The Lesson With Jaco


So, it was maybe 1979 or so…Weather Report had recently come out with their “8:30” album, and were on tour. So my friend Peter Reissig and I lept aboard the Montrealer from White River Junction, Vermont to New York, and took a train and a bus out to Passaic, New Jersey to see Weather Report. Unfortunately we didn’t listen to any weather reports, and most of the trip was in the rain.

When we got to the theater, there were some pissed off fans outside. Seems some stagehand had dropped a light on Zawinul’s keyboards. The show was cancelled. Frustrated, we circled round and round the theater, peering through the smokey glass of the tour bus, wondering where that bass god was.

We walked by the stage door, and there was this silouette of this longhaired, tall lanky guy, with the hall light behind him. He was giving an autograph to a couple of people there. He went inside to get a list of some sort. He put them on a guest list for someplace else.

“Hey, Jaco, is there any chance I can get a lesson?” I asked.

“No, he laughed. Where you guys from?”

“We came down from Vermont.”

He was visibly impressed. “Wow!” He said. “You know, we’re playing up near there sometime soon. Let’s see… New Haven, you want to come to see us in New Haven? Boston?”

“Yeah! Boston!” We said, having been stuck one too many times hitchiking through New Haven.

“Alright, you’re on the list for Boston. The Orpheum Theater. Do you want to bring somebody?”

“Sure!” we exclaim.

“OK, plus 2. What’re your names?”

So we told him and once again asked, “So isn’t there any chance I could get a lesson?”

“Bring your bass and I’ll give you a lesson,” he says. So we run off into the rain, high as kites on our encounter with musical genius. “Do you think he’ll really give you a lesson?” Peter asked.

“I don’t know, but you can bet I’ll bring my bass!”

So the time comes for the show in Boston, and Marshall Tucker Band is scheduled to play at Dartmouth, only 20 miles away. So nobody wants to go see Weather Report in Boston! Suckers. Not that we weren’t really disappointed. What could be a better way to impress a date? But it’s a little too far away. So we get down to Boston, like a four hour drive, but I think we may have hitched…and we’re trying to find a place to stay. So we call everybody we know, and can’t reach anyone. So we go to this Soup and Salad place near Boston University, and there isn’t enough time to finish our meals, so we stuff some of the food in our pockets and head off to the show, me lugging my bass with me in it’s hard shell case. Gig bags weren’t really too common in those days.

So we get to the show, and there are four 3rd row center seats for us!!! And we’re nearly broke. The show is sold out, so we sell the seats to some European tourists for what seemed like a lot of money.
The show is fantastic. The pictures above are from it. So afterwards, we try to go backstage, and the guy won’t let us. Jaco doesn’t appear to know who I am.

So, finally, we give up and go outside. The bus pulls up and Jacos wife comes out and gets on. Then Wayne Shorter. And some business type people. Then Jaco comes out and says, “Hey man! You made it! How’d you like the show?”

“It was great!” we reply, and eye the bus, nervously. “You said you’d give him a lesson,” Peter says.

“Oh, hop on!” Jaco says. “Weren’t you guys going to bring some people?” He asks.

“Well, they didn’t want to come down from Vermont. Marshall Tucker Band was playing.”

He looks annoyed.

Nervous and excited, we climb aboard the bus. Zawinul gets on and I say, “Hi! We really loved the show…” he pushes past us into the back of the bus, wordless. I’m sitting next to Wayne Shorter. Jaco introduces us to everyone; his wife, the manager, Shorter…I push for musical words of wisdom. Shorter tells me that learning scales and modes is like learning your musical ABCs. Several times people ask us where they can drop us off. We keep pushing for the lesson. Finally, Jaco relents and we arrive at the Lexington Hotel in Boston. Jaco and his wife invite us upstairs to their room. Peter offers them some bread. Jacos wife gives us an apple from Paris.

We sit down in their hotel room. Jaco takes my bass out. He runs through some two octave scales on it. “Hey! This is a nice bass!” he says. It’s a Fender copy, a Carlorobelli. But he’s right.

