This article explores Jaco Pastorius’s efforts to legitimize himself as a jazz electric bassist. Even though the instrument had existed at the margins of jazz for decades, by the 1970s it was overwhelmingly associated with rock and funk music and therefore carried with it the stigmatized connotations of outsider status. Building on the work of Bill Milkowski, Kevin Fellezs, Lawrence Wayte, and Peter Dowdall, I situate Pastorius’s career within the broader context of 1970s jazz fusion. I then analyze how he deliberately used his public persona, his virtuosic technical abilities, the atypical timbre of his fretless electric bass, and his work as a composer and bandleader to vie for acceptance within the jazz tradition. As I argue, Pastorius specifically attempted to establish his jazz credibility through his first two solo albums, initially by disassociating himself from his own instrument, and then by eventually abandoning the musical style that had made him famous. Ultimately, Pastorius’s story serves as a useful case study of the tangible ramifications of authenticity disputes and the complicated ways in which musicians have attempted to navigate contested musical spaces within popular music.
In 2015, Iron Horse Entertainment released Jaco, a documentary about the life and career of electric bassist Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987).1 Produced and financed by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, the film depicts Pastorius as a talented and virtuosic musician but makes no attempt to specifically contextualize him within jazz history. Instead, he is portrayed as a jack-of-all-trades, able to adapt seamlessly to any musical situation. This portrayal carried over into the film’s press tour, in which Trujillo recalled seeing Pastorius play live:
To see a person take command of the stage and the audience, and specifically a bass player, was really exciting. And just the fact that he looked like guys that I looked up to—he was doing backflips on stage, you know? That's usually rock ‘n’ rollers, and here’s Jaco Pastorius. People tried to call him just a jazz cat, but he was beyond that. He was rock ‘n’ roll, he was jazz, he was everything.2
During his brief mainstream career, Pastorius was known for his bravado, his onstage antics, and his musical eclecticism—he recorded with artists as varied as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Sam & Dave, Little Beaver, Ian Hunter, Jimmy Cliff, and Joni Mitchell. Yet, he also considered himself first and foremost a jazz musician, and within that realm, those traits were often liabilities. His career was further complicated by the prevailing negative reputation of his chosen instrument, the electric bass. For critics invested in policing the boundaries of jazz, both Pastorius and the electric bass occupied the contested space of “jazz fusion” (or “jazz-rock,” as it was sometimes called), which made their legitimacy inherently suspect. While Trujillo’s depiction (“he was rock ‘n’ roll, he was jazz, he was everything”) is obviously intended as a compliment, it obscures Pastorius’s lifelong struggle to be accepted by jazz’s critical establishment.
In this article, I explore Pastorius’s efforts to legitimize himself as a jazz electric bassist. Even though the instrument had existed at the margins of jazz for decades, by the 1970s it was overwhelmingly associated with rock and funk music and therefore carried with it the stigmatized connotations of outsider status. Building on the work of Bill Milkowski, Kevin Fellezs, Lawrence Wayte, and Peter Dowdall, I situate Pastorius’s career within the broader context of jazz fusion. I then analyze how he deliberately used his public persona, his virtuosic technical abilities, the atypical timbre of his fretless electric bass, and his work as a composer and bandleader to vie for acceptance within the jazz tradition. As I argue, Pastorius specifically attempted to establish his jazz credibility through his first two solo albums, initially by disassociating himself from his own instrument, and then by eventually abandoning the musical style that had made him famous. Ultimately, Pastorius’s career was shaped by his efforts to appease external critical pressures, audience expectations, and his own internalized conceptions of genre—a burden that, in the end, had disastrous results. His story thus serves as a useful case study of the tangible ramifications of authenticity disputes and the complicated ways in which musicians have attempted to navigate contested spaces within popular music.
Jaco’s Early Career
Pastorius’s musical style was initially shaped by his formative years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was exposed to a diverse cross-section of popular musics, including soul, rock, salsa, funk, and jazz. As he later recalled, “Florida is great because there are no musical prejudices.… Where I come from, nobody cares what style of music you play.”3 He first began playing electric bass in his teen tears as a member of Las Olas Brass—a nine-piece horn band in the vein of Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago.4 He soon developed his own approach to the instrument comprising extended harmonics, virtuosic speed, and tight rhythmic grooves.5 He then honed his chops playing with a variety of bands throughout the South Florida region, culminating in 1972, when he landed a gig with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders—a James Brown-inspired, white soul act. Cochran’s group was known for its intense, energetic stage show, and Pastorius spent four months with the group, performing demanding five-hour sets on a string of one-nighters across the country.
During this time, Pastorius began developing a strong interest in jazz, but quickly found that his instrument was not particularly well regarded by jazz musicians. After leaving Cochran’s band, he sought a gig with Baker’s Dozen, a Florida group led by jazz luminary Ira Sullivan.6 Sullivan, like many jazz musicians, was initially skeptical of the electric bass; as he recalled,
Jaco used to come and see me play [at the Rancher Motel Lounge] and he’d bring some of the cats from the C.C. Riders to check me out. So we struck up an acquaintance there, and I remember him saying, “Ira, I’m gonna play with you some day.” I told him, “I don’t really like Fender electric bass with acoustic piano.” He laughed and said, “I’m out to make this non-instrument an instrument.”7
Convinced by Pastorius’s persistence and his undeniable musical abilities, Sullivan eventually relented and let him join the band.
