Pat Blythe – The greatest bass player in the world…..and (his) music

I never seem to know what I’m going to write about from one week to the next. Sometimes I plan things out, gather the photos, etc. and then BAM! Something else falls in my lap and I’m heading down a totally different path. I love these journeys. This is one such trip.

I have been introduced, quite accidently, into the world of bassist Jaco Pastorius after discovering a video of Joni Mitchell with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays performing with her. I forwarded it to a friend who loves all three of the artists I mentioned. The name my friend “picks out of the crowd” however, is the bassist Jaco Pastorius. Me, wouldn’t know him if I tripped over him. That changed pretty fast! Next thing I know I’m getting schooled in all things Jaco and we’re watching the 2014 documentary about his life.

The first thing I do when I get home is crack open my laptop and type Jaco’s name into the browser. I don’t have to enter his last name, the WWW just knows….and I’m off through the wormhole. For some reason I find him incredibly intriguing and have now watched the documentary twice more. His bass playing brings me to tears….it’s like I can feel what he feels which is impossible, but I can’t stop listening to him.

“Hi I’m John Francis Pastorius III and I’m the greatest bass player in the world,” and indeed he was.

Beginnings……

Jaco’s short life is both fascinating and tragic…..actually heartbreaking. His influence with musicians in all genres is nothing short of astounding, from Robert Trujillo in Metallica, to Flea in Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Sting. In fact, it was Trujillo, Metallica’s current bassist, who was instrumental in the return of Jaco’s favourite bass to his family after it was discovered in an NYC guitar shop 20 years after it had been stolen from a park bench. Trujillo performed at least once with Metallica using the Bass of Doom before passing it back to family. The 1962 Fender jazz bass, Jaco nicknamed the Bass of Doom, was the bass he so famously removed the frets. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Already a world-reknowned bassist, once a drummer, always a drummer

Following in his father’s footsteps, a stand-up jazz drummer, Jaco was quickly drawn to the drums and proved to be a natural. At the age of 13 a football accident ended his drumming career, so he proceeded to study four instruments…..piano, guitar, sax and bass. During this time Jaco was a member of a nine-piece horn band called Las Olas Brass. Not wanting to be mediocre on all four but really good on one, he settled on the bass. Conveniently there also happened to be an open spot for a bassist in the band…..so he filled it. Decision made.

Las Olas Brass (Jaco is left on bass)

This would prove to be a key turning point in the Jaco’s life. Not only was the bass the perfect instrument for Jaco’s large hands and double-jointed thumbs, he would change the way the entire world saw (and heard) the electric bass guitar. I’m a firm believer in synchronicity and everything happens for a reason. The bass world was about to be turned on its proverbial ear.

Just to clarify the confusion…..a little

If there are 50 different people writing about Jaco, there are 50 different interpretations about his life. From his first, second and third bass he played/purchased to fret removal to where and when he performed first, to how he came to be called Jacko/Jaco. That also includes the documentary about his life. It’s like 10 people watching the same accident and every one of them will tell you something different. I’m finding it not just challenging, but frustrating….I’ve never read so many contradictory statements or versions about a single person before, especially one so famous and in relatively recent memory. So I’m going to go with the highlights and my interpretation(s).

With Tracy, John Francis Pastorius IV and Mary

He was a family man. No interpretation required here. To Jaco his family was the most important thing in the world. He was a new dad at an extremely young age. His daughter Mary was born just eight days after Jaco turned 19. He left the Woodchucks (the band he had been performing with) and found a job on a Caribbean cruise ship, taking his new family with him. Shortly after this he found work with soul review Tommy Strand & the Upper Hand. Jaco’s breakthrough in the business came with the band Wayne Cochrane and the C.C. Riders.