“Could you show me how you play Teen Town?” I ask.

“Sure.” He runs through it. All the fingering shifts I’d been trying to figure out are suddenly crystal clear.

“So, do you write out all your solos? Did you write that tune out?”

“Yeah, of course,” he says. “Hey look here…see this? You shouldn’t let your strings stick out like that. The hole in the middle is where they get pushed through like this…” He unwinds my strings and rethreads them. “Then you cut the end off.”

The phone rings. “Hey, Lyle! Did you guys come to the show? OH…you didn’t? We set those seats aside for you! You want to go eat? Come on over.”

“So, do you guys do yoga or anything?” Peter asks.

“I especially like booberry” Jaco replies.

Somehow Jaco brings up that he doesn’t drink or do any drugs. He runs through some modes.
“My wife just had twins” he tells us.

Then Lyle shows up. “You guys know Lyle? He and I toured with Joni Mitchell last year.”

“Yeah, sure!” We reply. We’d seen Pat Metheny with him several times in New York City and Long Island. “Could we take pictures of you guys?” I ask.

“Nah, I hate pictures. Well, you guys take care now,” Jaco says. We head out into the hall.

“It’s really late. Where are we going to stay?”

“I dunno. Let’s go downstairs. ” We walk down the stairs and come to a ballroom. We go into the dark ballroom and take some tablecloths and wrap them around us, climbing under the tables to go to sleep. At some point during the night, the lights come on, then cleaning people pick up some table cloths, but they don’t seem to see us. It gets light. We feel awful having slept on the floor.

We walk downstairs and out through the lobby. Weather Reports manager, who was on the bus, is in the lobby. “HI!” We say as we walk out. His jaw hits the floor.

We go to a donut shop across the street and have a donut for breakfast, tired, but laughing.

Saratoga SpringsKOOL Jazz Festival

Once again, I’m trying to track Jaco down. I go over to the hotel, just off the grounds of the stadium. Shorter is sitting with his sax cases in the middle of the extremely picturesque lobby. Zawinul is outside, sitting down to lunch. I go over to ask him if he could give some mounted prints of the bad to Jaco. The waitress runs up, exceedingly friendly, and tries to seat me with him. I’m flattered, nervous, and know I shouldn’t be there… He gruffly tells me he’s trying to eat. I get up and leave. I ask him to give the pictures to Jaco.

A while later, he and everyone else in the band except Jaco walk over to the stage. I follow. Down offstage, I see jaco hanging out. I give him the pictures. He isn’t very friendly this time.

Seems more out of it.

New York City 1983Jaco Big Band

Onstage, Jaco introduces his father, whose birthday it is. His father sings Sinatra style with the band. I remember thinking, “Who is this Bob Mintzer guy? He’s fantastic!” Jaco doesn’t play too well. He seems out of it.

Rebecca and I go backstage. I say “Hi, Jaco!” He seems to recognize me. Or fake it well. “Hey, how ya doin’?” He may have even asked if I was still in Vermont. “I’m at Hampshire College” I say. “Isn’t that a hick school?” He asks. Somehow he mentions that his Fender bass has survived falls down a few staircases. I follow upstairs. The mirrors in the dressing room are lying on the counters. People look at me nervously. Jaco says, “Hey you should come down to Randy’s place. We’re going to jam there after Gary Burton is done.” We had been intending to go down there anyway. So at Seventh Avenue South, there’s a fantastic show by Gary Burton. Steve Swallow plays pretty damn well. Then Jaco staggers upstairs and wants to jam using his bass after they’re done.

Swallow watches on nervously as Jaco nearly falls off the stool with his bass. Jaco attempts, unsuccessfully, to play Donna Lee. It is embarrassing. Randy Brecker is playing OK.

“Jaco Pastglorius” Rebecca repeats in my ear.

New York City 1986I’ve just moved to New York City from Madison, Wisconsin. The paper comes out with an obituary for Jaco, claiming he was manic depressive. Judging from the behavior I’d seen, I assume it was really cocaine addiction that brought him down, and that people misdiagnosed it as manic depression.

