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By Chris Jisi | March, 2008

It’s official. We can all set our sights on locating James Jamerson’s long-lost ’62 P-Bass “Funk Machine,” because the most famous missing bass guitar of all has been found. Jaco Pastorius’s fretless 1962 Fender Jazz “Bass of Doom” (as he dubbed it) has turned up in New York City, over 20 years after it was last seen there. As Jaco’s main fretless, it can be heard on his landmark self-titled solo debut, his successive solo albums, and much of the Early Years package, as well as his recordings with Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and others.While details of the acquisition must remain confidential while legal questions are resolved, the party in possession of the instrument was willing to bring it by Will Lee’s downtown apartment, where Will, Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, and Bass Player (me!) got to play it.

Mysterious TravelerThere are all sorts of tales about Jaco’s Bass of Doom, many related cryptically by Jaco himself. A 1984 Guitar Player cover story by Bill Milkowski states that the instrument was already fretless when Jaco bought it in Florida for $90 in the early ’70s. However, in 1978, Jaco told luthier Kevin Kaufman that he removed the frets himself using a butter knife, filling the fret slots and missing fingerboard chunks with Plastic Wood and applying several coats of Petite’s Poly-Poxy. Kaufman’s first job was to replace the peeling epoxy, which he did by pouring on a single coat and shaping it with a rasp.

Jaco smashed the Bass of Doom in the mid ’80s, apparently in an argument. Kaufman and fellow repairman Jim Hamilton painstakingly glued together 15 large chunks and several small pieces, inlaying wood where fragments were missing, and laminating a figured-maple veneer on the front and back of the body. They held together the splintered headstock with an ebony/maple veneer, refinished the instrument in a two-tone sunburst, and returned it to Jaco. How the instrument disappeared is the subject of some dispute. All that’s known for sure is that it was last seen with Jaco in Central Park sometime during 1986.The Bass

Allow me to offer my personal reflections upfront. When I first laid eyes on the instrument, my initial reaction was that it didn’t look like the Bass of Doom, what with the figured-maple top and back. (A photo of Jaco holding the restored bass can be seen on page 240 of Bill Milkowski’s updated Backbeat Books bio Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius.) As for picking up and plucking a piece of history, let me describe it this way: Who among us hasn’t wondered if we would sound better playing the instrument of one of our bass heroes? Well, the answer in this case is, Yes! The Bass of Doom is the best-sounding and feeling fretless I’ve ever fingered. It’s very light and very resonant, with the extra-narrow neck of early Jazz Basses. Stroked softly closer to the neck, the warm Jaco mwah sound filled the air; plucking harder, back by the bridge, resulted in his trademark biting growl; and harmonics seemed to just explode off the wood. But what struck me most about the tone was how round it was with the bridge pickup favored, as Jaco preferred it—so much so that I found myself checking to be sure I had dialed back the neck pickup (this as opposed to the numerous thin, nasal-sounding fretless basses we’ve all heard, played, and dreaded).

 The party who brought the bass to Will Lee’s apartment had previously reported the hair standing up on his arms as he played a bass melody from “A Remark You Made” along with the recording, and found the tone and duration of the notes were an eerily unmistakable sonic match. Which brings me to the second aspect that struck me (and perhaps this is where my fervent imagination finally took over): how in-tune the bass seemed to play. There were no washy, smeared notes beneath my fingers—just pure, strong tones that sat firmly on the rosewood board. (The bass had new-ish strings t-hat were not Jaco’s favored Rotosounds.)

Equally exciting was the setting at the “Beatles Museum,” as Lee’s home studio is known. Will had a Line 6 LowDown Studio 110 combo and a Roland Cube-100, set to “360”—the modeled Acoustic 360 sound for the amp Jaco swore by. He also had his Fender Custom Shop Jaco fretless on a stand ready to be A/B-ed with the actual Bass of Doom (the bass is sweet, but just no match for the real deal). Will’s lovely wife, Sandrine, was on hand to photograph and videotape the proceedings. Victor Bailey arrived first from his Brooklyn pad, and Victor Wooten—in town to play the Blue Note with Chick Corea—came next. Soon the room was abuzz with Jaco-isms, as the bass passed between the three. “A Remark You Made” seemed to be a popular initial touchstone, but soon the sounds of “Portrait of Tracy,” “Birdland” (false harmonics and all), “Liberty City,” “Teentown,” “Continuum,” “Havona,” “Blackbird,” “(Used to Be a) Cha Cha,” and even Jaco’s Weather Report quote of “The Sound of Music” swirled about. All of this was to the delight of the party who made this bass-heavies-hang possible. His vision for the Bass of Doom is that it be perpetually on the scene, to be played by pros and students alike, thus creating both an ongoing spirit and a happy ending to the Jaco saga.Will Lee

