Today, December 1, Jaco Pastorius would’ve turned 72. Hard to imagine now, considering that he checked out under very tragic and sad circumstances just shy of his 36th birthday — exactly half the age that he might’ve been today had he lived. But Jaco didn’t make it, and so we are left wondering what might’ve been — collaborations never realized, concertos left unwritten. I still think about Jaco. I still have vivid dreams about Jaco, where I visit him in a place that at first seems real and present but turns out to be neither here nor there. And he speaks to me in those dreams, usually in positive tones about some upcoming gig or recording project he’s been working on…still trying to get back on the goodfoot after all these years.
Today we are inundated by commercials on tv for a whole string of Martian-sounding bipolar medications — Seroquel, Abilify, Vraylar, Latuda, Lamotrigine, Lamictal, Caplyta — any one of which may have indeed saved Jaco’s life. But back then, in the mid ‘80s, it was lithium or nothing. And while it may have cooled him out, Jaco hated the side effects of lithium — the hand tremors, the uncharacteristic timidity, the erectile dysfunction (“Now, you KNOW that ain’t right!” as he once put to it me by way of explaining why he went cold turkey on the stuff). No one in Jaco’s inner circle knew what bipolar syndrome was or how to deal with it back in the day. In fact, none of us had ever heard the term ‘bipolar’ until he finally got diagnosed in July 1986, during his extended six-week stay in Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital.
So on this 72nd anniversary of the birth of ‘The World’s Greatest Bass Player,’ as he often introduced himself upon first meeting (even to giants like Joe Zawinul and bass icon Ron Carter), I’d like to reflect on how Jaco came into my orbit and how that eventually led to me writing the book, JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, the World’s Greatest Bass Player, nearly 30 years ago (updated in a greatly expanded 10th Anniversary edition nearly 20 years ago).
It was at a friend’s place in Milwaukee that I first heard the sound of Jaco Pastorius playing the bass. Jeff Piskula, the aforementioned pal, not only played Fender Rhodes electric piano in a local jazz band, he was also something of a master chef. Jeff had attended Madame Kuony’s Postilion School of Culinary Arts, where he studied French cuisine under the tutelage of the grand dame herself, who was renowned for her unwavering high standards, sense of style and ever-present hat. After spending some time abroad as a chef in one of the finer restaurants of Paris, he returned to Milwaukee and suddenly began an intensive study of Chinese cuisine. Jeff was like that, a natural born Renaissance man. Whatever he turned his attention to, he excelled at with quiet dignity and grace.
On this day in March, 1976, Jeff was cooking up a storm in his kitchen on the hipster East Side of town, near the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was planning to start up a catering business and got the idea to create a brochure with professional-looking photographs of the various dishes that he would be offering. For that task, Jeff recruited my roommate Peter Schulz, resident photo editor of the student newspaper, the UWM Post, where I also presided as editor at the time. So this particular Saturday afternoon, Peter came in with his Nikon camera and a bunch of macro lenses to do the job. My job was to basically watch and eat. At some point during this cooking and photo session marathon, Jeff went into another room to put on a new record he had just bought. And when he came back, I remember him saying to me, “Check this out! It’s so funky you won’t believe it!” It was Jaco’s “Barbary Coast” from the recently released Weather Report album, Black Market (released on March 11, 1976). An earthy, chugging R&B flavored vehicle, it opens with the sound of a train running along the tracks on Dixie Highway where Jaco grew up in Fort Lauderdale. Jaco enters with a distinctive muted string figure that fairly leaps off the track. At first it was disorienting. What is that? Is that a bass? Jeff actually thought it was a funky clavinet when he heard it the first time, due to the clipped, percussive nature of Jaco’s precise and penetrating phrasing.
Jaco played his first concert with Weather Report on April 1, 1976 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A month and a half later, Weather Report rolled into town to play the Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee. I went to the concert. It was my first time seeing Jaco perform live. John McLaughlin and his new East-West band Shakti opened the show. I was truly blown away by both bands.
