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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Every so often, a musician picks up an instrument and plays it in a way that is so original that it changes both the sound and the function of the instrument. The electric bass player, Jaco Pastorius, was one of those artists. He died 20 years ago today. And my co-host, Michele Norris, has this remembrance of his life and his legacy.

MICHELE NORRIS: If you talk to jazz musicians, they'll tell you that the name Jaco has become a line of demarcation in jazz. When Jaco Pastorius picked up the electric bass, he launched a four-string revolution.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: With a combination of speed, precision and complex chords, he introduced a new sound and set a new standard.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Jazz musician): He played the bass like it's a piano.

NORRIS: That's jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

Mr. HANCOCK: He played all these chords and it's only got four strings. How can you make piano chords on a bass? I couldn't figure out how he was doing that. And that chords were, they were like the chords I play.

NORRIS: Jaco Pastorius played bass for the jazz group Weather Report at the peak of its popularity. He also collaborated with several jazz artists, including the guitarist Pat Metheny, as well as performers like Joni Mitchell.

(Soundbite of song "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat")

Ms. JONI MITCHELL (Singer): (Singing) When Charlie speaks of Lester, you know someone great has gone. The sweetest swinging music man had a Porkie Pig hat on.

NORRIS: Though Pastorius was only 35 years old when he died, he left a large imprint on the music industry. Some of the musicians who played with Pastorius talked with us recently about that legacy. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny remembers the first time he heard Pastorius. A shock to the system was how he described it.

Mr. PAT METHENY (Jazz musician): It was so off the grid of anything anybody was doing. And his influence is so pervasive that we're now kind of used to hearing that on the bass. But at that time, when I first heard him, if somebody had walked up behind me and like hit me over the head with a baseball bat, it would have been about the same degree of shock.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Metheny and Pastorius became close friends in the mid-70s. They were both young and eager to take jazz in new directions. Metheny says Pastorius was not just ambitious, he was audacious - taking an instrument relegated to the background rhythm section and moving it to center stage.

Mr. METHENY: Electric bass, prior to Jaco - you know, had a little bit of a troubled relationship with jazz in general. That is an instrument that has a relatively small dynamic range compared to saxophone, trumpet, and Jaco was, to me, the first guy to come along and really transcend that basic limitation and make it have the kind of vocal quality, the kind of speaking quality that jazz at its best always seems to have.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARCUS MILLER (Jazz musician): Jaco actually said, when I play my fretless bass, I'm trying to get the sound of Frank Sinatra when he sing.

NORRIS: That's Marcus Miller, a bass player and producer. Miller says Pastorius extended the range of the electric bass to the broad use of a technique called false harmonics.

Mr. MILLER: On a bass, if you just simply put your finger on the string without pressing down and pluck it, you'll get a high note. It sounds like a Fender Rhodes piano or like a kalimba. It's very ringy, bell-like sound. Jaco created a whole vocabulary with these harmonics that no one had ever thought to do before.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILLER: Jaco's sound was a lot thinner sounding. It was not as deep sounding as some of the other basses, but, but the thinnest of the sound allowed him to get a lot more personality when he was soloing, when he's playing melodies. And that sound of that fretless bass singing like that really changed the world in terms of bass playing.

NORRIS: A fretless bass with no bars on the neck of the instrument to help control the strings, and therefore, the pitch.

Mr. MILLER: It really takes an extra amount of effort to just simply play in tune. And there were a few fretless players before that, but Jaco was the guy who just made you go, you know what? I got to get one myself.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: John Francis Pastorius grew up near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he first took up the drums. He switched to bass after he broke his wrist playing football, and as a result, couldn't get the pop he needed on a snare drum. His fretless style of play - again, a twist of fate - as Pastorius explains in an instructional videotape a few years before he died.

Mr. JACO PASTORIUS (Jazz musician): I was, like, getting into jazz a lot and I wanted to have that upright sound, you know? So I had an upright. It took me years and years to, you know, get enough bread to get it. I'm from Florida, so one morning I woke up, go in the corner and the bass is in, like, 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 anymore. So I went out, got a knife and took all, you know, frets out of my Fender. That was it.

NORRIS: Pastorius was an innovator and an extrovert. With flamboyant dress and flashy showmanship, he combined the artistry of jazz with the intensity of rock 'n' roll. In fact, intensity is the thing that characterized his music, and overtime, his life. He struggled with drugs and depression. Friends like Marcus Miller say his behavior became erratic.

Mr. MILLER: The problem with great musicians is that that's always there. Do you know what I mean? Any really talented genius musician you meet have a little craziness going on. So you just hope that he's always in control. And the problem was that every time I saw him, it seemed to get a little bit more and more out of control.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Herbie Hancock also worried that Pastorius might meet a bad end.

Mr. HANCOCK: I was always afraid for Jaco because the kind of behavior that he was displaying could really intimidate people and be the trigger for extreme aggression against him.

NORRIS: And that's reportedly what happened. Pastorius was beaten senseless in a confrontation outside a Florida bar. He lingered in a coma for nine days. And after doctors determined that he was brain dead, his family chose to remove life support. The end of Jaco Pastorius' life, but not, Herbie Hancock says, the end of his story.

Mr. HANCOCK: What he accomplished in that short lifespan and in that short career changed the course of music.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Marcus Miller.

Mr. MILLER: I miss him a lot. I miss what he would have ended up doing, you know? Because, I think, he would have done some incredible things as an older guy, you know? And I really miss those notes. We're going to miss what he would have become.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Twenty years ago today, Jaco Pastorius died. If you want to hear more of his music, go to npr.org/music.

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