Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Pastorius, Jaco (John Francis Anthony III)

Electric bassist Jaco Pastorius is remembered for his rare command of the instrument, particularly as a soloist and for his use of harmonics and other groundbreaking techniques. Unfortunately, he is also remembered for his affliction by bipolar disorder, depression, and alcoholism, which combined to create the downward spiral that claimed his life at the age of thirty-five.

John Francis Anthony Pastorius III was born on December 1, 1951 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and died on September 21, 1987, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was the eldest of three sons born to Jack and Stephanie Pastorius. Jack Pastorius was a jazz drummer who was frequently absent from the family due to his work. Jack was by most accounts a very heavy drinker who was abusive at times. The family relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida early in Jaco’s childhood.

John Pastorius earned the nickname “Jocko” as a boy, through his love of and skill at sports, especially basketball. The name stuck, but he reworked it into the more elegant “Jaco” after he became a professional musician.

Jaco started out playing the drums like his father, but soon switched to the electric bass after breaking his wrist. This occurred while he was playing drums with a local Florida group called the Las Olas Brass. After switching to the bass, he relearned all of the band’s arrangements on his newly chosen instrument in a week.

Jaco practiced music religiously during his later teenage years. He met his first wife Tracy his senior year of high school, and they eventually had two children together. In 1972, Jaco relocated to Philadelphia, where he joined Wayne Cochran’s C.C. Rider band for an eight-month tour.

Pastorius returned to Florida in 1973 and married Tracy. He soon developed a reputation as a bass player, and in1974 he was signed to Epic Records by Bobby Colomby, the former drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears.

In 1974, Pastorius appeared in pianist Paul Bley’s video documentary series Improvising Artists with Bley and guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Paul Bley. Pastorius then joined Pat Metheny on his debut album for ECM records, Bright Size Life along with drummer Bob Moses. This album was one of the key trio recordings to come out of the 1970s, because of the freedom and interaction of the group’s playing, combined with Metheny’s gift for composition.

The 1970s was the most active and prolific decade of Pastorius’s career. In 1976, he released a self-titled debut, for Epic which contained the riveting song “Portraits of Tracy.” He also appeared on Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira and guitarist Al Di Meola’s Land of the Midnight Sun.

Pastorius met Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul in Fort Lauderdale in 1975. Pastorius gave Zawinul a demo tape, and was the keyboardist was astonished by what he heard. At first, he thought Jaco was playing an acoustic bass, but later learned it was a fretless electric bass.

Pastorius made his Weather Report debut on the album Black Market. Bassist Alphonso Johnson had yet to leave the group entirely, but Pastorius became his permanent replacement after the release of this album, and toured with the group beginning in the summer of 1976.

The year 1977 was the most successful year for Weather Report. Pastorius played bass on their successful release Heavy Weather, which contained the hit song “Birdland.”

In 1977, Pastorius also found time to appear on percussionist Airto Moreira’s album I’m Fine, How Are You? and with Joni Mitchell on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. By some accounts, Pastorius and Mitchell became romantically involved at this time.

While touring to support Heavy Weather, Pastorius began to develop his father's taste for alcohol. By the time the tour ended, he had become a very heavy drinker. In 1978, Pastorius divorced and then began courting a young Indonesian woman named Ingrid Muller. Pastorius and Muller wed one year later in an ancient Mayan temple in Guatemala.

In 1979, Pastorius appears on Joni Mitchell’s tribute to and collaboration with Charles Mingus, Mingus. Jaco appears on several songs including a reworking of Mingus’s classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”

During his marriage to Ingrid, Pastorius fell headfirst into a debilitating alcohol addiction. He was nearly fired twice in 1980 from Weather Report for being so drunk he could hardly perform. Pastorius left the group in 1981, and formed a big band called Word of Mouth.

The Word of Mouth big band had some success and toured through 1982. Unfortunately, these years are remembered more for the bassist’s decline than for his musical production. Several incidents led to the demise of the big band. In 1982, the group toured Japan, and Pastorius left several shows during mid-set. Among other antics, he shaved his head, painted his face with black paint, and threw his bass into Hiroshima Bay.

Also in 1982, Pastorius he was dragged off stage from a show at the Hollywood Bowl, forcing MC Bill Cosby to apologize to the audience for his behavior. Jaco then lived on the streets in New York City for several years before returning home to Fort Lauderdale.

The last year of his life, Pastorius walked the streets of Fort Lauderdale with a basketball under one arm and his bass under the other, just has he had done in New York City. Alcohol and depression had reduced this once unstoppable musician to a mere shadow of his former self.

On the last night of his life, Pastorius went to see a Carlos Santana concert at the Sunrise Music Theater. Ironically that night Santana’s bassist was none other than Alphonso Johnson, the bassist Pastorius had replaced in Weather Report.

Pastorius was kicked out of the show for leaping on stage and dancing around on stage behind Johnson as he played. He went on a drinking binge for two hours, then tried to kick in the door at another bar.

Pastorius was denied entrance to the bar, and then tried to assault the club’s doorman, Luc Havan, who pushed him to the ground, causing his skull to fracture on the concrete. Pastorius died three days later, surrounded by his family. He was thirty-five years old.

Selected Discography

as Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976)

Word of Mouth (Warner, 1981)

The Birthday Concert (Warner, 1995)

with Pat Metheny

Bright Sized Life (ECM, 1976)

with Joni Mitchell

Hejira (Asylum, 1976)

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Asylum, 1977)

Mingus (Asylum, 1979)

Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980)

with Weather Report

Black Market (Columbia, 1976)

Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977)

Mr. Gone (Columbia, 1978)

8:30 (Columbia, 1979)

Night Passage (Columbia, 1980)

Weather Report (Columbia, 1982)

Contributor: Jared Pauley