A supremely gifted musician, Jaco Pastorius burst out on the music scene in the 1970s. His melodic acumen, superior technical skills and boundless imagination made him one of the most prominent bass players in modern jazz. Renowned for his showmanship, he was most comfortable taking on the leading role, although he could very well fill the shoes of the trusted sideman - which he did for Paul Bley, Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. His promising career was unfortunately cut short by mental health problems.
Like father, like son
John Francis Pastorius was born in 1951, in Norristown, Pennsylvania. His family relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he was 7. His father, Jack, a drummer and a singer, worked in local jazz clubs, sometimes taking his young son along with him. Pastorius Sr. soon became a role model for Jaco - incidentally, the young man's nickname was derived from that of Jocko Conlan, a famous Major League Baseball umpire.
Starting out on drums, the budding musician was 13 when he put together his first band, The Sonics. At 15, he was playing with Las Olas Brass, a local outfit specializing in pop and R&B covers. Along the way, he switched to the bass guitar, an instrument which he came to master very rapidly.
At the end of the 1960s and early in the 1970s, Pastorius honed his skills with local outfits The Uptown Funk All-Stars and Woodchuck, to name but two. In 1972, the musician joined Wayne Cochran's C.C. Riders for a 10-month stint. His time was well-spent: not only did get to play live on a daily basis, but Pastorius also spent a lot of time taking in the teachings of his mentor, Charlie Brent. The Riders' guitarist and musical director taught the gifted young man a thing or two about composing and arranging.
Ready for take-off
Back in Florida, Jaco landed a teaching job at the University of Miami. Concurrently, he gigged with the Bachelors III Club in-house band, accompanying pop groups and singers performing in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The bassist also found the time to take on a more challenging engagement, with bebop saxophonist Ira Sullivan's quartet.
During the winter of 1973, Pastorius met with Montréal-born pianist Paul Bley, who was spending some time down in Florida. The two musicians made the most of their encounter: along with guitarist Pat Metheny and drummer Bruce Ditmas, they played a string of free improv concerts.
Sensing a very special chemistry had been at play since their first jam, Bley invited his collaborators to enter the studio and record an album the following year. Jaco rejoined with Metheny shortly after, helping the guitarist with his first album, Bright Size Life.
In the fall of 1975, Pastorius inked a deal with Epic thanks to Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby. The two men had met on the stage of the Bachelors III Club. Most impressed with the bass player, Colomby took over production duties for an eponymous solo album which came out in 1976. The cast of top notch musicians assembled for the recording sessions included the likes of Herbie Hancock, Lenny White and David Sanborn.
In 1976, Pastorius was approached by Weather Report's Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter to play on Cannon Ball, a track from their Black Market album. He was hired after passing this audition of sorts successfully. With Jaco on board, the popular jazz fusion combo went on to achieve an event greater deal of success. They opened the second edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1981.
Pastorius came back to the Festival in 1982, this time under his own name. He had recently left his Weathermen friends to focus on a solo career. Since 1980, he had already been working with his own outfit, Word of Mouth. The big band recorded an ambitious eponymous album in 1981, bolstered by the contribution of saxophonist Wayne Shorter and harmonica player Toots Thielemans. The live set Invitation was released in 1983. That year and the next, Pastorius also toured with guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Brian Melvin.
A tragic ending to the story
Around that time, overwhelmed by psychological problems, the musician became incapable of functioning normally. The symptoms had been showing, but never addressed properly. When his drugs and alcohol intake became problematic, Jaco's health deteriorated.
With some help, he managed to get back on top of things for a while. He started playing again and, in 1986, recorded a concert which would appear posthumously on record under the title Curtain Call.
Unfortunately, Pastorius would fall prey to his demons again. On September 21, 1987, he died from the injuries sustained in a street confrontation which occurred outside a Fort Lauderdale nightclub. That day, the jazz world lost one of his most blazing meteors.