Jaco Pastorius - Biography
By J Poet
Jaco Pastorius is probably the best electric bass player who ever lived, and during his brief career her burned as bright as a comet in the jazz sky. He only recorded for ten years, but the albums he mad with the fusion band Weather Report and on his own are all classics. His debut Jaco Pastorius (1976 Epic) is probably the best album featuring electric bass ever made. He’s the only electric bass player in the Jazz Hall of Fame (Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, and Ray Brown are the others). He won a single Best Jazz Fusion Performance Grammy for his work on Weather Report’s live album 8:30 (1978 Columbia, 2007 Columbia), but was almost homeless nine years later when he died, reduced to a shadow of his former brilliant self by drugs, alcohol and mental illness. He was only 35 years old.
Pastorius was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania to Jacko Pastorius, an amateur jazz drummer and Stephanie Haapala. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale when Pastorius was a child and he grew up playing football, basketball, baseball, and music. He was a drummer like his father until a wrist injury led him to the bass. By the time he was 19 he was playing in a jazz/funk cover band - Las Olas Brass. He played jazz and R&B session in the 70s, some with his friend guitarist Pat Metheny. His first serious recording was on Metheny’s Bright Sized Life (1975 ECM) with Bob Moses. Pastorius’s chops were already stellar, but he stayed in the background letting Metheny take the lead on the free flowing session.
In 1975 Pastorius chatted with Weather Report keyboard man Joe Zawinul and told him he “expected more” from the band. The next year, ex- Blood, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby got Pastorius signed to Epic. Jaco Pastorius (1976 Epic, 2004 Legacy) may be the best electric bass album ever made. The backup band included Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn, Lenny White, Don Alias, and Michael Brecker. His arrangements fuse jazz, R&B, Classical and other impulses and his technique still sounds astounding years later.
He became an instant star and an in demand player guesting on albums like Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (1976 Asylum), Ian Hunter (1975 Columbia), and Al Di Meola's Land of the Midnight Sun (1976 Columbia, 1996 Columbia). His taunting of Joe Zawinul bore fruit; he was asked to join Weather Report shortly after Jaco Pastorius started shaking up the jazz and rock world.
Pastorius joined for Black Market (1976 Columbia, 2007 Columbia) and added his charismatic showmanship to the band’s live gigs. On Heavy Weather (1977 Columbia, 2007 Columbia) his free form bass lines complimented Zawinul’s synthesizers and Shorter’s sax. Mr. Gone (1978 Columbia, 2007 Columbia) got mixed reviews, but on the live 8:30 (1978 Columbia, 2007 Columbia) a stripped down band - Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine – showed off the band’s incredible chops. The title track won a Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion performance.
Weather Report (1982 Columbia, 1997 Columbia), the last album to include Pastorius, is heavy on the groove with some world music touches and the usual solid ensemble playing. He left Weather Report to start a big band he named Word of Mouth. Word of Mouth (1981 Warner, 2007 Warner) included Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Tom Scott, Toots Thielemans, and Jack DeJohnette on tunes that range from Bach to The Beatles, with a few Pastorius originals. His production was a big surprise to many. He toured with the band and highlights of the band’s Japanese dates are captured on Invitation (1983 Warner). He was already starting to exhibit erratic behavior and Warner dropped him. Word of Mouth splintered soon after. A third “solo” album. Holiday for Pans was in production for a long time, but he never finished it. He was probably bi-polar, and his use of drugs and alcohols to stave off his illness only made things worse.
He was largely shunned by the music world and had no known address when he tried to sneak into the Midnight Bottle Club in Wilton Manors, Florida. He got into an altercation with the club’s bouncer and was severely beaten. He slipped into a coma and died on September 21, 1987.
Pastorius was master of the fretless bas, playing on a Fender Jazz Bass he’d modified himself. His trademark was the Jaco growl made by plucking the strings close to the bridge pickup and a sampler pedal. Most of the albums that keep his legend alive were released after his death and include the jazz/rock trio outing Live in Italy (1986 Jazzpoint) with Bireli Lagrene on guitar and drummer Tomas Böröcz, Jazz Street (1989 Timeless) and The Birthday Concert (1995 Warner) cut live in 1981 with the Peter Graves Orchestra and Michael Brecker, The Essential Jaco Pastorius (2007 Columbia Legacy) a two disc collection of his varied career, and Punk Jazz The Jaco Pastorius Anthology (2003 Rhino) which concentrates on his jazz fusion sides.