Jaco: Man and Myth
This is an excerpt from the book: Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, "The World's Greatest Bass Player - published by Miller Freeman Books, June 1995.
"My name is John Francis Pastorius III and I'm the greatest bass player in the world."
The life and music of Jaco Pastorius are legendary. A potent force in modern American music, he has been hailed as a genius and dismissed as a madman. Of course, there is a fine line between artistry and autism, as the eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung once theorized - and in Jaco's case, the tightrope he walked was tenuous at best.
Like his heroes Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesus Christ, Jaco didn't make it to 40. Yet, in the relatively short time he spent on the planet, he totally revolutionized his instrument and left behind an incredibly rich body of work that will stand the test of time. In jazz schools and music conservatories all over the world, his name is spoken by students in the same reverential tones reserved for such gods as Bird and Mozart. As one aspiring bassist put it, "Jaco opened the door and we walked through."
In New York, they still talk about his legendary gigs, his marathon hangs, his outrageous antics onstage and off. Stop in some night at the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Sweet Basil, the Lone Star - all showcase clubs where Jaco headlined in his heyday. Or drop in at any of the marginal joints he played during his dark years. Talk to the clubowner, the doorman, a bartender, or any of the regulars on the scene. Talk to musicians or their managers or the employees in record stores around town. Talk to jazz critics from the daily papers or correspondents from Down Beat, Musician, or Billboard. Talk to the homeless cats panhandling outside the clubs or hanging on the West Fourth Street basketball courts. Everybody, it seems, has a tale to tell. It's all become part of the ever-growing body of folklore that fuels the Jaco myth and goes hand-in-hand with his musical legacy.
Jaco was to the electric bass what Paul Bunyan was to the lumber industry, what Muhammed Ali was to boxing. Like Babe Ruth and Jimi Hendrix, like Charlie Parker and John Belushi, he was a larger-than-life figure who lived to excess and was worshipped by multitudes. Throughout the international music community, those two syllables - Jaco - still resound with authority, a testament to his musical genius and the power of his charisma.
The rise and fall of Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Bass Player," is not just a tragic tale of genius gone awry. It is also an indictment of a callous, uncaring industry that often turns its back on those who helped to build it. It is an indictment of a musicians' union that buries its head in the sand, ignoring its own. And it is an indictment of a political system that offers no safety net of health care for those who need it most.
Jaco rode fame like a skyrocket to oblivion. His rise to the top with Weather Report, the premier fusion band of the '70s, was followed by a tragic fall from grace in the mid-'80s that left him spiritually broken, physically beaten, homeless, penniless, and hopelessly out of touch with reality. In the end, his bizarre behavior on the streets of Greenwich Village and Fort Lauderdale was a cry for help, an expression of his inner torment. He was raging out of control, and there was no support system, no network of agencies that could counsel him or offer aid. Even his own family and friends were powerless to change Jaco's perception of his condition or the world around him.
"He had people in awe of him trying to help," said Bobby Colomby, the drummer and A&R man who "discovered" Jaco and produced his stunning self-titled debut album in 1976. "But something in his psyche, something inside of him, wouldn't let him be happy. This man was suffering from a mental illness, and his refusal to be helped was just another manifestation of that illness. We do not have a system in this country that deals with this very well. Unfortunately, in our society, if a guy sneezes or coughs, he's got a cold and we all feel bad for him. We relate to it. If a guy has a tumor, we sympathize. But if a guy has a mental illness, he's a `nut case.' We don't respond well to that. We don't fully understand that it's an illness. And that leads to tragic results."
In the end, "The World's Greatest Bass Player" began to express a macabre death wish. He'd drink himself into a stupor and fall asleep on the railroad tracks. He'd walk into a bar and pick a fight with the largest, meanest-looking dude in the joint, and then stand at attention with his arms at his side and let the guy wail on him. It was as if he were searching for his own executioner. And eventually he found him in the person of a 25-year-old nightclub bouncer trained in the martial arts, a brute who had no idea who Jaco was, what he had created in his lifetime, or what his music meant to thousands of fans all over the world.