Fast forward a year. Weather Report returns to the Riverside Theater on May 11, 1977, just a couple of months after the release of Heavy Weather. Al Di Meola, who just released his second solo album, Elegant Gypsy, opened the show. After the concert, I followed a hunch and drove out to Giorgi’s, a local jazz club on 68th and Forest Home Avenue, where the city’s best fusion group, Sweetbottom, was the house band. If Jaco was looking for a late night hang, that would be the place, I figured. Sure enough, as I pulled into the Giorgi's parking lot and entered the club, there was Jaco on stage, jamming with Sweetbottom on Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hangups,” from 1975’s Man-Child. [Jaco had actually subbed in Herbie’s band three months earlier for a few gigs, including this one on Feb. 16 from Chicago:
Also on stage with Jaco that memorable evening was Sweetbottom’s co-founder and original guitarist, Daryl Stuermer, who was back in town on a break from touring with Jean-Luc Ponty (and just months before he joined Genesis). Meanwhile, all this time, I had been operating under the misguided impression that Jaco was French. The late night jazz DJ in Milwaukee, Ron Cuzner on radio station WFMR, pronounced his name “Jacques-o” in announcing tunes from Jaco Pastorius, his incredible solo debut on the Epic label. So naturally, I thought the guy was this exotic European cat. He had a vaguely Continental appearance in the beautiful black and white Don Hunstein photo on the cover of that groundbreaking album (released in August 1976). Turns out the phenom from France was actually the Florida Flash, as the headline on Neil Tesser’s January 1977 Downbeat story had proclaimed. And I found that out right at Giorgi’s straight from horse’s mouth.
What happened next was, when Jaco and Sweetbottom finished playing “Hang Up Your Hangups,” I headed to the restroom. Suddenly, as I’m standing there at the urinal, in walks Jaco. Startled, I turn around to acknowledge him and yell out, “Hey Jacques-o!" He looks me up one side and down the other and says, “Jacques-o?! I ain’t no French guy! I’m more like a Florida beach bum, to tell the truth.” We both laughed, later headed to the bar and proceeded to down a bottle of wine right there between us [a foreshadowing of things to come, unfortunately].
Later on, around two or three in the morning, I followed Jaco, who being escorted around town by former Marquette Warriors center, 6’ 10” Mike Mills, to WFMR to do an on-air interview with Cuzner, whose appropriately titled show, “The Dark Side,” aired from midnight ’til six in the morning. At some point in the proceedings, Cuzner asked Jaco, “What do you think of this more commercial direction that great jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock have headed in recent years?” To which Jaco replied, after a comedically long pause, “Ya gotta eat!”
In 1979, I would see Jaco again, this time on Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light tour, which touched down on Aug. 16 at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin (site of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fatal helicopter crash in the early morning of Aug. 27, 1990). It was my first time seeing Michael Brecker play live, though I had already seen Pat Metheny with his band at Amazingrace in Evanston, IL a couple of years earlier. And Jaco did his “Slang” solo bass showcase in the middle of Joni’s set (where he turned into a walking quote machine, referencing everything from his own “Portrait of Tracy” to the Carol Burnett theme song, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” to Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The High and the Mighty” to Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” to Sly & the Family Stone’s “Simple Song,” Blind Faith’s “Had to Cry Today,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music”).
About a year later, in late September of 1980, I moved to New York City and became immersed on the scene there. From that point on, I saw Jaco everywhere — with Weather Report at the Kool Jazz Festival in Avery Fisher Hall on July 4, 1981; at the Savoy on Jan. 18, 1982 with his World of Mouth big band; then later jamming at the 55 Grand in Soho (a notorious coke hang that was fondly referred to as “55 Grams”) with the likes of guitarists Mike Stern and Barry Finnerty, drummers Bob Moses, Lenny White, Richie Morales and Kenwood Dennard and others. I remember seeing Jaco playing one night at 55 Grand with a full cast on his right arm from his wrist to his shoulders, with only his picking fingers sticking out. This was shortly after he had taken a nasty plunge while tightrope walking on the bannister of his balcony at a hotel in Rimini while on a tour of Italy in late November 1982.
Subsequently, I saw Jaco play numerous times at the Lone Star Cafe, the Blue Note and the Bottom Line with a rotating cast of characters that populated his Word of Mouth quintet and septet. I later caught him at the Brecker Brothers' club Seventh Avenue South with his PDB Trio featuring guitarist Hiram Bullock and drummer Dennard and often saw him sitting in with the Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra at Sweet Basil. I also caught him playing duets with Mike Stern at Bradley’s on University Place in Greenwich Village and at the 55 Bar on Christopher Street in the West Village. There were also a few odd gigs at the 5&10 No Exaggeration in Soho with the blind pianist from Florida, Mike Gerber; at Razzmatazz with Delmar Brown, drummer Ricky Sebastian, trumpeter-conguero Jerry Gonzalez and his upright bassist brother Andy; a one-off gig backing singer Myno Jackson (daughter of the famed jazz bassist Chubby Jackson) and also a few hits at the Lone Star with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and drummer Rashied in a band they dubbed There Goes The Neighborhood.
