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Holding Down the Groove

arts-lead-1536-Will-LeeWill Lee comes to the Monterey Jazz Festival to honor a friend

Will Lee, longtime bass player in David Letterman’s CBS Orchestra, readily admits that a bass guitar is just “a piece of wood and four strings.” But he doesn’t consider it limiting.

“In the right hands,” says Lee, “that could be a whole world.”

When Lee appears at the 58th annual Monterey Jazz Festival next week, he’ll be celebrating a true creator of worlds, bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Lee was heavily influenced by Pastorius, as was anyone who came in touch with the long-haired bass pioneer, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 35.

“Jaco came from a really interesting relationship with his father, who was in a big band as a drummer,” says Lee. “The good thing about it was Jaco grew up surrounded by a wealth of blues, country, swing and important genres of music. It opened up his ears for life. But it was highly competitive, and made Jaco feel like he always had something to prove, all the time, in a very intense way.”

From his work with Weather Report to Joni Mitchell, Jaco’s lyrical bass lines were always clearly the voice of a singular artist.

Lee’s father, meanwhile, was the dean of the University of Miami’s department of music, and one day called Lee, offering him a chance to head up the brand-new electronic bass department. Lee demurred, telling his father, “I’m killing it here in New York City. I’m doing eight sessions a day and loving it.”

So his father called the second person on his list—Jaco Pastorius. “Jaco was one of those guys that really got influenced by what he heard, like R&B,” says Lee. “He would take what he heard and run with it. Jaco lived so intensely, he lived as if he knew he would die young. But while he was here, he made sure that he firmly planted some seeds that would grow into a large blossoming plant that would feed us for a long time. He is still kicking everybody’s ass. In Jaco’s case, he brought things out of that instrument that nobody else has. He took so many chances, with such fervor, that he’s informing generations of people with the work he has done.”

Lee recalls that his friends Hiram Bullock, Mark Egan and Frank Gravis were University of Miami students when Pastorius took the job.

“They all had the same story about what it was like to be in his presence,” recalls Lee. “He would say, ‘Play this groove’—then he would solo over your groove for an hour. And that was the lesson. It’s not exactly a rip-off. If you think about the meat and potatoes of a bassist’s living, that’s what it is. You hold down the groove. If you can do that while Jaco is soloing, you can get work.”

Lee had no trouble holding down work. For over 33 years and 6,000 episodes, the always sharp-looking Lee rocked and rolled in the house band for The Late Night with David Letterman show. Lee’s distinctive bass and vocals can also be heard on a cavalcade of pop and rock albums including Steely Dan, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Cat Stevens, which is amazing, considering Lee’s full-time job for three decades allowed very little time off.

With Letterman’s retirement, Lee is now free to travel the world. He is currently in Sapporo, Japan, the last town of a two-week tour with Akiko Yano and Chris Parker on drums. Lee also splits his time with his Beatles cover band the Fab Faux, and is promoting his new solo release, “Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions.”

From the road in Japan, he summed up his work ethic. “Projects are what I want to do. I’m happy to be working and looking forward to playing the Monterey Jazz Festival,” he says.­­

When Will Lee takes the stage on Friday, Sept. 18, he will be joined by an army of bass players, with Monterey Jazz Festival alumni Christian McBride and Pastorius’ son, Felix. Featuring music from every era of Pastorius’ career, Weather Report members Peter Erskine and Alex Acuna will also be performing in “Jaco’s World: The Music of Jaco Pastorius” at the Arena Stage.

The Monterey Jazz Festival takes place Sept. 18-20 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2000 Fairground Road, Monterey. For tickets, events schedule, and more information, visit montereyjazzfestival.org.


ACE OF THE BASS Bassist Will Lee to celebrate the music of bassist Jaco Pastorius on Friday, Sept. 18 at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

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