With his local reputation growing, new opportunities soon emerged: He joined a local Florida big band, the Peter Graves Orchestra—where he performed behind national touring acts, such as the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. He recorded with jazz pianist Paul Bley and guitarist Pat Metheny.8 He was able to make demos of his original material. He was hired as an adjunct bass instructor at the University of Miami. And in the summer of 1975, he was introduced to Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who helped secure him a single-album deal with Epic Records.9 Recorded at Colomby’s home studio in New York in October of that same year, the album featured contributions by a cadre of young jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock, Randy and Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and Lenny White (all of whom, like Pastorius, would come to be associated with jazz fusion). The final product, Jaco Pastorius, remains a testament to the bassist’s impressive musicality, innovative technical skills, and stylistic eclecticism. Yet, by the time it was finally released in August 1976, Pastorius was already well on his way to becoming a household name among young jazz fans as the latest addition to the band Weather Report.
Led by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Weather Report was likely the most successful jazz combo of the 1970s—thanks in no small part to Pastorius’s contributions on-stage and in-studio.10 The gig had come about after Pastorius met Zawinul back in 1974 while teaching at the University of Miami. As Zawinul recalls their first encounter:
I was impressed by the way he approached me. I was standing with two ladies on the corner by the Gusman Theater in Miami. This kid came up and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Zawinul, my name is John Francis Pastorius III and I am the greatest bass player in the world.” I said “Get the hell out of here, man.” He said, “Really, I wish we could get together and show you what I got.” I said, “That sounds good to me.”11
The next day, Pastorius went to Zawinul’s hotel with a copy of his demos. While nothing came of this initial meeting, the duo struck up a friendship, and the following year, when Zawinul needed to quickly find a new bass player for Weather Report, he knew who to call.
As a full-fledged member of the band, Pastorius was suddenly catapulted onto an international stage, where he could now explore the multiple facets of his musical personality: he could perform intricate jazz compositions, improvise alongside his fellow bandmates, perform solo renditions of Jimi Hendrix covers, and even do backflips off his amplifier. These grandiose displays of virtuosic musical ability, brash bravado, and outlandish stage antics made him an instant favorite among audiences. As Zawinul later described it,
Jaco was in a space all his own. He was so different than all the other guys [who had previously played in Weather Report]…But with Jaco coming in, there was also a change in the audience. He brought the white kids in. He had that Americana element. He was all of a sudden a real white All-American folk hero.12
With his increased public profile in Weather Report and the release of his debut album, Pastorius’s star was quickly on the rise, even more so after he was profiled in the January 1977 issue of Down Beat, America’s premier jazz magazine. As the profile’s author, Neil Tesser, described him,
Jaco’s playing is nothing less than revolutionary. In fact, he has almost single-handedly opened a heretofore unimagined world of resources for the [electric bass], forging an ultrasuede sound that at once encompasses the tonal characteristics and phrasing idiosyncrasies of amplified guitar and [upright bass]. In his extraordinary control and imaginative usage of the electric bass’s harmonics alone, he has sketched a stylistic device of sizable potential.13
These technical feats were all the more remarkable, according to Tesser, because “the bass guitar is not an instrument that easily lends itself to a great range of individual expression.”14 As would become inevitable throughout his career, Pastorius could not escape the seemingly low status of his electric bass, which for many jazz critics still remained a “non-instrument.”
Jazz Fusion and the Electric Bass
By the time Pastorius arrived on the scene, jazz critics inherently saw the electric bass as a marker of fusion—a style that deliberately blurred the lines between jazz, rock, and funk.15 As Kevin Fellezs has argued, fusion occupied a contested, “transgeneric” space, one that “was not so much a hybrid as an ‘in-between’ categorization;” it was rock, funk, and jazz simultaneously and at the same time none of these.16 For a new batch of young musicians, fusion represented a way to transcend traditional generic constraints and freely explore electric instrumentation, funky rhythmic figurations, and new modes of virtuosic display. Despite these musical freedoms, however, fusion musicians were nonetheless still firm participants in the jazz music industry and therefore were subject to its critical discourse (jazz magazines, for instance, were the primary outlet to have their albums and concerts reviewed, to give their published interviews, and to reach new fans).
At a time when most jazz musicians had abandoned the goal of broad-based appeal, fusion’s connections to contemporary popular genres gave the music a much wider fan base, which in turn made it the most commercially successful style of jazz in the 1970s. This popularity (coupled with its increasing monetary rewards) led old guard jazz critics to see fusion as a debased musical form—a cash grab that sold out the genre in exchange for mainstream success.17 These anxieties over the boundaries between tradition and innovation, and between art and commerce, were not new in jazz criticism, yet fusion amplified the stakes of these debates by calling into question jazz’s higher position within the cultural hierarchy.18 As Fellezs explains,
[F]usion’s popularity—and commercial appeal to booking agents and festival organizers—signaled rock’s eclipsing of jazz in popular culture and, of greater concern for jazz critics and musicians, among artistic circles, as well, at precisely the time when jazz was fervently establishing its tentative foothold in “legitimate” culture.… Indeed, because their music was often challenging and explicitly virtuosic, fusion musicians raised questions about whether it was safe to assume that rock and funk were inferior to jazz on a musical level at all.19
In an effort to re-inscribe the aesthetic value of older styles, conservative critics and musicians depicted fusion’s move away from acoustic instruments and swing rhythms as an unconscionable break with the jazz tradition. The electric bass in particular was commonly invoked within these debates as a stand-in for broader misgivings over what should and should not count as “real” jazz.