In between attending gigs, I hung out with Jaco a bunch. We played a lot of two-on-two basketball at the West 4th Street courts. Once when we were embarrassing a couple of adversaries in a half court game, one the guys took a vicious whack at me as I was driving in for a layup, smashing my glasses in the process. Jaco saw how upset I was by this and he spent the rest of the afternoon trying to cheer me up, first by buying me a pair of cool sunglasses at the Fabulous Boutique between Ben's Pizza and Mamoun's Falafel on McDougal Street, then by sitting in with every folk, rock and blues band playing on Bleecker Street, from the Back Fence to Kenny's Castaways to The Bitter End. I also used to shoot pool with Jaco at the divey Nightengale Bar on 2nd Avenue in the East Village. I also would occasionally jam with Jaco and on one memorable occasion played a gig with him at Neither/Nor, a funky loft space in Alphabet City on 10th Street and Avenue C. This was actually James Cannings’ gig and he invited both me and Jaco to sit in. James was a sweet cat from Jamaica who played guitar and sang both covers and original material, and on this occasion when I showed up at Neither/Nor, I was extremely surprised to see Jaco on the gig. James hadn't told me a thing about it. But there was Jaco in all his glory, on the bandstand with Fender bass in hand, ready to go!
We played a lot of blues tunes and a couple of James originals that night at Neither/Nor. And at one point in the middle of Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows” (a simple repetitive riff tune from the Band of Gypsys album that was easy to jam to), Jaco leaned over to me and said, “Take my bass! Gimme your guitar!” And we switched instruments mid-song without dropping a beat. Then Jaco proceeded to wail on my Les Paul copy while tap dancing on my RAT distortion, Dunlop Crybaby wah-wah and Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Mistress flanger pedals as I kept up that repetitive hypnotic bass line on his bass.
My first interview with Jaco had come earlier, for an October 1982 Downbeat story entitled, “Jimi Hendrix: The Jazz Connection.” I spoke to him by phone. He was back home in Deerfield Beach, Florida then, taking care of some business. And when I posed the question of Jimi’s jazz connections, Jaco very succinctly put it this way: “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?” Later, on November 11, 1982, I conducted a long, rambling and outrageously hilarious interview with Jaco that began at 3 pm at 55 Grand and concluded in Chinatown at 3 a.m. In between, Jaco insisted on a game of one-on-one basketball at a nearby court in Soho, then asked me to wait through two sets of music that he and Stern and their pals were playing that night at the club. When the music finally ended at 2 a.m. or so, he suggested that we continue the interview at Wo-Hop (17 Mott St.), his favorite restaurant in Chinatown and one that stayed open around the clock, catering to a colorful collection of musicians and clubgoers into the wee hours. Among the nuggets that I gleaned from Jaco that crazy night:
“People say, ‘How can Jaco hang out so much?’ It’s because I work out ever day. This year I can bench press my weight, 170 pounds. I couldn’t lift anything when I was 19, man. But now, just look at these forearms, man. That’s the whole thing that got my bass playing together. Man, I’m in great shape. I can still do the 100-yard dash in ten-flat. I can still dunk a basketball. And I do not overdo drugs or booze! See, my thing is to have fun all the time, that’s all.”
On the Ku Klux Klan in Florida: “You cats in New York don’t know nothin’ about racism. That shit down in Florida is too much, man. I got tired of whipping those goddamn crosses off my mother’s front lawn.”
On his place in the music world: “I’m not a star. I’ll never be a Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or a Ray Charles. I’m just an imitator, man. I’m doing a very bad imitation on the bass of Jerry Jemmott, Bernard Odum, Jimmy Fielder, Jimmy Blanton, Igor Stravinsky, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, James Brown, Charlie Parker…the cats, man. I’m just backing up the cats.”
I don’t know if hanging with Jaco until dawn qualified me to be part of the Hang Dynasty (the name that keyboardist Delmar Brown came up with for the inner circle of Jaco’s up-all-night crew) but it certainly solidified my bond of friendship with him.
By August of 1984, the Guitar Player cover story on Jaco that I did had finally hit the newsstands. It not only gave Jaco a morale boost at a time when colleagues and clubowners were turning their backs on him, it also sent a clear message to his fans all over that world that he was still on top of his game, which he really wasn’t. While he may have looked healthy and proud, beaming from that magazine cover, the truth was his erratic behavior on the streets of New York and in the nightclubs was only getting worse. And nobody knew why. Again, we had never heard the term ‘bipolar.’ Whereas, in the past, Jaco had always been a prankster who loved doing ‘total wipes’ on friends to get a rise out of them, but now it wasn’t funny anymore. Rather, it seemed scary. Like he was being pulled further and further away from shore by some insidious riptide. And no one knew how to save him.
