Talking Shit

Jaco Pastorius: The Story of an Oakland Park Man Who Was Also the Greatest Bass Player Who Has Ever Lived

On Dixie Highway, just north of Oakland Park Boulevard, sits the Jaco Pastorius mural. Chances are you've passed it a dozen times, probably without much thought. Next time, pay attention -- you're driving past the greatest bass player who ever lived.

If you're surprised by that fact, you're not alone. Despite Jaco's being one of the most influential electric bass players in music, most people I talk to don't have a clue who he is -- which is strange, since he grew up right here in Broward County.

I talked to Bill Savarese, the artist of the mural, to find out why Jaco is relatively unknown in his hometown. Savarese thinks it has to do with exposure: If people haven't heard Jaco's music, they can't understand how great he is.

Savarese hopes his mural can change that. He wants to turn people on to the "intricacy and genius" of Jaco's music by comparing him to another tragic figure -- Vincent van Gogh.

"In the same way van Gogh was a tragic genius, so too was Jaco Pastorius," said Savarese. "His life is just as important."

In his lifetime, Jaco Pastorius did more for the electric bass' role in music than anyone before him. Before his arrival on the scene, the bass guitar was almost always relegated to background duty. Melodies were pretty much out of the question, as were face-melting rock solos and acrobatic stage antics. 
But Jaco wouldn't stand for that kind of monotony. His career spanned a Grammy-nominated debut album, a stint with the jazz fusion powerhouse Weather Report, and a world tour with his big band, Word of Mouth. Jaco redefined the capabilities of the electric bass. He strummed chords on his instrument as if it were an acoustic guitar. He did flips off the top of his amp as if he were a rock star. He blasted solos as if he were the lead singer. He possessed, in other words, a uniqueness that all musicians strive for but so few achieve: He changed the way people thought about music. Not bad for a kid from Oakland Park.

But by the mid-1980s, at what should have been the height of Jaco's career, the fame and success he worked so hard to achieve was beginning to wear off. His bipolar disorder, which had plagued him since childhood, became a source of constant turmoil. He turned to drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medication, but in time, he became known more for his short temper than for his impeccable musicianship. By the end of his career, he was reduced to living on the streets of Fort Lauderdale, penniless and alone. Then, in 1987, he died in a bar fight in Wilton Manors, his journey as a musician coming to an end just blocks from where it all began. 
Jaco's death devastated the music world, but his legacy continued to grow even after he was gone. In 1988, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, one of only four bass players to receive that honor. He was memorialized in tribute songs by Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, and Joni Mitchell, and to this day, a Jaco Pastorius tribute band continues to perform around the country. But his greatest award came in 2006, when Bass Guitar Magazine officially declared him the "Greatest Bass Player Who Has Ever Lived." 

So why don't enough of us know about this tragic genius of American music? And are we doing enough to honor him?

"We could be doing more," says Siegi Constantine. "We could always be doing more."

Siegi Constantine is president of Oakland Park Main Street, the volunteer organization behind the Jaco mural. Since the park opened in December 2008, the organization has made promoting Jaco a top priority, though its biggest effort has been sponsoring memorial concerts.
I asked Constantine if these concerts were effective.

"They were," she said. "But the jazz audiences are small. We need to reach more people."

That burden of reaching more people cannot rest on Constantine alone. For Jaco Pastorius to become a household name, she'll need the community's help.

"Jaco's life story should be taught in every school in Broward County," said Constantine. 

It's a tall order, but perhaps she's right. If high schools can frame jerseys of former football players, why can't they put up pictures of Jaco?

Constantine thinks it has something to do with American values.

"In this country, we are very sports-driven," she said. "When schools have to make cuts, it's always to the arts."

Still, Constantine remains hopeful. She has faith that an upcoming documentary by Steve Kijak (whose previous work included a film on the Rolling Stones) will expose new audiences to Jaco's music. 

I just hope some of that audience will be in South Florida, where Jaco's legacy began. Because if anybody needs to stand behind Jaco, it's us.

- Brian Zimmerman

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