John "Jaco" Francis Pastorius III (December 1st, 1951-September 21st, 1987)

He is considered by many musicians to be the most influential, innovative, and technically proficient jazz bass player the world has ever heard. He recorded with many of the jazz greats during his professional career (1975-1987) and was a member of Weather Report and leader of his own band, Word of Mouth. Jaco used false harmonics and finger tapping along with an unprecedented melodic styling in a way that redefined the role of the bass guitar in modern music. He invented the fretless bass guitar one night by taking out a pair of pliers and some wood compound and removing the frets. Legend of his exploits is no doubt highly exagerrated, but enough stories (like the one where he was seen riding around the streets of Tokyo on a motorcycle, naked and screaming) exist that you have to believe that at least some of what you hear was true, if not most or all of it.

Jaco was born in Pennsylvania, but grew up in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His first musical influence was his father, a jazz drummer. Under his father's tutelege, Jaco taught himself to play guitar, bass guitar, drums, and keyboards. He started backing visiting music acts and quickly gained both a reputation and a local following. His quick rise to stardom began in 1975 when Bobby Colomby, drummer with Blood, Sweat And Tears, was impressed enough to arrange the recording of Pastorius' first album, and a year later Pat Metheny asked him to play bass on his own debut album for ECM Records.

Soon after that Jaco was picked up by Weather Report. Legend has it that he walked up after the show, said he was a big fan, and announced himself as " The Greatest Bass Player in the World."

Weather Report discography:

Jaco also released a number of albums with Joni Mitchell

and of course on his own or with Word of Mouth:

thanks to Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, "The World's Greatest Bass Player, published by Miller Freeman Books, June 1995 for the Discography. Please excuse any broken hard links.

In the latter stages in his career Jaco started using cocaine heavily and drank alcohol to excess. His unstable mental state became more and more apparent and his self-destructive urges hindered both his social and his professional life. His friends turned their backs after trying to get him back on his feet time after time, and record companies could no longer deal with him on a professional level. During this period there were reports of him pawning his bass and panhandling for money to buy beer and drugs. He had been known to go into bars and pick fights with the toughest, meanest looking guy he could find, and then stand at attention with his hands behind his back as he was pummelled.

Like many of his musical idols, Jaco shot to stardom at a young age as a result of musical genius. Unfortunately he also followed their path to excess and an untimely demise. On September 21st, 1987, at the age of 36, Jaco was beaten into a coma by a bouncer at the Midnight Club in his home town of Fort Lauderdale. He never recovered.

Sidenote:
Jaco's influences are very noticeable in his music: Charlie Parker ("Donna Lee"), Duke Ellington ("Sophisticated Lady"), John Coltrane ("Giant Steps") Johann Sebastian Bach's ("Chromatic Fantasy") Jimi Hendrix ("Amerika," "Purple Haze," "Third Stone from the Sun"), James Brown ("The Chicken"), Bob Marley ("I Shot the Sheriff"), and the Beatles ("Blackbird," "Dear Prudence").

Jaco went to my high school and was in the school band. Interestingly enough, our current band teacher was in band with Jaco during his high school years. The story goes that Jaco would be introduced to freshmen and other rookies with a simple "This is Jaco, he does everything". Jaco was a bit proud of himself, he liked to say stuff along the lines of "I'm John Francis Pastorious III, and I'm the greatest bass player in the world."

The story of Jaco's death, as it was relayed to us sometime in the middle of my freshman year (2000-2001), was something like this: Carlos Santana gave Jaco an open invite to come onstage with them and jam any time he wanted to. The bouncer in question saw Jaco (who was, by this time, not in the best of conditions owing to his excesses and drug use as detailed in numberoneson's write up) assumed that this was just some ordinary junky trying to get close to Carlos, not knowing that this junky was a musical genius. So Jaco got the shit beat out of him, went to the hospital, and gave up the ghost after lingering in a coma.

Our band teacher's drives within the faculty to get Jaco a plaque of some sort has been stonewalled; they seem to think that Jaco isn't an "appropriate role model" due to the end of his life, ignoring the music he created when he wasn't self-destructing. So Brent Jett, an astronaut who graduated from this same school, gets the street in front of the school named after him, and Jaco gets (as of the time of this writeup) nothing.

Jaco was the epitome of the tortured musical genius.

