The fretless genius: Jaco Pastorius

“Jaco real name “John Francis Pastorius III”, was the first of three sons of John Francis Pastorius II and Stephanie Katherine Haapala Pastorius. He had Finnish, German, Swedish and Irish ancestors. Although “Jaco” was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the family later moved to Fort Lauderdale. Jaco attended St. Clement’s Catholic School in Wilton Manors for elementary and middle school. At this school, he was a child at heart, as well as at the neighboring church. He went on to Northeast High in Oakland Park. He was a talented athlete, good at soccer, basketball and baseball, and learned music at an early age. He took the name “Anthony” upon his confirmation.

He loved basketball and often watched with his father, whose nickname was “Jack”. Jaco’s nickname was influenced by his love of the sport and also by referee Jocko Conlan. He changed the spelling from “Jocko” to “Jaco” after pianist Alex Darqui advised him to do so. Darqui, who was French, assumed the name was spelled “Jaco” and the latter changed it, as he liked it.

Initially a drummer, following in the footsteps of his father, stand-up drummer Jack Pastorius, “Jaco” switched to bass at the age of 15, after injuring his wrist. Around 1970, he began playing in a nine-piece brass band called Las Olas Brass, which covered popular tunes from the era of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and the Tijuana Brass.


His musical influences include James Jamerson, James Brown, the Beatles, Miles Davis and Stravinsky. Other musical influences include: Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Paul Hindemith, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, The Band, Santana, Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, Rocco Prestia, Tommy Cogbill, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, James T. Doggington, Cannonball Adderley and Jerry Jemmott.

Musical career

He played music throughout his youth, drawing on influences such as Jerry Jemmott, James Jamerson, Paul Chambers, Harvey Brooks and Tommy Cogbill, and honing his skills and developing his songwriting prowess in bands such as Wayne Cochran and The C.C. Riders. He also played on various local R&B and jazz records during this period, such as Ira Sullivan’s Quintet and Woodchuck. In 1974, he began playing with his friend and future famous jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. They recorded together, first with Paul Bley as leader and Bruce Ditmas on drums, then with drummer Bob Moses. Metheny and Jaco record a fusion album entitled Bright Size Life.

In 1975, Pastorius met Blood, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who had been given the green light by CBS Records to find “new talent” for their jazz division. By this time, he had met keyboardist Joe Zawinul in Miami, Florida, where his band, Weather Report, was playing. According to Zawinul, Jaco approached him after a concert the night before and talked about the performance and how it was “good” but that he “expected more”.

Pastorius’ debut album

Pastorius’ debut album, produced by Colomby and entitled Jaco Pastorius (1976), was a breakthrough for electric bass. Many consider it the best bass album ever recorded; when it exploded onto the jazz scene, it was instantly recognized as a classic. The album also boasted a group of heavyweights from the jazz community of the time: Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn, Lenny White, Don Alias and Michael Brecker, among others. Even legendary R&B stars Sam and Dave reunited to appear on one of the tracks, Come On, Come Over.

Pastorius at the pinnacle of jazz

Shortly after the album’s release, Jaco made appearances on records across the jazz canvas, (Ian Hunter’s solo album Mott The Hoople, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album, and Al Di Meola’s solo album are the most notable, all released in 1976). Shortly afterwards, Pastorius was invited to join the fusion band Weather Report, where he played alongside Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter until 1982. It was with Weather Report that Pastorius left his indelible mark on jazz music, participating in one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, the Grammy-nominated Heavy Weather. Not only did this album showcase Jaco’s breathtaking bass playing, but he also co-produced with Joe Zawinul and even played drums on the album Teen Town, which he composed himself.

Over the course of his musical career, Pastorius has taken part in dozens of recording sessions for other musicians, both inside and outside the jazz world. Among the most notable of these were four highly acclaimed albums by the famous singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976), Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), Mingus (1979) and the live album Shadows and Light (1980). It is on Hejira that his influence is most dominant, and many of the songs on this album seem to have been composed using bass as a source of melodic inspiration.

By the time he amicably parted ways with Weather Report in early 1982, Jaco had already turned his attention to creating a solo Big Band project, which made its debut on his second solo album, distributed by Warner Brothers, Word of Mouth (which was also the name of the Big Band). Like his first album in 1976, Word of Mouth featured contributions from a number of renowned jazz musicians; Herbie Hancock appears here again, as do Weather Report alumni Wayne Shorter and Peter Erskine, and other legends such as harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans and Hubert Laws.

