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Four Nights with Jaco Pastorius

In an era of short attention spans, this is one giant who can't be forgotten

Jaco Pastorius is dead. I mean no disrespect by this statement. I point here to the lasting condition of the departed bassist neither to celebrate his birthday nor to lament his death anniversary. This article remembers Jaco because his was a gift that deserves regular accolades. Having become accustomed to his recordings, it might be easy to take his talent for granted. But it must be said and said often: Jaco Pastorius possessed a musical gift like no other. Ever.

What makes me think of Jaco today are my recollections concerning the death of George Harrison. At the time of the guitarist’s passing, nearly 10 years ago, I asked my college-age students if any of them knew who Harrison was. A hush fell. Absolutely no name recognition. I then told them that he was a member of the Beatles and asked if any of them knew what instrument he had played. Silence. I asked the question that day to three different classes. In the third, a young man sincerely ventured, “He played the trumpet?” I did not continue to probe my other classes’ knowledge of George. I couldn’t stand it.

Some years back I asked an elder statesman of country music how it was that so many of the greats could be forgotten by modern fans. It particularly surprised me that this was happening in the world of country which, like jazz, is an American musical style that supposedly reveres its own past. I had recently seen an Austin City Limits broadcast on public television by Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys. To its credit, the show gave him the entire hour. But as Thompson ran through his biggest hits, it was clear that even this Texas audience of music fans was unfamiliar with the songs. It was an uncomfortable set to watch, as this performer with over 60 Billboard chart entries drew only polite applause for even the largest of his many Top 10 hits. Even Johnny Cash-before Rick Rubin, Joaquin Phoenix and the Grim Reaper restored his legacy-had an hour on the same program with only a slightly better reception. This was in the mid-1980s, shortly after Cash had been unceremoniously dropped by Columbia.

When asked about this epidemic of amnesia concerning music’s past, I was told, “These performers are forgotten because they ain’t got no drummer.” After realizing that the assessment had nothing to do with percussion, I pondered this theory. Certainly, high-profile supporters, or “drummers” of promotion, could do wonders for a fading or forgotten career. Dwight Yoakam gave Buck Owens a complete reboot, even coercing Buck back on the road with him to reestablish his respectability after the long, albeit lucrative nightmare of co-hosting Hee-Haw .

Willie Nelson’s duet albums gave new life to the careers of many of his musical heroes, from Hank Snow to Webb Pierce. For those performers who Willie wanted to return to the spotlight but were no longer available for collaboration, such as Lefty Frizzell, he recorded tribute albums-just as Merle Haggard had previously done for both Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers when Merle’s sales figures were such that Capitol Records was willing to release anything he wanted.

Similar album-length projects are found in jazz. Louis Armstrong plays the music of Fats Waller. Sonny Fortune invokes the spirit of John Coltrane. Kenny Burrell honors Duke Ellington. Herb Ellis emulates Charlie Christian. Air remembers Buddy Bolden (if only for one tune). And in a most unexpected genre-crossing example, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts offers his tribute to the recordings of Charlie Parker with Strings! This personal recognition of inspiration has certainly been true in other areas of music: Bette Midler honors Rosemary Clooney. Jeff Beck pays homage to Cliff Gallup. Eric Clapton respects Robert Johnson to a fault. Phish performs full albums by the Beatles and the Who. I can offer Jaco Pastorius no tribute album or collaboration project. But I can shout his name out loud in an effort to be his drummer.

I had the great fortune of seeing Jaco in concert on four occasions. At no time was he less than brilliant. It was impossible for me to look away from him for very long, even when he was not soloing. The following is an overview of my four nights with Jaco, beginning with the time I saw him by chance.