“While the new look was surprising at first, it certainly is the holy grail of basses and the best fretless I’ve ever played—it just sings in a more mellifluous voice. And it’s somehow smarter than most, as if it’s been taught by the master how to act. I couldn’t help but imagine how many notes Jaco played on it. He really broke it in; it knows where it wants to go, and the neck and body feel like one unit. It has that Florida funk in it, and now it’s probably completely dried out and less susceptible to weather. When I listened to the other guys play it, I could really hear that it’s Jaco’s bass; it has that trademark tone and bite. As for the Fender Custom Shop Jaco bass, they did a great job considering they didn’t have the real one on hand. The distressed look and overall measurements are pretty much dead on, but the rich tone of the older Bass of Doom is the obvious difference.”Victor Bailey

“A lot of amazing music was made on this bass, and I was happy to see it again. The only other time I had played it was the very first time I met Jaco, at Mike Stern’s loft in 1984, and it was in terrible condition: The neck was dead, the strings were old, the action was high. But when Jaco played it with Mike that night at 55 Grand Street, it sang like nobody’s business! That was a pivotal moment for me in realizing how much the sound of an instrument is the man behind it. Playing the bass again was special. Old instruments have that great “settled” feeling; basically the wood dries out after so many years, it feels like the body and neck have melded together, and the tone is woody and warm. It’s definitely set up well and playing nice now. Still, there’s nothing outstanding about the bass itself; it’s a really nice fretless Jazz Bass. What makes it important is what Jaco did with it, introducing his beautiful sound and musical voice to the world.”Victor Wooten

“Playing the bass was almost like a dream; you’ve heard about it forever and you think it’s gone, and then all of a sudden it’s in your hands. After I got over the initial rush of seeing and holding it, my practical side kicked in, and I wondered if this could really be the bass. But after I started playing it, I had no doubt. It felt and sounded incredible; the tone was rich, and it was very easy to navigate, mainly because the neck is so narrow. You could tell the instrument had really been played and broken in, and the fingerboard seemed like it had magic in it; it played in tune so easily. Jaco was a towering influence on me, but unlike my older brothers, I never got to see him perform in person. So the best part for me was that playing the Bass of Doom made me feel like I had a closer connection to Jaco.”Steve Bailey On Line 2

Steve Bailey, who joined the Jaco Bass hang by phone, recalled visiting Jaco’s Florida home in 1981, and being impressed by the Bass of Doom. Another story about the instrument took place in the summer of 1983 at Nice Jazz Festival, where Steve was performing with Paquito D’Rivera. While Jaco’s Word Of Mouth Quintet performed, Steve was standing backstage with Jaco’s road manager, Michael Knuckles, who told him that at the end of the last song, Jaco was going to throw his bass over his stage-left Acoustic rig, for Knuckles to catch. The song ended and Jaco instead threw it over the stage-right rig. It smashed to the ground, breaking off a piece of the neck. Steve recalls Knuckles laughing, “We’ll have to glue that,” as if it were a fairly regular occurrence.WEB EXCLUSIVE! Neil Stubenhaus Plays Jaco's Fretless

In New York City on Musician’s Union business in late-March, L.A. session ace Neil Stubenhaus was reunited with the Bass of Doom, courtesy of the owners. Recalls Neil, “I first played the bass while hanging out at a Weather Report rehearsal at the old S.I.R. on Sunset Blvd, around 1977. Jaco was delayed coming out of a break, so he told me to go up and play for him, which I did for about 10 minutes, with Joe Zawinul and Alex Acuña. At the time, it was like an out-of-body experience; it was the most amazing bass I’d ever played.” So what was his reaction over 30 years later? “It’s the same bass, without a doubt; super-light, with the extra small neck, and it just sings. Every note on it is perfect, and it plays in tune easier than other fretless basses, for no apparent reason. What it would really benefit from now, especially in the lower register, is a set of Rotosounds. But Jaco was in that bass when I first played it and he’s still in there now.”

Stubenhaus, who had ’62 Jazz Basses he just couldn’t get the necks straight on, credits Pastorius’s diligence, in addition to his luck-the-draw find of a flawless bass off the Fender assembly line. “For having never consulted anybody, Jaco knew more about the mechanics of a bass guitar than any other bassist. At a time when the rest of us where just plugging in and playing, Jaco dug deep. He would mess with the bridge and the truss rod constantly. He’d make quarter-turn truss rod tweaks on the spot, during a gig—in the middle of a song if he wasn’t happy! Every once and a while you’d catch him slipping offstage to make an adjustment.”

While ruminating about all things Jaco, Neil had one other comment concerning BP’s “Deconstructing ‘Havona’” piece, in the September 2007 issue. “In all of the ‘Havona’ transcriptions I’ve seen to this point, the last two 16th-notes on the and-a of beat four in the turnaround lick (first seen in measure 45) are F# and E. This is awkward because Jaco always plays an E on the downbeat of the next measure. While I was touring with Blood, Sweat & Tears in the late-’70s, we ran into Jaco in Florida, and our guitarist, Barry Finnerty, asked him to show us the lick. What I remember is Jaco playing the last two notes as G and F#, which makes much more musical sense, leading to the E on the next downbeat.” Adds Stubenhaus in summing up his session with the Bass of Doom, “The music Jaco made on this instrument is the bass world’s Declaration of Independence.”icial, "The  Greatest Bass Player Who Has Ever Lived" Bass Guitar Magazine September 2006

The most obvious difference in the Bass of Doom as it appears today is the figured-maple top and back veneer, the underlying original body having been broken into pieces and re-glued.

