Remembering Jaco Pastorius
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
On this December 1st, which would've been the 70th birthday of Jaco Pastorius, I'm thinking about that cat, who was like the Charlie Parker of our generation. Both had big appetites, great senses of humor, and both were visionaries who revolutionized their respective instruments, leaving hordes of copycats following in their wake. What's that Charles Mingus tune? "Gunslinging Bird," which carried the subtitle: "If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats."
Jaco was indeed one of a kind. Or as Buddy Rich once referred to his best friend, the renowned drum teacher Freddy Gruber: "He's none of a kind." When you watch the numerous YouTube videos that are out there today of Jaco in full 'butoh dance' mode, they are so daring, so outrageous and unprecedented that it's almost hard to image that such a character ever existed; like he was an alien being that came down to enthrall and inspire us with his great art; like Jimi Hendrix did, like Bird did. Like few others ever did. But to be there in the room when it was happening in real time was simply breathtaking. Just check out this video of Jaco's solo segment from a September 29, 1978 Weather Report concert in Offenbach, Germany:
The first half of this solo performance (which begins at the 1:02 mark) is abstract and beautiful, like a Picasso painting. At the 2:20 mark, it's Chops City. And the audience responds. Oh, by the way, dig the genius of Jaco's facile mind here: In this concert, as they did at all Weather Report concerts at the time (documented on the great live album 8:30), Wayne Shorter precedes Jaco's solo with a solo performance of his own, playing "Thanks for the Memory" (Bob Hope's theme song, which was introduced in the 1938 movie -- a W.C. Fields starring vehicle -- The Big Broadcast of 1938, when Hope sings it to Shirley Ross as the divorced couple who encounter each other aboard a ship reminisce about their romantic relationship together). So Wayne plays Bob Hope's theme song solo, then Jaco comes out and plays a rubato version of Wayne's "Delores" (the inside joke being that Delores is the name of Bob Hope's wife, which the tv-watching child of the '60s certainly knew from running scales on his bass in his parents' house in Fort Lauderdale while watching "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," a late night talk show that Hope frequented, often with unannounced walk-on appearances).
So continuing with the breakdown of Jaco's solo segment: At the 4:00 minute mark he goes into his beautiful "Portrait of Tracy" before quoting from Carol Burnett's sign-off song, "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together," at the 4:11 mark (again, Jaco, being a child of '60s tv, was well acquainted with that tune). By 5:13, he gets to the so-called "Slang" portion of his solo show, where he puts up a simple ostinato on a primitive looping pedal and then runs through a whole gamut of ideas on top of it, starting at the 6:22 mark with a quote from Sly & The Family Stone's "Sing a Simple Song," followed by a quote from Blind Faith's "Had to Cry Today," before quickly segueing to Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway at the 6:40 mark and a taste of Buddy Miles' "Them Changes" at 6:49. Then at the 7:11 mark, he stomps on the distortion pedal and launches into Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun" before entering the calm after the storm with a taste of "The Sound of Music" at the 9:15 mark. The solo segment ends in wizardly fashion with Jaco laying out his bass on the stage floor, allowing it to feed back before finally leaping onto his instrument, seemingly from atop his Acoustic 360 amplifier. Then magically it all fades to black, with the sound of one crazed German fan in the audience screaming hysterically in the dark. Bravo, Jaco!
I remember the first time hearing Jaco on record in 1976. It was at my friend Jeff Piskula's apartment on the East Side of Milwaukee. Jeff, who was a genius chef and a protege of Madame Kuony, Wisconsin's answer to Julia Childs and the proprietor of the Postilion School of Culinary Arts in Milwaukee, had shifted gears from French cuisine to Chinese cuisine and was starting up a catering business in town. He had made several amazing dishes of Chinese food that day that he wanted to have professionally photographed for a brochure he was preparing for his fledgling business. So he called our mutual friend Peter Schulz, a photographer who I worked with on the campus newspaper, the UWM Post, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At some point during this shoot 'n' eat session, Jeff put on this new Weather Report record he had recently purchased. Being a gifted keyboard player as well as a gifted chef, Jeff kept up to date with whatever Joe Zawinul was doing, in this case, Black Market. But rather than dropping the needle on the first track from Side A, "Black Market," or the first track from Side B, "Elegant People," he went right for track three on Side B, "Barbary Coast." And I remember him saying, "Check this out! You won't believe how funky this is!" Indeed, Jeff was right. Following the sound of a passing train on the railroad tracks (actually recorded by Jaco along Dixie Highway near his home in Fort Lauderdale), the piece goes into deep groove mode with Jaco's muting creating an uncommonly funky effect. Hearing it in Jeff Piskula's apartment that day, I had to wonder, "Is that a bass?" Jeff mentioned that at first he thought it might've been a clavinet or some other keyboard instrument. But no, just Jaco being Jaco, making his first impression on my sensory system.
