Jaco Pastorius Shares How He Learned Bass and Composition in Unpublished Interview | Bacon's Archive

Jaco Pastorius (1976). Photo by: Michael Ochs/ Getty Images.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Paul McCartney, Geezer Butler, and Tina Weymouth.

I interviewed Jaco Pastorius at a London hotel in summer 1976. I wanted to talk mainly about his first solo album, Jaco Pastorius, which had just been released. He was on tour in Europe with Weather Report, which he'd joined some months earlier, and the band had arrived in England the previous day following concerts in Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, and France.

It seemed like every bass player I knew had heard Jaco's solo record and all of them were raving about the remarkable performances on display, especially his fretless playing and his use of harmonics.

We sat down in his hotel room, and Jaco decided he'd like to have the Olympics from Montreal on the TV while we talked. We switched on the set and flicked from cricket to the test card. I explained that we had just the three channels. He gave up.

Jaco Pastorius - Jaco Pastorius

Of course, I couldn't have known back then what the future had in store for the 24-year-old Jaco. How he would leave Weather Report some five years later, how he'd make some fabulous contributions to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Mingus studio albums as well as the live Shadows And Light, or how his life would be cut short in September 1987, when he died in tragic circumstances at the age of just 35. Back in that hotel room in summer '76, however, I started our conversation by asking for some context.

I wondered about your musical background, Jaco. Your father was a drummer, right? Was that an influence?

Well it was, but not actually musically. It was just as far as life, you know? He was gone a lot. I never really knew my father that good. Him and my mother never really got along. He didn't play legit, in other words he couldn't read. He played great, he was a great musician, but he didn't learn about it. He just naturally could do it. He would come home and visit every once in a while, and he would come by when I first started playing the bass, when I was about 15. I was already playing drums before that—I could already play drums.

And he would say stuff, just from being a musician, what he would see other cats do. Like on the piano, or whatever they were playing. He would say, "Well, I'm gonna be home in about four months, and when I come home I want you to be able to play triads in the key of B-flat all the way up the neck."

I didn't even know what he was talking about—sounded like a foreign language. You know, when you don't see your father that often, you really want to do it. So I did it. Quick. Anyway, so it wasn't much of an influence for me.

You taught yourself, then.

Mostly, yeah. It's just logic, very simple common sense. The actual technical—the actual notes, it's just common sense. I mean, I would just learn from my friends. A guy would sit down at the piano—I didn't know what the notes of the piano were—and he'd sit down and play a C triad. I'd say, "What's that," and he'd say, "That's a C triad." That's how you do it, you know? You really don't have to go to school or anything. I've never been to school, not for music.

So you took up bass and started playing.

Yeah, just like a hobby, having fun in high school.

Was there a moment you thought, well, this is something I want to do?

Well, it's strange, you know. I've always been the sort of cat, the sort of person, that whenever I wanted to do something, no matter what it was, I just tried to do it good. So I was real good at baseball and football when I was a kid. That was just the way I was. I just liked to get in there and do something. So this was the same thing with music. When I learned, I didn't really care about it, it was just something I was doing, you know? Then when my daughter was born [Mary, in 1970], then I said, OK, now I can actually make a living doing this. I was washing cars, I said what am I doing this for? And I just started working.

What sort of bands were you in?

Rhythm and blues, straight R&B. We did all James Brown stuff, Otis Redding—a lot of The Beatles, before. On bass, it was rhythm and blues, but before, on drums, I was playing a lot of like English rock. Then it was just to have fun. I was working when I was 13 in nightclubs, on drums. But I've been working steady, making a living at music, ever since from when I was probably 15 or 16 on the bass. That was for money—it was a simple way of making money. I got serious about it when my daughter was born, but I was already playing good.

When was this, that you started getting serious?

That was about six years ago, when I just said forget it. I already had a lot of music together, but it was just coincidental. I never really said, Oh, I'm going to get this together. I never really practiced till I was about 19. That's when my daughter was born, and I said, Forget it, now I've got to do something. There's this little person who can't do anything, she's really depending on me, so now I've really got to work.

What was that R&B band you joined?

