Jaco Pastorius

Donna LeeJaco Pastorius
Portrait Of TracyJaco Pastorius
CrisisWord Of Mouth
Liberty CityWord Of Mouth
Chromatic FantasyWord Of Mouth
Soul Intro/The ChickenInvitation
Sophisticated LadyInvitation
ContinuumPDB (Pastorius/Dennard/Bullock)
Ode To Billy JoePDB (Pastorius/Dennard/Bullock)

Jaco Pastorius photo 2



Jaco playlist



Contributor: David Lewis

He was the Jimi Hendrix of the electric bass – taking an instrument that was disdained by many jazz players and making it, almost singlehandedly, an important and even vital instrument for modern jazz. He stretched its range from a mere supporting instrument to a lead instrument. He was a composer who broke new ground in his compositions, a bandleader who could muster some of the best musicians into a cohesive and groovy combination. He spent time living in a car, living under a bridge and struggling for gigs. He died, way too young, way too stupidly and, tragically, in a fight that didn’t need to happen at all.

He wasn’t the first jazz bassist to play the solidbody electric. Most of his predecessors, however, used the instrument in pop, or soul, or rock. Jack Bruce or James Jamerson spring to mind. The first electric bass solo, it is thought, was from John Entwistle – another jazzer who had moved to rock. You can hear that solo on My Generation, of course. Jaco, along with Stanley Clarke, was the first bassist to play the solidbody in jazz, though.

He took the bass and pushed it into the forefront. His trebly tone cut through the mix, aggressively announcing itself, rather than settling into the low end, safely holding the bottom. Jaco played as fluently as any horn player, as fast as any guitarist and as funky as any drummer. At his best he was untouchable.

John Francis Pastorius III was born in Fort Lauderdale in Florida in 1951. He was adept at sport – his nickname was ‘Jocko’, but he saw a French spelling of the name and took it. He kept the pronunciation though. He drifted into music, playing drums and saxophone among others, but finally finding his voice on the bass. He started on double bass, but the humid Florida weather split the instrument. So he swapped to solidbody – a Fender Jazz bass became his main instrument. His first major gig was with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, where he honed his funk and soul chops.

In the early 1970s, he started teaching bass at the University of Miami. Reports vary as to how good he was as a teacher, but he met Pat Metheny, a young hotshot guitarist. He was later to appear on Metheny’s outstanding debut album, Bright Size Life. They also recorded an album called Jaco, released in 1974 on the Improvising Artists Inc. label.

Also in the early 70s, Jaco saw Weather Report and was greatly impressed. He went up to Joe Zawinul after the show and introduced himself as “the world’s greatest bass player”. Zawinul was similarly impressed, eventually, after hearing him play, Jaco eventually replaced Alphonso Johnson and, as Zawinul said, Weather Report went from a cult band to a massive band with a large following. Jaco was called ‘The Catalyst’ as his creative and unique bass lifted the music to new heights.

Zawinul and Jaco had a strained relationship – there is no doubt they loved each other like father and son, but they clashed badly. Zawinul nearly sacked him twice. The pressure of success, of being the world’s best bass player, got to Jaco, and may have contributed to his bipolar disorder. It certainly contributed to his addictions, marriage breakdowns and erratic behaviour.

Peter Viney’s excellent topper on Weather Report is worth reading, but I want to point out Jaco’s bass playing on Birdland (Heavy Weather). Peter mentions that through a good sound system you can hear the articulation of the hammered-on notes as opposed to picked notes. I also want the reader to notice the ‘guitar’ solo. For years I wondered who the guitarist was – was it John McLaughlin? Was it Pat Metheny? Al Di Meola? The sound might have been Larry Carlton’s Gibson 335. But in fact it’s Jaco playing pinch harmonics. Amazing. From the same album, Teen Town, written by Jaco, is another standout. And standard.

His first eponymous solo album was released in 1976 – the personnel included Herbie Hancock, Narada Michael Walden, David Sanborn, Randy Brecker – and it is fair to say it changed the bass world. Jaco was a more sophisticated composer than he’d been allowed to be in Weather Report. Donna Lee and Portrait Of Tracy are standouts. Jaco finds new range in the bass – he plays with the fluidity of Paul McCartney, but with a far more sophisticated harmonic range.

Jaco eventually left Weather Report in 1982 – he wasn’t sacked, though there were close calls. According to Zawinul, they’d agreed to take the following year off but promoters had locked them into a tour and Jaco had already committed to other projects. Weather Report continued with a new bassist, and Jaco with the Word of Mouth big band; he had set up a crack band including Michael Brecker on saxophone, Toots Thielemans on harmonica, Jack DeJohnette and Peter Erskine on drums, and Don Alias on percussion. Herbie Hancock guested on keyboards.

The opener on Word Of Mouth (1981) is one of the most striking tracks on the album. Crisis is an extraordinary composition. Jaco was never one to skimp on studio expenses, once spending 5,000 dollars on a Concorde ticket for some master tapes. Crisis was recorded bass line first. Then all the musicians were brought in one at a time to play over the bass line. Occasionally, they’d be dialled in to hear something else, but mostly it is them improvising over the bassline. It is chaotic, disordered and brilliant. It is likely a document of Jaco’s rapidly declining mental state – as the pressure grew, and his dependencies increased, his behaviour became more erratic. The record company eventually relented on Jaco’s insistence that Crisis be the opening track. Ultimately, it was the right decision. It’s a difficult listen, but a wonderful one.

