When Metheny Met Jaco And The Old Miami Days

Feb 6, 2014

Fifty years ago Sunday the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show. That means it's been 50 years since kids all over the country put down their band instruments and picked up the electric guitar. Pat Metheny was one of them, and because of that, in a way, the Beatles are responsible for an important chapter of jazz history. So is Metheny's older brother, who introduced him to Miles Davis, which led him down the road of his own continually evolving brand of improvisation. 

If Pat Metheny hadn't been such a bad student, he might not have gotten a full ride to college at the University of Miami.
Credit Jimmy Katz / Nonesuch

When Pat Metheny performs at the Arsht Center in Miami this Friday, Feb. 7, he'll be just a few miles from where he first landed as a virtuoso musician but truly awful student (by his own admission) whose parents were deeply worried about his future.  Metheny was a high school senior on the verge of flunking out ("I had not taken a book home since seventh grade because I was practicing 20 hours a day," he says.) when Dr. Bill Lee, dean of the University of Miami music school, heard him play in a club in Kansas City, Mo., and offered him a full ride to the university.

Metheny arrived as a freshman in 1972 just as the school was launching its first electric guitar major and went from having a handful of players to around 80 -- with one teacher. Academically, things weren't going much better than they had in high school, so Metheny decided to go talk to Lee.  "I went to him and said, 'Look, I'm not gonna be able to hang as a college student.' He said, 'OK, well, would you want to stay and teach?'" Metheny was 18.

Pat Metheny, right, really liked stripes in his early days.
Credit Capannelle / Flickr

He taught at UM for about a year. Then the Berklee College of Music asked him to come up to Boston to teach there. But that year in Miami was pivotal. Metheny had only been here for about three days, he says, when he went to hear some music at Vizcaya and was blown away by an electric-bass player. 

"I almost went and got back on the bus and went back to Missouri, to tell you the truth," says Metheny, remembering that first time he heard Jaco Pastorius. "It was just shocking to hear somebody playing at that level, who was two or three years older than me ... Nobody had ever heard anybody play like that."  

They became close friends, playing "weird gigs" all over Miami and Fort Lauderdale, then going back to Jaco's apartment above a laundromat in Hollywood, where they'd keep playing all night. When Metheny got a record deal for his first album, "Bright Size Life," he brought an unknown Jaco along to play on it, as well as drummer Bob Moses. That record became one of the defining albums of 1970s jazz -- one that makes you so glad Metheny's still making music and so, so sad that Jaco didn't make it out of the 1980s, killed in a bar fight. 

Metheny has released some 40 albums since "Bright Size Life" and taken home 20 Grammy Awards. His latest project, Pat Metheny Unity Group and its album "Kin​," is an outgrowth of the quartet from his last album. He compares that album to a "black-and-white documentary," in contrast to the "3D IMax" version that is "Kin."

"The first tune on the record is 15 minutes long, 34 pages of written material and a lot of improvising, and it involves the Orchestrion and a lot of electronics," he says. "So it's, at the core, still got this quartet thing going on, but it's a real different approach to it all."

Here's a video of Metheny and Jaco playing with Joni Mitchell (bear with the prancing wolf for about 10 seconds):

And a taste of the new album: