The Triumphant and Tragic Story of Jaco Pastorius, World's Greatest Bassist

The Triumphant and Tragic Story of Jaco Pastorius, World's Greatest BassistEXPAND
Photo by Brian Risner

A transcript of the first meeting between Joe Zawinul, keyboardist/leader of the jazz fusion group Weather Report, and a young player.

Young Man: My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.

Zawinul: Get the fuck out of here!

Having worked with Miles Davis, Zawinul was no stranger to ego and hubris, but this skinny kid from south Florida who pronounced his name “Jocko” sure had a set of balls on him.

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However, through a brief — but startlingly bright — period from the mid-‘70s to the early ‘80s, plenty of people sure thought (and still do) that Jaco Pastorius was and is the World’s Greatest Bass Player.

The “Jimi Hendrix of the electric bass” fused jazz and rock like none before him and brought a vibrant showmanship to a musical genre not exactly known for it.

Unfortunately, in 1987, the 35-year-old Pastorius — homeless and living in a park — died from the results of a vicious, barehanded beating by a nightclub manager that put him in a coma.

Pastorius's years of intense drug and alcohol abuse, along with his own diagnosed severe bipolar and manic-depressive issues, undoubtedly contributed to his sad circumstances at the time.

All of that and more about the life and music of Jaco Pastorius is covered in the fine documentary, Jaco. The film premiered this year at the SXSW Film Festival to acclaim, and will be released on DVD with bonus material this coming Friday. The sound track, featuring both music across Jaco's career as well as recent twists on his work, comes out the same day. 

The film’s main producer is Robert Trujillo, a fellow bass thumper whose current day gig is playing with a little quartet called Metallica. A superfan who saw Pastorius in concert four times, Trujillo says the final cut “exceeds” what he thought he could do for Jaco’s life and legacy.

“He had a very unique sound, playing the fretless bass, and it has more of a voice," Trujillo offers. "It sings more. He also had a distinct growl — he could make the bass sound angry and funky and aggressive."

“He also taught me that the bass player does not need to be in the back hiding behind the drummer," the Metallica bassist adds. "He made players like me know it was okay to do more with the instrument and let loose.”

Trujillo adds that Jaco was a huge influence on his own playing, particularly with one of his former bands, Infectious Grooves (itself an offshoot of Suicidal Tendencies). The documentary features reminiscing by family members, collaborators, journalists and a bevy of bassist admirers including Weather Report bandmate Wayne Shorter, Sting, Geddy Lee of Rush, Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers), Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke (Return to Forever) and more.

There are also rare photos, concert footage from throughout his career, and a lot of color home movies from the Pastorius family of Jaco as a child and adult. Director Paul Marchand explains how those came into the production.

“Jaco's brother, Gregory, sent us a rusty metal tackle box full of 8mm reels," he says. "We transferred them in Hollywood and found hours upon hours of artfully shot film that spanned 30 years."

Marchand adds that he also received audiotapes from Jaco's father's answering machine that contained messages Jaco had left for his father, including intimate conversations.

“We were looking to create an honest portrait of a very complex artist in this film,” he continues. “Family was such a supremely motivating factor in Jaco's life that there was simply no way to create that portrait without the cooperation of his family.”

There’s a scene in the film where Trujillo is onstage with Metallica in Yankee Stadium and is playing Jaco’s fabled (and thought lost) “Bass of Doom.”

“The bass was there and the stars were aligned and it made sense. It was a celebration of [Jaco] to play that and show that we were inspired by him,” Trujillo says. “And for that song, it’s also a tip of the hat to another great bassist, Cliff Burton.”

The discography of Pastorius is fairly brief: a handful of Weather Report albums, two influential solo efforts (Jaco Pastorius and Word of Mouth), guest appearances with Joni Mitchell and Pat Metheny (who, Marchard notes, was the one interview he wanted but couldn’t get), and live albums of various qualities.

“Jaco didn’t really want people to try and emulate note for note what he was doing,” Trujillo offers. “He wanted people to embrace his attitude, his edge, his feeling that all music is cool and to be creative.”

The last couple of years of Pastorius’s life are, sadly, one of the worst "musician craters" story lines ever. Alternately enthralling and frustrating friends, family, bandmates and concert promoters, he blazed a trail of erratic and self-destructive behavior. In the film, Flea recounts how Anthony Kiedis came across a drunken, disheveled Jaco in New York’s Washington Square Park, where the bassist lived, hung out and played basketball. Pastorius was playing “Louie, Louie” on the concrete for spare change.

Journalist/musician Bob Milkowski’s definitive and compelling biography, Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Backbeat Books), goes into even further sad detail with anecdotes. But it goes a long way in explaining how – no matter how bizarre and frustrating his behavior — Jaco’s charm would make everything fine…until the next incident.

However, Marchand says viewers should not view Jaco’s story as another musician-with-substance-abuse story arc.

“Jaco really wasn't done in by drugs and alcohol," the director says. "He was murdered. It's odd how quick we all are to connect the mental illness he suffered from with his violent death."

“Jaco's psychiatrist described his natural state as ‘hypomanic.’ Since birth, Jaco lived with an excess of energy and creativity that had him ‘just below mania’ at all times," continues Marchand. "He was in a state of perpetual motion that enabled him until it started to veer off course when the lack of sleep and alcohol came into the picture later in his life. It's quite clear that Jaco had a mental illness, and unfortunately it was even less understood in the ‘80s than it is now.”

All in all, Trujillo says that he hopes Jaco turns people on to not only the subject’s music but older music in general. Sort of like Jaco did for him during a brief encounter the two had in hotel room at a Hollywood guitar show in 1985.

“I hear someone crank up an amp all the way and it was loud and annoying, actually rattling the windows. I went into the room, and there was Jaco sitting there playing bass, turned up to 11,” he recalls. So I sat down about ten feet away — we didn’t exchange any words — and he started to play beautifully.”

Trujillo says the room began to fill, though Jaco didn't smile or say a word and in fact was sort of staring down the assembled. The impromptu concert came to an abrupt end with the entrance of Jaco’s then-girlfriend.

“She came into the room with two cans of beer in her pocket and said, ‘Jaco, it’s time to go.' So he got up and left and didn’t say a word!” he laughs. “It was very cool. And very powerful.”

As for Marchand, his goal is simple. “I really hope people watch the film and it helps them rediscover the music,” he sums up. “As Jaco said, ‘it's our music; none of it is mine.’"

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