By the summer of 1986, Jaco had burned nearly all of his bridges. Plagued by wild mood swings and the emotional difficulties brought on by manic depression, a condition only exacerbated by alcohol, he drove fellow musicians from his inner circle. They simply found it too exhausting and heartbreaking to hang with him. Word of Jaco's erratic and unpredictable behavior on the streets reached the industry's movers and shakers, who came to regard him as poison. And nothing, it seemed, could slow Jaco's downward spiral.
As drummer Peter Erskine so harshly but accurately put it, "It's tough when a guy sets out to join the ranks of the jazz legends who completely fucked up their lives."
Once a giant in the industry and the talk of the jazz world, Jaco had been reduced to persona non grata, a bum panhandling on the streets of New York City for beer money. Banned from most of the nightclubs around town - just as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell had been in the twilight of their careers - he often pawned his bass. His closest companions were the hustlers and street types who congregated at the West Fourth Street basketball courts and in Washington Square Park. He seemed to have what Graham Greene once called a "Cophetua complex": an emotional need for low-class people.
For every old friend who offered Jaco a helping hand to lift him out of his doldrums, there was one who turned his back on him. Some would sidestep him when they spied him disheveled and red-eyed, begging for money on the street. Others would simply avoid eye contact in the cold-blooded manner that has become second nature to New Yorkers. As one colleague admitted, "It was just too painful to have to stare that shit in the face. And besides, I'd done my share of baby-sitting."
What caused this deterioration? How could a brilliant artist, a loving father, a loyal friend, a spiritual person, turn into such a deranged denizen of the streets? The long answer is as complex as the human brain itself. The short answer is simple: drugs, alcohol, and fast living - the same catalysts that hastened the deaths of such other geniuses as Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, and Billie Holiday.
But dig beneath the surface, get beyond the stereotypes, and you'll discover a myriad of reasons for Jaco's downfall: unresolved anger about his parents' early breakup, guilt about his own failed marriages, and the sadness of being estranged from his children - all coupled with an innate need to pay penance for those "sins".
He also felt the constant pressure of maintaining his self-declared status as "The World's Greatest Bassist" and had a deepseated fear of running out of new ideas. He harbored a lot of inner rage toward the hordes of "Jaco clones" who latched onto his technique, copped his personal voice, and got gigs at a time when recordcompany executives and clubowners were turning their backs on him. (But as Jaco would say, with a tone of righteous indignation, "I know what I invented.") He had problems with alcohol and cocaine, but the heaviest cross to bear was his illness, a manic-depressive condition coupled with a chemical imbalance in his brain that caused him to involuntarily flare up and lose control.
It was probably inevitable that Jaco would meet a violent end. Those close to him had seen the signs for years. They had witnessed his gradual decline from the glory days with Weather Report to a sad state of homelessness on the streets of New York. They had seen him panhandling, sleeping on park benches, stalking around the streets of Greenwich Village dazed and confused, muttering incoherently and confronting pedestrians with bizarre, provocative behavior.
Those who didn't witness it firsthand heard all the unsettling gossip through the grapevine. Every week there was some new horror story, some tale of Jaco showing up drunk for a gig with warpaint on his face or mud splattered across his body, falling off a balcony in Italy, riding naked through Tokyo on a motorcycle, hurling his bass into the sea, trashing a stage, getting his teeth knocked out in some ugly barroom brawl. And the whispering spread like wildfire from one musical community to the next, helping to fuel the Jaco myth.
Many fans outside of New York were naively unaware of Jaco's painful final years. And when the sad details finally became known, they could only shake their heads in disbelief and wonder: "How could this terrible thing have happened to someone so gifted, so famous?"