Wayne Cochran & The C.C. Riders, this big R&B group.

What was that like?

The best, nothing better, every night. I think at the time we were using three trumpets, four saxes, trombone, and a three-piece rhythm section: bass, guitar, and drums. We'd just kick ass every night, and then Wayne of course was singing. That was a great experience. The leader of the band was Charlie Brent, who was the guitar player, and he was just one of them really gifted music people. He—that's where I first started writing for more than just—I mean, I'd already written tunes, but I had never written for a band, and that's when I started writing for bands. That was 1970, I guess.

Jaco with Wayne Cochran & The C.C. Riders, playing his own composition "Amelia" (1972)

What sort of things were you writing?

Funk, big-band funk.

Literally writing out parts?

Writing the stuff down, actually getting it out there, arranging big, eight-part harmony and stuff for that many cats.

You did that without any lessons?

That's how I learned it. I just learned it with my friends. I can remember the first charts I wrote—they were so bad. I knew harmony, so it was just a matter of giving people the harmony, just trial and error until I found out what sounded better where in a section of horns. The actual notation and stuff, I learned all that from my friends. Those first charts, I just wrote down the letter of the note, man [laughs]. Play this! This, of course, I was 15 or something, but now I'm a professional copyist. I used to do that for a living, now, but back then I just learned quick, because I wanted to do it. I had music to write, but I couldn't get it across.

It was frustrating?

No, it wasn't frustrating at all.

But you had the tunes in your head.

Doesn't matter. You can't get across the river without a bridge or a boat or something. So you just have to take your time and either [laughs] build a bridge or build a boat. One or the other.

So you started writing for the C.C. Riders.

Yeah, that's where I first started writing. And then from there I just did lots of jobs, mostly show work, and I got a lot of writing chops together there, because there would always be a good writer. Even if the music was square, the actual execution was always really good. So I learned a lot doing shows.

Jaco Pastorius

Was it good for you as a bass player, too?

Yes, real good, because that's where I learned how to read. I mean, I was writing music before I knew how to read it. As fast as you can write a letter, you can write music, you know? But that isn't half as fast as you can read a letter. So when music is in front of you and the tempo is smoking, it just looks like a foreign language. So that's where I got my reading together, doing that.

You don't have to know how to read or write, really, playing music, but this sort of music, American music, it helps to be able to do both. It's good experience. Other people put that down, saying that's a joke. The reason most people put that down is because they can't do it. Put down a show, like, "Oh my god, that's the worst stuff I ever heard"—OK, put it down, but let's see you do it. Then put it down.

Sounds like you did a lot of that show stuff.

Yeah, on boats, wherever it existed, I did it. But the whole time I was writing music for bands, big-bands, or writing for singers. For a long time I didn't play that much bass, outside of just being part of the show band. Like all my playing, I already had that together, but I wasn't doing it, because it was, er, like—there wasn't any place to do it, you know? You say, "Isn't that frustrating," well it wasn't frustrating, there was no place to do it.

Where I'm from, Florida, there are no jazz musicians—I mean, there are a few, a few real good ones, but I mean there was no jazz market to work, you know? No outlet at all. So I just waited. Waited my time. Because I'm in no rush, and I'm going to be here a long time, you know. See, a big problem with most music today, about 99 percent of the music today, is that people have no roots at all. I came out fairly quick.

What do you mean by roots?

Well roots, man. In other words, people learn 10 notes of music and they think they're musicians, you know? It's a real joke.

You mean they don't feel it?

No, they don't know it. They don't—whatever. They don't feel it, they don't know it, they don't have the potential to even feel it. In other words, if you learn 10 chords on a guitar, then you go out and you think you're a musician and make a hit record, you see? That's just a joke. That's because music companies are doing that now. They're taking anything and making something out of it, which is a joke. They ain't actually looking for good music. That's why I waited around. [Punk was in the news in London at the time of this interview, with the Sex Pistols playing early gigs.]

So who's the one percent?