The clearest example of the electric bass’s reception in the fusion era comes from a roundtable published in the 27 January 1977 issue of Down Beat—the very same issue that, just two pages earlier, had announced Pastorius to the jazz world. For the roundtable, critic Arnold Jay Smith asked 20 bassists the following question: “Has the bass been liberated? Traditionally, the bass has been part of the rhythm section, but recently, with the advent of the electric bass, traditional notions of the function of the bass have come under examination. What do you see the role of the bass being in the future?”20 While the responses varied, the most common theme was that there was simply no place for the electric bass in jazz. For example, George Duvivier responded, “When you say ‘electric bass’ I assume you mean the amplified upright, because I am not interested in Fender [bass] at all.… A Fender bass is really a guitar, and the technique for playing it is totally different from playing an upright, which is a violin. It’s an entirely different field and I’d rather not be involved in it.”21 According to Ron Carter, “I don’t feel that the electronic bass has done anything to liberate the upright.… I don’t see the electric bass as having any major input in regard to the development of the upright bass at any time.”22 Charlie Haden took a more aggressive stance, claiming that, “As far as creative music is concerned, there can only be the acoustic bass—there cannot be electric bass.”23 He then recounted a time when he was briefly coerced to play the electric:
Because of the rock movement, I was forced into making myself more audible… So I bought a Fender. You have to do the jingles and the studio dates on electric. I had to quit that because I was aiding and abetting those very people who were destroying creative music. I sold my Fender bass and never picked it up again.24
Charles Mingus even more forcefully argued that “Jimmy Blanton was doing everything they are doing on electric bass now. This has been done in 1937…A question like that…electricity has made a difference in the playing of somebody? Electricity has put music back.”25 And, Sirone claimed that, “Electric bass was created for, let us say, another color in music, more of a commercial value.”26
For Pastorius, fusion’s transgeneric eclecticism appealed to his South Florida musical upbringing, and through his work with Weather Report—the fusion band par excellence—he now found himself uneasily implicated within this contested musical space. As the last bassist interviewed in the roundtable, he carefully attempted to rebut his critics—not via a full-throated defense of his chosen instrument, but rather by consciously distancing himself from it:
The instrument I play is an acoustic instrument in that you need a little more sophistication to hear it. You can hear it if you put your ear to it.… Most people assume I play an acoustic bass on records, but I don’t want to sound like an acoustic or a bass guitar. I want to sound like Jaco. Most bass guitarists are either people who have chickened out of playing the big bass or who are frustrated guitar players. I don’t feel that the bass guitar is being played today.… I think all bass guitarists have a lot to learn; they have to learn the instrument. The bass guitar is a very valid instrument even when I get the sarcasm of, “Oh you have played acoustic, haven’t you?”27
Pastorius attempts an immense amount of cultural work in this brief passage: First, he claims that his instrument is not an “electric” bass, but rather an “acoustic instrument,” and one that actually requires “more sophistication” to hear. Then, instead of defending the electric bass, he positions his bass (the “instrument I play”) as more akin to an upright—as he claimed in a later interview, “I have a fretless bass, so it’s virtually like I’m playing a wood bass…It’s virtually acoustic what I’m doing, you see?”28 Second, Pastorius makes a twofold claim that “most people assume” he plays an upright bass on records but that he doesn’t “want to sound like an acoustic or a bass guitar,” he wants to “sound like Jaco.” Here he again tries to disassociate himself from the electric bass by rejecting either identity as an “upright” or “electric” bassist and instead claiming to be radically individual. Third, he repudiates all other electric bassists (including the other six interviewed in this roundtable) with his claim that no one of note is really playing the bass guitar today.29 His final point, in which he describes the constant sarcasm he encounters, seems to reveal that these criticisms have struck a nerve. He defended himself even more explicitly in 1978, stating,
So when everyone else is saying that [fusion] isn’t music and you’ve got to play the big bass and all this bullshit I say, “Well, dig this.” And now I can play and everyone else is sort of crying. It was just that sort of positiveness, it was just being pragmatic, I had to work, I had babies on the way, and to hell with that ego trip. That ain’t jazz? Bullshit! This is jazz and I’m playing the jazz.
Because I can improvise and I can play new stuff and I know the tradition pretty well too. And I think those are pretty good ingredients to be called a jazz musician.”30
Posturing aside, these statements all reflect a deep desire to be taken seriously within conservative jazz discourse. This may be because negative depictions of fusion posed a professional (and, potentially, financial) problem for musicians like Pastorius, whose careers were still bound to the jazz marketplace. Whatever his intention, these statements demonstrate his personal attempts to reconcile the conflict between the eclectic musical style and bombastic performances for which his fans embraced him and a critical establishment that used those same traits to deny him legitimacy. For Pastorius, such attempts were far more than rhetorical; they were also at the very heart of his musical output.
Jaco Pastorius (1976)
For critics and scholars, the defining characteristic of Pastorius’s style is his virtuosity, which Lawrence Wayte has dissected into three primary components: his impeccable sense of groove, his speed and technical proficiency, and his use of extended bass techniques (most notably, harmonics).31 The clearest example of these components comes from his arrangement of “Donna Lee,” the opening track of his debut album. First recorded by the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1947, “Donna Lee” has since gone on to become a bebop standard.32 In its original form, the tune is largely a showpiece for Parker, whose choruses flaunt the saxophonist’s speed, dexterity, and melodic ingenuity. Pastorius’s arrangement of the tune, featuring him on electric bass accompanied only by Don Alias on congas, maintains Parker’s bebop rhetoric, but transplants it onto an instrument previously assumed to be ill-suited for such virtuosic displays. Recorded in a single take, it opens with Pastorius’s strict statement of the song’s 32-bar head, maintaining Parker’s fast tempo and phrasing. Having firmly situated himself in a bebop lineage, he then takes three solo choruses over the form, using each to showcase his technical abilities. Just after the beginning of his first chorus, he lets loose with harmonics played on three strings simultaneously, followed by quick bebop-inspired scalar passages. Then, maintaining the tempo, he switches to a rapid burst of eighth-note triplets at the upper limits of the electric bass’s range, creating an explosive polyrhythmic groove with the congas. He deploys these skills again and again in new ways throughout the second and third choruses, thoroughly proclaiming his mastery both of his instrument and of the most difficult style in the jazz canon.33
Pastorius’s arrangement of “Donna Lee” was an intentional preemptive strike against conservative jazz critics: in just two-and-a-half minutes he established his bebop credentials, demonstrated his formidable virtuosity, and proved that the electric bass was a viable solo instrument.34 It was no accident that it was the first track on the LP. Speaking with a journalist who had not yet heard the album, Pastorius exclaimed:
Oh, you gotta check it out! You got to! Listen to the first tune, the first cut on the album, and you’re dead,” [Pastorius] shouts. “You will not believe it! This is my claim to fame. I play ‘Donna Lee’—y’know? Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’—just bass and conga drums and LOOK OUT! You never heard nothin’ like this, just be-ware!…It’s never been done on a bass like this.35
While his bravado was as legendary as his playing, this quote also hints at how calculated this persona may have been.
