by Jack Zink (1977)
In the electric world of modern music, nobody thought much about the bass player except in terms of low-frequency rolling thunder until the arrival of Jaco Pastorius.
But after two Grammy Award nominations for his debut album, his presence in one of the most respected modern jazz bands in the country and personal appearances throughout the U.S. and Europe this year have not altered the man nearly as much as he’s affected the musical community.
The lifestyle is different, of course. He spent eight months away from the tree-shaded, northwest Fort Lauderdale home last year. This one is shaping up just as hectic.
Pastorius left wife Tracy and the kids (Mary, 6 and John, 3) on the front porch recently to rejoin the band Weather Report for a tour that began last week in Houston. After two months bouncing around the nation, he’ll split to join Joni Mitchell and an entirely different kind of music for a similar tour.
Then, back to Weather Report for a launch against Europe.
“Most people who play jazz will turn down jobs if it doesn’t exactly fit their style. I have never turned down a job for that reason,” Pastorius chuckles.
“Bass players tend to have a real jazz ego. Those who play the string bass don’t want to consider the electric a musical instrument. Young rock musicians, on the other hand, chicken out because they can’t learn the guitar. It’s easier to play the bass – anybody can do a passable job without knowing a thing about music.”
But there is a difference in Pastorius’ case. “I’ve been playing bass guitar for ten years and never apoligized for it.”
The tall, lean performer with the stringy hair has bounced around south Florida much of that time, picking up experience with rock, rhythm and blues, and pop outfits at first. He switched to big band and jazz units as proficiency and reputation developed.
He’d bought his first bass with proceeds from a paper route at 15, “And started giggin’ immediately. After about three months I started experimenting with the music, moving out of the routine.”
Later, Pastorius traded in the beginners bass for one without frets, which he could manipulate in the same way as a string bass.
He says he knew he’d strike paydirt someday-and held that belief through the days when Graves would offer him small sums to write arrangements for his horn section – days when Graves and others couldn’t afford to hire him as a regular musician.
It all came together a year and a half ago when Bobby Columby, manager of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, met Pastorius at the Bachelor’s III. That fateful meeting led to a New York audition for Columbia Records and the resulting solo album, “Jaco” and it’s two Grammy nominations.
In a separate incident Pastorius met Josef Zawinul, of Weather Report outside Miami’s Gusman Philharmonic Hall.
A cassette changed hands, which proved to be the key to Pastorius’ joining Zawinul’s band shortly after.
The aspect he finds most intriguing is the fact he’s maintained his base here, has never sought fame and fortune by making advances on New York or Los Angeles recording centers.
“It all happened here. In a sense, they came to me. I’ve never waited for anything. It’s always been a case of people coming to hear me, then hiring me. My theory is this: It doesn’t matter if you are the biggest tree in the forest; nobody’s going to see you with so many other trees in the way.”
But when the big opportunity did come, Pastorius did not leap into a giant contract with Columbia Records.
“I could have signed a big contract, gotten a fat advance and then have to do everything I was told. But I didn’t. I figure you do the work, then you get paid.”
In that fashion, he has been able to work on his own terms, which he says helped the album “Jaco” get its two Grammy nominations. All its songs are his own and most of the musicians are from South Florida.
Columbia, Pastorius says, is eager for a followup album but he’s not interested at the moment. With the release of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” just a few weeks ago he feels that’s exposure enough for the time being.
Early reviews have been good. And “Jaco” continues to sell a year after its release.
“It’s strange that people are getting into it. I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. A year ago I’d never been on a record now I’ve got those Grammy nominations and I’m playing with what I think is the best modern band there is.”