The songwriting on Word of Mouth somewhat overshadowed his bass playing and really opened the eyes of many who thought his prowess was limited to electric bass. His production and ability to pull together a project that was recorded on both coasts of the U.S. was truly astonishing.

He toured in 1982, culminating in a stint in Japan (and it was at this time that bizarre stories about Jaco’s deteriorating behavior surfaced). This tour was released in Japan as Twins I and Twins II, and condensed for an American release known as Invitation.

Pastorius’s behavior poses a problem

His increasingly erratic behavior began to affect his musical career, and he was eventually dropped by Warner Brothers. In 1984, the Word of Mouth Big Band also split up. He managed to record a third solo album, limited to a few unfinished demo tapes, a steel pans-tinged album entitled Holiday for Pans, which once again showed him to be a composer and producer rather than a bassist. (Historical note: it turns out that Jaco didn’t even play the bass parts on the bootleg. A few years after his death, bassist Kenny Burrell Jr. confessed to having done so). (In 2003, an extract from Holiday for Pans, entitled Good Morning Anya, was included in Rhino Records’ Punk Jazz anthology).

Towards the end of his career, he took part in discrete releases by jazz artists such as guitarist Mike Stern, gypsy guitarist Bireli Lagrene and drummer Brian Melvin.

Instruments and technique

Pastorius was best identified by his use of two well-worn Fender Jazz Basses from the early 1960s: a 1960 Fretted, and a 1962 Fretless. The fretless was originally a fretted bass, from which he removed the frets and used putty to fill in the grooves where the frets used to be, as well as the holes created where pieces of the fingerboard had been removed. Jaco then sanded the fingerboard and applied several coats of marine epoxy (Petit’s Poly- poxy) to prevent the Rotosound RS-66 round strings he was using from eating away at the bare wood. Although he frequently played fretted bass and fretless bass, he preferred fretless bass, as he considered frets a nuisance, even calling them “speed bumps”.

The “Jaco growl” is achieved by using the bridge pickup exclusively and plucking the strings close to it. In addition, Jaco used the “Variamp” EQ controls on his two Acoustic 360 amplifiers (manufactured by Acoustic Control Corporation of Van Nuys, California) to boost the midrange frequencies, accentuating the natural growl of his round-string combination and fretless passive Fender Jazz Bass. His sound was also colored by the use of a chorus effect (an outboard sound-modifying device similar to a phase shifter) that gave a slight doubling effect, and by the use of an original Acoustic bass amplifier. He often used the Acoustic 361’s built-in fuzz control. Other effects he used live were his octaver (an outboard effect pedal that provides a second sound an octave lower) and his MXR sampling pedal, which can be heard on his live solo spot with Weather Report, Slang (Jaco loops a short excerpt of playing, then plays a solo over it).

Pastorius used natural and artificial/false harmonics to extend the range of the bass (illustrated in the bass solo Portrait of Tracy from his eponymous album) and could achieve a horn-like sound with his playing technique. His two Fender basses were stolen shortly before he entered Bellevue Hospital in 1986; they have never been found. Jaco also had two Jaydee basses made shortly before his death, one fretted and one fretless.

Health problems and death

In the early to mid-1980s, Pastorius began to experience mental health problems, including symptoms of manic depression. These problems were compounded by heavy drug and alcohol consumption. Although his on- and off-stage antics were already well documented, his mental health and substance abuse problems exacerbated his unusual and often bizarre behavior, and his musical performances also suffered.

During this period, he performed in various solo acts and nightclubs in Fort Lauderdale and New York. He became an outcast in the music world. His last living address was Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. After sneaking onto the stage of a Carlos Santana concert on September 11, 1987, he was ejected from the venue and went to the Midnight Bottle Club in Wilton Manors, Florida. What happened next is a matter of dispute. Some say he tried to break down the glass door after being refused entry, others say he did absolutely nothing and did nothing to deserve his fate. Either way, he ended up in a violent confrontation with the club’s bouncer, Luc Havan, who was trained in martial arts. Pastorius was hospitalized with multiple facial fractures and horrific facial disfigurement, including the probable loss of his right eye, and suffered irreversible brain damage. He fell into a coma and was placed on life support. With increasing signs of brain death, his family decided to take him off life support. After being taken off life support, his heart continued to beat for three hours. Pastorius died on September 21, 1987, at the age of 35, at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Following his death, Havan was charged with second-degree murder and put on trial. However, Havan ultimately served only four months for the crime.

Jaco is buried at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in North Lauderdale.

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