The stories of his life while I’d been in other parts of the country emerge; living on a basketball court off 4th street, on the Psych ward in Bellevue. Scaring the hell out of kids. Breaking up other peoples jam sessions. Living in a park in Fort Lauderdale. I try to figure out from the stories when the addiction started. My life is in turnaround. I realize I’d been given a release from the disease that had killed him and have grandiose fantasies about taking his place in the world.

Then I get a job doing computer stuff.

New York City 1996I’m sitting in a coffeeshop with Bob Mintzer and John Hagen. We’re having lunch.

“Jaco could play a groove better than anyone I’ve ever played with” he says

We discuss how Jimmy Haslip studied with my first real bass teacher, Ron Smith.

We walk uptown together. “So, how’s the world of bass playing?” he asks.

I fish for excuses and head to the Lincoln Center Library, wondering why I’m in the bands I’m in.

Bass Technique, Jazz Theory, and Arranging Resources

I had originally compiled this list a few years ago in an email to my cousin Matt. But the internet has made it easier to track down a lot of these things, and maybe a little bit harder for retail music stores to compete and stock them. So I’ve added a few items to the original list.

Mick Goodrick: The Advancing Guitarist, published by Hal Leonard, ISBN 0-88188-589-4. It was $12.95 when I bought it, but is probably $20 now. The notable thing about Goodrick’s approach is his encouragement to play scales both in a closed position, across the strings moving the hand position as little as possible, and up and down a single string, shifting constantly. He also has a really personal zen approach to practicing, and offers lots of ideas to get you thinking about practicing and improvisation. His practicing approach is even improvisational, which says a lot to me. I really love this book.

Another decent series of books is by Chuck Rainey, who played with LA Express and Joni Mitchell. The series is called The Complete Electric Bass Player but he takes too many pages to explain something that could be explained in much less space, so you end up with 4-6 books, at $15 each. ($20 now?) They’re from Amsco Publications. Some of the content is fairly rudimentary, but he does give some interesting information about the variety of slapping techniques you can use, notably the down slap, as opposed to the “pop” – this seemed to be characteristic of some Motown stuff before Larry Graham’s popping in Sly and the Family Stone.

Another good book is from Hal Leonard as well, Electric Bass Guitar which is a series of technique articles from Guitar Player magazine before there was a separate Bass Player magazine. ISBN 0-88188-907-5, $14.95. Some articles are ridiculously simple, but some are really hip. The book looks like it’s probably going to be junk, but if you get into some of the articles by some of the great studio players, you find a lot of gems in it.

Hal Leonard also publishes Chord Studies for Electric Bass by Rich Appleman & Joe Viola. (I thought this was Berklee Press, but I think the two are related now) Frankly, I’ve never found it interesting enough to spend a lot of time on.

A better use of your time might be to get the classical guitar studies and learn to read treble clef well, and try to play them. I have to dig up the famous etude manual name…

Chuck Sher has a really wonderful book oriented toward both electric and acoustic bass. It includes pattern diagrams of the scales, fingerings, improvisational ideas, and a slew of famous solo transcriptions by great players. I think he may actually have two books now.
Jeff Berlin has a book & tape; A Comprehensive Chord Tone System for Mastering the Bass, also Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-943686-61-X. $20. It’s based on a single idea, and he spells it out in laborious detail, but it’s one of the most fundamental soloing concepts. The idea is to learn all the inversions of the basic seventh chords in all keys, up and down the neck. This will jettison you into exceptional soloing. He tells you at the beginning; if you don’t want to solo as a bassist, don’t.

For popping technique he points you to Bill Dickens. Dickens has a 3 DVD instructional set that I have yet to obtain. I found a couple of MP3s by him, and the guy has chops like you wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t get a sense of tasteful use of them from the tracks I heard. But I’m very interested to hear the DVDs.

Seek out Allan Holdsworth’s Road Games with Berlin on bass. I have a fantastic bootleg of them in Sante Fe from years ago. His solo Dixie is a classic as well. He’s really an amazing player, and has done so much to elevate the level of bass playing.