How indeed. In 1978, at the age of 27, Jaco was sitting on top of the world, riding the crest of his international notoriety. As Peter Erskine put it, "At one point, he was like the biggest thing in the music business, like the Michael Jackson of jazz or something. He made such an incredible impression. For a creative instrumental musician to have that kind of impact is really unheard of. Here was someone who had what seemed to be the most unbelievable potential. He really had the world by the tail."
With his large hands, long fingers, and double-jointed thumbs, Jaco seemed to be born to play the bass guitar. In his prime, he had the speed and dexterity to create solos that matched the explosive genius of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. His revolutionary approach to the instrument - playing melodies, chords, harmonics, and percussive effects all at once - was wholly unprecedented. And his theatrical stage presence - doing flips off his amplifier, throwing his bass up in the air and then whipping it savagely with his strap - was a direct nod to the rock performance ethic.
For me and for thousands of other fans around the world, Jaco was a beacon, an educator, a great unifier who single-handedly bridged the gaps between R&B, rock, jazz, classical, and Caribbean music. He was the personification of fusion music, turning on rock crowds to new music by providing the links between Bird's blazing bebop ("Donna Lee"), Duke Ellington's classic jazz elegance ("Sophisticated Lady"), John Coltrane's explorations ("Giant Steps"), and Johann Sebastian Bach's contrapuntal brilliance ("Chromatic Fantasy"), while blending in Jimi Hendrix's cathartic feedback squalls ("Purple Haze," "Third Stone from the Sun"), James Brown's infectious good-foot grooves ("The Chicken"), Bob Marley's reggae lilt ("I Shot the Sheriff"), and the Beatles' harmonically sophisticated pop ("Blackbird," "Dear Prudence").
No one before Jaco had transcended so many idioms. No one had so expertly woven together the essence of those disparate worlds into such a seamless package. And he presented it with a demeanor that was decidedly punk - an unprecedented stance in the jazz world. He even named one of his songs "Punk Jazz," an apt description of his music. As he told Damon Roerich in a 1980 Musician interview: "I'm a punk from Florida, a street kid. In the streets where I come from, a punk is someone who's a wiseguy. And I'm sort of a wiseguy, inasmuch as I don't give a shit!"
In that interview, Jaco went on to say: "Punk is not a bad word. It's sort of someone you respect because he's got enough balls to stick up for himself. It has nothing to do with the punk music movement that's coming out of England now, where people are sticking needles through their noses. I've been calling my music Punk Jazz for ten years, since long before this English music came along." (Ironically, fellow bass innovator Stanley Clarke once referred to Jaco as the "Sid Vicious of jazz," a reference to the doomed bassist of the Sex Pistols, the band that spearheaded the punk movement in the U.K.)
As Jaco rocketed into the consciousness of the international music community, he quickly attained a larger-than-life status. Stories of him walking up to the likes of Ron Carter and Rufus Reid and introducing himself as "The World's Greatest Bass Player" are the stuff that legends are made of. In a relatively short period of time, Jaco had gone from complete obscurity as a self-described Florida beach bum to worldwide reknown, winning critics' polls in Italy, Germany, France, Japan, and the United States. Full of a gunslinger's swagger, he was always quick to point out that "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up."
And he could ....
The brash, cocky manner in which he strutted around onstage, the way his energetic presence filled a room, the way he played his instrument with such force and invention - all of this fed the Jaco myth. As one fan said, "I always thought of Jaco as being invincible, as someone who could bounce back from anything. That's why, when I heard he was in a coma, I just figured he would pull out of it and go back to being Jaco again."
When word of Jaco's demise came down, those in the know back in New York sighed a deep sigh for the inevitable. Perhaps guitarist Hiram Bullock expressed it for everyone when he said, "I'm shocked, but I'm not surprised."
"The World's Greatest Bass Player" slipped off to that big jam session in the sky on September 21, 1987 - ten weeks short of his 36th birthday. John Francis Pastorius III is gone, but his spirit prevails. It's in the music. Just listen.