Jaco Pastorius: Great Musician, Sad End

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“My name is Jaco Pastorius and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” This was the way Jaco introduced himself to Joe Zawinul, Weather Report founder and übermensch.  Zawinul was abrupt and dismissive: “f#*k off” was his reply. Then Pastorius played a solo fretless bass version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” Just as abruptly, Zawinul changed his opinion, and soon Pastorius was a member of Weather Report.

I recently interviewed drummer Peter Erskine about the new 4 cd set The Legendary Live Tapes. These shows happened during Weather Report’s later stage, when the band was at its zenith with hits like “Birdland”, and Jaco was very much part of its success.

Peter Erskine told me about a film documentary on Jaco, and I watched it over the weekend. It is a moving and dispassionate portrait of one of the most astoundingly talented musicians who ever graced jazz music. Jaco Pastorius grew up in Southern Florida, playing a variety of music styles like funk, Cuban, jazz, and blues in various local bars and clubs. He quickly outgrew them. He never received much formal training, and never really knew how to read music. And yet he wound up composing complicated charts for large ensembles (such as his two Word of Mouth albums, one studio and one recorded in Japan).

Jaco (produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak) features interviews with those who knew him: Sting, Flea, Joni Mitchell, Santana, Herbie Hancock, and others. The film also shows Jaco pulling out the frets on his Fender bass – he wanted to have a freer sound. His sound is unique and much copied. The great African bassist Richard Bona, who sounds more like Jaco than just about any other bass player, learned Pastorius’ song “Portrait of Tracy,” mastering it after a year of practice in his Cameroonian village. On his first solo album, Word of Mouth, he performs a flawless solo version of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy. His virtuosity is staggering.

There was competition, however, between Joe Zawinul and Jaco, with the elder statesman and co-founder of Weather Report watching as Jaco became more and more popular, the most showman-like member of the band. The film relates how Pastorius, eager for his approval, gave him a cassette of the his first album to listen to on the long flight to Tokyo. Zawinul removed his headphones and told the younger musician that the music was like a high school jazz band. This second dismissal was devastating. Another blow Pastorius endured was a fracas in Havana during the Havana Jam of 1979.  Pastorius and Fania All Star Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez were about to come to blows over some slight, and Zawinul broke off the fight before blows were exchanged. Pastorius felt he lost face because of it, and this was one of the things that precipitated his descent.

Pastorius was bi-polar. In the early to mid-1980’s, this condition was not well known, and there was no Prozac or Zooloft to help ameliorate the effects of it. Alcohol and drugs, especially cocaine, exacerbated an already serious condition. As a result, Pastorius’ behavior both on and off stage became more dangerous and erratic. By the time Sportin’ Life and This is This were released, Pastorius was no longer in the band.

5187BzSFBmL._AC_UL115_“My name is Jaco Pastorius and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.”  This is what Pastorius, now homeless and living in a park in South Florida where he grew up, would tell people he encountered. I have no doubt that they were as incredulous as Joe Zawinul was when he first met this gifted musician. The new documentary film celebrates his genius and charts his rise and descent. The result is an almost Shakespearean portrait of one of the greatest  musicians of the 20th century.

Here is Jaco performing Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy:

….and the trailer to Robert Trujillos’ film portrait:

There are many more film clips of Jaco in performance, both in and out of Weather Report.  Just go to youtube and have at it!

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