Aside from his technical mastery and musical knowledge, Pastorius also used the sound of his electric bass to set himself apart from his contemporaries. He accomplished this primarily through three pieces of technology: a fretless electric bass, roundwound strings, and an Acoustic amplifier. Pastorius’s bass—the “Bass of Doom,” as he dubbed it—was the result of his own personal experimentation (fig. 1). Originally a stock 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, Pastorius reportedly removed its frets with a butter knife, then filled in the leftover trenches with wood glue before brushing the entire neck with multiple coats of boat epoxy. He then strung the instrument with Rotosound roundwound strings. The result produced an instrument with an unusual timbre and performing capabilities. The lack of frets allowed Pastorius to easily slide up and down the neck, empowering him to phrase his musical lines more fluidly (like a saxophonist or upright player might); at the same time, the wood-glue filled trenches on the instrument’s neck maintained the visual marker of the fret’s original positions, thus also allowing him to easily visualize the neck’s pitch configurations; and the roundwound strings produced a bright, clear tone that allowed the sound of his instrument to stand out more than the electric basses played by his jazz predecessors. Pastorius combined this instrument with an Acoustic 360/361 Amplifier, which gave his instrument a more pronounced mid-range while maintaining clarity in the lower register. Pastorius’s friend Bob Bobbing described this pairing,
What [that amplifier] gives you is a strong, tight low-end that doesn’t break up. For the first time Jaco could play a loud, open E, as well as chords, without the amp distorting or bottoming out…Also, the speaker cabinet, which stood approximately five feet tall, would vibrate and resonate in all directions like the body of an upright bass. At low volumes, Jaco could make his fretless Fender Jazz sound exactly like an upright bass.37
Playing using only the instrument’s back pickup, the amplifier not only allowed Pastorius to sonically imitate an upright, but it also excelled at reproducing the harmonics with which he was then experimenting. With these different components combined, Pastorius had transformed the timbre of a standard electric bass into something new—something that “sounded like Jaco.”
While Wayte and others have argued that the timbre of Pastorius’s bass was sonically unique, when it came to being accepted by the jazz establishment, the “uniqueness” of his sound was not necessarily its most important factor. It was that he simply didn’t sound like he was playing an electric bass.38 The most famous version of this story comes from Joe Zawinul, who, after listening to Pastorius’s demos, originally mistook Pastorius’s bass as an upright. When he asked him to join Weather Report, he recalled, “So I called Jaco…and the first thing I asked him was, ‘Hey kid, do you play electric bass, too?’ He got such a warm, rich sound on that Fender fretless, I thought he was playing an upright bass.”39 While the sound of his instrument was distinct from the natural sound of an upright bass, it was actually much closer timbrally to the modern sounds then being used by jazz upright players. As Peter Dowdall explains,
Twenty years previously…no one would have confused the tone of Pastorius’s fretless Fender with that of a gut-stringed acoustic instrument. However, the sound of the string bass had undergone its own metamorphosis as increasing levels of technology were applied to its recording and amplification. What made Pastorius’s sound so convincingly like an acoustic bass was not just similarities in their fretless intonation; it was its resemblance to the newly electronically mediated sonority that had become fashionable with most string bassists by the mid-1970s.40
While many upright bassists at the time looked down on the electric bass as an instrument, that conviction had not stopped them from using pickups to amplify their upright basses, nor from experimenting with “electroacoustic” timbres.41 In effect, this meant that by the time Pastorius’s debut album was released, the range of acceptable timbres for upright bassists had expanded just enough that his tone might cause confusion. As demonstrated by his comments in the aforementioned Down Beat roundtable, this question of whether he played an upright bass was obviously a point of pride for him, especially as someone who understood the consequences of being pigeonholed as an “electric” bassist.
Pastorius also used his debut album to distance himself from his instrument visually. This is seen most directly in comparison to his contemporary, jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, who was not only already an electric bass virtuoso, but was one years before Pastorius was even on the scene. Compare, for example, the cover of Jaco Pastorius (the album that opens with “Donna Lee”) to Stanley Clarke’s self-titled LP from 1974 (fig. 2). In Pastorius’s version, he sits arms crossed, staring at the camera; there is no instrument in sight. Clarke, by contrast, is shown mid-performance, clearly holding his Alembic electric bass. Likewise, for the credits on the back of the album, Clarke is listed as playing both “acoustic bass” and “electric bass,” while Pastorius’s LP strategically omits the word “electric” (fig. 3). These differences were crucial because they meant that (at least initially) listeners were primed to hear Pastorius’s chops and musicality before they knew he was playing an electric bass and therefore might not have the opportunity to prejudge him for it.
