(Weather Report * Jazz)
Michigan State University
Citation: Hart-Davidson, Bill. “Jaco Pastorius.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r02
Abstract: Choosing Jaco Pastorius was an easy call. As a player, he occupies a fascinating place in the world of electric bass. He is, in a word, undeniable. And yet, as a survey of Rolling Stone readers in 2011 noted, he’s not a “household name.” He was just number seven on the magazine’s list of all time greats. John Entwhistle of The Who and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers come in at one and two. But just as there’s no Entwhistle without James Jamerson (Funk Brothers bass icon who, most agree, first defined what an electric bass could and should do), there’s no Flea without Jaco.
Keywords: Bass, Jazz, Jaco Pastorius, Major 7th Triads, Downbeat.
There is a line that vibrates with soulful conviction, sung by R&B legends Sam & Dave, about halfway through the second track on Jaco Pastorius’ eponymous debut album:
“There’s something here that cannot be denied.”
Come on, Come Over is not the best known Jaco tune. Most of the iconic ones are Weather Report songs like Birdland or bass geek tracks like Donna Lee or both like Teen Town. But Come On, Come Over, fractal-like, contains within it all the things that define Jaco’s style. The bass line from the jump is a supertight sixteenth note groove, singing from the back pickup of his fretless Fender. And then there’s the funk turnaround in the chorus, full of signature licks. Pastorius was all but unknown when Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Columby brought him to New York from South Florida to record that first album in 1976. But Herbie Hancock, Sam & Dave, and David Sanborn showed up on Come On, Come Over. They came over, after hearing just a quick sample demo, because there was something there that could not be denied.
Choosing Jaco Pastorius for Rocktalog is an easy call. As a player, he occupies a fascinating place in the world of electric bass. He is, in a word, undeniable. And yet, as a survey of Rolling Stone readers in 2011 noted, he’s not a “household name.” He was just number seven on the magazine’s list of all time greats. John Entwhistle of The Who and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers come in at one and two. But just as there’s no Entwhistle without James Jamerson (Funk Brothers bass icon who, most agree, first defined what an electric bass could and should do), there’s no Flea without Jaco.
Jaco’s life story is luminous and tragic. But what fascinates me is that there is no way to play the electric bass without coming to grips with what Jaco did on the instrument. If you have two pickups on your instrument, as is standard for a “jazz bass” configuration, rolling off the neck and boosting the bridge pickup calls up Jaco like a spirit in a séance. And if your bass has the split coil “precision” pickup instead? Well, you miss that Jaco sound every time you play sixteenths, his ghost no doubt grinning at you from the beyond.
Something he did, over and over in his bedroom and in smoky clubs in Miami as a kid, changed the way everybody hears the bass. There are many great bass players. All of them practiced hard, no doubt. But there’s just one we hear coming through our own amps, as players, when we pluck the strings. When folks would mention his influence, Jaco had just one response: “give me a gig, man!” With the Rocktalog, I want to give him one more gig, gathering things he said about talent, composing, and practice to explore that something that cannot be denied.
Jaco Pastorius Rocktalog
Gimme a gig, man!
I did all my learning in the clubs. Playing eight sets a night. It was real killer stuff; going in at 9pm and leaving at 6:30 in the morning without days off. Doing that for a year and a half is always fun. I started playing at night clubs on bass just before I turned 16. I kept doing that until almost joining Weather Report.
First thing Joe said to me was that he wanted that Florida sound, so I recorded Cannonball, and one other, strictly as a sideman. Alphonso Johnson had already left the band, and even though I didn't realize it, Joe was auditioning bass players.
I mean, it wasn’t like my first gig by a long shot. I’d done tons of professional things. But this is the first notoriety with a jazz band, or whatever you call this kind of music. I wasn’t going to come out with anybody playing records until I did something on my own. So I made my solo record and then I decided I’d come out and work.
I’ve done lots of gigs. I played with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders for a long time but never recorded with him, and I played with Paul Bley. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami, I played with: Temptations, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, anybody, comedians, show gigs. That’s where I learned all my reading, in show gigs. I just went out on all gigs.
I've just always had big ears. I never had any money, so I had to work, and I caught on quick.
I consider myself as much a writer as a bassist…I've always done both. The people at Epic probably got a little more than they bargained for when they signed me. They knew they had some guy who could play a lot of bass, but they didn't know they had a writer as well.
I could have signed a big contract, gotten a fat advance and then have to do everything I was told. But I didn’t. I figure you do the work, then you get paid.