Well, they're out there, you'll hear 'em, you've probably already heard 'em. Really, the percentage is probably even lower than that, in reality. I waited around a long time. It's like a tree. A tree don't never grow until it's got some roots already spreading out underneath, and then it'll grow. And then when the wind or a little bit of rain comes, it ain't gonna get blown away. All I'm gonna tell you, you see people every year, someone comes along, then next year they're forgotten, because their music isn't substantial.

I've been playing a long time, I had a lot of offers for a long time. I didn't want to take any of 'em until I had what I figured was a good amount of roots covered, and come out and do it. I also wanted to come out as a writer and as a leader. I didn't want to come out as a sideman first. I'm a sideman for Weather Report, and I enjoy that, I love being a sideman, but I figured if I was to come out in front of the public, I wanted to be a leader, you know? Because I do write, there's no reason for me not to.

Jaco in his first year with Weather Report, live at Montreaux, 1976

There are very few bands where the bass player is the leader, the main figure.

Oh, there really aren't any, hopefully, because I don't see how any one person can be the main thing in any group.

But if you want to be the leader…

I don't even want a band, you see, I don't want a band. I just want to play. If I do a record, you're a leader. You're automatically a leader—it's your record. But if you listen to the music, a lot of this stuff is in the writing. Jazz-wise, when people step and take a solo, what people call it, I only do that on three tunes [on the Jaco Pastorius album] and there's ten pieces of music on it. I mean, I can do that, and the power in doing that is not having to put it everywhere, you know what I mean? Just doing it a couple of times, and people know it immediately.

Things in moderation.

Oh, that's the only way. Moderation always eventuates in charm. Action—there's a lot of strength in action, but I don't think it's that simple.

Tell me about the recording of your album.

What was difficult was that Bobby Colomby—he's my record producer—he at the time was on the road [as the drummer] with Blood, Sweat & Tears. So the actual recording days, we didn't spend no more than five or six days in actual recording, but they were spread over three months. Because that was the only time he had off, and I wasn't working.

So I was busted, you know? I had no bread, I was just sitting in Florida on my ass, and then he would call me up, "Oh, we're going in the studio first two days of next week." That was a pain in the ass. That will never happen again. Seeing I'd never even been on a record, I just had to wait. That's just a simple law of nature: If nobody knows who you are, you just have to take some punches. Whether you deserve them or not, you got to take them. And then you earned a right to do what you want.

Where did you record?

I recorded three different places. The strings I recorded at Columbia [30th Street] Studio C in New York City. "(Used To Be A) Cha-Cha" and "Opus Pocus" we recorded at [East 52nd Street] Studio B there, and the rest of the album we recorded at Bobby Colomby's house—he's got a studio up in his attic.

Was recording at the house more relaxing than at Columbia?

Well it really doesn't matter, because I don't think about that sort of stuff. What I think about is just the music going down. The karma involved between the musicians is what I'm looking for, and that was happening at every date, so it didn't matter where we were. We could have been out on the beach [laughs] and would have recorded just as well, probably.

You like playing in front of an audience, though.

Yeah, I like to, for actually playing music that's what I prefer, but playing on a record, it is the same thing, because eventually it's going to get to an audience.

But you don't have the physical presence of people, and that makes a difference. Don't you find that pushes the playing further?

No, not necessarily. It depends what you're doing. For me, playing in front of an audience, it just necessitates having to play in front of the audience—in other words, if you're playing to a lot of people, and they're into it, then you play for them. I always play for people. If I'm playing for five people, I direct the music right at them. The different countries I've been playing on this tour, I play different in every country, because that's just the way I like to play.

How did you get the gig with Weather Report?

They just called me up. [Jaco joined in late 1975, replacing the outgoing bassist Alphonso Johnson.]

Is Weather Report your best musical experience so far?

[Pause] Improvisationally, yeah, no question about it. Show-wise, on stage, I've done a lot heavier things. But this will be that heavy pretty soon, too. This is a brand new band, we never even had any rehearsals. Improvisation, though, is really high. This band is really throwing the music out there, it's like the music is really breathing. It's never the same from night to night—every night is completely different.

