The Florida Flash

by Neil Tesser (Downbeat; 1/27/77)

“There’s a real rhythm in Florida,” Jaco Pastorius says in a voice saturated in matter-of-fact. “Because of the ocean. There’s something about the Caribbean Ocean, it’s why all that music from down there sounds like that. I can’t 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 I’m 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 Leon’s 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. “It’s a little bit calmer down there; we don’t have waves in South Florida, all that much. Unless there’s a hurricane. But when a hurricane comes, look out, it’s 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, you’re 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.

Jaco’s 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 of 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. I’ve 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 didn’t know they had a writer as well.”

Neither did his father, a drummer and singer in Norristown, Penn., when John Francis Pastorius III was born on Dec. l, 1951. “He didn’t 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, that’s how it got the spelling I use (Jaco substitutes a t for the d in Lauderdale), because that’s 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. “I’ve 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 wasn’t realIy good on any of them. I mean, there’s no way you can play that many instruments at a time. I had to concentrate on just one. “That’s not to say I was wasting time,” he quickly continues. “I mean, I’m 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. I’m 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 Sullivan’s Baker’s Dozen. The precocious youngster was still in his teens. “But I finally realized that in order to do something really well, I’d have to settle on one instrument.”

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 “wasn’t 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 couldn’t physically play the bass at least, not like I play now until I 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 to follow in his father’s 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 play 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 couldn’t solo. I couldn’t 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. That’s why I call my music Family Music. There’s 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. They’re 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 didn’t 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 didn’t have the time anymore. That wasn’t bad that’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 Jaco’s 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, Jaco’s 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. “I’ve been playing it for about six years. It’s 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.” Jaco’s 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 instrument’s 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 Jaco’s 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 Report’s Joe Zawinul first heard a tape of “Continuum”, which appears on Jaco’s album, he drank in the velvety richness of Jaco’s 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 don’t know because I don’t 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. It’s 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 don’t even know who the bassist was. The record was old, and shot, and I couldn’t 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 Bird’s tunes, I couldn’t play them very fast, because of my arm, but I studied them, and I knew how they worked. Just the heads. I didn’t 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 should’ve quit when I was 10; the schools in Florida didn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t need to take anything with them, they can go swimming and be making music. That’s where it’s 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. That’s what I like about music. It’s 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. We’d go to Mexico for a couple of days, or to Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti. We’d 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, I’d 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 weren’t even that many of my friends that I could share this stuff with. There weren’t any cliques of young musicians, like you’d find in New York for instance. And they’re all talking so much, feeding off each other…for me, that wouldn’t have been good. The diversity that I’ve 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.”

Jaco’s abilities, as well as his emergence onto the national scene, remained one of Florida’s 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 he played a few dates. Also at the University, Jaco came into contact with the guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom he would occasionally play in Pat’s 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. Lauderdale’s 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 BS&T drummer, guiding light, and soon-to-be producer of Jaco’s 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 d’s, 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 didn’t 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, ‘you’re Jaco’ I hadn’t even introduced myself. And he asked me if I’d like a record date. “I figured he was just talking I mean, he hadn’t 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 Jaco’s diverse approach to modern music, he again came across 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 didn’t 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 band’s 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, Jaco’s major problem at this point in time is finding 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.

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