Perspectives on Jaco

Marcus Miller on Jaco

December, 2002

Marcus Miller Playing Fretless BassI was around 15 years old and a drummer friend of mine told me I had to check this record out. It was Jaco’s first album. The first thing I heard was “Donna Lee”. I have to admit, I didn’t quite get it. It just sounded like some cat playing whatever notes he felt like. I was just learning about jazz and hadn’t progressed in my own development to where I could even begin to comprehend what Jaco was doing. But this guy was obviously good so I got the record for myself and began to really listen to it.

It stayed on my turntable for around two years.

I slowly began to appreciate what Jaco was doing. I was studying music pretty intensely then and it seemed like each step I took in my development allowed me to appreciate that Jaco album more. I’ll never forget when, just for kicks, I decided to walk the changes to “Donna Lee” on my bass while Jaco’s version was playing. This was probably a year into listening to Jaco’s album and I had finally learned “Donna Lee” at school. I was still assuming that, once Jaco stated Charlie Parker’s melody, he pretty much was playing any ole’ thing that he wanted and that it had nothing to do with the changes. Well I’m walking the changes under Jaco’s melody and continue the changes under Jaco’s ‘crazy solo’ and of course realize that it’s not crazy at all! I realize that he’s playing the changes — and not just playing them. He was creating harmonies and lines that were so amazing it was sick! My appreciation of him grew so much that afternoon.

It took me a minute to appreciate his tone because I was a Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke freak and Jaco’s tone was a good deal darker than those guys’. I was a young kid and looking for those bright plucks and pops. Jaco’s sound was more about warmth and wood. But, like I said, the more I learned, the more I came to love Jaco’s sound. A couple of times I had to check the album notes to see if he played upright bass too because, when he wanted to, Jaco could make his bass guitar sound like an upright.

I got into him more and more. Although when I first heard Jaco, I was a thump and popper, I began to move away from that. I wanted to grow and develop a depth to my playing like Jaco. I really wanted to know not just HOW he played what he played but WHY. This led me into studying jazz, harmony, and composition. It was pretty intimidating. I would be sitting there listening to Jaco’s solo on “Havona” from the “Heavy Weather” album and I would say to myself, “How am I ever going to improvise over chord changes this perfectly??” I mean, the tone, the phrasing, the ideas…all perfect. But it drove me. And it made me grow. Eventually, I began to reincorporate my funking, thumping and popping back into my playing, realizing that it was a big part of who I was. But I really think studying Jaco as intensely as I did gave my playing a depth that I never would have had otherwise.

I love the “Jaco” album because that was my introduction to him. I also think it is the one album that gives you a complete picture of him. It sounds to me like that album contains Jaco’s dreams from a child all the way up to when he recorded it in his twenties. I love “Heavy Weather” also. The combination of Jaco along with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul is unbelievable. The sound of “Heavy Weather” is so sweet. The reverb on Jaco’s bass, the sound of Zawinul’s keyboards and Wayne’s beautiful,
snaking tone on sax all together – !

Jaco’s composing was as unique as his playing. I think I like “Portrait of Tracy” the best. Once you get over being blown away by the fact that it’s all performed on a bass, you listen to the music and that blows you away again. I’m also really into “Punk Jazz”. People seem to sleep on that one. Listen to Jaco’s intro, it’s really sick. And his tone is a little more stringy than usual. Then listen to the harmonies!!! It’s bananas.

Michal Urbaniak called me once when I was around 19 told me that Jaco and Zawinul had a fall out and that he had recommended me to replace Jaco in Weather Report. Although I was flattered by Michal’s recommendation, there was no way I was ready to jump into Weather Report. My solution was simple. I just didn’t answer the phone! It all worked out because Jaco and Zawinul made up and they invited me to the Weather Report show in NY. I got to meet everybody. Jaco was like, “So you’re the kid! They told me there was this young black kid who could play like me!” I was like, “This dude is pretty wild.”

The next time I ran into Jaco was in LA. I was at the Sunset Marquis Hotel on tour with Roberta Flack. My phone rings and it’s Jaco. He said, “Hey Marcus, it’s Jaco. I’m in room 219, come down and get your lesson!” At this point, I was 21 years old and was feeling like I was a pretty good player in my own right. I thought to myself, “Man, I don’t need no lesson from Jaco!” …..then I got my butt down to room 219. We had a great time that day. Jaco played for me. Then he had me play for him. He showed me a lick that I still use as my warm up today, twenty years later. He was pretty competitive guy but it was cool because, without saying it, he let me know that I was cool with him.

Later on, Jaco would come sit in with my group when I did gigs in NY. One time we jammed all night and played “Continuum” together.

One night he said to me, “Man, you think you’re good ’cause you can improvise on chord changes!” I said, “Man, I was just trying to play on chord changes like you!” Then he said, “Do you know about ‘cutting’ the string?” I wasn’t exactly sure then what he meant then. But when I hear tapes of myself then, now I know exactly what he was talking about. My finger attack was soft and my notes weren’t articulated clearly. I’ve gotten much better with that over the years.

The last time I saw him was at the West 4th street basketball courts. This was towards the end of his life. We walked over to his apartment and talked for awhile. It was very different then. He actually said to me all the things that before he would just hint at. He told me how much he admired my musicianship and that meant a lot to me.

It was really sad when he passed. I wrote Mr. Pastorius for him and played it for Miles. Miles liked it and we began recording it. He asked me what the title was. I wasn’t sure how Miles felt about Jaco at the time. We didn’t discuss him much. I told Miles, “I named it Mr. Pastorius. I can come up with another title if you’re not cool with that.” Miles said, “No, I think that’s really nice to name this for Jaco.” I felt great about that because now I could honestly feel like the tune came from me and from Miles too. Miles’ playing was fantastic on this piece. It’s funny because over the years that I played with Miles, he was never to keen on playing standard, straight-ahead 4/4 time. I guess he didn’t want to play in the old style. When we did Mr. Pastorius, although it was obviously a tune that called for 4/4 time, I avoided playing 4/4. It was just Miles and myself in the studio at the time. He played the melody then began to solo. I was hinting at 4/4 on the bass but not really doing it, not wanted to turn Miles off. Then, in the middle of playing, he held up 4 fingers to me, meaning “Play 4/4 you dumb motherf#@ker!” I was thrilled and jumped into the walking bass style. Miles played chorus after chorus after chorus. It was beautiful. He finished and went home. I called Al Foster on the phone and said, “Man, get your drums and get over here. Wait till you hear what Miles played!” Al came over and laid the drums on the tune. He couldn’t believe how well Miles played.

Mr. Pastorius is one of my favorite Miles performances from when I was with him and I really think that he laid a fantastic gift on Jaco with that piece!

Most musicians that I know absolutely appreciate the contribution Jaco made to music. I feel like every year, his memory gets stronger. It’s up to us to make sure folks don’t forget.

If you want to turn a young person on to Jaco, I think you have to do it to them like he did it to me. Play it for them when they’re young, then keep playing it as they get older. Every time they hear it, they’ll appreciate it more and on a deeper level until, one day, they won’t be able to live without it!


About Marcus Miller
Marcus Miller is an innovative bassist and musician who has appeared on hundreds of records to date, including his work with the legenday Miles Davis. In 2001, Marcus won “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” in the 44th Annual Grammy Awards for his M2 (M-Squared) album. Read Marcus’complete bio or check out his web site at

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