerry Jemmott.
Pastorius met up with “Blood, Sweat and Tears” drummer Bobby Colomby, who had been given the green light by CBS records to find “new talent” for their jazz division. Soon after that, “Weather Report” bass player Alphonso Johnson left to start his own band and so Joe Zawinul invited Jaco to join the band. He then joined “Weather Report”, where he played alongside Zawinul and Shorter until 1981, during the recording sessions for Black Market (1970) and soon became a vital part of the band due to the unique qualities of his bass playing, his tremendous skills as a composer and outstanding stage presence. Jaco made his mark on jazz, during his time with “Weather Report”, notably by being featured on the “Grammy Award” nominated, “Heavy Weather” in 1977.Beside this, he also received a co-producing credit with Zawinul and even played drums on his self composed “Teen Town”. During the course of his musical career, Jaco, played on dozens of recording sessions for other musicians and guested on many albums by other artists, both in and out of jazz circles; 1976 with Ian Hunter of “Mott the Hoople” fame, on Al Di Meola’s “Land of the Midnight Sun”, on “All American Alien Boy” with David Sanborn, Aynsley Dunbar, etc. Some of his notable were; Joni Mitchell: ”Hejira” (1976), Don Juan’s “Reckless Daughter” (1977), “Mingus” (1979), live album “Shadows and Light” (1980). His influence was most dominant on “Reckless Daughter” and ”Hejira” and many of the songs on these albums seem to be composed using the bass as a melodic source of inspiration.
In early 1982, Pastorius left “Weather Report” and started pursuing interest in creating a big band solo project named “Word of Mouth” which featured guest appearances by many jazz musicians: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, harmonica player Toots Thielemans, and Hubert Laws. He toured in 1982 and that tour released in Japan as “Twins I” and “Twins II” and was condensed for an American release which was known as “Invitation”. Near the end of his career, he guested on low-key releases by jazz artists including guitarist Mike Stem, guitarist Bireli Lagrene and drummer Brian Melvin. In 1985, he recorded an instructional video,” Modern Electric Bass”, hosted by bassist Jerry Jemmott.
Jaco was famous for his virtuosic bass lines combining Afro-Cuban rhythms, inspired by the likes of Cachao Lopez with R&B to create 16th note funk lines syncopated with ghost notes and he played these with a floating thumb technique on the right hand, anchoring on the bridge pick up while playing on the E and A strings and muting the E string with his thumb while playing on higher strings. He applied this technique in his songs, “Come On, Come Over” from the album “Jaco Pastorius” and “The Chicken” from “The Birthday Concert”. He was also noted for popularizing the fretless electric bass in the melodies on “Birdland” from the “Weather Report” album and “Heavy Weather”, as well as on the Joni Mitchell song “Refugee of the Road” from the album “Hejira”. One of his major innovations was in the use of harmonics, which isolate the overtones of a note by muting the string at a harmonic node, which resulted in a much higher note than would otherwise be sounded. Thus, subsequently he used this technique in his composition” Portrait of Tracy”.
Though Jaco played both fretted and fretless, he preferred the fretless, because he felt frets were a hindrance, and even called them ‘speed bumps’. He was mostly associated with the 1962 Fender Jazz Bass nicknamed as “Bass OF Doom” whose frets he manually removed himself. Pastorius finished the fret board with marine epoxy (Pettit’s PolyPoxy) to protect the wood from the round wound Rotosound Swing 66 strings he used. Jaco also had two Jaydee Basses made for him shortly before he died.
Jaco used the Variamp EQ (equalization) controls on his two Acoustic 360 amplifiers (made by the Acoustic Control Corporation of Van Nuys, California) to boost the midrange frequencies, thus accentuating the natural growling tone of his fretless passive Fender Jazz Bass and round wound string combination. He also controlled his tone color with a rack mount MXR digital delay unit that fed a second Acoustic amp rig. He used natural and artificial harmonics to extend the range of the bass solo “Portrait of Tracy”). Sometimes, he also used Hartke cabinets during the final three years of his life. He often used the fuzz control built in on the Acoustic 361. For the bass solo “Slang” on “Weather Report’s” live album” 8:30” (1979), Jaco used the MXR digital delay to layer and loop a chordal figure and then soloed over it and the same technique , with a looped bass riff, can be seen during his solo spot on the Joni Mitchel concert video “Shadows and Light”.
On 11th September, 1987, Pastorius, went to a bar called in Wilton Manors, Florida, where he got engaged in a violent confrontation with the club bouncer. He was severely injured and thus was hospitalized for multiple facial fractures and injuries. He subsequently went into a coma, and on 19th Sep, he had a brain hemorrhage and went on a respirator. He died on 21st September, at the age of 35, leaving behind a legacy of his own. Of all the reasons for which Jaco will be remembered, his bass technique and vision for modern bass playing deserves most mention. He was an amazing persona once he took the stage with his Jazz Bass, and was a treat to watch. From time to time bass players will come and go, but performances like his will be etched in our minds for years to come.