There’s a videotape lesson with Berlin, but it’s hard to find, probably mail order only. He runs a school in Florida now, and it may be available through them. There’s probably info on his myspace page too.

Another hard to find video is of Louis Johnson. Louis is one of the best “poppers.” Most of what he shows you are licks, but they’re exceptional. He reveals why he got the nickname “thunder-thumbs.” Of course the Brothers Johnson albums are great showcases for him, as well as the Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones albums.

Regarding that style, I’ve found a great video by Abraham Laboriel, called New Bass Concepts, from Music Source International, PoBox 46758, Kansas City, MO, 64118. Some people have told me they don’t like his tone, but I think he really brings together percussion thinking, classical guitar technique, and musicianship, and exhibits it all in this video.

And of course, the video of Jaco Pastorius interviewed by Jerry Jemmott, from DCI Music Videos, 541 Avenue of the Americas, NY, NY 10011, which also is available as a CD with a book of exercises, for another $20+. It’s one of his last semi-lucid moments. The Laboriel and Pastorius tapes were fairly easy for music stores to get, and most in NYC carried them. I’m sure they’re top sellers.

Bunny Brunel had a good book I saw in a music store here. Surpisingly, it seems to be published by Mel Bay. Brunel is pretty awesome too. He’s got some solo albums, but his better playing is with Chick Corea. I had a lesson with him about 12 years ago. But most stuff he told me I’d already learned elsewhere. What I did learn from the lesson was how he got his beautiful tone; his vibrato is achieved by sliding the fingertip up and down the neck, as opposed to just rolling the fingertip like many string players do. I see Amazon has a half dozen books by him. I think the one I saw was the basic introductory book. My first bass teacher, Ron Smith – who also taught Jimmy Haslip – once said Mel Bay books would be good to use as placemats… but that was before these, and these have some valuable content. I thought Brunel’s first albums had some interesting tasteful playing and melodic ideas in them, as did his work with Corea, but now he seems to be all chops and no soul.

Acoustic Bass:

OK, the standard classics are the Simandl books. The exercises are melodic, and since I’ve played them since 4th grade, I think they’re boring as hell now. His book of scales is very useful. Another classic I hadn’t heard about until I read an interview with Stanley Clarke was the Bille books. They’re good for three octave scales and fingerings.

I had a lesson with Michael Moore, and it revolutionized my technique. He uses the Ludwig Streicher technique. He’s a German or Austrian soloist who is outstanding. I’m not sure if he’s still alive or not. There are four volumes of his method, and they’re somewhat hard to find. Where almost any bassist you meet will rely upon the wrist and finger strength to clamp the string to the neck between the thumb and fingers, Streicher pulled on the string like an archer with a bow, using the upper arm to pull the string into the neck; the thumb is used only to anchor the position, not for counter-pressure. This gives much better intonation, alleviates stress on the wrist, and allows for more fluidity in your playing. I don’t know why more bassists haven’t adopted this technique, but perhaps it’s because Gary Karr uses the other technique, and he’s been the Jaco of classical bassists. I met him when I was a kid; I’m still inspired by the encounter.

Michael Moore has released a great technique book called Melodic Playing In the Thumb Position. I’d say this is one of the most useful improvisational technique books for acoustic bass that I’ve seen. He was also one of the best teachers I’ve had.

Bertram Turetzky has a book called The Contemporary Contrabass that perhaps has the only compendium of experimental playing techniques I’ve seen. He’s an amazing musician and a friendly and warm-hearted person. He’s maybe done as much for double bass players as Berlin has for electric players.

Jazz Theory:

For introductory Jazz Theory, look at The Jazz Language by Dan Haerle from Columbia Pictures Publications, Studio 224, 16333 NW 54th Ave., Hialeah, FL 33014. It’s only $6.95 (in 1984) and is the most succinct coverage of jazz theory I’ve seen. It’s best feature is it’s explanation of chord scales and how they relate to their harmonic sources. It doesn’t really go into substitutions though.