We were college students excited about a road trip, with the intent of going to see John McLaughlin. We all knew that McLaughlin had abandoned his electric guitar, but we fired up for the journey anyway-Cedar Falls, Iowa, to the great city of Minneapolis, Minn. It was already April, but spring was slow to arrive in 1976. We were going, really, on the off chance that McLaughlin would renounce his new acoustic band Shakti and plug in that twin-necked Gibson and turn up! Just for that one night. We knew it couldn’t happen, but we were such fans of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra that we made the trek anyway. Also on the bill was Weather Report. That was fine with us, but Weather Report was not the reason for this trip. Most of us knew their early records. Some thought they might perform “Orange Lady.” I wanted to hear their “Boogie Woogie Waltz.”

We bought tickets at the door and were told that we were purchasing good seats. Actually, they were at the far end of the arena. No matter. We had good sight lines of the stage and we were excited to be in the city! The concert was one of the early sports arena presentations for this era of jazz. The fact that so many tickets could be sold for such music is telling. An acoustic Indian music quintet playing an arena? Clearly we were not the only Midwesterners anxious to see John McLaughlin, no matter what style he played. And I’m certain that we were not alone in wanting John to whip out that screaming Gibson.

McLaughlin’s Shakkti opened the night, and the group emerged to sit on the stage floor. I like Ravi Shankar as much as the next guy-maybe more. I owned two of the Yehudi Menuhin/Ravi Shankar West Meets East LPs. I would actually listen to the Shankar side of Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh benefit album (if only occasionally). And I owned the obscure Ravi Shankar Live at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival LP. As such, I wasn’t completely out of my element with this instrumentation. And since it soon became clear that there would be no “Noonward Race” played this night, we sat back to hear what McLaughlin’s new direction was all about. But in retrospect, it wasn’t completely new for him-if one goes back to listen to McLaughlin’s second album as a leader (My Goals Beyond, 1970) there is acoustic music aplenty. And even some tracks on the studio Mahavishnu LPs, such as “A Lotus on Irish Springs,” show that at no time in his career had McLaughlin been a complete stranger to his acoustic guitar.

As expected, John McLaughlin was lighting fast, and the sound was surprisingly clean considering the booming acoustics of the large room. But at the time, like most attending the concert that night, I was bound to be disappointed with McLaughlin’s new endeavor. And I was.

Shakti concluded their set. We all thought, yep, John’s still fast. Then we waited for the stage to be reset. The lights dimmed and the air filled with burning enhancement. Somebody leaned over and said to the collective row, “I hear that Weather Report is supposed to have some hot new bass player with them.” What had happened to their former bass man, Alphonso Johnson? Nobody knew. Weather Report kicked into their first tune. The group included the expected co-leaders Joe Zawinul on varied synthesizers and Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. But who was that electric bass player? Some were even expecting an acoustic bass, but of course that never happened. Nor did they play “Orange Lady” or “Boogie Woogie Waltz” that night.

In fact, I can’t tell you what numbers they did play-probably “Elegant People and “Scarlet Woman.” But individual selections didn’t matter for me. It was the sound that was the focus. My clear, indelible memory is one of an odd-looking young man bathed in a white spotlight. He was center stage holding a beat-up bass high on his chest, playing like it was an instrument on loan from Mount Olympus. I kept hearing these amazingly fluid solo runs. But that couldn’t be the electric bass. Still, Zawinul wasn’t even playing at this point. It hadto be the new guy! Playing those crystal clear harmonics-on a bass? And the speed and cleanliness of each line, even in that fidelity challenged hall.

I was stunned. It seemed they played about 10 minutes, but I’m sure they did a full set. The lights came up and I said something articulate like, “Wow.” Then I gushed about how that was the best bass player I had ever heard. Some of our group quietly agreed, clearly knocked out by what they had just witnessed. Others dismissed it as “all show.” I don’t know-it blew my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about that bass man: his stage presence, his sound, and especially his chops. Like many others in the audience that night, the flame of my casual interest in Weather Report was immediately fanned into a blaze.

