went over our heads, and other times they hit us at street level.
He also brought along a sidekick, who played the part of straight man: Victor Bailey, Weather Report’s new bassist. Theirs was the funniest historical meeting ever.
There was something funny, too, about how we got with Jaco. A series of late-night phone calls from Florida to the Guitar World offices. An invitation to the famous electric bassist to fly to New York. Jaco hemming, hawing, hesitating, resisting. Ten minutes later a return call: “I’m on the next plane.” The next day, GW staffers picked him up at a Soho jazz bar.
Jaco walked into Jonathan Postal’s studio with his famous Fender Jazz bass slung on a strap. He led Victor into the room. I didn’t expect to interview two of the most important bassists at once; such luck is rare. Jaco and Victor had met just that day, but they seemed to be longtime friends, teacher and student, based only on previous brief, backstage encounters. After rounding up some beer, Jaco dove into the photo shoot, thereby giving me a chance to rethink the questions I’d prepared.
Who is Jaco Pastorius? I knew that he had recently left Weather Report, and the memory of his wonderful concert with his own orchestra, named for his recent self-produced Warners album, Word of Mouth, was vivid. But nothing I’d read prepared me for his wit and insight, combined with the slightest hint of urban anger.
Although now living in Florida, John Francis Pastorius was born in Philadelphia thirty-one years ago. He moved to the Fort Lauderdale area at age eight, and in his teens developed his skills as a player (on several instruments) and arranger, becoming an in-demand bassist for Wayne Cochran and his C.C. (Chitlin Circuit) Riders, and other acts passing through South Florida. He wrote charts for the University of Miami stage band, and taught bass there for a time.
His first album, Jaco Pastorius (Epic), was released very soon after he joined Weather Report in 1976, replacing Alphonso Johnson in the premiere fusion jazz ensemble. Jaco then guested on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album (Elektral Asylum); here his new, thick bottom sound was as much part of the songs as Joni’s voice – and she has continued to collaborate with him, notably on her tribute album to the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
Jaco’s first album on Columbia with Weather Report was Black Market; Heavy Weather showed his impact, featuring a bolder band sound, largely due to Jaco’s bass playing, writing and production work. “Birdland” from that album became the closest thing to a Top Ten hit for Weather Report, Jaco’s contribution – a deep bass riff – figuring heavily in the mix.
He also became the showman of the group. One of his tunes described his music to a degree: “Punk jazz” was not an attempt at jazz by a non-player (We’ve heard plenty of those since then) but a real jazz player’s stab at a brave new music, a fusion with energy but without overkill.
Somewhere along the way, Jaco became the state-of-the-art electric bass player. To be more accurate, he pushed the state of the art to the point where he defined it. Six years later, he remains the measure of any electric bassist’s accomplishments, whether Jaco is actively playing or not.
What he did with his instrument was expand it way past its original function of merely supplying the harmonic underpinning to a composition. While there were other electric bassists with the technical ability to do more, Jaco was probably the first to make the listener aware of a musical idea first, and the instrument playing second.