For Jaco Pastorius Bass Was the Place
This weekend's Hollywood Jazz Festival is dedicated to the late Jaco Pastorius, the undisputed master of the electric bass guitar. Pastorius actually gave the title to himself back when he was just a South Florida session player who dreamed of becoming a great jazz artist. The story goes that one day in 1975, while loitering outside the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, the 23-year-oldPastorius spotted Joe Zawinul, keyboard player for the popular fusion band Weather Report. Pastorius decided to introduce himself.
"My name is John Francis Pastorius III," he said, "and I'm the greatest electric bass player in the world."
The bold approach worked. The very next year Pastorius appeared on Weather Report's Black Market album and simultaneously released his solo debut, Jaco, on Epic Records. It was the beginning of a brilliant, prolific, and short-lived career.
"He was the first person who really elevated the electric bass to prominence as a solo instrument," notes Ron Weber, president of South Florida Friends of Jazz, the organization that puts together the annual jazz fest. "He did things people had never done on the electric bass."
The dedication was "unintentional," explains Weber. "We got the festival together and looked at the lineup and realized that almost everyone knew Jaco. And then we thought that since this was the tenth anniversary of his death, and no one had ever really dedicated anything to him, we would do it."
That lineup includes not only excellent local musicians -- among them Othello Molineaux and Silvano Monasterios -- but top-flight national acts as well, including the Michael Brecker Quintet, the Yellowjackets, and the John Scofield Band.
Molineaux, perhaps the world's only accomplished steel drum jazzman, was close friends with Pastorius. They shared a common trait: Each played by his own rules. Molineaux's accomplishment on the steel drums is astounding in part because the instruments are not manufactured in a standard fashion. Each steel drum -- even those played by the average busker on the street -- is unique.
"It's a whole different school of thought," Molineaux observes. "The most significant aspect of the instrument is the fact that there's no logical coherence to this musical style. There's no chromaticism, there's nothing you get with conventional instruments. You have to create your own rules and your own style."
That's what Pastorius did from the moment he stormed onto the jazz stage in the mid-Seventies. He played flurries of sixteenth notes -- impeccably -- night after night with Weather Report. The tone of his fretless bass, sometimes loose and funky, sometimes warm and full, came as a revelation to many jazz musicians. Zawinul once said that when he first heard a tape of Pastorius, he thought he was listening to an upright bass.
It's fair to say that Pastorius' wild stage presence added to his fame. Though Miles Davis had already fused jazz and rock on his 1969 masterpiece Bitches Brew, Pastorius' shaggy hair and swaggering showmanship were considered inappropriate for a serious jazz player. He did backflips, swung his bass in the air, and even jumped up and down on the instrument. Often he covered the stage with baby powder, which allowed him to skate across the floor on one foot while playing complex solos.
"I remember him as a tremendously generous, inspiring person who was just absolutely captivating when you were in his presence," says tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who toured with Pastorius as part of Joni Mitchell's band in 1979. "He was extremely entertaining, constantly full of surprises."
On that particular tour, Brecker and Pastorius formed a sort of all-star jazz basketball team that also included the percussionist Don Alias and Mitchell's manager. "When we were in each city, we'd go and play local teams at the Y," Brecker recalls. "And Jaco was an excellent hustler. Basketball wasn't one of his strong points, but he could always get the ball in. He was great. I don't know how he did it."
The Grammy-winning Brecker is accustomed to being part of stellar lineups. In his more than twenty years of recording, his jazz resume has grown to include sessions with Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Herbie Hancock. He has also played with rock musicians Paul Simon, Lou Reed, and John Lennon -- even Parliament and Frank Zappa. He comes to Florida with what he calls a "dream band": Alias on percussion, Joey Calderazzo on piano, James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.
Brecker prefers not to dwell on Pastorius' later years. Speaking from his home in Westchester, New York, the saxophonist remembers feeling powerless to stop Pastorius' mental and physical disintegration. "I think, essentially, he was ill," Brecker suggests, but his explanation stops there. "His passing -- it still saddens me."
"I guess his genius could not tolerate the regularities of the mortals around him," Molineaux adds. "And he just wanted out. There was no way anyone could help him."
Jaco Pastorius died in Fort Lauderdale on September 21, 1987, of severe head injuries following a fistfight with a bouncer outside a bar. He was 35 years old. His posthumous biography, written by Bill Milkowski, documents Pastorius' last years, which were a downward spiral of violent behavior, drug abuse, and depression. Friends reported seeing the bassist sleeping on park benches, panhandling on the streets of New York City, talking to himself, and accosting passersby.
"Two weeks before he died, I knew it was coming," Molineaux remembers. "I saw it in his eyes. I was somewhat prepared for it. Looking into his eyes was like reading a poem, his last poem. I kept trying to talk with him and get close to him and get through to him, but I could see that he didn't want to talk any more."
Weber says he expects the bassist's family to attend the festival. Though neither Brecker nor Molineaux plans to perform any of Pastorius' compositions in concert, Molineaux will honor his friend in his own way: "Any time I play is a tribute to him. We were inseparable, and we said we would play together for the rest of our lives. So everything I play is a tribute."
-- Rafer Guzman
The Hollywood Jazz Festival will be held Friday, November 21, through Sunday, November 23, at Young Circle Park in downtown Hollywood. Daily general admission tickets cost $5. Gates open at 6 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Call 800-370-1244 for more information.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.