JACO PASTORIUS: THE FLORIDA FLASH
By Neil Tesser, JANUARY 27, 1977 (Interview with Jaco in Downbeat Magazine)
"Theres a real rhythm in Florida," Jaco Pastorius says in a voice saturated in matter-of-fact. "Because of the ocean. Theres something about the Caribbean Ocean, its why all that music from down there sounds like that. I cant explain it, but I know what it is." He pauses to unclasp his hands, like gangly sandcrabs, and drop his lanky arms to the sides of his lanky body. "I can feel it when Im there."
The concept of Florida is not a constant among Americans. Some people think of Miami Beach, others warm to the less hectic conjuration of Ft. Lauderdale or sleepy St. Petersburg; for some it is the gateway to the new frontier represented by Cape Canaveral, for others the far older frontier that is the Everglades. Still others revel in the broad paradox of a mecca for retirees on the site of Ponce de Leons Fountain of Youth, or the full-circle irony of a land discovered by Spaniards being gradually inundated by the Spanish- speaking. But no one thinks of Florida as a source of American music. No one thinks of it for jazz. "The water in the Caribbean is much different from other oceans," Jaco says. "Its a little bit calmer down there; we dont have waves in Florida, all that much. Unless theres a hurricane. But when a hurricane comes, look out, its more ferocious there than anywhere else. And a lot of music from down there is like that, the pulse is smooth even if the rhythms are angular, and the pulse will take you before you know it. All of a sudden, youre swept away."
The corresponding hurricane of music that has been
unleashed by Florida on a hardly expectant world goes by the unlikely name of Jaco
Pastorius, the 25-year-old, man-child of the Caribbean who popped up in early 1976 on a
startling debut album of his own design, simultaneously replaced Alphonso Johnson in the
fusion music showcase Weather Report whose music he had never listened to before
joining the band and at once began to redefine the conception and connotations of
the electric bass guitar. Jacos playing is nothing less than revolutionary. In fact,
he has almost single-handedly opened a heretofore unimagined world of resources for the
instrument, forging in ultrasuede sound that at once encompasses the tonal characteristics
and phrasing idiosyncrasies pf amplified guitar and bass fiddle. In his extraordinary
control and imaginative usage of the electric bass harmonics alone, he has sketched
a stylistic device of sizable potential.
But more than that, he has burst upon the scene with a wholly
mature and wildly successful compositional ability that draws in varying
doses upon jazz, modern rhythm and blues, the classics and the music of the by now
familiar Caribbean, from the reggae riffs of Kingston Town to the steel drum bands of
Trinidad. "I consider myself as much a writer as a bass player," says Jaco, who
avoids boasting but never slights what he perceives as his real assets. Ive always
done both. The people at Epic (which released his first album, Jaco Pastorius)
probably got a little more than they bargained for when they signed me. They knew they had
some guy who could play a lot of bass, but they didnt know they had a writer
Neither did his father, a drummer and singer in Norristown, Penn., when John Francis Pastorius III was born on Dec. l, 1951. "He didnt want anyone calling me Jack, like everyone else named John, so he started calling me Jaco. And when we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, in 1958, thats how it got the spelling I use (Jaco substitutes a t for the d in Lauderdale), because thats how the guys from Cuba and Jamaica would spell it." His father provided the influence and the example, but there were never any lessons. Jaco developed his unique approaches to both performing and composing completely on his own, based on what he heard. And what he heard consisted mainly of the handful of jazz musicians Ira Sullivan was one of them in the area, as well as the bands and musical shows that toured the state and the Afro-Cuban rhythms that filtered up from the relatively nearby Islands. But Jaco owned few records and listened to them infrequently, opting most often for the flesh-and-blood performance.
"Ive just always had big ears," he shrugs to explain his self-taught talents. "I never had any money, so I had to work, and I caught on quick." He actually caught on to a multitude of instruments before he eventually settled on the bass guitar. He also worked out on drums, piano, saxophone and guitar, and eventually started playing piano or bass behind many of the concert headliners that came through Florida: Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, the Temptations, the Supremes, Nancy Wilson, and Charo, of all people, among others. "I was playing like five instruments, and I was pretty good on all of them, but I wasnt realIy good on any of them. I mean, theres no way you can play that many instruments at a time. I had to concentrate on just one. "Thats not to say I was wasting time," he quickly continues. "I mean, Im glad I fooled around with all of them, like for writing and stuff; I can write as fast as I can think for all those instruments. Im not hung up on different keys or anything like that," a situation that facilitated his early big band charts for the University of Miami stage band and Ira Sullivans Bakers Dozen. The precocious youngster was still in his teens.