Even though we're using tunes as motifs, that's all they're being used for. The basic thing we're doing is improvising, but we're making it sound like we're not improvising. That sounds sort of like a contradiction, but there's something to that. In other words, you play, and you just try to make it sound clean enough so that people don't get drug out [laughs] and you can still work and have fun. There's a fine line. You can't even talk about it, really, but essentially that's what we're doing, we're making improvised music sound written.

So there's a difference between Weather Report on stage and Weather Report in the studio.

I can't answer that, because I've only played on two tunes ["Cannon Ball" and "Barbary Coast"], on Black Market [Weather Report's latest album at the time, released four months earlier in March '76], so I can't say. But there's the same spirit, no question about that. It is different, because on stage we do nothing but take chances, all the time. We really live dangerously on stage [laughs]. That's the way I like it.

Now, see, there's a similarity between my record and Weather Report's record. On my album, every tune was a chance, I took big chances on all the tunes. I had no rehearsals on any of that music, because I couldn't afford—the amount of musicians I had on the record, I couldn't afford to pay 'em to rehearse as well as to record. So all I could do was bring the music, run it down a couple of times, and put on the red light.

How were those musicians to work with? [The personnel on Jaco Pastorius included Don Alias, Randy & Michael Brecker, Richard Davis, Mike Gibbs, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, Sam & Dave, David Sanborn, Wayne Shorter, Narada Michael Walden, and Lenny White.]

The best. Everybody on the record was the best. They're just some of the nicest people out there today. None of them held back, which was really good, because lots of people get on a record date and they won't play unless they got points, or it's their record. Nobody did this. The music—I feel, looking back at it—the music dictated the best out of everybody. I just said, "Come on, let's play!"

You're pleased with the end product, then?

Oh yeah, no question about it. I know it front to back. I wrote all the music, and Bobby [Colomby, producer], myself, and the engineer, David Palmer, mixed it together. The mixing took us the most time. We spent a week mixing it. We knew the sound we wanted, the same sound we had in the studio. It was just a matter of making it as good as possible.

The main thing involved with the mixing was getting all the music in the right spot in the record, so when it hit that groove, the music would just kind of jump out at you. The tunes with the strings, we did all that live, so we got about 12 strings, and also four people in the rhythm section, a drum set—all the things that a pop record tries to get, we tried to get all those good sounds of a pop record, and yet we tried to get all the good sounds of a classical or a jazz record.

It sounds good to me.

People are real pleased with the sound of the record. I am, you know. I'm not that much of a connoisseur on the sound of a record, anyway—I'm very new at it. But we just tried to get the music to come out.

Jaco Pastorius - "Continuum"

The bass sound on "Continuum" is pretty special. Can you tell me how that one worked?

I played the whole tune twice, note for note—that's how I did it. Everybody thinks I've got all sorts of electronic gear, but I don't use any pedals, no electronics. It's all in my hands. But on that particular tune I played the whole tune note for note twice, solo and everything. That's just some unique stuff. I just wanted it to sound like a couple of guys singing.

I love the playing and the sound of that piece.

Well, that's one of the older tunes. I wrote that tune about six years ago, so that's really a part of me, that tune. Whereas some of the other stuff I wrote more recently, some of it I wrote just for the date, so it had never even been played. That tune I had played many times. So I really knew how to play it [laughs].

I must admit I thought you had a pedal or something on that.

Well, now that you know, listen to it again. When I did it, I didn't listen to the other track. Because there's no way to play something that close to the sound. If you play them both, you will cancel the other one out. Plus for intonation, I didn't listen to the first one, I just had to learn the whole thing. Every inflection of that piece of music, I learned back to front. Just went back and recorded the whole thing. I took the bass track off and just played with the rhythm section.

So when I put it together, it was just a surprise, because they were really close. See, there's no other way to do it. Well, there is, you can listen to them both, but they're so close, the intonation would definitely be out to lunch. That's the personality of the tune, because if it was a phase shifter, the vibrato would go [makes wild, erratic noise], whereas with this, the vibrato is going in waves. That's the magic of that tune. But seeing I'd played that tune so many times, there's parts when the vibrato's exact. Pure coincidence.