I’m all self taught. I can read, man, but yeah, self-taught. It’s easy, all you’ve got to do is be offered a show gig when you don’t know how to read anything and that’s the only way you can make money. Then you learn how to read overnight. You concentrate and learn by ear and trial and error. That’s how I learned.
At first I just played what was on the radio, you know? A lot of times…they don’t even tell you the bass player is!
Now I know of course. Herbie (Hancock) was a big influence on me, James Brown, people like that…the Beatles, Sinatra. Sinatra is a killer. He was a real big influence on me, because that tone of his voice is in the same range I play in. It’s a sort of baritone tenor sort of a range. I’ll just be sort of playing in there; when I get in that range I’m just really singing and concentrating on the quality of each note. That’s what’s hard. Not matter how fast I’m playing I’m thinking of each note as it goes by and really trying to get the most out of each note.
My greatest inspiration has been singers – they have the ability to get personal. When I play the bass, most people can usually tell it’s me, because of the kind of personal thing I try to get in my tone.
As far as practice, well, through the years you’ve got to practice triadic stuff. This is what bass players haven’t practiced therefore it sounds like I’m doing something sort of new. Which in fact it probably is but I just know because I would hear piano players warm up or you hear piano players take a solo or anything and they’re just really playing triadically . And that’s the hardest thing to do on the bass; play in triads. To play fast in triads. Because it’s so physically hard to do.
So you work in triads scale wise. You practice dominant triads or major 7th triads. You can just run through any diatonic scale just running arpeggios off every chord member of that scale. That’s some of the hardest work that you’re going to get on the bass and just the different ways you can do it. Going across all four strings and trying to keep your hand in one position as long as possible and of course then knowing the best place to change over. There aren’t any books you can buy to learn how to do that.
It’s physically hard and when you get the strength you can start to play. That’s what’s so good about playing every night. For years when I put in all these ridiculous hours where I’d hate to think I’d ever have to do that again but if I hadn’t done that I definitely wouldn’t be able to do what I’m up to. You’ve got to have that strength and you don’t get that practicing at home. That’s just on the job training.
And then you think about it – I went all the way until after playing with Cochran…I quit Wayne’s band and I had never practiced. And I was already playing all sorts of stuff. I have never practiced. Maybe right at first trying to figure out what the notes are on the bass. Outside of that I had never really practiced; outside of knowing where the notes were and playing in different keys. That was it, man, I just went out and worked. And that didn’t take but a couple of days to do that; all you have to do is think mathematically. Everyone is always trying to think too musically. You’ve got to get the basic mathematics down and then you can go anywhere from there.
After Wayne I practiced for a couple of years, maybe even just one year but pretty hard. A couple, few hours a day; anything from one to four hours a day. I put in some real strong time.
But I concentrated in such a way where other people would probably have to put in 20 hours to every one of mine. When I concentrate nothing else even exists. You get so involved and then it’s like a motor skill, it’s completely bam! in your hand and there’s no way of really losing it. You might lose the adeptness or just really having a good technique but you really won’t lose the moves. And then after you’ve got the motor skills down you can start thinking melody. Because you know how to go everywhere.
It's all in the hands; in order to get that sound, you have to know exactly where to touch the strings, exactly how much pressure to apply. You have to learn to feel it. And then it just sings.
Something happened to me when my daughter was born. I stopped listening to records, reading Down Beat, things like that, because I didn't have the time anymore. That wasn't bad that's why my sound is different. But there was something else. A new personality being born made me see that it was time for my musical personality to be born; there was no need for me to listen to records. I knew music, I had the makings of a musician; now I had to become one. My daughter made me see all this, because she was depending on me. I wasn't going to let her down.
So it was really the influence of my family that got me to play. I had to be pragmatic about it, and they inspired me to actually get down to doing things. That's why I call my music Family Music. There's so much more involved than just playing the notes. I mean, a chimpanzee could learn to do what I do physically. But it goes way beyond that. When you play, you play life. And my family is the main influence on my life. They're the main influence on my music.
Neil Tesser. “Portrait of Jaco.” Downbeat Magazine, Jan 27, 1977.
Jerry Jemmott. Modern Electric Bass with Jaco Pastorius. DCI Video, 1985.
Clive Williamson. Untitled BBC Interview, 1977.
Ray Recchi. “S. Florida’s Pastorius Breaks the Bass Barrier” Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel. 1981.
Julie Coryell. “Jaco Pastorius.” In Jazz-Rock Fusion – The People, The Music’. Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, Eds. New York: Dell. 1978.