Of the above video—an hour and a half long bass lesson and interview with the late, great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius—one youtube commenter writes, “this isn’t a bass lesson… this is a bass humiliation!” It’s an apt description—for the aspiring player of any instrument, watching Pastorius at work is a humbling experience. Even Jerry Jemmott, no slouch on the instrument, seems a little overwhelmed as he interviews Jaco. But the articulate—and personally troubled—bassist was a humble guy, more than willing to share his skills and knowledge. As a player, composer, and producer, Pastorius towered over other progressive jazz players in the 70s and 80s, accompanying names like Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter. He was also a member of fusion powerhouse Weather Report, a solo artist, and one of the most in-demand session players and producers of his time.
While bass players get too little recognition in rock, in jazz, the instrument has always commanded a degree of respect. But Pastorius took electric jazz bass to a place that belongs entirely to him, playing bass and melody parts at once on the instrument and incorporating mind-blowingly nimble solos and high runs into original compositions and standards alike. I came to Pastorius late in my musical education thanks to his influence on English bassist and electronic producer Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson), who, since the mid-nineties, has fused his own frenetic Pastorius-like bass licks with the stutter and clatter of drum-and-bass. In 2009, Squarepusher had the effrontery to release a live solo album consisting only of electric bass compositions, a move that would have been impossible without Pastorius’ precedent-setting solo work. Pastorius turned the electric bass into a lead instrument. His first solo album, the self-titled Jaco Pastorius (1976), broke ground with original compositions for bass guitar and bass transcriptions of songs like Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” At that time, no one had heard anything like it.
Pastorius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, died of wounds sustained in a bar fight on September 21st, 1987. In honor of the 25th anniversary of his death, revisit the man and his method in the video above, and geek out to Jaco’s live performance at the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.