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Happy Birthday, Jaco Pastorius!

It seems inevitable that no matter how brilliant an artist, the specter of an untimely death always hangs heavy over any and all accomplishments. Take Janis, Jimi, and Kurt, for example -- each was an innovator, but any discussion of their careers often veers to the subject of their early tragic demise. Sadly, such is the case with Jaco Pastorius, the infinitely gifted bassist whose imaginative technique and melodic innovation are still admired and emulated nearly a quarter century after his passing.

Read our tribute to his late ex-wife, Ingrid Pastorius, here.


Born John Francis Anthony Pastorius III on December 1, 1951, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Pastorius earned his honorary South Florida pedigree after he and his family relocated to Oakland Park shortly after he was born. He later attended St. Clement's Catholic School in Wilton Manors and Northeast High in Oakland Park and eventually ended up teaching music at the University of Miami.

While still in his teens, Pastorius performed alongside several of the area's better-known artists, including the flamboyant rocker-turned-preacher Wayne Cochran and the popular show ensemble the Peter Graves Orchestra. After a stint as a solo artist, he joined the celebrated fusion outfit Weather Report, which brought him national and international recognition. In addition, he famously contributed his fluid fretless bass to several Joni Mitchell albums in the mid- to late '70s -- Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mingus, and the live Shadows and Light. Other outings included sessions with jazz vocalist Flora Purin, former Mott the Hoople lynchpin Ian Hunter, guitarist Pat Metheny, and percussionist Airto Moreira. He received further critical kudos when he launched his own big-band project, an all-star outfit he dubbed the Word of Mouth orchestra. 


"It's amazing to see the reaction people still have to Jaco's music after all this time," Graves told New Times in 2007. "His music is timeless and keeps reinventing itself to new generations of listeners long after his passing. Those of us blessed to know him can take solace in knowing that his music will live on." 

Still, despite the accolades he earned from critics, fans, and fellow musicians, misfortune plagued Pastorius throughout his life. An avid sports fan -- he co-opted his nickname "Jaco" from a baseball umpire he admired named Jocko Conlan -- he suffered a football injury that forced him to abandon the drums, his original instrument of choice. Luckily, when the bass player of his early band, the Las Olas Brass, left, he volunteered to take his place, quickly advancing from stand-up bass to electric bass and then beyond. 

In the mid-'80s Jaco was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder after a tumultuous 1982 tour of Japan, during which he shaved his head, painted his face black, and threw his bass into a bay. His wife, Ingrid, had him committed at Holy Cross Hospital, where he was given lithium to control his mood swings. Still, his increasing involvement with drugs and alcohol -- habits picked up during his tenure with Weather Report -- only exacerbated his condition. He and Ingrid divorced in 1985 after six years of marriage. 

Jaco subsequently moved to New York and ended up homeless after being evicted from his apartment. After wandering the streets, Ingrid and his brother Gregory had him committed to Bellevue. He eventually ended up back in Fort Lauderdale, once again living on the street while indulging in some increasingly bizarre behavior. On September 11, 1987, he managed to sneak onstage at a Carlos Santana concert only to be unceremoniously ejected. He then wandered over to a local bar, the Midnight Bottle Club, where the security personnel denied him admission. That led to a violent altercation. Pastorius sustained facial fractures, an injury to his right eye, and contusions on his left arm. Admitted to Broward General Medical Center, he lapsed into a coma and was put on life support. Ten days later, he died. He was buried at Our Lady Queen of Heaven cemetery in North Fort Lauderdale. 

(The club's bouncer, Luc Havan, was charged with second-degree murder but later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22 months in jail and five years' probation, which took into account time already served. Four months later, he was released for good behavior.) 

Sadly, the tragedy to that trajectory didn't end with Pastorius' passing. This past Monday, as she was preparing for a celebration of what would have been her ex-husband's 60th birthday, scheduled to take place this Sunday at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, Ingrid Pastorius died suddenly of an aortic aneurism. Despite their divorce, she remained a tenacious guardian of his legacy in the years since his passing, the person largely responsible for the naming of Pastorius Park in Oakland Park and a campaign to create a commemorative postage stamp in his honor. She was also a voracious critic of a 1995 biography authored by jazz pundit Bill Milkowski titled Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. It described in depth his personal decline, eliciting her wrath for what she viewed as an unsympathetic perspective bloated by a host of factual errors. 

Fortunately, the final postscript on the Pastorius saga ends on an upbeat note. In 1988, Jaco was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, one of only four bassists to ever be given that honor. The two Grammy nominations accorded his eponymous solo debut also provide testimony to his talents. His colleagues and contemporaries have heaped on him their own accolades as well. Marcus Miller wrote "Mr. Pastorious" in his honor, leading Miles Davis to record the track on one of his final albums. Bassist Victor Wooten penned the song "Bass Tribute" for his album Soul Circus and later collaborated on Bass Extremes, which includes the pointedly titled "Glorius Pastorius." The Pat Metheny Group chose to include the song "Jaco" on its self-titled effort, while bass player Brian Bromberg recorded an entire Pastorius tribute album simply titled Jaco. English guitarist John McLaughlin penned the song "For Jaco" for his album Industrial Zen, and Rod Argent, the former keyboard player for the British band the Zombies, chose a tune titled "Pastorius Mentioned" for his effort Moving Home.

"There's hardly a bass player alive that doesn't owe gratitude to Jaco for how he changed the role of the bass," fellow bassist and bandmate Gerald Veasley told New Times during an interview for that earlier article. "Jaco left an indelible mark on the music world."


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