"But I finally realized that in order to do something really
well, Id have to settle on one insirument." The impetus for that decision was
the steady persistence of his daughter Mary whose birth was imminent. Just 18, Jaco
was already married, his wife Tracy was pregnant with the first of their two children, and
he was working at a car wash, which he frankly admits "wasnt much fun. We
needed money, and so I had to ask myself, OK, what do you really want to play?
and I decided to work on the bass. "The truth is that I couldnt physically play
the bass at least, not like I play now until was 18 anyway. I had been
injured playing football when I was 13, and my right arm had never healed correctly. It
was sort of dead." As a result, Jaco had to give up his first dream to follow
in his fathers steps as a drummer. "Finally, when I was 17, I figured I had to
go see the doctor. It took about a year after the operation before I was strong enough to
really pIay the bass. I could get by on it before then I could play Soul
Man and Funky Broadway, play reggae lines and walk a jazz line in
four/four but I couldnt solo. I couldnt have played Donna Lee,"
he says, alluding to the stunning and audacious version of the Charlie Parker tune that
opens his album. "So it was really the influence of my family that got me to play. I
had to be pragmatic about it, and they inspired me to actually get down to doing things.
Thats why I call my music Family Music. Theres so much more involved than just
playing the notes. I mean, a chimpanzee could learn to do what I do physically. But
it goes way beyond that. When you play, you play life. And my family is the main influence
on my life. Theyre the main influence on my music."
Jaco relates a story to underscore the importance of his wife and children. "When my daughter was born, I had about $700 saved up to pay for all the hospital bills and all. This was about a month before she was born. And I went out and spent it on an amplifier instead. I needed it; we needed it. Playing was my life, and if I didnt have a good amp, I realized no one was going to hear me. And by the time she was born, I had already earned about $500 back, working with that amp. It was a decision forced on me by the realities of the situation. "And something happened to me when my daughter was born. I stopped listening to records, reading Down Beat, things like that, because I didnt have the time anymore. That wasnt bad thats why my sound is different. But there was something else. A new personality being born made me see that it was time for my musical personality to be born; there was no need for me to listen to records. I knew music, I had the makings of a musician; now I had to become one. My daughter made me see all this, because she was depending on me. I wasnt going to let her down." The sound that Jaco was developing is indeed "different." In some respects, it is even unique, all the more so since the bass guitar is not an instrument that easily lends itself to a great range of individual expression. At least it didnt before Jaco, with a few notable exceptions such as Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson, and especially Steve Swallow, whose style is the closest thing to an antecedent that one could find for Jacos playing.
To begin with, Jaco conceptualizes the instrument as a guitar
which, of course, it essentially is. But whereas others have treated the instrument
specifically as an electric guitar, Jaco somehow urges the rounded tone and
fluidity more commonly associated with the amplified acoustic guitar, the hollow-body
instrument Favored in mainstream jazz. Very smooth, deeply resonant, Jacos tone is a
confluence of three important instruments: his left and right hands, and the Fender
fretless electric bass.
"It sings," says Jaco in explaining the preference for the fretless instrument. "Ive been playing it for about six years. Its all in the hands; in order to get that sound, you have to know exactly where to touch the strings, exactly how much pressure to apply. You have to learn to feel it. And then it just sings." Jacos sound has come to embody a sometimes bewildering array of chord clusters, nearly tangible overtone qualities, swift improvisatory lines that retain a surprising tonal depth and a penchant for using the instruments harmonics in both melodic and percussive senses. Quite simply, never has so catholic an imagination been applied to the bass guitar. Still, there is one added dimension to Jacos musical persona, as it is conveyed through the bass guitar: Its uncanny ability to sound, in its sonorous tonality and innovative phrasing, as much like an acoustic bass fiddle as it does a guitar. The nature of the instrument is not always clear to even the most experienced listeners.
When Weather Reports Joe Zawinul first heard a tape of
"Continuum", which appears on Jacos album, he drank in the velvety
richness of Jacos bass lead, then turned to the young musician and asked him if he
also played the bass guitar. Which, of course, was what Joe had been listening to. Jaco
himself can present the clearest analysis of his technique: "I felt that I had never
heard anyone clearly outline a tune on the bass. Maybe someone has done it before, I dont
know because I dont listen to that many records, but I had never heard it before. I
had never heard someone take a tune like Donna Lee, and play it on the bass
without a piano player so that you always could hear the changes as well as the melody. Its
a question of learning to reflect the original chord in just the line. Players like Wayne
Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Ira Sullivan can do that. I wanted to be able to
do it, too." Choosing to display this on his record with a dazzlingly fresh version
was no accident. Bebop was his self-imposed theory class. "The first jazz record I
heard was a Max Roach quarter date," he says "with Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley.
I dont even know who the bassist was. The record was old, and shot, and I couldnt
hear the bass player at all, The only thing I could hear was these lines. So I just worked
them all out on the bass, without thinking anything of it. And at 15, I already knew how
to play most of Birds tunes, I couldnt play them very fast, because of my arm,
but I studied them, and I knew how they worked. Just the heads. I didnt mess with
the solos, man; I figured that was personal." Jaco left the formal educational
process after one semester at the University of Miami. He was never enrolled there: he
taught bass in the music school. His dissatisfaction with high school "I
shouldve quit when I was 10; the schools in Florida didnt have much to
offer" was reflected in his decision not to go to college. Although he had
excelled in art as well as music during his high school years, Jaco never had a second
thought about which medium to pursue.