But Jaco used that issue of Guitar Player as ammunition against his naysayers. He went out and bought several copies of the magazine and proudly passed them out like calling cards at the West 4th Street basketball court, as if to say, “See, I’m not crazy. This proves it!” And at one point he even confided to me, “You know, that story saved my life. Everybody was counting me out, but you believed in me. You brought me back from the dead with that article.” But it was really a delusion, and that made me feel complicit. We continued to hang in different settings, then by 1985 things began to get dark for Jaco. Suddenly, it all just started falling apart, to the point where former friends and associates began looking the other way or crossing the street to avoid him altogether, due to the edgy, often provocative and potentially dangerous nature of his public behavior at the time. Jaco was awash in a self-destructive coke-and-booze-addled haze that ended up with him getting evicted from his apartment on Jones Street, near the the West 4th Street basketball courts in the Village. By then, he had taken to sleeping on benches in Washington Square Park, panhandling on the streets, bumming beers off of the b-ballers at the courts and hanging out with the homeless Vietnam vets who congregated in Washington Square Park and whom he considered his extended family.
By the summer of 1986, Jaco had spiraled so far downward that he really needed help. It was his brother Gregory and his estranged wife Ingrid who came to his aid, persuading him to check into the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital on July 16, 1986, where he remained for six weeks. And still he was in denial, “There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m just here for a rest,” he told me during one visit while jokingly referring to the psychiatric institution as the Bellevue Spa & Casino Hotel. “This is just a vacation for me. I’m gettin’ more done in here than I did on the outside. I just came in here to prove to them that I was completely straight. They found no traces of alcohol or drugs in my blood when they brought me in here. And they did all these tests on me. Had me hooked up to something that looked like the mixing board at the Power Station [recording studio]; electrodes and shit all over my face. And they didn’t find nothin’. So I’m on the road to gettin’ outta here.”
I lived only a few blocks from Bellevue at the time, so I visited Jaco almost daily, bringing him sandwiches from the corner deli and also coming by with rolls of quarters at his request (for the pay phone at the end of the hall on his ward, so that he could make calls to record execs like Ted Templeman at Warner Bros., Dr. George Butler at Columbia, Quincy Jones at Qwest, Bruce Ludvall at Blue Note, Ricky Shultz at Zebra, John Snyder at Atlantic and basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who had just announced the formation of his own label, Cranberry Records). Sporting a super-wide-brimmed Florida straw hat, hospital robe and white slippers, Jaco would strut through the halls of the Bellevue psychiatric ward with the swagger of Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Yeah, everyone here, except for me and about three or four other people, is basically nuts,” he’d crow. “Hell, I been saving half the people in here, talkin’ to ’em, makin’ ’em feel like people. Not like these nurses here.”
One evening, I even succeeded in getting Jaco out of Bellevue on a two-hour pass so that we could go up to a small jingle studio on the Upper East Side and mix down some of his 24-track master tapes of his Holiday for Pans project (which had already been rejected by Warner Bros. Records). In that relatively short time, with Jaco commanding the mixing board, he was able to get four demo tracks transferred to cassette (the standard operating medium of the day). He directed me to made a dozen copies of this cassette and gave me a mailing list of record companies to send them to. The general response I had gotten back, however, was the standard industry brushoff: “Thank you for your submission, but we have decided to pass at this time.”
Jaco would eventually be discharged from Bellevue, released into the custody of San Francisco-based drummer Brian Melvin and his mother. It was there that Jaco gigged with Melvin and his band Nightfood, featuring pianist Jon Davis and guitarist Paul Mousavizadeh. They also recorded three albums, including the posthumously-released Nightfood, which featured special guest Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead singing a soulful version of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
In the first week of January, 1987, Jaco and his girlfriend Teresa Nagell headed back to Fort Lauderdale; a final return to his roots. His intention was to get clean and healthy and mount a comeback. As his longtime friend and musical colleague, guitarist Randy Bernsen, related to me: “We got into a regular routine where we would wake up, go for a swim and then play music for hours. He looked great and he was playing great. He sat in with my band several times at the Musicians Exchange, and we even did some duet gigs. It was an inspiring time. His spirit seemed so strong.” They talked about forming a band. Jaco wanted to call it Holy Ghost, a reference to his deeply Catholic roots (he was an altar boy growing up and still clung to his faith). There was even talk with Warner Bros. Records exec Ricky Schultz about Jaco doing a comeback album with this band.
