He was a talented athlete with skills in football, basketball, and baseball, and he picked up music at an early age. He took the name "Anthony" at his confirmation.
He loved basketball and often watched it with his father. Pastorius' nickname was influenced by his love of sports and also by the umpire Jocko Conlan. He changed the spelling from "Jocko" to "Jaco" after the pianist Alex Darqui sent him a note. Darqui, who was French, assumed the name was spelled "Jaco"; Pastorius liked the new spelling. Jaco had a second nickname, given to him by his younger brother Gregory: "Mowgli", after the wild young boy in Rudyard Kipling's classic The Jungle Book. Gregory gave him the nickname in reference to Jaco's seemingly endless energy as a child. Jaco would later establish his music publishing company as Mowgli Music. In 1973, he was an instructor at the University of Miami's famed Frost School of Music.
Jaco started out on drums, following in the footsteps of his father Jack. He injured his shoulder playing football at age 13 and took up the electric bass, his first instrument costing $15 from a local pawn shop. The damage to his wrist was severe enough to warrant corrective surgery and ultimately inhibited Jaco's ability to play drums. In 1966, he took over bass duties in his band, Las Olas Brass, being replaced as drummer by Rich Franks.
Jaco bought an upright bass around 1968-69 as he started to appreciate jazz. The cost of an upright bass was prohibitive, and difficulties in maintenance of the instrument, which Pastorius attributed to the humidity of his Florida home, coupled with his shift in focus to R&B music, led to him becoming disenchanted with it. Following the development of a crack in the body, Jaco finally traded the instrument for a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass.
Jaco's first real break came when he secured the bass chair with Wayne Cochran and The C.C. Riders He also played on various local R&B and jazz records during that time such as Little Beaver, Ira Sullivan's Quintet, and Woodchuck. In 1974, he began playing with his friend and future famous jazz guitarist, Pat Metheny. They recorded together, first with Paul Bley as leader and Bruce Ditmas on drums, then with drummer Bob Moses. Metheny and Jaco recorded a trio album with Bob Moses on the ECM label, entitled Bright Size Life.
In 1975, Pastorius was introduced to Blood, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who had been given the green light by CBS records to find "new talent" for their jazz division. Pastorius' first album, produced by Colomby was the eponymous Jaco Pastorius (1976), a breakthrough album for the electric bass. Many consider this to be the finest bass album ever recorded; when it exploded onto the jazz scene it was widely praised by critics. The album also boasted a lineup of heavyweights in the jazz community at the time—essentially a stellar backup band—including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, Lenny White, Don Alias, and Michael Brecker among others. Even legendary R&B singers Sam & Dave reunited to appear on the track "Come On, Come Over".
Around the time of his solo album, he ran into keyboardist Josef Zawinul in Miami, where his band, Weather Report, was playing. According to Zawinul, Pastorius walked up to him after a concert one night and talked about the performance and said that it was all right but that he had expected more. He then went on to tell Zawinul that he was the greatest bass player in the world. An unamused Zawinul told him to "get the fuck outta [his] sight." According to Milkowski's book, on that same evening, Jaco persisted and, according to Zawinul, reminded Zawinul of himself when he was a "brash young man" in Cannonball Adderley's band, which made Zawinul admire the young bassist. Zawinul asked for a demo tape from Pastorius, and thus began a series of correspondence between the two.
Pastorius entered Weather Report during the recording sessions for Black Market, and he became a vital part of the band both by virtue of the unique qualities of his bass playing, his skills as a composer and his exuberant showmanship on stage. His stage act and melodic, propulsive solos brought Weather Report a large new African-American audience; before his arrival the band had mostly pulled in white college fans.
Pastorius guested on many albums by other artists, as for example in 1976 with Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople fame, on All American Alien Boy, which also featured David Sanborn, and Aynsley Dunbar. Other recordings included Joni Mitchell's Hejira album, and a solo album by Al Di Meola which were also standouts, both released in 1976. Soon after that, Weather Report bass player Alphonso Johnson gave notice that he would be leaving to start his own band. Zawinul invited Pastorius to join the band, where he played alongside Joe and Wayne Shorter until 1983. During his time with Weather Report, Pastorius made his indelible mark on jazz music, notably by being featured on one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, the Grammy Award-nominated Heavy Weather. Not only did this album showcase Jaco's stunning bass playing and songwriting, but he also received a co-producing credit with Joe Zawinul and even played drums on his self-composed "Teen Town."
During the course of his musical career, Pastorius played on dozens of recording sessions for other musicians, both in and out of jazz circles. Some of his most notable are four highly regarded albums with acclaimed singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977), Mingus (1979) and the live album Shadows and Light (1980). His influence was most dominant on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, and many of the songs on that album seem to be composed using the bass as a melodic source of inspiration.
Near the end of his career, he guested on low-key releases by jazz artists such as guitarist Mike Stern, guitarist Biréli Lagrène, and drummer Brian Melvin. In 1985, he recorded an instructional video, Modern Electric Bass, hosted by bass legend Jerry Jemmott.