So yeah, I like that track, too—I mean, all the music on that album, to me, is equal. To me, there's no standout. But just two tunes that mean a lot to me, that are a part of me, is that one, "Continuum," and also "Opus Pocus." Just as having fun, those are my two favorite tunes. But every tune there has something like a real part of life in it for me, so every tune lives by itself for me.

I really don't have any favorites, musically. The only favorite I have is the one that somebody else has. If they like it, you got it. That's the stuff. It ain't for me, I don't need to make a record for myself. Sit around and listen to it? That's a joke. It's for the people to play it, and if they like it, well…

So no pedals. How about your amps?

I use an Acoustic 360. I've been using that about eight years, since they first had them. When I record, I have a line going direct and I have a microphone to the amp, so we get a little bit of both, the highs and lows. It's just like having two mics on a piano.

That's how you did it on your album?

Yes, and we mixed all that at Bobby's house, and he has all the best equipment, but I asked David Palmer, the engineer, what he was doing to make the bass sound like that. And he said, "Nothing—that's it. I'm just getting the best sound I can get."

Do you use the same 360 setup on stage now with Weather Report?

I think probably the same thing, there might be a direct—I think we might use only a mic on stage. I don't know.

Are you happy with the stage sound?

Yeah, well, it could be better. The PA I don't think is all that hot. On stage it's great—it's the same exact sound as I get in the studio. I use the same exact amp I've had for all these years. Except for I use two on stage. I use one as a monitor to hear myself and one across stage to monitor for the band. So the actual monitors for the band is the amp.

How do you set it?

I have the treble all the way up and the tone control all the way up on my bass, and then on the amp I actually use more bass. But that's just the way I get that sound. I'd like to get it better, and I will—I'll get a lot more sophisticated stuff in the future—but right now that's what I got, and I just do the best with what I've got.

[I point at a big silver double flightcase, open in the corner of the room.] Those are your two basses?

Yeah, my instruments are just straight old Fender basses [his fretted '60 Jazz Bass and de-fretted '62 Jazz Bass]. I've been using both these basses about five, six years. About six years, yeah. These are not my original instrument—I don't know where the heck that is, sold it. These two I've had for about six years.

Have you modified them at all?

One has frets, one doesn't.

You just took the frets off yourself?

Yeah. That particular one, somebody had already ripped 'em out when I bought it, looked like someone took a hatchet to it, so I had to fix it up. But I've done that, like—I've always been playing a fretless bass, I've had a few other fretless basses that I had to do it to myself.

How do you split between fretless and fretted?

Depends on what I want to play. On my record, I play fretless on everything but "Come On, Come Over" and "Portrait Of Tracy," I played fretted on those two. Everything else I played fretless. I use the fretless more often simply because it calls for that sound more often to me. When I want to use a vibrato, that's natural. I like the fretted bass, too—of course, there's things that work better with that, like playing lots of chords really in tune, you know? Whereas with the fretless it's hard to play more than two-note chords in tune, because your fingers, well—it's just too hard to get in there. I mean, I can, I do it a couple of times on the record, but I want to be in tune.

You get a certain sort of ring with the fretted.

Yeah, you get a metal thing, I like that, too. I like 'em both, but I like the wood a little better. I like the sound of the wood better. Most people think I'm playing upright on some of the tunes.

Your Fenders have long enough necks to get the sound you want, I guess.

To get a long sound, exactly.

Have you played upright bass?

Yeah. I like it, but it's a pain in the ass. It's just too much work for too little sound. I like to play with drummers, I grew up playing R&B, so I love to play with drummers. It's next to impossible to play an upright bass with a drummer. No matter how loud you get, you're not loud enough. The upright has got a great sound, and I love it, I'm not trying to take anything away from it. There's a lot of great acoustic bass players out there.

Who do you listen to, what sort of stuff?

I listen to whatever's in the air, wherever I'm at at the time. I don't like to listen to music too much. It's what I do for a living. I like to play ball, go to the beach, have fun. Music is too much work, so I try not to listen to it too much.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Bass Book, Paul McCartney: Bass Master, and Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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