Jaco is wearing two layers of clothing under his tux so it would fit. (middle row, second from the right)

 

The name game….John Francis Pastorius III. John, Jacko, Jocko, Jaco….there are a number of different scenarios. The documentary tells the story of why his mother called him Jocko…..because she didn’t want to call him John; or was he nicknamed after umpire Jocko Conlon because of his love of sports. Even the variations in spelling have changed over the years. Did a family friend misspell it? Did Jaco himself change it as a tribute to the Latino spelling of his nickname, or did he decide to change it to “Jaco” in 1974, simply because he preferred the spelling? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. One word….two syllables….Jaco, that’s all you need.

Now…..those drums and “that” bass….Jaco was still gigging as a drummer for three years after the surgery on his wrist….or not. A few conflicts here too. This is where the whole bass thing comes into play. It’s like the chicken and the egg question…..which came first? The upright or the electric? So, pulled from the numerous articles I read…..he purchased an upright bass himself at the age of 15 or was it 17; one of them was a gift from his father; he “acquired an upright bass” after he purchased his first electric bass; he purchased the electric bass after the upright bass disintegrated into “like a hundred pieces”, ostensibly from the Florida heat; he traded in the upright bass for the 1962 Fender bass; he purchased an upright bass at 15 and his father gifted him another one at 17 which he eventually sold for a black 1960 Jazz Bass. My head hurts. Summary….at some point he owned an upright bass, and at some point he was the owner of at least two bass guitars. Whatever the sequence of events, the man became a bassist, and the best in the world!

To fret or not to fret. Which bass had the frets removed? Was it the frets of his first bass, after the “meltdown” of his stand-up bass, or was it was the frets of his second bass, 1962’s Bass of Doom, that were removed?

The famous Bass of Doom

Scenario one…..Jaco “defretted” the first electric bass because he wanted to retain the warm, mellow tones of the upright bass he had just lost. He felt the frets were too “metallic” sounding, and they got in the way of the glide action he preferred when he played the upright. This means he removed the frets of the first bass at a very young age….mid-teens.

Scenario two…..was the Bass of Doom purchased already badly “defretted” by a former owner? Did Jaco in fact simply repair it? Was this the first or second bass he “defretted”? There’s even differences in what the fret slots were filled with (wood putty, Plastic Wood or epoxy or are they the same thing?). Also the reparation of the destroyed fingerboard (again with wood putty and sealing it with several coast of Petite’s Poly-poxy), or did he just coat it with marine varnish?

To butter knife or not to butter knife? That one seems to hold up in most stories, including Jaco’s fractured memory, although in one article I found a screwdriver was the tool of choice. My two burning questions are this…..where did a butter knife come from, and was it actually used as a butter knife after Jaco was through with it?

Now that we’ve got that out of the way….

Apparently Jaco’s first electric bass purchase was in fact a brand new sunburst 1966 Fender Jazz bass. His age is unconfirmed, but he was either 15 or 17. Jaco couldn’t read music until later in his career, so he learned everything by ear, including all the parts of the various instruments in a song. In 1968 Jaco borrowed a friend’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded his version of Pee-Wee Ellis’s The Chicken, playing all the instruments on the bass. He forwarded the recording to Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s widow. Alice, an accomplished musician in her own right, replied back with an encouraging letter. The Chicken later became one of Jaco’s concert staples.

Note: Alice Coltrane was not only a gifted pianist, she was one of the few harpists in the history of jazz.

Jaco and his new 1966 Fender bass (age 15 or 17)

Every bass player’s “Hendrix”

Jaco upended the electric bass world. He was an exceptional performer…..special….there was an electricity around him that never really shut off. He felt music everywhere and in everything. All of this he would spend his life incorporating into and expressing it through his bass. He was a “sensitive”, able to tune into the nuances of the music of the world that surrounded him.

The ocean and water played a major role in his life and his music. He was as drawn to it as he was to its music and his music. Jaco performed so many of the greats, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Lyle Mays, Wayne Cochran and The C.C. Riders, Herbie Hancock, Lenny White, Wayne Shorter, Sam & Dave and everyone in between.