Jamey Aebersold has an extensive series of practice-oriented books with common standards, theory, progressions, and some sketchy explanation of jazz theory. One is exceptional, I think; Vol. 16, Turnarounds, Cycles, and II-V-Is. I don’t know that the others really have anything new in them, and there seems to be a lot of redundancy between the volumes – not the tunes themselves, but the theoretical information.

Combine these with Bill Dobbins 4 $25 books on jazz piano, and there’s not much jazz theory you won’t know. They’re somewhat hard to find too, and I know the publisher for them changed a few times. He’s also got an arranging book. These seem to be published by Advance Music now. They have some of the very best jazz theory books available, and some books they carry have been out of print and are now republished by them.

The Bill Dobbins books I’m referring to were originally self-published and hand notated. They seemed to be his competition for the John Mehegan Jazz Piano books that have become standard training fare. The first two books, like Mehegan’s, were filled with jazz theory, exercises and classic improvisational patterns, and samples of standards containing the progressions he was explaining. Unlike Mehegan, he doesn’t resort to numerical shorthand to further confuse matters, but he does insist you practice the exercises in all keys, which makes sense.  Although there were occasional notational typos, Dobbins is an exceptionally clear theorist and teacher. He’s rather intolerant of students and nasty, but he’s got an exceptional understanding of jazz theory and how to explain intricate aspects of it simply.

The last two volumes, like Mehegan’s, are mostly analyses of piano solos. Dobbins seems to transcribe big band arrangements for a hobby. I dropped by his office once and he was transcribing George Russell’s NY, NY, Jazz in the Space Age. He taught a class in introductory jazz arranging where we analyzed Art Blakey / Oliver Nelson small band and Duke Ellington big band charts that he’d transcribed. It got a little tedious after a while, but he explained the basics very clearly, and the charts were some of the juiciest arrangements I’ve ever heard. He also has published an arranging book (Jazz Arranging and Composing: A Linear Approach), also available from Advance Music, but if you want a jazz arranging book, the best is the one by Rayburn Wright, Inside the Score. Nothing else compares. The scores in it are fascinating too. The Bob Brookmeyer charts are like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Advance Music seems to have two volumes of piano solo analyses by Dobbins, and one jazz piano theory book called A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony, which I’m assuming must be the first volume of the old set. The price is still $25, which is what it was 24 years ago. Advance music also has very professional notational typesetting for the books I’ve seen.

I asked Gil Evans once if he could recommend any arranging resources, and he suggested Gil Goldstein’s book, Jazz Composer’s Companion. It didn’t really excite me too much, but the interviews with arrangers in it are interesting. Richie Beirach mentions Ludmila Ulehla’s Contemporary Harmony text, a classical harmony book, which was out-of-print, but I think it’s been re-released. I thought I’d seen a book by Beirach that was a theory book, but I don’t see it in the Advance Music website.

For more advanced jazz theory, I like two books. One is A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody by David Liebman, and the other is Advanced Improvisation by David Baker. I have to say, despite my praise for Advance Music, their binding method for their books makes them difficult to use while playing the examples, because they won’t stay open. The truth is, I haven’t done much with Liebman’s book for that reason. One of the innovative concepts in the Baker book is inverting chord scales as an improvisational device.

Yes, there is George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic theory of improvisation. What an idiotic book. It basically does nothing but substitute the lydian mode for the major scale, and tell you to use the other chord scales as is. Why all the excitement about it?

For further investigations into modern classical harmony, chord structure, and scales, I would put my money on Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony. No one else I’ve run across has summarized so many of the developments in modern music so clearly and musically, and encouraged you to apply them creatively. I worked at Schirmer Music (retail sheet music) in NYC shortly after he died, and met a former composition student of his. He said one of the most useful things he’d learned was when you’re blocked, write one note, one phrase, one measure. Then you have 100% more material to work with – and you’re on your way.

A last resource for modern classical harmony is Olivier Messaien’s The Technique Of My Musical Language. Unfortunately, Durand published it in two volumes; the text in one, and the musical examples in a second. It makes it a total pain to work through, but it’s well worth the work.