Word of Mouth (1981)
By 1977, Pastorius’s attempts to be taken seriously as a jazz electric bassist had more than paid off, and—at least for a short time—he was successful in pleasing both popular audiences and jazz’s critical establishment. His second studio album with Weather Report, 1977’s Heavy Weather, sold more than 500,000 copies (garnering “Gold” status from the RIAA). It featured a hit single, “Birdland,” which was nominated for a Grammy; stayed on the Billboard Top 200 for 17 weeks (peaking at #30); was voted Jazz Album of the Year in Down Beat’s “Annual Reader’s Poll”; and received a five-star review from Down Beat critic Neil Tesser, who described the band as essential to the very framework of modern jazz.42 Yet, this alignment was unsustainable, especially as critics became increasingly perturbed with fusion’s commercial success. While the band’s next album, 1978’s Mr. Gone, was again certified gold and charted on the Billboard Top 200 (this time peaking at #52), their critical support had waned. Down Beat critic David Less infamously gave the album a scathing one-star review, writing that,
Weather Report has done to jazz in the ‘70 s what Paul Whiteman did to it in the ‘20 s. Like Whiteman, Weather Report took progressive jazz out of the clubs and into the concert halls, exposing millions to its brand of music. Zawinul, Shorter, et al. have made the controversial music a commercial product…Where earlier Weather Report records possessed a sense of adventure, Mr. Gone is coated with the sterility of a too completely preconceived project. While Weather Report was innovative and pivotal in its first experiments, the members now seem out of touch with their basic responsibility as musicians: to communicate. By not taking chances they have nothing to lose, but conversely they have nothing to gain. Weather Report’s status has shifted over the years from a combo of premier jazz-rock innovators to a super-hip rock band with jazz overtones. This LP should prove disappointing to those Weather Report fans who still remember the genuine excitement of its earlier efforts.43
Carl Brauer, writing in Cadence, went even further, directly attacking the band’s music and its commercial appeal:
[T]his once promising group has degenerated into an empty shell. There are eight tracks…but all share a commonness in their lack of depth and reliance on simple and repetitive riffs. Completely absent are any solos with any sense of conviction…Music geared toward the singles market.44
Pastorius and the band fought back against these attacks in the pages of Down Beat, in part by explicitly disassociating themselves from rock music: after interviewer Larry Birnbaum suggested that the group had a “heavy rock feel,” Pastorius retorted, “Well then you got a total misconception of the music…It ain’t no rock ‘n’ roll.”45
At the very same time that Weather Report was losing its status as a critical darling, Pastorius was in negotiations with Warner Bros. to sign a six-album deal as a solo artist.46 The record company was undeterred by this recent critical fallout, as it assumed that the band’s continuing mainstream popularity would still translate into sizable record sales. When the deal was finalized in early 1980, Pastorius had reportedly secured a $125,000 advance for his first album with the company.47 The label’s expectations, according to Warner Bros. executive Ricky Schultz, were high:
Obviously, when somebody gets a healthy deal, the company’s expectations are somewhat in line with the investment. Michael [Ostin] and I had great enthusiasm for Jaco because he was clearly one of the happening guys on the scene. There was a big buzz about him…He definitely seemed to be the element that had pushed Weather Report to a new level; their sales had more than doubled after Jaco joined the group. So the expectation was that Jaco was going to create some terrific contemporary jazz, based on his experience with Weather Report, which had made music that was pretty marketable and had a broad appeal, music that could cross over to a rock market while still having jazz credibility.48
Anticipating the commercial appeal of a Pastorius-led fusion album, Warner Bros. invested a considerable sum of money. Yet, that is not what Pastorius delivered.
Given a massive budget and complete creative control, Pastorius attempted to use his second solo album, Word of Mouth (1981), to once and for all solidify his place within the jazz tradition. He brought in jazz legends, such as harmonica player Toots Thielemans and drummer Jack DeJohnette, to play on the record; he presented himself primarily as a composer (the album’s only picture of Pastorius comes from its inner sleeve, which depicts him composing at the piano); and afterward he even formed a twenty-piece big band to promote the album. Musically, the album largely avoided the stylistic markers of fusion, with Pastorius instead emphasizing his ability to compose and arrange in a variety of other, better-established jazz styles. While there were still moments of virtuosic bass playing (most notably on a rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy) and explicit nods to rock music (such as a harmonica-led rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”), as a total statement, the album had much more in common with avant-garde jazz and big band swing than fusion.49 This is perhaps best heard in the album’s rendition of “Three Views of a Secret,” an earlier version of which Weather Report had included on their album Night Passage (1980).50 While both recordings share a contemplative mood, Weather Report’s version is molded into their overall idiom: it features the musicians improvising together, listening to each other, and occasionally inserting their own virtuosic flourishes—broadly conveying a sense of group exploration. The Word of Mouth version, by contrast, was recorded over the course of multiple sessions, with a basic jazz combo then being overdubbed with strings, woodwinds, and brass; overall it sounds much more thoroughly and purposefully arranged.
When Pastorius finally turned in the album to Warner Bros., the company did not know what to do with it and eventually deemed it unmarketable. To make matters worse, despite Pastorius’s efforts, the album was still met with mixed reviews. Lars Gabel in Down Beat summed up the critical consensus: “On one hand, the album is largely derivative and unresolved; on the other, it contains some overwhelming and amazing moments.”51 Drawing a direct connection between the album and outside critical pressures, the Melody Maker review of the album stated, “The whole is very competent, less flash than I had expected. But somehow it misfires, as if having received more critical overkill than is good for any young man, he wasn’t quite sure what to do next.”52 Some critics, however, were more appreciative of this new direction: Brauer—who had earlier dismissed Weather Report’s Mr. Gone as “music geared towards the singles market”—had a far more empathetic take on the album, one that nonetheless revealed his particular aesthetic stance:
[E]very once in a while I will be totally surprised by a release of which I was not expecting much. Such was the case of Word of Mouth…by Weather Report’s electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius. While there is no question that Pastorius is an excellent musician, his playing with Weather Report did have a tendency to emphasize theatrics over substance as if Pastorius wanted to be a rock superstar. So, when this album, under his own name came out, I expected lots of pyrotechnic but empty rock-influenced music. But instead, I heard an album of music that shows off Pastorius’s talents as a composer and arranger rather than instrumentalist. The selections…offer a varied and generally interesting look at Pastorius’s abilities…All told this is an album that holds up very well with repeated listenings and to these ears, is a better overall album than the last Weather Report release.53
As Brauer notes, Word of Mouth was Pastorius’s statement to the jazz world that he was more than just a fusion musician, more than just an electric bassist.