The original neck plate, with its identifying serial number, remains on the Bass of Doom.

When looking down the neck, Will Lee commented on how wonderfully straight it was.

The newer figured-maple veneer on the back of the body is in sharp contrast to the back of the neck, with all of its Jaco wear marks.

The ebony/maple veneer that holds together the splintered headstock is visible, along with Kevin Kaufman's inscription identifying where and when he and Jim Hamilton rebuilt the Bass of Doom for Jaco.

The Fender Custom Shop Jaco Fretless (on the right) offers a unique comparative view of what the Bass of Doom originally looked like.

Neil Stubenhaus

Without question the greatest Bass Player ever. No one comes remotely close & I don't think I'll ever see anyone come near let alone equal Jaco's musical talent.                                                     


John Francis Pastorius III was born on the 1st of December 1951 in Pennsylvania, the son of a jazz drummer named Jack Pastorius. His family called him Jocko. Initially, the young Jocko started life as a drummer, before switching to bass at the age of 13, learning the instrument at a ferocious pace that startled his family. His large hands, long fingers, and double jointed thumbs were a perfect physical match for the instrument he would make famous and bring great respect.

Jaco's first bass was purchased for $15 at a local pawn shop. By the time he was 16 years old, after only about a year of study, he was already considered by the local musicians to be the best bassist in South Florida.

At age 17 he was regarded as the best bassist in all of Florida being widely recognized for his unique muted 16th-note funk finger style.

In the summer of 1968 Jaco swapped his only acoustic upright bass for his very first Fender Jazz Bass, a 1960 model. In the early 70's, as his stature on the Florida circuit grew even more, Jaco purchased his now world renowned 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, which at the time was a fretted model. Jaco converted it to a fretless model by pulling out all the frets and filling the grooves in with marine epoxy.

Jaco's first big break as a bassist came in 1972 when he was asked to join 14-piece band, ‘Wayne Cochran and the C.C Riders.'

During this same period Jaco deeply immersed himself with careful research in the sounds of the Caribbean. He frequently worked in cruise ship lounge bands that sailed to the ports of St. Thomas and Nassau. While docked, Jaco would go out and jam with the local calypso and reggae musicians. This Latin Caribbean style of music had a profound influence on Jaco, and later on he would directly integrate it into his own style of music.

For a short period of time Jaco taught bass part-time under the direction of Will Lee's (David Letterman) father at the University of Miami. There he also conducted and played bass in the student jazz ensemble. Fretless bass virtuoso Mark Egan was one of his students at the time and has now gone onto his own international acclaim. While at the University of Miami, Jaco had the fateful encounter of a lifetime when he was introduced to Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter for the first time backstage at a Weather Report concert.

Weather Report was the premier fusion band of the 70's. Its core unit consisted of pianist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, both Miles Davis musicians of the 1960's. Jaco made a special guest appearance on a couple of cuts from Weather Report's 1975 release, Black Market. Then on April 1, 1976 Jaco officially took command of Weather Report's bass duties when he replaced Alphonso Johnson.

At the time, Jaco also appeared on a number of side projects that were first released around that time including ground breaking bassmanship with Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, and Al Di Meola. However, it was Jaco's work and larger than life stage antics with Weather Report that helped catapult him to the ranks of musical superstar.

In 1976 Jaco single handedly changed the course of bass history with his astounding self-titled debut recording, Jaco Pastorius . This landmark, multi-Grammy Award nominated recording literally rocked the bass world and is considered by many bass historians as the defining moment of Jaco's career.

In 1977 Weather Report released Heavy Weather ; Jaco's first full-time recording as a member of the band. This album featured two Jaco originals, Teen Town and Havona , along with the heavily radio played Birdland , which was one of the first compositions ever to introduce rock and pop listeners to jazz.

In 1981, Jaco introduced us to his own big band with his second solo release, Word of Mouth . As the leader of his own 20-piece big band, Jaco featured his skills in composition, arranging, and production. This recording consists of what many musicians believe are Jaco's finest compositions including 3 Views of a Secret , the wonderfully arranged Liberty City , and a blazing arrangement of J.S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasy.

After taking his Word of Mouth big band on tour, Jaco released Invitation in 1983 which was comprised of a variety of selected live cuts from the previous year's tour dates in Japan.

In the mid 80's Jaco began to lose touch with reality. At this time he had a serious drug problem that could be traced back to the days of Weather Report. He continued to perform in various lineups with selected members of his Word of Mouth big band, including most notably guitarist Mike Stern.

By July 1986 of that same year Jaco was committed to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York where he was sedated with medication and diagnosed as manic depressive. The next year of Jaco's life was spent as a virtual vagrant, sleeping rough.

Jaco Pastorius died on September 21, 1987, just short of his 36th birthday after being beaten by a nightclub bouncer.

Although his death went largely unreported at the time, Jaco's legend quickly grew to his current status of “The World's Greatest Ever Bassist.” Jaco single handedly influenced more bassists than any other player in the history of the bass tradition and will continue to influence generations to come.

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