Shortly after that photo session/feed bag hang at Piskula's, the dj on radio station WFMR (the great Ron Cuzner, who was a late night mystical guru figure to me in much the same way that Wolfman Jack was to the Richard Dreyfus character in George Lucas' 1973 film American Graffiti) began saturating the airwaves with tunes from Jaco's self-titled 1976 debut album on Epic Records. But after playing that revolutionary 'shot heard 'round the world' version of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" (with Jaco running bebop lines on electric bass accompanied only by conguero Don Alias, whom he had met and played with a few years earlier in Lou Rawls' band) then letting it segue to the funky "Come on, Come Over" with R&B legends Sam & Dave shouting the funky refrain, Cuzner would come on the air to introduce this new artist. "That was Jacques-o Pastorius," he'd announce to listeners in his exaggerated slowed-down late-night affect, putting a heavy French accent on the first name. And so, because of Cuzner, I assumed that this new bass phenom was from France, probably didn't speak English and maybe lived in Paris. On May 10, 1977, when Weather Report came to town to play at the Riverside Theater on Wisconsin Avenue in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, I was there. After the concert I went out to Giorgi's, a fusion club on the city's Southwest Side. I just had a hunch that Jaco would be there, sitting in with Sweetbottom, Milwaukee's premier fusion band and launching pad for guitarist Daryl Stuermer, who had joined Jean-Luc Ponty's band the year before. My hunch paid off. Jaco was indeed in the club that night. In fact, as I strolled in, he was up on stage killing it on a version of Herbie Hancock's "Hang Up Your Hangups" with the band.
During a break between sets, I went into the restroom and noticed Jaco standing at a urinal. I approached and called out his name, pronouncing it just as Ron Cuzner had announced it on the airwaves of WFMR. "Hey, Jacques-o!" I said. He looked at me, puzzled, zipped up his pants, stepped back from the urinal and said, "Jacques-o?! I ain't no French guy. Hell, I'm just a Florida beach bum." I stood corrected and struck up a conversation with Jaco over several glasses of wine. Later that evening (in the wee hours), I followed Jaco to radio station WFMR, where dj Cuzner conducted an on-air interview with him, accompanied by Marquette Warriors backup center, Mike Mills. I remember Cuzner asking him at one point in the interview about the kind of blatantly commercial music that Herbie Hancock was releasing at the time (Herbie's Secrets had just come out). Jaco looked at Cuzner and after a long pause said, "Ya gotta eat!"
I later saw Jaco at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in bucolic East Troy, WI, about 40 minutes from Milwaukee, playing with friends and colleagues Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and Don Alias on Joni Mitchell's Shadows and Light tour. Then after moving to New York in 1980, I was given an assignment by DownBeat to draw the connections between Jimi Hendrix and jazz. After interviewing several musicians, including guitarist Mike Stern and maestro Gil Evans, I called Jaco, who was at his home in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where he was immersed in putting together what would later become Word of Mouth. After addressing the topic of my piece, which was subsequently titled "Jimi Hendrix: The Jazz Connection," Jaco simply stated: "All I gotta say is…’Third Stone From the Sun.’ And for anyone who doesn’t know about that by now, they shoulda checked Jimi out a lot earlier. You dig?” And then he hung up the phone.
After Jaco moved to New York in 1982, I had many encounters with him -- at 55 Grand, the notorious Soho nightclub known as "55 Grams" to regulars, on the West 4th Street basketball court in the heart of Greenwich Village, at my place on E. 29th Street, at his place on Jones Street in the Village, at Neither/Nor, the tiny East Village club where we once jammed together (me playing his Fender Jazz bass, him playing my Les Paul copy guitar equipped with distortion and wah-wah pedals). There were so many gigs (Seventh Avenue South, Lone Star Cafe, Sweet Basil, The Bottom Line, Blue Note, 5 & 10 No Exaggeration in Soho, 55 Bar on Christopher Street, Bradley's), so many encounters, including at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital (where Jaco remained for six weeks after being diagnosed with bipolar syndrome), so many loose jams with James Cannings at the Nancy Whiskey Pub in Tribeca and the Nightengale Lounge in the East Village and after-hours hangs at places like Body Heat in the East Village. But you can read all about that in my book, "JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius," which is also available for sale in the BOOKS section of my website.
All of this to say, I still miss the cat. He's been gone for 34 years and he would've turned 70 today. Like Ira Sullivan said: "He was like a meteor streaking across the Florida night sky." Here and gone. But I'll never forget him.