Jaco Breaks the Bass Barrier

by Ray Recchi (Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel; Nov. 27, 1981)

When Jaco Pastorius became the first musician to break the bass barrier, there was no loud explosion. The only noise involved, in fact, was snap, crackle and pop.

Before Pastorius, the bass had always been a rhythm instrument. Pastorius broke the barrier, astounding people by playing it as a lead instrument, and playing things that people had never heard on a bass before.

Still, it wasn’t a plan. The Northeast High School graduate didn’t set out to change things.

“I didn’t know there was a barrier,” said Pastorius. “What I did, when I was a little kid, was I listened to records on a record player I won from a Rice Krispies contest. It was just a kid’s record player so I couldn’t hear the bass, only the melody. So I played what I could hear, if it was a sax or a piano or whatever.”

Snap, crackle, pop – the bass barrier was broken. Pastorius largely self-taught, joined the Peter Graves band shortly after high school. Playing behind headliners at Bachelor’s III, he was noticed. Things progressed from there to the point where Pastorius recorded the first album with the bass guitar featured as a lead instrument. He went on to join the group Weather Report, went all over the world doing concerts and has been recognized as the top man at what he does by nearly every jazz poll taken in the last three or four years.

Through it all, however, Pastorius remained close to Graves. So the two musicians have planned a double celebration from Dec. 1. In honor of their 10 year friendship and Pastorius’ 30th birthday, they have put together a concert to be held at Mr. Pips Tuesday night featuring Pastorius with his new group, The Word of Mouth Quintet, Graves’ band and some special guests.

“This will be one of the hottest jazz things that ever happened,” said Graves, “no matter what town you’re in.”

Pastorius phrases it differently: “Be there or be square,” he said.

The concert, with shows at 9 p.m. and midnight, will cost $12.50 per person, with tickets on sale at BASS outlets.

For Pastorius, it seems to be very important for more than one reason. He looks upon it as a homecoming. Other than jamming with various groups around town when he gets home for short vacations, he has not played in his hometown in five years. He professes a deep loyalty to Fort Lauderdale. Beyond that, it will be the first show in a tour of several weeks Pastorius will make with his new Word of Mouth Quintet, which was featured on his first Warner Brothers album.

“It’s my birthday,” said Pastorius. “I wanna have fun. I wanna make music with my friends and Peter is one of my best friends. We’ve done a lot of stuff together.”

“With Weather Report, I write a lot of music that doesn’t get played because it’s not my group. I have a ton of new music to play. I can’t wait to play in my home town on my birthday. I’m the biggest promoter of South Florida musicians there is.”

Pastorius grins as he retells the story of his first trip to New York where people were astounded with his playing.

“They kept asking me, “Where did you learn to play like that? There’s nothing happening here in New York” said Pastorius. “What can you say? I told them to move to South Florida.”

That statement, no doubt, sounded outrageous to those on the New York jazz scene. But Pastorius is an outrageous kind of guy. “Outrageous” may even be too mild a word to apply to him.

Some people complain about his ego, saying that Pastorius does not hesitate to declare himself the “greatest bass player in the universe.”

“The hell of it,” said one musician, “is that he’s right.”

Pastorius’ logic, however, is that you can’t be that good without knowing it. So why play games with false modesty?

“I’m even starting to get standard now,” he said. “In other words, the bass sound that took me five or six years to get together is now the standard way to play the bass.”

There are several contradictions in Pastorius’ personality. While he claims that South Florida musicians are as good or better than musicians anywhere, he complains that “they don’t make any commitments.”

“They have to get a band and STAY together,” he said. “But they won’t get it together. They get together for a while, then split. They’ve got to make a decision.”

Also, while Pastorius likes the kick of playing big concerts and the clout it gives him as a cult hero, particularly in South Florida, he claims that he is not making as much money as people thinks he is and that the notoriety and travel is almost more trouble than it’s worth.

“I’m playing all over the planet,” he says with a sign. “In the 1977 Weather Report tour, I played 43 gigs in 46 days with 13 border crossings. Do you know what it’s like to be a musician going through customs? They check EVERYTHING. And you’ve still got to play the gig every night.

“Besides that, every night people want to party you to death. That’s the only day they see you. They don’t realize that you’ve been doing this every night. They don’t understand if you’re not in the mood.”

So while many of Pastorius’ South Florida friends envy his position in the world of jazz and his success, Pastorius is envying them for the relative simplicity of their lives.

“I come home and my friends think I’m rich,” he said. “I’m poorer than they are. At least they’ve got a steady gig. That’s what I think I’d like now. To stay in my home town with a steady gig.”

Pastorius pauses and ponders, maybe realizing that his career would stagnate if he did take a job just playing in Fort Lauderdale. And another contradiction arises. The man who sums up his world travels by saying, “America is THE place,” the man who did a bass solo of AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL before a crowd of several thousand only a short distance from the Berlin wall, is also upset that American music has gained greater acceptance outside America.

“How come I can’t work in my home town?” he asks. “Why do I have to go to Japan and Germany to work? All my buddies have to go to Japan two or three times a year to make a living.”

So far, making music has always been worth the struggle for Pastorius. He tells stories about folding and delivering the Fort Lauderdale News in his teens to earn money to buy his first drum set, or playing music until 3 or 4 a.m. then going straight to his paper route with his brother Greg.

He talks about his mother who “didn’t want me to be a musician.”

“I used to practice the bass with no amplifier in my bedroom and she would say it was too loud,” said Pastorius. “Now she’s proud of me. She tells everyone that she made me practice every day.”

“And she WAS the No. 1 influence in my life. Write it down. Stephanie Katherine Pastorius. Because even though she didn’t want me to be a musician, she always pushed me toward being myself.”

And even with the contradictions, friends and enemies, fans and detractors alike have to admit that Pastorius is unique, an original, himself.

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