He was the kind of kid who was good at anything he tried. Good in school, an excellent athlete (it was pronounced "Jocko" for a reason) and when he finally decided to take up an instrument (his father was a jazz musician) he decided to play the drums at first. Passionate enough to rent a warehouse and practice there, he eventually switched to the bass, and loved it to the point of mania.

He had an upright bass, but it started to come apart with the heat and humidity of the Florida town he grew up in (Fort Lauderdale) so he switched to the bass guitar. After playing it extensively, he decided in his frustration at not having the same fluidity he had with his upright to remove the frets and fill in the holes with wood filler, inventing the fretless bass guitar.

With it, he turned an instrument that to date had been used to thud out the root of chords in country, jazz and rock and turned it into an instrument that could slur, trill, and sing, gliding in registers the bass was tricky to play fretted. He practiced maniacally, and developed a level of genius with the instrument that rivaled the virtuosity seen in other instruments.

And the importance of this technical and musical genius cannot be overstated. He transformed the instrument and forever changed the way it was regarded and played. He combined it with advances in technology to play it with chorus, or delay - in one famous solo with Joni Mitchell, he "looped" himself playing three notes with a string slap as a rhythm, creating an impromptu chorded backdrop with which to play gorgeous, soaring octave-doubled melodies.

Lauded mightily on the local scene, he eventually wowed Joe Zawinul of Weather Report and when their bassist quit, Jaco was given the job. He completely wowed the fusion jazz scene, and between Weather Report and a solo effort (whose first album netted him two Grammy awards) became a legend.

But his personal life was a mess. His father had been an alcoholic whose turbulent life had been something Jaco had protected his brother from. He married early and had two children, and when that fell apart had two children with another - in two very turbulent and ultimately crashing and burning relationships. He was a teetotaller until Zawinul one fateful night told him to lighten up and offered him a shot of alcohol. Whatever genetic key was in him that took to booze lit up like a pinball machine, and he rapidly descended into multiple drug addiction.

It gets worse.

Between his stormy relationships and the stress of keeping up his status as living legend, the manic depression that fuelled him to become the tortured genius he was really started to take hold. Between addiction and his increasing inability to manage his mental illness, he became homeless.

From teenage wunderkind to 20something legend, he became a 30something homeless addict, goading people to near-violence, and then charming them, pushing people away and then desperately wanting them back.

He was committed a few times - but the medication that helped his symptoms affected his genius, and also affected his hands. One medication caused tremor, another caused him to lose the feeling in his fingers. He was looking at two choices that seemed suboptimal - a composer who could no longer play the melodies in his head, or a crazy man ranting in the forest.

He chose the latter, cadging for liquor or drugs, pawning or losing the bass guitar that was his only link to sanity. His friends tried to hide it from him, but eventually someone lost or sold it, and it has not been seen since his death.

And yes, he died. One night, he went to a jazz club and tried to go on the stage, drunk and near-incoherent. Security, having no idea who he was, bum-rushed him off stage, and it was the last time he was seen alive and conscious. The head of security would later be arrested.

According to the man who was tried for his murder, Luc Havan, he chased Pastorius, who slipped and fell and hit his head. Nobody bought it, as the injuries to Pastorius' head and face indicated that he had been beaten into a coma, with extensive injuries to his face and skull. It was a coma that he'd never wake from, dying nine days later. Luc Havan pled guilty to manslaughter to avoid a murder charge and trial, but to the horror of Jaco's family (who were ambivalent about their feelings about his death, seeing it as a matter of time) the man was released almost as soon as he went in. Between time off for good behavior, credit given in order to reduce prison overcrowding and so forth he only served just under four of the twenty one months' sentence he received for brutally beating the skinny, undernourished and drunken Pastorius to death.

Everyone, from Zawinul (who blames himself for pressuring Pastorius to have that fateful first drink) to his family have asked themselves over and over what they could have done to stop the downward spiral.

But despite the man's turbulent life and violent death, he's remembered as the man who turned an instrument notorious for being something the lazy choose to play because you only ever play three notes a song into something people truly aim to master and play with musicality and virtuosity. Bassists everywhere genuflect and mention his name in hushed tones in the same way classical musicians speak of Mozart, keyboard players speak of Bach, or violinists revere Paganini.

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