While Word of Mouth merely highlighted lesser known sides of Pastorius’s musical personality, by so radically bucking expectations, he ultimately alienated not only his record company, but his fans too. Commercially, the album flopped and, after a similarly unsuccessfully live album, Warner Bros. dropped him from the label. In an attempt to prove his jazz credibility, Word of Mouth inadvertently caused Pastorius to lose his mainstream American audience, and with it, his multi-million-dollar recording deal.
Increasing mental health and substance abuse issues took a heavy toll on Pastorius’s life and career. By 1982, he and Weather Report had officially parted ways, and within just a few years he ended up homeless, living in a park in South Florida. He died tragically in 1987 after years of psychological decline.
Today, Pastorius’s reputation as a virtuoso has made him a legendary figure among electric bassists, and his immense technical abilities are often celebrated as having fundamentally expanded the possibilities of what could be done on the instrument. His most lasting accomplishment is that he proved that the electric bass could be a legitimate solo instrument. In so doing, his work laid the foundation for subsequent generations of electric bass virtuosi who were no longer burdened by the stigma of playing a “non-instrument.” Pastorius’s legacy is audible in the music of contemporary musicians such as Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Steve Bailey, Victor Wooten, and Tal Wilkenfeld—all of whom can be seen as modern representations of jazz fusion.
In the time since Pastorius’s death, however, the electric bass’s reception in jazz historiography has not dramatically improved—as Scott DeVeaux and others have demonstrated, after the ascension of the neo-traditionalists in the 1980s, fusion was even further recast as a “wrong turn” in jazz history.54 By contrast, the particular authenticity debates surrounding Pastorius’s instrument and musical style simply do not apply in rock discourse, where Pastorius’s virtuosity, outsized persona, and tragic life story all fit well-established tropes within rock historiography. This is why Trujillo’s documentary is so easily able to recast him as a rock icon. By depicting Pastorius as beyond category, the filmmakers argue that rock fans have as much claim to his legacy as anyone else. Yet what this narrative omits is the sheer amount of effort Pastorius exerted in being taken seriously as part of the jazz tradition.55
Playing a disreputable instrument in the already suspect subgenre of jazz fusion, Pastorius took deliberate—and perhaps unadvisable—steps to reinforce his credibility as a jazz performer, improviser, and composer. Initially, he disassociated himself from his chosen instrument, and then, at the height of his commercial success, his attempts to appease fusion’s critics inadvertently led him to sacrifice his mainstream audience. Even though more than thirty years have passed, the remnants of these actions continue to haunt posthumous depictions of his music (take, for instance, a 2017 Japanese compilation of his work titled Not Fusion But True Jazz).56 As an artist struggling for legitimacy within the confines of a contested musical genre, Pastorius’s story should serve as a useful case study for scholars attempting to account for the conflicting forces that shape musicians’ professional and artistic decisions. At the very least, it is a reminder that historical debates over authenticity have longstanding consequences—both for the direction of artists’ careers and for the ways in which their stories are told.
I would like to thank this journal’s editors and anonymous reviewer, as well as David Ake, Peter Graff, Amy Coddington, and Amanda Wright, for their comments on this article. I would also like to acknowledge the work of my graduate research assistant, Meng Ren, and thank her for helping me track down sources. Lastly, I would like to thank the attendees of the Beyond Genre: Jazz as Popular Music Conference at Case Western Reserve University (April 2018) for their valuable questions and suggestions as I was developing this project.
Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak, dirs., Jaco: The Film, Iron Horse Entertainment, 2015, DVD. For a specific discussion of the film and its soundtrack, see Brian F. Wright, “Review of Jaco: The Film (directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak) and Jaco: Original Soundtrack,” Jazz Perspectives vol. 9, no. 3 (2016): 319-324.
Michel Martin, “Metallica’s Robert Trujillo On His Hero, Jaco Pastorius,” 28 November 2015, NPR All Things Considered, https://www.npr.org/2015/11/28/457384082/metallicas-robert-trujillo-on-his-hero-jaco-pastorius.
Quoted in Julie Coryell, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (New York: Dell, 1978), reprinted at: http://jacopastorius.com/features/interviews/interview-with-julie-coryell/
My discussion of Pastorius’s biography is, in part, adapted from Bill Milkowski, Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, Anniversary Edition (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005).
“Harmonics” represent a method of playing different notes from the overtone series on a string. They have a distinctive sound produced by striking the string while lightly touching particular nodes. Natural harmonics sound the loudest when dividing the string into perfect mathematical ratios (2:1, 3:2, 3:4, etc.), but artificial harmonics can also be created by also fretting the string before striking. Pastorius used both kinds to great effect, most notably on “Portrait of Tracy” from his debut album.
It is worth noting that Baker’s Dozen’s repertoire was more than simply straight-ahead big band jazz. As pianist Alex Darqui described it, “It was more like jazz with a different background. It would swing too, but it had roots in funk and R&B. So it wasn’t like a straight jazz thing. One minute we’d play funk, and then we’d explode into an uptempo swinging thing.” Quoted in Milkowski, Jaco, 58. For a glimpse into how this collaboration sounded, listen to Pastorius’s guest appearance on Ira Sullivan, “Portrait of Sal Larosa,” Ira Sullivan, Horizon, 1976, LP.
For more on Pastorius’s relationship to Metheny, especially concerning their early recordings together, see Mervyn Cooke, Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
According to Milkowski, the Epic contract “stipulated a relatively meager advance of $5,000 against royalties and a total production budget of $27,500.” Milkowski, Jaco.74.