The next time the band came though the Midwest, Jaco Pastorius was a star. They were to play Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium in late 1977 and I had good seats, about 14 rows back with Jaco directly in front of me. I came prepared for this one and taped the show, a typical mono audience recording of its day: low-fi but listenable. Even with questionable fidelity, that tape demonstrates the power of the entire band and Jaco’s place in it. “Black Market” and “A Remark You Made” were high points. Since this was after the release of Heavy Weather, they of course played “Birdland” near the end. The use of pre-recorded tapes to set distinctive moods, such as the sound of ships leading into and out of “Gibraltar,” may appear trite now. But these sonic settings worked well that night.

Midway through the set Jaco did his lengthy solo spot. Watching him perform this segment, seeing how engaged he was, and how he obtained the sounds from his dilapidated Fender, added a new element to admiring the technique he could display with seeming effortlessness. His physical antics were fun to watch, accompanied at times by the automatic rhythm track he was playing against. Even at this point, however, a backlash was setting in. I recall a review in Billboard magazine of a solo New York City performance taking him to task for too high a ratio of stage antics and showboating to actual playing, something Bill Graham had criticized Jimi Hendrix for (to his face) only a few years earlier. Nobody in the hall that night minded Jaco’s accompanying theatrics; this was the real deal of musical virtuosity. If he wanted to visually embellish his playing with some gratuitous showmanship, fine by us.

Like many of my music obsessive contemporaries, I was guilty of looking away from other bassists when Jaco came onto the scene. Most obvious, of course, is the oft-belabored comparison to the great Stanley Clarke. Before I became aware of Jaco, I had seen Return to Forever about half a dozen times, beginning with the Bill Connors era. The common saying is that after Jaco showed up, everybody forgot about Stanley. True, and yet … not quite.

The real problem was that, for me, I already was losing interest in Return to Forever about the same time Jaco arrived. RTF’s No Secret had not clicked with me, and the elaborate production of Romantic Warrior reduced the intense improvisational stretch sections that had made Where Have I Known You Before and especially Hymn of the 7th Galaxy so interesting.

I always felt that tension in the band could actually be heard on the later Columbia records of Return to Forever, especially after Stanley Clarke’s solo albums started outselling the new RTF group albums and Chick Corea’s own solo releases. When no less than three of a quartet’s members are intent on solo careers while also keeping a band together, something has to give. Just ask Ringo.

Individual side projects never seemed problematic for Weather Report. Perhaps it was the revolving door of personnel that surrounded Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter from the group’s inception. Zawinul, although releasing several solo records during his decade with Cannonball Adderley, had only one solo album during the time Weather Report was active. But this came out in 1971 and in no way served as competition for his newly formed band. Five years later Jaco would also have an eponymous album released on the cusp of his joining Weather Report. But instead of that solo album competing with the group, this great record actually served to promote Weather Report and their new bassist. Shorter continued to release well received albums during the 1970s but, unlike Return to Forever’s fan base, these solo projects did not seem to distract or confuse Weather Report’s audience.

Speaking of side projects, the only time I saw Jaco outside of the Weather Report realm was when he played on the culminating tour of Joni Mitchell’s excursion into jazz in late summer 1979, beating Sting’s celebrated dip into these waters by half a decade. Joni’s ringing electric guitar and open tunings were accentuated by Pat Metheny’s distinctive electric guitar voice and Jaco’s unmistakable bass. Lyle Mays’ keyboards and Michael Brecker’s tenor sax rounded out this high-priced backing band. I have been told that Peter Erskine was originally slated to drum for the tour, but this would have violated a section of the Weather Report contract, which essentially stated that Zawinul’s sidemen could not depart en masse to form another band. Smart guy. As such, Don Alias was on drums for the tour.

Each of the band members had a solo feature, but this was Joni Mitchell’s show and she was the focal point. The set consisted mainly of tunes from the era of Hejira through her latest LP at that time, the heartfelt but problematic Mingus album, a genre-crossing tribute that cost Mitchell some of her longstanding audience. The touring band was excellent, of course, but during the concert there were times when Jaco’s physical acrobatics seemed to draw strained smiles of tolerance from both Metheny and Mitchell.