By the time he and Weather Report parted ways in early 1981, Jaco began pursuing his interest in creating a big band solo project named Word of Mouth, one that found its debut aurally on his second solo release, Word of Mouth. This 1981 album also boasted guest appearances by several distinguished jazz musicians: Herbie Hancock, Weather Report alumni Wayne Shorter and Peter Erskine, harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans and Hubert Laws. The album allowed Pastorius' songwriting to take some of the spotlight from his bass performance. It also showcased his production skills and ultimately, his ability to bring together a project that was recorded on both coasts of the United States, as well as in Belgium where he recorded Thielemans.
On his 30th birthday, December 1, 1981, he threw a party at a club in Fort Lauderdale, flew in some of the greats mentioned above, as well as Don Alias, Michael Brecker, and more. The event was recorded by his friend and engineer Peter Yianilos, who intended it as a birthday gift. After Jaco's passing Weather Report claimed the recordings as theirs and released it as the "The Birthday Concert".
He toured in 1982; a swing through Japan was the highlight, and it was at this time that bizarre tales of Jaco's deteriorating behavior first surfaced. He shaved his head, painted his face black and threw his bass into Hiroshima Bay at one point. That tour was released in Japan as Twins I and Twins II and was condensed for an American release which was known as Invitation.
In 1982, he recorded a third solo album, which made it as far as some unpolished demo tapes, a steelpans-tinged release entitled Holiday for Pans, which once again showcased him as a composer and producer rather than a performer. Jaco did not play any of the bass parts on this album. He could not find a distributor for the album and the album was never released; however, it has since been widely bootlegged. In 2003, a cut from Holiday for Pans, entitled "Good Morning Anya", was included on Rhino Records' anthology Punk Jazz.
Jaco suffered from bipolar disorder, otherwise known as 'manic depression'. This condition, along with alcohol abuse, resulted in a deterioration in his health from the early 1980s that severely restricted his ability to function as a musician and in society more generally.
Jaco showed numerous symptoms of his bi-polar illness long before his initial diagnosis, although they were insufficiently extreme to have been recognized at the time as mental illness, being regarded instead as eccentricities or character flaws. The illness in its earlier stages is likely to have contributed to his success as a musician. Manic episodes, the cyclical peaks in mood that distinguish Bipolar disorder from unipolar depression, have long been associated with enhanced creativity. It was recognised (retrospectively) by friends and family that these peaks played an essential role in Jaco's urge to create music.
In his early career, Jaco avoided both alcohol and drugs, but he became increasingly involved in alcohol and other substance abuses during his time with Weather Report. Bipolar disorder and psychoactive substance abuse disorders have a highly prevalent comorbidity, with a mutually detrimental inter-relationship. Alcohol abuse ultimately exacerbated Jaco's illness, leading to increasingly erratic and sometimes anti-social behavior.
One night before a gig, Joe Zawinul offered Jaco a drink to loosen him up. Pastorius had never drunk before due to his father's own struggles with alcohol, and after two drinks, Zawinul said he got "strange. He started throwing things. I knew right away I had made a mistake." Zawinul later denied responsibility for Jaco's drinking, saying, "I gave Jaco a drink one time. If one drink does it, you're a goner anyhow - believe me." Pastorius's drinking grew more out of control in the ensuing years, with Zawinul so furious during a Japanese tour in 1980 he was ready to fire Jaco. He called bassist Tony Levin, but he wasn't available. Before a replacement was found, Jaco showed up at Zawinul's door apologizing profusely, and Joe once again forgave him.
Jaco was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in late 1982 following the Word of Mouth tour of Japan in which his erratic behavior became an increasing source of concern for his band members. Drummer Peter Erskine's father, Dr Fred Erskine, suggested that Jaco was showing signs of the illness and, on his return from the tour, Jaco's wife, Ingrid, had Jaco committed to hospital under the Florida Mental Health Act, where he received the diagnosis and was prescribed lithium to stabilize his moods.
By 1986, Jaco's health had further deteriorated. He had been evicted from his New York apartment and had begun living on the streets. In July 1986, following intervention by his brother Gregory and ex-wife Ingrid, Jaco was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he was prescribed Tegretol in preference to Lithium. He moved back to Fort Lauderdale in December of that year, again living on the streets for weeks at a time.
After sneaking onstage at a Carlos Santana concert September 11, 1987, and being ejected from the premises, Jaco made his way to the Midnight Bottle Club in Wilton Manors, Florida. After reportedly kicking in a glass door after being refused entrance to the club, he was engaged in a violent confrontation with the club bouncer, Luc Havan. Pastorius was hospitalized for multiple facial fractures and damage to his right eye and left arm, and had sustained irreversible brain damage. He fell into a coma and was put on life support.
There were initially encouraging signs that he would come out of his coma and recover, but a massive brain hemorrhage a few days later pointed to brain death. Pastorius died on September 21, 1987, aged 35, at Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.