Prior to forming Weather Report, Zawinul and Shorter had played together on Miles Davis’s foundational fusion albums In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). For a broader discussion of Weather Report and its history before Pastorius joined the band, see Stuart Nicholson, “The Mysterious Travelers,” in Jazz-Rock: A History (London: Omnibus Press, 2001).
Quoted in Josef Woodard, “Joe Zawinul: The Dialectics of Jazz,” Down Beat, April 1988, 17.
Neil Tesser, “Jaco Pastorius: The Florida Flash,” Down Beat, 27 January 1977, 12.
This was not always the case. In fact, the electric bass’s history in jazz dates back to the early 1950s, and jazz musicians were actually the first to embrace the instrument. Yet by the early 1970s, the electric bass instead signified rock and funk music. Despite these later associations, there were some jazz musicians who continued to use the instrument, most notably Monk Montgomery, Steve Swallow, Bob Cranshaw, and Stanley Clarke. For more on the early history of the electric bass in jazz, see Brian F. Wright, “‘A Bastard Instrument’: The Fender Precision Bass, Monk Montgomery, and Jazz in the 1950s.” Jazz Perspectives, vol. 8, no. 3 (2015), 281−303.
Kevin Fellezs, Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion, (Durham. NC: Duke University Press. 2011), 5.
Critic Leonard Feather presented an early version of this anti-fusion argument in the pages of Down Beat, writing, “If the year 1970 is remembered, at some distant future date, in connection with any outstanding event in the history of jazz, musicologists may recall it as the Year of the Whores. Never before…did so many do so little in an attempt to earn so much.” Feather, “A Year of Selling Out,” Down Beat 16th Annual Yearbook: Music ’71, 10.
For a longer discussion of these themes in jazz historiography, see Scott DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography,” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 25 no.3 (Autumn 1991), 525−60.
Arnold Jay Smith, “Bass Lines: Crystal Gazing with A Bonanza of Experts,” Down Beat, 27 January 1977, 14.
Smith, “Bass Lines,” 15. As he went on, he even called out Pastorius specifically: “What someone like Jaco Pastorius does is done with an amplifier, number one, and number two, from what I’ve heard, he is trying to emulate an upright sound. I don’t know how many electric bass players are dedicated to imitating an electric sound. From the records I have heard there aren’t very many. Even when it’s done it’s not as pure as the real thing and at some point people are going to want to hear the real thing.” Pastorius’s timbral imitation of an upright bass is addressed later in this article.
Ibid. Elsewhere in his interview, Haden does make the point that he isn’t against the electric bass altogether, just that he thinks it is really only suited to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. Also, while he is perhaps against the electric bass as an instrument, he had explored creating electronic sounds with his upright bass; listen, for instance, to his electronically processed bass sound on Keith Jarett’s “Mortgage on My Soul (Wah-Wah)” (1971).
Ibid. One of Mingus’s chief complaints is that you can’t bow an electric bass. This argument is echoed by others in the roundtable, notably Eddie Gomez, who was famous for playing an amplified upright bass.
Emphasis in original. Ibid., 44.
Quoted in Clive Williamson, “Portrait of Jaco,” Bassist and Bass Techniques, October 1997, 11
The bassists in the roundtable who positively present themselves as electric bass players are Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, Monk Montgomery, Dave Holland, Rick Petrone, and Miroslav Vitous. Notably, Vitous, Johnson, and Pastorius were all members of Weather Report at one time.
Steven Rosen, “Jaco Pastorius: Portrait of Jaco,” Player, June 1978, reprinted at http://jacopastorius.com/features/interviews/portrait-of-jaco/.
Lawrence Wayte, “Bitches Brood: The Progeny of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew” (Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 2007; Ann Arbor: UMI, 2007), 233−51.
The chord progression for “Donna Lee” was itself based on the jazz standard “(Back Home Again) In Indiana,” which provides the song even deeper ties to the jazz tradition.
While virtuosity is often valued in jazz criticism, some critics find too much virtuosity distasteful, arguing that it can devolve into “empty” technical displays that lack emotion. Take, for example, Stuart Nicholson’s discussion of fusion keyboardist Chick Corea: “Just as the symphonic rock bands eventually became discredited by rock critics for their empty virtuosity, Corea too was guilty of exploiting his technique at the expense of meaning.” Nicholson, Jazz Rock: A History, 202. Pastorius was similarly a target for such critiques (see the review of his second album quoted later in this article, where critic Carl Brauer writes, “While there is no question that Pastorius is an excellent musician, his playing with Weather Report did have a tendency to emphasize theatrics over substance…”). This discourse created something of an authenticity Catch-22 for Pastorius, wherein he was originally denied credibility because his electric bass was not seen as a solo instrument, and then again, when it turned out that he was too technically proficient at soloing on it.
As Metheny later described the recording, “[Pastorius’s] solo on ‘Donna Lee,’ beyond being astounding for just the fact that it was played with a hornlike phrasing that was previously unknown to the bass guitar is even more notable for being one of the freshest looks at how to play on a well-traveled set of chord changes in recent jazz history—not to mention that it’s just about the hippest start to a debut album in the history of recorded music. That solo, along with his best compositions…reveal a melodic ingenuity…that comes along only a few times in each generation. And then there is just his basic relationship to sound and touch; refined to a degree that some would have thought impossible on an ‘electric’ instrument.” Pat Metheny, liner notes to Jaco Pastorius, Jaco Pastorius, Sony, 2000, Compact disc.
Quoted in Williamson, “Portrait of Jaco,” 12.
“Jaco Pastorius with Bass 1980” by Chris Hakkens is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Quoted in Milkowski, Jaco, 33.