While attending a NARM convention in Miami that January, Schultz met with Jaco to suss out a plan. “I told him, ‘Look man, I think you can have it all again. You’ve still got your shit happening on the bass. Randy says your chops are back. That’s great. But you have to realize that you’ve got bridges to rebuild on the business side. Nobody wants to deal with you. None of the promoters want to hire you. I’d like to work with you but there’s just got to be something good happening here. Just go out with this band, make the dates, blow people away with your playing, and don’t cause any trouble. Let the promoters and club owners see you’ve got your act together again. Show them that you’re not a menace, that you’re not flipped out, and everything will be cool.’ And he seemed to understand what I was telling him.”
But by the following month, Jaco had fallen off the wagon. And by April, he was in jail. As he told me during a collect call from the Broward County Detention Center: “Yeah, man, there I was playing basketball and having a barbecue at Holiday Park when these two fuckin’ rookie cops come along and ask me my name. So I tell ‘em. They feed my name into a computer, it says I have a bunch of outstanding tickets from like four years ago. So they bust me! But I’ll be out in a couple of days. And I’m squeaky clean down here, man. I mean, I’m still gonna be Jaco, but I’m so fuckin’ clean it’s sick. But I gotta get out of here, man. It’s about time for me to get back to work. You dig?”
Jaco did a ten-day stretch that time but only a few days later he was back in jail, this time arrested by the West Palm Beach Police Department and charged with disorderly intoxication. Reports of Jaco’s relapse reached Ricky Schultz, who became increasingly dubious about the prospect of any comeback. As he put it at the time, “I wanna help Jaco. I want to help him save his life. He’s a genius, but he has an uncanny ability to be difficult with people. I mean, throwing tirades and throwing chairs at the Warner Bros. office does not reflect well on him. I don’t know if I want to subject my staff to Jaco yet, but I’m ready to do battle with him, and that’s what you have to do when you take on Jaco.”
Jaco’s erratic public behavior continued until he found himself back in jail on Aug. 4, 1987. This time he was arrested by Fort Lauderdale police and charged with driving a stolen 1971 yellow Lincoln Continental on the running track at Holiday Park…with no license. He was taken to the Pompano Detention Center, where he remained for the next month. On September 10, he was released into the custody of a mysterious German woman named Ute, who had flown to Fort Lauderdale from New York, compelled by a dream she had about Jaco. Upon arriving at the airport, she simply looked up ‘Pastorius’ in the Fort Lauderdale phone book and ended up calling Jaco’s brother Gregory Pastorius. As Ingrid Pastorius recalled, “From what I could tell, she was very much in love with Jaco. She thought he was Jesus; that’s what she told me. But I believe this woman was really trying to help Jaco.”
Unfortunately, the night that Ute had gotten Jaco out of the Pompano Detention Center, they went to a bar, he started drinking, got angry with her and ended up ditching her, wandering off into the night like a wounded animal. The next day, Sept. 11 (how’s that for symbolism?), Jaco met his Waterloo at the hands of a martial arts-trained bouncer at an after hours joint, the Midnight Bottle Club, located in a seedy strip mall in suburban Wilton Manors. He had been previously banned from the club and this fateful night was reportedly acting in a provocative manner with patrons, stealing drinks off tables and confronting a few of them physically. When Jaco was escorted out of the club, he became enraged and tried to kick in the club’s glass door. It was at that point that the bouncer, who had a third degree black belt in karate, unleashed on Jaco with a fury, until the world's greatest bass player was left lying in a pool of blood in the parking lot.
Jaco was admitted to the Broward County General Medical Center in the wee hours of Sept. 12. He remained in a coma for 10 days, finally passing away at 9:25 pm on Sept. 21. On Sept. 24, I few down to Fort Lauderdale to attend Jaco’s funeral. At the Kalis Funeral Home on Dixie Highway, friends and family gathered to say prayers for Jaco. Flowers filled one room. In one corner was a huge, exotic bouquet sent by Joni Mitchell. Propped up next to the closed casket was an arrangement of red carnations in the shape of a bass guitar, bearing the Jaco slogan, “Who Loves Ya, Babe?” It was his way of greeting the people close to him. First he’d shout out your name in a boisterous manner, sometimes from across the room, then follow it up with a mischievous grin and a hearty, swaggering proclamation: “Who loves ya, babe?” Actually, he stole that tagline from Telly Savalas’ character on the ‘70s detective tv show, Kojak. But as Jaco once told me, regarding his bass playing, “I know where I stole every note from.” Guess it was true of taglines as well.
JACO! Who loves ya, babe? (Jaco is buried in Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in North Lauderdale. Jaco Pastorius Park, which opened in 2008 in Oakland Park. Two massive murals (80’ x 24’) and ‘65’ x 24’ ) were created in 2010 by South Florida artist Bill Savarese)