Jaco Pastorius is considered by many to be the most talented jazz bass player ever. Throughout his brief, yet incredibly prolific career, he developed an influential approach to playing the bass that combined complex harmonies with virtuosic technique. His signature style employed Latin-influenced funk grooves, lyrical solos on fretless bass, chords, and innovative use of harmonics and looping. Sadly, Jaco’s genius was not long for this world, as he died tragically 34 years ago on September 21st, 1987 at the young age of just 35.
In addition to working with artists like Joni Mitchell and Pat Metheny, as well as his own solo projects like Word Of Mouth, Pastorius is perhaps best known for his work with Weather Report in the late ’70s and early ’80s. His partnership with Weather Report nearly didn’t take, due in large part to Pastorius’ bravado about his bass-playing prowess. Before the sessions for his now-classic eponymous debut album (1976’s Jaco Pastorius), 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 f*ck outta here,” but over the course of their conversation, Pastorius’ headstrong and confident attitude eventually convinced Zawinul of the potential for a then-unknown young musician. He asked Jaco for a demo tape, and sure enough one showed up at his hotel the next morning. The tape was what got the ball rolling in earnest, as Zawinul quickly realized Pastorius’ impressive technical abilities.
Pastorius joined Weather Report during the recording sessions for 1976’s Black Market, and quickly became a vital part of the band’s chemistry by virtue of the unique qualities of his playing, his skills as a composer (and, in time, arranger), and his exuberant showmanship.
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 on September 21st, 1987.
Jaco Pastorius’ 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 another 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.
Today, September 21st, marks 34 years since Pastorious’ untimely death. In honor of his memory and musical legacy, revisit some of his most impressive live performances below.
Jaco Pastorius – “Slang”
[Video: Fernando Shiraishi]
Weather Report – Offenbach, Germany – 9/28/1978
[Video: abraham thinkin]
Revisit 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:
Jaco Pastorius – Montreal Jazz Festival – 7/3/1982
[Video: Henrique Scudeller]
[Originally published 9/21/18]