Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of one of jazz music’s brightest lights in its rich history, Jaco Pastorius, who in his short life became as important a figure on his respective instrument, the electric bass guitar, as Charlie Parker had been on his saxophone, Jelly Roll Morton on the piano, Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, and Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar.
For about ten years on the jazz/fusion scene, Pastorius pioneered sounds and a feverish, almost robotic attack to the instrument, creating sounds and an approach unlike anything heard before it or since. There were legendary figures on the instrument before him, who also became his influences – Paul Chambers, who played with Miles Davis; Charles Mingus; Gary Peacock; Dave Holland; Ron Carter – all masters of the upright bass, and the early figures on electric bass, famed session players like Jerry Jemmott and Tommy Cogbill, Paul McCartney and Donald “Duck” Dunn. But Pastorius took all that he learned, especially playing night after night in cover bands all throughout his home state of Florida growing up as a teen, and he made it original and jaw droppingly astonishing, bringing the bass guitar, usually relegated to the “backbeat” of a musical ensemble, to a lead instrument of sorts.
With his use of fretless techniques, inventing a process known as “fake harmonics” in which the player can emulate the same sound as playing a proper harmonic on the instrument, and a rapid fire extremely soulful repetition that never, ever let up, never stutter stepped, never was out of tune, Jaco Pastorius not only became one of the great figures on his instrument, he practically downright owned the heavyweight title as he so immodestly liked to put it, calling himself, “The World’s Greatest Bass Player.” As egotistical as that statement was, nobody, but nobody could dispute that claim. Any naysayer of it simply had to hear a scant couple of notes of the man’s playing to wholeheartedly agree. It really was that simple.
Once he hit it big with his self-titled debut release in 1976, the jazz world took notice and he became the wonderboy of that genre. He joined Weather Report soon after and took that band over the top as well, playing with Miles Davis veterans Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter to sold out arenas worldwide. He also had stints with Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell among many others. The verve and youthful energy of Pastorius, who had a lust for life that manifested in his playing and in his life, made him not only a jazz superstar, but a jazz rockstar as well, and was a large part in getting the youth of the time interested in the jazz sounds, which were pretty much musical anathema to that generation. With amped up intense bass solos for frenzied crowds which were chock full of Hendrix riffs, classic R & B, and even a version of the traditional standard “America the Beautiful,” Jaco helped changed all that youth derision and nose thumbing at jazz fusion, at least during that zeitgeist of the late 1970s, when he seemed musically invincible.
But Jaco Pastorius was also a troubled man later in his life. He left Weather Report by 1982 and formed his own Big Band, which was another rousing success and started showing his talents and propensity for not only playing music in a most stellar fashion, but composing it, arranging it and producing it as well. But this time, he began sporting a mental illness which manifested itself in mood swings and deep depression and unkempt erratic behaviors, things that turned him sometimes into former shadows of his famed glory days, literally and figuratively. By the mid-1980s, tales of Jaco started to get into the urban legend variety, he was homeless, he was completely off kilter with himself and the people around him, the Jaco legend, which once trumpeted what a wonderful musician he was, now became mired in a virtual blackballing of him because of his unpredictable behavior. Pastorius met his tragic demise as a result of his illnesses and demons on September 21, 1987, when he succumbed to dire injuries sustained in a vicious attack on him by a bouncer in Florida, a senseless and downright awful way to end a life that enriched so many with his music.
In the wake of his death, however, Jaco Pastorius has become a key figure in the latter day world of the jazz movement of the 20th Century, a figure as important as any of the greats. He continues to elicit platitudes of the wonderful and genius variety, as his recorded output will never lose any of the magnanimous luster that was the breathtakingly original sounds that eminated from the bass guitar of Jaco Pastorius.
If you’ve just heard of his name, but never knew what he was all about, if you just heard that he was considered this all time great bass player and didn’t understand what all the hoopla was all about, then one is absolutely urged to scope out his unreal recordings which are not of the casual variety, but of the mindblowing one. But don’t just take my word for it, check out some of the videos below which showcase some peak performances of this gifted master.
Big heartfelt tributes abound today for the late, great Jaco Pastorius, who will never have the volume knob dimmed on his great, short, and influential life. If anything, the knob will be turned way up, in the other direction.