Because Joni Mitchell’s live Shadows and Light LP captured the tour’s standard set list, I have never regretted not taping that show. The same can’t be said of the last time I saw Jaco. Some critics have viewed the tour of 1980 as a holding pattern for this immensely popular line-up. Jaco’s talent was starting to be taken for granted. Most fans who wanted to see him had been given the opportunity by this time, with Weather Report playing parts of the country often bypassed by even major tours. But for me this was no concert of coasting. The band was playing harder than any time I had seen them and were presenting a lot of newly released material-this was not a hits review. I had balcony seats, and watching the band operate as a unit was actually better than staring at a single part of the whole, which had been the case for me in Iowa City. Breathtaking to the last! I distinctly remember a smokin’ version of “Brown Street,” and recall that “The Orphan” served as an especially strong finale for that February night.

And this concert also served as my own finale with Jaco and with Weather Report. I began to lose interest in the band shortly after the largely live 8:30 album and the follow-up Night Passage, which is odd in retrospect, since I thought that the studio material on side 4 of 8:30 was some of the strongest in the band’s catalogue. Weather Report continued to record and tour, with and then without Jaco Pastorius. But I no longer searched out their new releases even before Jaco’s departure. I heard that Zawinul retooled the band and changed the name to Weather Update, but I never checked that out either. Even the later days of Weather Report itself were off my radar. In fact, I recently came across an 8-track tape of their album Domino Theory, a post-Jaco release I had never even heard of.

Many defend the band after Jaco’s departure, and I don’t disagree. It was I who dropped out. I never felt too guilty for drifting from Weather Report, if I’d ever thought about it. I believed that I had band cred for being somewhat into them in their pre-Jaco days. I owned the import Live in Tokyo double album and had even interviewed drummer Eric Gravatt about his days in the band. But that’s another story.

In hindsight, the Jaco era was just one part of this great band’s timeline. It’s clear that Joe Zawinul felt this way, for when the 2002 Live and Unreleased collection came out, as producer he made sure that the two-CD set covered many (but not all) eras of the band’s performance spectrum. This selective overview is laudable, as this set could easily have become a Jaco Pastorius tribute, and likely would have sold better. Concerning sales figures, Columbia Records clearly has limited economic interest in the latter Weather Report LPs since the company has allowed several of these to go out of print.

Speaking of recordings that would sell, while some legitimate releases have dribbled out since Jaco’s death in 1987, I have been assured that many high-fidelity concert recordings remain locked away in various vaults. One that comes to mind for me is the performance by Jaco’s Word of Mouth big band at the Kool Jazz Festival of 1982, which was professionally recorded by National Public Radio for their Jazz Alive series. Most of this concert was broadcast, and these tapes are definitely worthy of official release. I’m certain there are others.

Jaco Pastorius does not need me to be his “drummer.” His recordings include all the proof required as a testament to his abilities. This article is written as I become increasingly aware of how fortunate I was to have attended concerts during the same short era that this virtuoso was storming world stages. But since no artist can really promote himself from the grave, even an incandescent light such as Jaco provided might not be clearly seen by subsequent generations. Individuals like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis enjoyed lengthy careers and have ample aural documentation for later admirers to pore over and posthumously appreciate. Jaco Pastorius, much less so. But the finite amount of music he has left is worthy of continued rediscovery, for we who know it well and for the uninitiated. What this article asks is that the recordings of Jaco Pastorius be a regular and inspirational part of any musical diet.

Three Starting Places

Jaco Pastorius Jaco Pastorius (Epic Records, 1976)

Weather Report 8:30 (Columbia Records, 1979)

Joni Mitchell Hejira (Asylum Records, 1976)

Originally Published