Jaco Pastorius is considered by many to be the greatest bassist of all time. Over the course of his relatively brief yet incredibly prolific career, he developed an influential approach to bass playing that combined complex harmony with virtuosic technique. His signature style employed Latin-influenced funk grooves, lyrical solos on fretless bass, bass chords, and innovative use of harmonics and looping. Sadly, Jaco’s genius was not long for this world, as he died tragically at a young age.
In addition to working with artists like Joni Mitchell and Pat Metheny, as well as solo projects like Word Of Mouth, Pastorius is perhaps best known for his work with Weather Report in the late 70’s and early 80’s. However, his partnership with Weather Report nearly didn’t take, due in part to Pastorius’ bravado about his bass-playing prowess. Before the sessions for his now-classic eponymous debut album (Jaco Pastorius, 1976), the bassist attended a Weather Report concert in Miami. According to keyboardist and bandleader Joe Zawinul in Bill Milkowski’s book Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, Jaco walked up to him after the concert and talked about the performance, saying that it was all right but that he had expected more from them. He then went on to introduce himself–as the “greatest bass player in the world.”
An unamused Zawinul initially told him to “get the fuck outta here”, but over the course of their conversation, Pastorius’s headstrong and confident attitude eventually made Zawinul admire the then-unknown young bassist. He asked Jaco for a demo tape, and sure enough one showed up at his hotel took the next morning. The tape was what got the ball rolling in earnest, as Zawinul quickly realized the impressive technical abilities of the brash young musician. Pastorius joined Weather Report during the recording sessions for Black Market (1976), and he became a vital part of the band by virtue of the unique qualities of his bass playing, his skills as a composer (and, in time, arranger) and his exuberant showmanship on stage.
While Pastorius’s time with Weather Report was musically fruitful, it also brought out some personal demons that he was never quite able to outrun. While he had avoided mind-altering substances early on, he increasingly abused alcohol and other drugs during his time with the band, leading to erratic and antisocial behavior. Jaco was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982, and the drug use only exacerbated his fragile mental condition. He was committed to a psychiatric facility and put on lithium in an attempt to neutralize his unpredictable behavior.
On September 11th, 1987, after trying and failing to sneak onstage at a Santana concert in Florida (and being ejected from the show in the process), Pastorius made his way to a nightclub in Wilton Manors, FL, where he reportedly kicked in a glass door after being refused entry. Angry and emotionally unstable, Jaco engaged in a violent confrontation with the club’s bouncer. The severe injuries he sustained in the fight caused him to fall into a coma in the hospital that night. While his prognosis looked positive in the ensuing days, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage a few days later that left him brain-dead. Pastorius was officially pronounced dead 31 years ago today, on September 21st, 1987, at the age of 35.
Jaco Pastorius’s story is a tragic one. A one-of-a-kind, still unmatched talent, Pastorius redefined the role and the scope of the electric bass in the world of jazz and beyond. In a literal sense, Jaco’s musical pedigree lives on through his son, Felix Pastorius, who has taken up his father’s mantle as a bass guru in his own right. But even in more general terms, Jaco’s style and creativity continue to influence virtually every significant bass guitar player in one way or other to this day.
After his brief yet incomparably bright career, his troubling and erratic downward spiral, and his shocking death, music fans have been left to wonder what new musical terrain this bass genius may have been able to traverse had he not left us so soon. As we mark the anniversary of Jaco’s passing today, honor his memory and legacy by revisiting some of his most impressive live performances:
Watch Jaco lay down one of his signature, mind-bending solo bass pieces, “Slang”, in 1979 below, courtesy of YouTube user Fernando Shiraishi:
Check out Jaco with Weather Report at the height of their abilities in this full-show, pro-shot video of the band’s September 28th, 1978 performance in Offenbach, Germany courtesy of YouTube user abraham thinkin:
Watch this incredible full performance with one of Pastorius’ early solo band lineups (including drummer Peter Erskine, percussionist Don Alias, saxophonist Bobby Mintzer, steel drummer Othello Molineaux, and trumpet player Randy Brecker) from the Montreal Jazz Festival in July, 1982, via YouTube user Henrique Scudeller:
Rest In Peace, Jaco.