While South Florida has contributed plenty of musical heroes to the world, bass guitar virtuoso Jaco Pastorius reigns above all as a truly world-changing icon of sound. Considered by those in the know in the same regard as the greatest maverick players the world has ever known, Jaco was a singular voice on an instrument that — while important since its inception — had yet to be heard as much more than a device for rhythmic accompaniment.
In Pastorius’ hands, the electric bass guitar was given a new life and allowed to sing, weep, dance, and shine as a lead instrument and vehicle of expression far beyond anything else even the most athletic bass players of his generation were capable of.
Pastorius’ story began (and tragically ended) in South Florida, where he was raised in Oakland Park before taking the jazz-fusion world by storm. Like many gifted artists, Pastorius was consumed by the fire of his own creativity, and his life was an often tragic one, plagued by mental illness that was exacerbated by the poor care and understanding that met such afflictions in his time.
The virtuoso's life ended senselessly and violently in the late ‘80s after his illness spiraled out control; however, that story — and the rest of the man’s compelling tale — is finally going to be told accurately to the masses with the unbelievably well-executed documentary film Jaco, which will be screened as part of the Florida International Film Festival this Friday, November 6, at Hard Rock Live.
A labor of love that came to be through the union of Pastorius’ oldest son, John Pastorius, and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, the film is a world-class documentary (including celebrity interviews and plenty of previously unseen footage) that gets the story straight and finally shines the light properly on a hero gone far too soon.
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We caught up with the film’s director-turned-Pastorius superfan, Paul Marchand, to get his take on the man’s legend, working with Trujillo on the making of Jaco, and what he hopes to get out of the film’s premiere.
New Times: How did Jaco’s story come into your periphery as a possible film subject?
Paul Marchand: I usually work as a documentary editor, and I had worked with Chris Rock on a film called Good Hair. The documentary film world is kind of a small one, and when Robert Trujillo of Metallica and John Pastorius — Jaco’s eldest son — got together and wanted to make the film, they eventually made their way to some Hollywood folks that put them in touch with me, and I was hired as the editor back in 2011.
Steven Kijak was the original director of the film, but he left the project in 2012 to do a documentary on the Backstreet Boys, which is when I got my opportunity to step up and follow through as director. I really fell in love with Jaco and with Robert and the Pastorius family. The story was so great, and the music had a real impact on me.
How did Robert Trujillo of Metallica get involved with the Pastorius family?
The story is that 18 or 19 years ago, Robert was in a bar in Fort Lauderdale when he was on tour with Ozzy Osbourne and somehow met John Pastorius. They stayed up all night and made a pact to make this documentary. Twenty years later, Robert joins Metallica and has some extra money floating around to finally pull the trigger on the film.
Robert was a superfan and stayed close with the family for so many years, and he really wanted to give something back and do something good and tell the story of one of his heroes, so that’s how he became involved. I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities on documentaries, and I didn’t know if Robert was going to be very active in the creative process going in, but he definitely was. There hasn’t been a day in the past five or six years when he hasn’t called at least two times or thought about Jaco or the film all day long. He’s been so involved, and even though this is the first film he’s made and he wasn’t capable of giving supertechnical notes about making scenes work better, he has that creative instinct and would suggest different elements to add in — so it’s as much his film as it is any of ours. And he’s the sweetest guy in the world!
I always knew of Jaco as just a bass player, and I never really understood him as a true artist and a musician, and the more I got into the details of his life, the more addicted I became to the story.
How did making the film change your perspective on Jaco’s music?
Any artist that I explore, I really try to look into their life, because it informs the music and art. So when I hear his music now, I hear much more of the push and pull of his life and the things that happened in his life that I can relate to. I think the overall thing that I, as an artist, keep going back to is that he had this integrity when creating that was just endless. He did what he heard in his head, and fuck you if you didn’t like it.
What was it about Jaco’s playing that really hooked you?
I think what made him so popular was that he made the bass sound like a human voice, and people could really connect with that as a melodic instrument, which it had never been seen as prior. That was something he intentionally came up with, and he was the one that made the bass a lead instrument — he created that sound. It’s hard for people to really understand that for some reason. Even myself, I’m 34, and I grew up with the sound of Jaco’s bass being a part of the world, but how earth-shattering that was when it happened for the first time is hard to stress.
I think the thing a lot of people miss about what Jaco did is they assume it was all athletics. But he didn’t just play athletically; he played emotionally.
Yeah, absolutely! So much of what Jaco did was just within his fingers, and that sound was almost like a fingerprint that no one else can quite do it exactly like he did. The nuance of his playing was just so emotive. There’s guys now that play faster, but no one can elicit the emotional reaction that his playing could.
Do you feel that the film accomplished what yourself, Robert [Trujillo], and the Pastorius family intended for it to in its final form?
It was a really, really tough project. There were a lot of voices involved, and whenever you lose someone at such a young age, a lot of wounded people are left in the wake — so it’s a story that’s obviously really important to a lot of people. Also, one of our main goals in doing this was to turn around a lot of the rumors and false ideas that people have about Jaco, and so far it’s been going really well. People that see the film feel affected emotionally and learn the real story about what was actually going on with him. I feel like we added a document to the world that was missing and set a lot of things straight.
Even when I go into Amoeba Records here in California to shop for records and the film comes up in conversation with a clerk or whatever, each person has a different story in their head about how Jaco died. One guy thinks he fell through a roof breaking into a bass factory! There’s just a lot of rumors and lore about him in particular, so I feel like we really did a service to his legend by clarifying.
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Playing music in South Florida, you encounter a lot of people in the community that claim to have a Jaco story or to have known him somehow, so suffice to say that the man’s legend is extremely revered at home. When I’ve met those people in the past, I can’t help but think about how sad it is that someone with both such a passionate fan base and so many friends ended up so isolated in the end.
It is really sad. We interviewed something in the range of 70 people for this film, and all of them seemed to think they were his best friend. That charisma he had was unreal. But it is really sad, and while I think people understand the illness better now, no one really did back in the ‘80s. A lot of the guys that I’ve thrown that question at that knew him at the time have said essentially that they were kids at the time and grew up thinking of him as the center of the world, so it was really hard to get him to do anything.
A lot of what happened in the end, with him living in the park, it wasn’t because no one wanted him to stay with them — it was because no one could control him. So it’s a bit of a mystery, because from the outside you want to assign some blame, and the people on the inside all have this guilt about what they could’ve done differently. If you think about what happened between 1983 — going from selling out Budokan in Tokyo like some rock star, but as a jazzer, to living in his mother’s apartment next to the park, humbled by his illness — I think it was really hard for him to deal with that, as it would be for anyone.
Are you still in touch with the Pastorius family? Have they expressed any sense of closure from having Jaco’s story told both accurately and in such an artistic way with the film?
You know, it’s still so fresh, because it still hasn’t been properly released and we’re still on this slow burn through the festival circuit, but John Pastorius has become a really good friend. It’s been five or six years that I’ve been obsessing over Jaco — I dream about him sometimes, honestly — and I almost feel like a member of that family at this point. We’ll see how they feel, but it’s a tough subject for them obviously, and time will tell.
Jaco FLIFF premiere with Robert Trujillo, Paul Marchand, and members of the Pastorius family attending. 9 p.m. (with a preparty at 8:30 p.m.) at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets: $10, $8 seniors/students. Call 954-525-3456, or visit FLIFF.com.