Most well-known for his work with Weather Report, which very nearly didn’t happen, Jaco was recognized not just for his skills as a bassist and composer, but as a rather exuberant performer. His bass playing and extravagant showmanship drew audiences to the shows…..audiences that weren’t typically drawn to the type of “esoteric jazz” Weather Report was known for. An integral part of the band, Jaco recorded eight albums with Weather Report. He was a fundamental part in their most popular album Heavy Weather, singing and playing the melody with bass harmonics on the song “Birdland”.

The Bass of Doom

In the early 70s Jaco purchased a 1962 Fender Jazz bass from a pawn shop for $90. Whatever the circumstances, the bass was (or became) fretless. It remained Jaco’s closest partner until it was stolen off a park bench in 1986. Already weather-beaten, the bass produced a very specific growl when played so Jaco nicknamed it the Bass of Doom. He toured the world with Weather Report and the Bass of Doom, even hurling it into Hiroshima Bay at one point. I’d like to know who rescued it!

The Bass of Doom suffered along with its owner, yet supported Jaco through all his major ups and downs, continually by his side. The destruction and repair of this bass is like an analogy to Jaco’s life. Destroyed in a fit of pique, Jaco either smashed the bass himself, or he dropped it down a concrete stairwell during an argument. Either way, the instrument was broken into pieces small enough to fit into a container slightly bigger than a shoe box. Since the bass was utterly destroyed, I’ll go with the concrete stairwell. Somehow I can’t see Jaco flinging and flailing the guitar all over the place. It took one hell of an impact to do this kind of damage shown in the photo.

The song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” comes to mind

According to an article in Reverb, Jaco’s main luthier, Kevin Kaufman and fellow luthier Jim Hamilton spent 150 hours of surgery repairing the bass. Rebuilding it from 10 main pieces and dozens of splinters, even restoring and inlaying missing sections of the instrument before laminating the top, back and headstock, the two men still had to re-cut the neck pocket, pickup cavities, control cluster and tuning gears. Once again the Bass of Doom was whole.

Jaco was thrilled! His soul mate and the growl were back! He proceeded to record Moodswings from Mike Stern’s Upside Downside that very night. Unfortunately, it was not long after this the bass was stolen. Apparently Jaco had a bad habit of leaving it, often without a case, lying exposed on a park bench while he played a game of basket ball. Gone in a heartbeat, Jaco returned to Florida without it. He never saw the Bass of Doom again.

I’m not going to get into Jaco’s final days. Enough has been written. Although people tried desperately to “repair” Jaco, even committing him to Bellevue, it was impossible to put all the broken pieces back together again. I like to think that wherever the Bass of Doom resides, Jaco is a part of it, his spirit whole once again.

 “I have no competition, because I’m not competing” – Jaco Pastorius

The following selections of music all feature Jaco Pastorius.

The Chicken – Jaco Pastorius and his band Word of Mouth (live)

John and Mary – Jaco Pastorius

In France They Kiss on Main Street – Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Lyle Mays, Don Alias & Michael Brecker

Blackbird – Jaco Pastorius

Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell (ft The Persuasions)

Hejira – Joni Mitchell

Birdland – Weather Report

Mood Swings – Mike Stern (ft Jaco Pastorius)

All American Alien Boy – Ian Hunter & Jaco Pastorius

Common Disease – Ian Hunter, Gerry Weems, Aynsley Dunbar & Jaco Pastorius

….and once more off his self-titled album

The Chicken – Jaco Pastorius

I’m just an imitator myself, man. I’m just a very bad imitation on the bass of Jerry Jemmott, Bernard Odum, Jimmy Fielder, Jimmy Blanton, Igor Stravinsky, Fela Ransome Kuti… the cats man. I’m just backing up the cats! – Jaco Pastorius

Cheers!

This week’s Podcast, Juno nominee Samantha Martin https://luvthemusic.podbean.com

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat little-red-headed-dancing-girlalso worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

One Response to “Pat Blythe – The greatest bass player in the world…..and (his) music”

  1. Wow. Thanks Pat. If only… Such an expensive talent for him.

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