John Francis “Jaco” Pastorius III (1951-1987) is hailed by many as the greatest electric bassist who ever lived.
From his stunning 1976 eponymous solo debut to his seminal work with Weather Report and guest appearances on recordings by artists such as Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell, Pastorius redefined electric bass. His innovative use of harmonics, soaring solos, intense flurries of notes and impeccable groove were most often realized on a battered pair of early-’60s Fender Jazz basses, one fretted and one fretless (Fender didn’t make fretless basses in the early 1960s; Pastorius removed the frets himself). He was noted for a growl-y midrange-heavy tone achieved by using the Jazz Bass’s bridge pickup almost exclusively and plucking the strings near it.
Pastorius was born in Norristown, Pa., on Dec. 1, 1951, shortly after which the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There, Pastorius grew up in a lively musical household and took up his father’s instrument, drums, as a young boy. He was also a sports lover and a talented athlete (Pastorius is said to have taken his nickname, “Jaco,” from famous National League baseball umpire Jocko Conlan).
A football injury to his wrist during his early teens prevented Pastorius from continuing to play drums; he then took up bass to fill a vacancy in the band he’d been drumming for. Pastorius found his home on electric bass, and he practiced, studied and gigged intently amid Florida’s fertile jazz, R&B, world music and pop scene throughout his youth and developing a staggeringly agile and lyrical prowess on the instrument.
Signed to CBS Records in 1975, Pastorius released debut album Jaco Pastorius in 1976. An instant classic, the groundbreaking album is still regarded by many as the finest bass album ever recorded. Also that year, Pastorius turned in legendary bass performances on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (Pastorius frequently guested on her late-’70s work, notably including 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) and Al Di Meola’s Land of the Midnight Sun, and he played on two tracks of jazz-fusion outfit Weather Report’s Black Market album. He subsequent joined Weather Report for what many consider the band’s classic years and most seminal albums—Heavy Weather (1977), Mr. Gone (1978), 8:30 (1979), Night Passage (1980) and Weather Report (1982). In addition to his virtuoso instrumental skill, Pastorius brought an aura of rock ‘n’ roll celebrity to the otherwise studious jazz-fusion genre.
Pastorius left Weather Report shortly after the release of his second solo album, 1981’s Word of Mouth, and he toured with his all-star Word of Mouth Big Band through 1984. As the 1980s progressed, unfortunately, Pastorius experienced increasingly prevalent mental health problems; his increasingly erratic behavior onstage and off took a heavy toll on his career. Severely injured in a violent confrontation outside a Fort Lauderdale nightclub on Sept. 11, 1987, Pastorius fell into a coma and was put on life support. He died at age 35 on Sept. 21, 1987.
Despite such a tragic end, however, Pastorius’ vibrant musical legacy continues to inspire musicians worldwide, and his nearly universal acclaim as the greatest electric bassist who ever lived will likely endure forever.