Like most tales of triumph and tragedy, the life, career, and untimely death of bassist Jaco Pastorius continues to resonate a full two decades after his passing. Perhaps no other bass player was as essential in meshing unabashed rock with the introspection and complexity of freeform jazz. It's no wonder that this weekend — on the 56th anniversary of his birth — there's not one but two local celebrations of Jaco's music, reminding us that for all his accolades and accomplishments, Jaco was a Broward homeboy, albeit one of international repute.
Born John Francis Pastorius in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1951, "Jaco" (so nicknamed because of his love for sports) moved with his family to Oakland Park as a youngster. By his late teens, he'd already established himself on the local music circuit, first as bassist with rock 'n' roll revivalist Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders and later with the Peter Graves Orchestra, the house band at a popular lounge called Bachelors III.
Following his apprenticeship with Graves, Pastorius struck out on his own, determined to pursue his own muse. In 1975, he released a self-titled solo album, attracting instant raves. He furthered his reputation when he joined Weather Report a year later, contributing not only his fluid fretless electric bass but also his expertise as a composer. Along with Return to Forever and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report reigned as one of fusion's most prolific ensembles, assuring Jaco a place at the top of this progressive pantheon. Pastorius' flamboyant style and provocative technique took the bass from rhythmic realms into the forefront of the ensemble.
The list of innovative musicians who enlisted his talents fell on all sides of the musical divide — Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Weather Report among them — providing testimony to his diversity and pervasive influence.
When Jaco left Weather Report in 1982, he opted to reinvent the big-band sound that had shaped his formative years, enlisting several former colleagues from the Graves orchestra as part of his new Word of Mouth. Unfortunately, manic-depression combined with increased drug and alcohol use started ruining his reputation and made him an unpredictable celebrity both on and off the stage. It all culminated in a night of wild, erratic activity that eventually led to a violent scuffle outside a Wilton Manors bar called the Midnight Bottle Club on September 11, 1987. Jaco suffered severe facial fractures and slipped into a coma, eventually passing away on September 21, 1987.
Numerous tribute albums have honored the legacy of Pastorius, but these testimonials from his colleagues and admirers may be the most telling:
Peter Graves, producer/conductor of Jaco Pastorius Big Band and co-conductor of Jaco's Word of Mouth Big Band: "It's amazing to see the reaction people still have to Jaco's music after all this time. His music is timeless and keeps reinventing itself for 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 long after all of us involved with this wonderful tribute concert have joined him in that big band in the sky..."
Joe Donato, saxophonist and South Florida jazz legend: "I met Jaco one night in the early '70s. I was playing at a very popular restaurant called Les Jardins. Our band was somewhat on the 'exotic' side but conservative, musically speaking. We were in the middle of a moderate 'swing' tune when suddenly — I had my back to the band — I heard this bass playing about 50 times louder than the whole band.
"My first thought was how rude and impolite, to jump into a song without asking to sit in, as is the custom. Then within a few bars, he had taken the whole style of the tune we were doing his way. And it was great. His sheer level of sound and technical virtuosity was overpowering. I loved it, and my audience went wild. I think I learned something that night about performance. I'm not sure what it is, but it reminds me of a phrase I heard; 'If you got it, flaunt it.' "
Peter Erskine, longtime friend and drummer for both Weather Report and the Jaco Pastorius Big Band: " 'Don't think so much... just concentrate.' This was probably some of the best musical advice I ever received. Jaco offered it to me when I was going through a bit of a 'sophomore slump' in [Weather Report]. Joe Zawinul was telling me more and more how not to play this or that, and I was too busy second-guessing my musical instincts or choices. Jaco's advice was simply to listen to the music. I think about this every day of my musical life.
"Jaco got me into Weather Report, and so I shall always be grateful to him for that. He and I were approximately half the age of Joe and Wayne, and I think that Jaco heard something in my playing that he could relate to, especially in terms of our having listened to so much of the same music — from recordings as well as TV shows — when we were both growing up. So we were real buddies, musically and otherwise. I sure do miss him. He was kind, he was smart, and he was funny. He was a great player and a great composer. His work keeps us company."
Larry Warrilow, orchestrator, engineer, and Jaco's longtime musical collaborator and friend: "More than 25 years after much of the music was first performed, Jaco's music continues to speak for itself. It still makes a powerful impression on concert audiences and provides a unique platform for virtuosic musicians to project their own solo creativity.
"It was always interesting and sometimes surprising to see what he was currently working on. I've always felt that I was very lucky to be in the right time and place to be able to share the many deadlines in getting the large ensemble music ready, whether for record dates or live performance."
Gerald Veasley, bassist and member of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band: "There's hardly a bass player alive that doesn't owe gratitude to Jaco for how he changed the role of the bass. Moreover, Jaco left an indelible mark on the music world as an uncompromising artist and composer. It's hard to comprehend that it's been 20 years since his untimely passing. The music Jaco created during his brief lifetime sounds just as fresh and urgent today as it ever did."
Bob Mintzer, saxophonist and member of the Yellowjackets and the Jaco Pastorius Big Band: "Playing with Jaco was quite the adventure. His revolutionary bass playing and composing prowess made for a challenging musical setting, where we were all called upon to play beyond our usual abilities. His music is still vital and fresh today."