Wayte, “Bitches Brood,” 252−53.
Quoted in Milkowski, Jaco, 87.
Peter Dowdall, Technology and the Stylistic Evolution of the Jazz Bass (London: Routledge, 2017), 125. Dowdall’s book devotes an entire chapter to Pastorius and his relationship to technology.
Ken Ge discusses the rise of what he calls “electroacoustic” timbres among jazz upright bassists in the 1970s and its specific use by bassist Eddie Gomez. See Ken Ge, “Bright Bass Timbres in the ‘Dark Age’ of Jazz: Eddie Gomez, Three Quartets, Transgression, and Transcendence” (DMA diss., University of Miami, 2018), <https://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/oa_dissertations/2032/>.
As Tesser wrote, “Like a glittering pendant anchoring the string of pearls of fusion music, Weather Report, at this late date, hardly needs to be pointed out. Indeed, Zawinul, Shorter and their slowly but steadily revolving door of rhythm players have had so enormous an impact on the way many of listen to music—on how we hear music—that their atmospheric-musical research has become indispensable (try to conceive of modern music without the efforts and effects of this band).” Neil Tesser, “Review of Weather Report’s Heavy Weather,” Down Beat, 19 May 1977, 23.
David Less, “Review of Mr. Gone,” Down Beat, 11 January 1979, 22.
Emphasis mine. See Carl Brauer, “Review of Mr. Gone,” Cadence, November 1978, 36. For his review of Night Passage (1980), Brauer was just as snide: “For all intents and purposes ‘jazz rock’ or ‘fusion’ has become a musical dinosaur—evolving into a creative dead end characterized by clichés. One of the few groups to create anything of substance out of this genre is also one of the fusion pioneers: Weather Report. But even this group has been in a creative malaise for quite some time. Its newest recording, Night Passage…has a few effective moments but for the most part is trapped in a series of predictable and (ultimately) boring compositions.” Carl Brauer, “Review of Night Passage,” Cadence, March 1981, 28−29.
Larry Birnbaum, “Weather Report Answers its Critics,” Down Beat, 8 February 1979, 15. Elsewhere in the interview, Weather Report in general, and Pastorius in particular, are more open to their music being compared to R&B, presumably due to its hipper associations with blackness and its wider resonances with jazz history. Yet, the interviewer has a reasonable point about the band’s rock connections; for example, as mentioned earlier, onstage Pastorius often broke out into solo renditions of distorted rock songs, such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and “Third Stone from the Sun.”
A surviving internal memo from September 1979 demonstrates the sizable financial investment that Warner Bros. was considering: Pastorius would earn a 14% royalty rate for up to 500,000 units (after which it would increase up to 16% for all units over 1,000,000); in terms of advances, including recording costs and producer’s fees, the company was considering offering the bassist $200,000 for his first album, between $150,000 and $300,000 for his second album, between $250,000 and $500,000 for his third and fourth albums, and between $300,000 and $600,000 for his fifth and six albums. Had he successfully fulfilled this contract, all told he would have received advances of anywhere between $1.45 and $2.7 million. “Warner Bros. Records Inc. Inter-Office Memo, Subject: Jaco Pastorius,” Mo Ostin Collection, Library and Archives, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Milkowski, Jaco, 119.
Quoted in ibid.
In a 1983 interview, Pastorius directly tied his recording of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy to his previous recording of “Donna Lee,” noting that both were attempts to silence his critics: “I practiced ‘Donna Lee’ and the ‘Chromatic Fantasy’ for eight years before I would play them in front of anybody. When I first did play the ‘Chromatic Fantasy’ originally, I did not use an open string. It was so hard, but I did it because I was such a purist and people were always putting me down for being an ‘electric bass player,’ though I was so pure. I’m an acoustic musician.” Emphasis in original, Peter Mengaziol, “Jaco Pastorius: The Wild Man of Bass Comes Clean, A Whacked-Out Interview,” Guitar World, May 1983, 37.
Night Passage had been recorded and released in the time between when Pastorius had secured his solo contract with Warner Bros. and when the company released his first album. It too was controversial for critics. In a Down Beat feature on the band and the state of their career at the time the album was released, Bob Blumenthal contextualized the band’s slow falling out with critics: “[I]t wouldn’t be farfetched to label Weather Report the ‘Group of the 70 s.’ Yet many listeners, including several of my critical colleagues, would vigorously dissent. Some rejected Weather Report’s electronic sonorities and rock flavored rhythms from the outset, saving their allegiance for music that was acoustic and straight-ahead. Others favored the band in the early days, but grew disenchanted as the writing became more controlled and Zawinul asserted his dominance more clearly. The arrival of Pastorius, whose playing and performing style draws on rock as well as jazz, no doubt was the last straw for some fans…Ask those listeners about Weather Report, and they may question whether Weather Report ought to be considered a jazz group at all.” Bob Blumenthal, “Weather Report,” Down Beat, February 1981, 14.
Lars Gabel, “Review of Word of Mouth,” Down Beat vol. 48, December 1981, 53.
Karl Dallas, “Review of Word of Mouth,” Melody Maker, 10 October 1981, 20.
Carl Brauer, “Review of Word of Mouth,” Cadence, September 1981, 23.
DeVeaux, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition,” 528.
While Trujillo’s film does not acknowledge these debates over authenticity, it is worth noting that his band, Metallica, has repeatedly faced similar accusations of “selling out” within the discourse of their own genre, heavy metal. For a discussion of Metallica’s own struggles for popular music legitimacy, see Glenn T. Pillsbury, “Mutiny in the Air: The Sell-Out Question and Popular Music Histories,” in Damage Incorporated: Metallica and the Production of Musical Identity (New York; Routledge, 2012).
Jaco Pastorius, Not Fusion But True Jazz, Sony, 2017, Compact disc.