In the wake of Pastorius' death, Havan was charged with manslaughter but later pled guilty to second degree murder. Because of having no priors and with time served while waiting for the verdict, he was sentenced to 22 months in jail and five years probation. He was released after four months in jail for good behavior. Pastorius was buried at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in North Lauderdale.
Miles Davis honored the late bassist on his album Amandla with the Marcus Miller composition "Mr. Pastorius", as Jaco was an inspiration to Marcus Miller. Victor Wooten also honored Jaco on his album Soul Circus on the track "Bass Tribute", thanking Pastorius several times. Wooten and Steve Bailey's Bass Extremes includes the tracks "Glorius Pastorius", "Portrait of Tracy," and also a tribute to Jaco's interpretation of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" titled "Madonna Lee". The Pat Metheny Group also honored Jaco on their album Pat Metheny Group with the track "Jaco". This song was not specifically written for Pastorius. Metheny wrote the song and then realized that the main melody sounded a lot like Pastorius' "Come On, Come Over", and subsequently decided to name the tune for Pastorius. Bass player Brian Bromberg recorded a Pastorius tribute album entitled "Jaco," which includes his interpretations of "Come On, Come Over," "The Chicken," "Portrait of Tracy," and more.
John McLaughlin also honored Jaco on his album Industrial Zen with the song "For Jaco". English keyboard player Rod Argent includes a track titled "Pastorius Mentioned" on his 1979 Album Moving Home. The song "Big Country", by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, contains the opening lick from Jaco's "Continuum". Stuart Zender, the original bass player and founding member of Jamiroquai, cites Pastorius as one of his main influences. "With his sense of rhythm, melody and use of harmonics, Jaco pushed the envelope and transformed the way the electric bass guitar was played."
On December 2, 2007, the day after what would have been Pastorius' 56th birthday, a concert called "A Tribute to Jaco Pastorius" was held at The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, featuring performances by the award-winning Jaco Pastorius Big Band with special guest appearances by Peter Erskine, Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, David Bargeron, Jimmy Haslip, Gerald Veasley, Jaco's sons John and Julius Pastorius, Jaco's daughter Mary Pastorius, Ira Sullivan, Bobby Thomas, Jr., and Dana Paul. Also shown were exclusive home movies and rare concert footage as well as video appearances by Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, and other luminaries from Jaco's life. Almost 20 years after Jaco's death, Fender released the Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass, a fretless instrument from its Artist Series.
On December 1, 2008, on what would have been Jaco's 57th birthday, the park in Oakland Park's new downtown redevelopment was formally named 'Jaco Pastorius Park' in honour of its former resident.
Apart from his career in the jazz fusion band Weather Report, Jaco had two Grammy Award nominations for his self-titled debut album. He won the readers poll for induction into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988, one of only four bassists to be so honored (the others being Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, and Ray Brown), and the only electric bassist to receive this distinction.
The "Jaco growl" is obtained by using the bridge pickup exclusively, and plucking the strings right above the bridge pickup. Pastorius used natural and false harmonics to extend the range of the bass (exemplified in the bass solo composition Portrait of Tracy from his eponymous album) and could achieve a horn-like tone through his playing technique. His playing techniques earned him accolades both from the critics and his audiences. He used finger-style playing exclusively, and was not seen using the slap and pop method that dominated the R&B charts.
Pastorius was most identified by his use of two well-worn Fender Jazz Basses from the early 1960s: A 1960 fretted, and a 1962 fretless. The fretless, known by Jaco as the "Bass of Doom", was originally a fretted bass that had the frets removed. Jaco claimed to have removed the frets himself but later said he had bought it with the frets already removed. Jaco finished the fretboard with marine epoxy (Petit's Poly-poxy) to protect the wood from the roundwound Rotosound strings he was using. Even though he played both the fretted and the fretless basses frequently, he preferred the fretless, because he felt frets were a hindrance, once calling them "speed bumps". However, he said in the instructional video that he never practiced with the fretless because the strings "chew the neck up." Both of his Fender basses were stolen shortly before he entered Bellevue hospital in 1986. In 1993, one of the basses resurfaced in a New York City music shop, with the distinctive letter P written between the two pickups. In 2008, the 1962 fretless "Bass of Doom" also turned up in good condition in New York.
Jaco used the "Variamp" EQ (equalization) controls on his two Acoustic 360 amplifiers (made by the Acoustic Control Corporation of Van Nuys, California) to boost the midrange frequencies, thus accentuating the natural growling tone of his fretless passive Fender Jazz Bass and roundwound string combination. His tone was also colored by the use of a rackmount MXR digital delay unit that fed a second Acoustic amp rig.
He often used Hartke cabinets during the final three years of his life because of their characteristic aluminum speaker cones (as opposed to paper speaker cones). These gave his tone a bright, clear sound. He typically used the delay in a chorus-like mode, providing a shimmering stereo doubling effect. He would often use the fuzz control built in on the Acoustic 361. For the bass solo "Slang" on the 8:30 album, Jaco used the MXR digital delay to layer and loop a chordal figure and then he soloed over it. Jaco used Rotosound strings.