"I could draw real well, but its just not spontaneous.
You gotta buy material, you gotta have all this stuff....But music; I mean, the musicians
are singers. They can go to the beach, they dont need to take anything with them,
they can go swimming and be making music. Thats where its at. Or like Hubert
Laws, who played piccolo on my album. That thing is eight inches long, he can stick it in
his back pocket, and yet he can make all that music from it. Thats what I like about
music. Its always there." It was at about this time that Jaco, who had been
exposed to the eclectic blend of Caribbean music that infused Florida during his entire
lifetime, began to explore that heritage in a more first-hand manner. He became a show
musician on the tourist cruise ships that would set off from the southern tip of Florida
for a week at a time. "These were hip little jaunts," he recalls, "not
musically the music we had to play was even below the normal show band thing
but we would sail all around. Wed go to Mexico for a couple of days, or to Jamaica,
the Bahamas, Haiti. Wed go out for a week, get back on a Saturday about noon, and
then leave again a few hours later. "So when we were docked, Id just hang out,
hit the streets. I got close to some guys in the Wailers. When I got back to Florida, and
I left the tours, I played country & western music. Or soul. Or reggae that got up
onto the mainland. You see, coming up in Florida, there was nobody really to hang out
with. I mean, I had friends who were into music; but there was no one with a national
reputation to hang out around. There werent even that many of my friends that I
could share this stuff with. There werent any cliques of young musicians, like youd
find in New York for instance. And theyre all talking so much, feeding off each
other...for me, that wouldnt have been good. The diversity that Ive developed
came from me just being in Florida, just growing up and liking whatever I heard. No one
convinced me if something was cool, or not cool. I was into the Beatles, the Stones, the
Wailers, Sam and Dave, along with Max Roach."
Jacos abilities, as well as his emergence onto the national
scene, remained one of Floridas best-kept secrets for several years. He made brief
and generally unnoticed inroads: during his time at the University of Miami, he had met
Chicago guitarist Ross Traut, then enrolled there, and Traut introduced Jaco to Paul Bley,
with whom played a few dates. Also at the University, Jaco came into contact with the
guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom he would occasionally play in Pats home town of
Boston, and on whose album for ECM he appeared. During this time, Jaco played frequently
with reedman-trumpet legend Ira Sullivan, and kept body and soul together by playing in
the house band at Ft. Lauderdales Bachelors III club. In the middle of 1975, Blood,
Sweat and Tears were booked into the club for a short engagement, and Jaco met Bobby
Colomby, the BSRT drummer, guiding light, and soon-to-be producer of Jacos as yet
unanticipated album. "My wife was working at the club at the time," says Jaco,
"and she, along with all the help, the maitre ds, the light men, everyone at
the club who knew me, had been telling Colomby about me. His reaction, predictably, was
Oh, big deal. He had met my wife, and he knew that she was married to this guy
everyone was talking about. Then one night, I dropped in just to see my wife I didnt
even know that BS&T were working there and I saw Colomby, and we started to
talk. We talked about an hour and a half, about all kinds of things, and then my wife came
by and kissed me. Colomby said, youre Jaco I hadnt even
introduced myself. And he asked me if Id like a record date. "I figured he was
just talking I mean, he hadnt even heard me play, we had just talked
but then, in about a week, he called me up, and within two months I was in New York. I
went in with Bobby to see the big brass at Epic, just me and my bass, and I played solo
for them. And they said, OK. You got it." While at work on the material
for his own album, a rousing success that nonetheless only skims the surface of Jacos
diverse approach to modern music, he again came across for Zawinul, who was at work on the
new Weather Report album (Black Market). Zawinul was in the midst of recording
"Cannonball," his tribute to the late Julian Adderley who, like Jaco, was an
emigrant from Florida. "Joe said he wanted that Florida sound," says Jaco.
"So I recorded that tune, and one other, strictly as a sideman. Alphonso Johnson had
already left the band, and even though I didnt realize it, Joe was auditioning bass
players." They hit it off and, on April l, 1976, Jaco joined Weather Report.
Since then, he has consistently been a focal point of the bands performances, no easy matter in a group boasting Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. His album, which enlisted the talents of Herbie Hancock, Don Alias, Michael Gibbs, Shorter, and Hubert Laws, almost immediately became an underground sensation and an above-ground debut of unusual success. At work on a second album, as well as touring with Weather Report, Jacos major problem at this point is time time to spend with his family at his quiet home in Ft. Lauderdale. There he listens to no music, does little if any playing, and keeps in touch with his personal founts of youth and inspiration: his wife, his children, and the mysterious rhythms of the Caribbean.