Jaco Passed Over Us but Not Them

I’ve met very few people under 40 who are fans of Jaco Pastorius.

And I’ve met very few people over 60 who like his music.

But I’ve met dozens of people between 40 and 60 who can’t lay enough praise at the feet of the man who routinely and proudly proclaimed that he was “the world’s greatest bassist.”

For many in the under-40 generation, Pastorius’ virtuosity is heard and filtered through an almost punk-rock sensibility that looks down, rightly or wrongly, on showboating virtuosity. And despite the manic energy of Word of Mouth or Jaco calling a song “Punk Jazz,” Pastorius is seen more as a prog rocker than a punk rocker in their eyes.

For the over-60 generation, Jaco represented the final break from the swinging place of the bass. After the complete freedom that came with the ‘60s avant-garde, Pastorius made the last great advancement on the instrument, liberating it from time keeping, placing it at the melodic front of the song. Plus, most fusion is generally frowned upon by the over-60s as a rock-influenced ploy for commercial success, while post-1975 fusion is often too pastel for many in the under-40 crowd, who think it sounds too much like what it eventually became: smooth jazz.

It’s also fair to say that some people of all ages have a hard time separating Jaco’s innovations and virtuosity with his often less-than-inspiring progeny, who have taken his legato phrasing, fat fretless tone and jaw-dropping propensity for running notes and turned it into over-the-top showboating with all the edges polished off. Like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, Pastorius is among those epoch-inducing musicians who have influenced generations of musicians so deeply that the originators’ then-radical innovations don’t seem so radical now because they have been assimilated so completely. It only makes sense that people who grew up with Parker, buying his records as they came out, have a purer sense of his accomplishments than those of us who have only heard Bird filtered through hundreds of players tweeting away like their idol—or bassists wailing away like theirs.

It’s the people in between the sub-40s and the post-60s that get to love Jaco without the baggage of age or the filter of time. They are the ones who, when Jaco first came up in the mid-’70s, were his contemporaries, who got to listen to him and be amazed at all his innovations with open ears. They are the ones who saw his spark take blaze.

They are the lucky ones.

Originally published in April 2002

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