Also from this album, the long Liberty City, featuring Hancock, grooves and swings. A rethinking of Birdland, its complex horn arrangement is a standout. Yet the soloists stretch out, Thielemans and Hancock being especially on point. It’s a joyous and marvellous piece of music. Despite its length, it never flags – a master class in arrangement and improvisation. The album also features a remarkable cover of McCartney’s Blackbird and the sublime Chromatic Fantasy – a rearrangement of Bach.

Jaco toured with the Word of Mouth band, also trying to poach guitarist Mike Stern from Miles Davis. His next venture was able to include Stern who had been fired from Davis’s band. The Jaco Pastorius Big Band took fusion rock to another place. Those of you who’ve listened so far may have noticed that Jaco had a strong foundation of funk and soul in his bass. Soul Intro/The Chicken, on the live 1983 album Invitation, starts with a piece that seems to have come straight from Stax, or maybe the Swampers. Then the band swaps 16 bars with a lovely little riff and, despite everyone getting a solo, Jaco solos underneath. It’s slick, tight and out of sight. From the same album, Toots Thielemans again brings a sublime approach to Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady.

Jaco flew high and bright. His innovations were light years ahead of most of his contemporaries. Not only, like Hendrix, did he extend the range and musicality of his instrument, he redefined how that instrument could express songs. And he redefined national songs – this seems a bit lame, put like that, but Amerika, which is an interpretation of America The Beautiful brings out messages and nuances and subtleties that the original didn’t realise was in there. It was a live staple and Jaco was able to quell hostile audiences with it, apparently.

After the inevitable end of the Big Band, Jaco formed PDB with Kenwood Dennard (who’d ended up in the Big Band) and Hiram Bullock. The name was not only an acronym of their surnames – Pastorius, Dennard, Bullock – but also meant pretty damn bad; which they were (in the ‘bad is bad!’ sense, not that they were bad – they were fantastic). Continuum showed how well they composed – it’s a thoughtful, restrained piece, but it has an edge. It’s also worth pointing out Ode To Billy Joe. It is truly one of the great songs of the 20th century; PDB make it an instrumental and draw out its funk and soul stylings. Bullock really shines here.

Jaco Pastorius had a death wish. It seems his Catholic faith prevented him from taking his own life, but it didn’t prevent him from putting himself in danger. His behaviour became more and more erratic and he ended up homeless, walking around Greenwich Village in New York with his bass, a basketball and a broom. He seemed to prefer the company of the homeless. On the rare occasions he got gigs, he performed erratically. At his best, he was the best. He could, however, play so far ‘out’ he’d lose the melody and the rhythm. He might turn up drunk and act belligerently. Concerts in Rome ended in riots. Jaco would make unreasonable demands of promoters at the last minute.

As Bill Milkowski points out in his excellent biography, Jaco’s decline was in part the fault of an industry that uses people but doesn’t look after them. We can look at Hendrix, Janis Joplin – Albert Grossman saw how sick she looked and took out an insurance premium – Amy Winehouse and a million others who didn’t get the recognition they might have with a bit of support. Those who wanted to help couldn’t. Those who could help didn’t. Jaco moved back to Fort Lauderdale in an abortive attempt to clean up. He ended up getting in a fight with a nightclub bouncer. Reports vary as to what happened, but what is in no doubt, Jaco ended up in a coma from which he did not wake up. He was 36.

Although I’ve spoken about Jaco’s mental illness, it shouldn’t define him. It wasn’t the disorder that made him a better bass player, any more than if he’d had cancer, say. Nor was it the drugs. These things made his life harder to manage and, if anything, the lack of care he was able, or wanted, to get diminished his playing. The pressure of being the best – as Coltrane was supposed to have said, “watching others get rich copying your chops” – also played a part.

In the end, it’s the way he played the bass, the way it went from a supporting instrument to a lead instrument and a foundational instrument. Jaco was exciting, and new, and innovative. He lit a fire that blazed new paths for every jazz bassist to follow.



Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987)


Jaco Pastorius official website

Jaco Pastorius discography
– including notable guest spots and sessions on albums by Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Jimmy Cliff, Mike Stern, Randy Bernsen …

“Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius”
by Bill Milkowski (Backbeat, 2005)

“Jaco: The Film”
– this 2014 documentary is directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak, produced by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo in association with Passion Pictures

Jaco Pastorius biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website. David is also the co-author of “Divided Opinions” published this year and derived from an established podcast on Australian politics.

TopperPost #929


  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 20, 2021

    Such a brilliant musician – a true one-off and visionary. Like many people my first introduction to Jaco’s genius was through his work with Joni Mitchell. Later discovered his work with Weather Report and his classic first solo album. Thanks for this great piece which rounds out the picture.

  2. Peter Viney
    Jan 23, 2021

    Excellent piece. An oddity, is the Lone Star Cafe 6 January 1985 where Jaco Pastorius joined Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel on stage for their encore, which is Jimmy Reed’s ‘Honest I Do’. Rick Danko introduces him as ‘my favourite bass player in the whole wide world.’ It’s on YouTube (sound only) together with an earlier show where Jorma Kaukonen joined them. Go to 2 hours 10 minutes approximately to get Jaco.

  3. David Lewis
    Jan 24, 2021

    Andrew – he is a remarkable player. The stuff with Joni is so emerging otherworldly.
    Peter. A really great clip. Thank you for posting.

  4. John Chamberlain
    Jan 27, 2021

    Thanks. Most interesting and it has given me some more links to investigate on other groups with whom he worked.

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