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Jaco Pastorius: 20 Years Later

Jaco Pastorius performs with the group Weather Report at the 1981 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.
Tom Copi
Getty Images
Jaco Pastorius performs with the group Weather Report at the 1981 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

Twenty years ago Friday, bassist Jaco Pastorius died in a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., hospital as a result of injuries sustained during a fight in a local nightclub. He was 35.

On the anniversary of his death, several of his primary collaborators — bassist Marcus Miller, pianist Herbie Hancock and guitarist Pat Metheny — remember this innovative musician whose influences are widely heard and felt today.

Pastorius pioneered a new standard of rapid-fire virtuosity on his instrument, the electric bass, and in the process was a prime mover in bridging jazz and the pop music of his day. Pastorius collaborated extensively with a variety of iconic artists spanning many genres, including Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, fusion ensemble Weather Report and the group Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Pastorius was noted for performing on the fretless bass guitar, a homegrown innovation.

"I had an upright — it took me years and years to get enough bread to get it," he once said. "I'm from Florida, so one morning I woke up, go in the corner and the bass is in a hundred pieces, cause the humidity is so bad, I mean, the upright just blew up. I said forget it, man, I can't afford this any more. So I went out, got a knife and took all the frets out of my Fender. That was it."

In addition to his hyperkinetic bass work, he brought a complex sensibility for composition and arranging to his own projects. His 1976 self-titled debut LP is hailed as a tour-de-force, and he would later go on to command a big band of top-flight jazz musicians, a group called Word of Mouth.

The end of Pastorius' story is a familiar one in the history of American music: A young prodigy falls victim to substance abuse, his mercurial rise immortalized in canon and mythology. But another fact deserves greater emphasis: Jaco Pastorius was a great musician.

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