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The Life and Death of Jaco Pastorius Print-ready version

by Joni Mitchell
Musician Magazine
December 1987

What can I say about Jaco? When I first met him he was extremely present tense and, I would have to say for lack of a better term, extremely sage. He was so accepting of everything going on around him; at the same time he was arrogant and challenging: "I'm the baddest!" He was so alert, so involved in the moment. When people are in that state they're generally fun to be with. He was very alive.

The first time he came in, I had never heard him play. I forget who recommended him. Everybody'd heard my lament about the trouble I was having. I was trying to find a certain sound on the bottom end, going against the vogue at the time. It's very difficult to buck a vogue. Bass players were playing with dead strings; you couldn't get them to change to get a round, full-bodied tone. I liked that old analog, jukebox, Fifties sound-up-right bass, boomier. In the Sixties and early Seventies you had this dead, distant bass sound. I didn't care for it. And the other thing was, I had started to think, "Why couldn't the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?" Why did it have to always play the root? On "The Jungle Line" I had played some kind of keyboard bass line, and when it came around to Max Bennett having to play it, he just hated it. Because sometimes it didn't root the chord, it went up into the middle. To him that was flat-out wrong. To some people it was eccentric. So when Jaco came in, John Guerin said to me, "God, you must love this guy; he almost never plays the root!"

There was a time when Jaco and I first worked together when there was nobody I'd rather hang with than him. There was an appreciation, a joie de vivre, a spontaneity. A lot of people couldn't take him. Maybe that's my peculiarity, but then, I also have a fondness for derelicts.

He had this wide, fat swath of a sound. There weren't a lot of gizmos you could put your instrument through then, and the night I got my Roland Jazz Chorus amp, it was sort of a prototype. Jaco and Bobbye Hall and I were playing a benefit up in San Francisco. I tried playing through this thing and Jaco flipped for it. So he stole it off me! He said, "Oh yeah, I'm playing through that tonight!" I said, "What are you talking about? This is my new amp!" He pointed to his rental amp and said, "I'm not playing through that piece of shit." So he took mine! We went out onstage that night and Jaco got this huge wonderful busy sound and I played through this peanut. He was formidable! You can hear it in the mixes back then. He was very dominating. But I put up with it; I even got a kick out of it. Because I was so thrilled about the way he played. It was exactly what I was waiting for.

He was an innovator. First of all, he was changing the bottom end of the time, and he knew it. With that went a certain amount of confidence, which at its worst was offensive to some people. It didn't offend me. His drug problem hadn't begun. You take a big flaming juicy ego like that and add drugs to it-it's no good. I mean, Freud thought he'd made great breakthroughs treating inferiority complexes with cocaine. Imagine what it does to add that to someone who's already Mr. Confidence!

I know he stretched me. I stretched him some too, inadvertently, on things like "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter." That was Alexandro Acuna, Don Alias, myself and Jaco. Alex's background is in Latin music, so that track was getting a very Latin percussion sound on the bottom. I said, "No , this is more North American Indian, a more limited palette of drum sounds." So Jaco got an idea. I don't know if he detuned his bass, but he started striking the end of the strings, up by the bridge, and he'd slide with the palm of his palm all the way down to the head. He set up this pattern: du du du doom, du du du doom. Well, it's a five minute song, and three minutes into it his hand started to bleed. He shredded it making it slide the full length of his bass strings. They turned into a grater. So we stopped tapping and he changed to his Venus mound, below the thumb. And when we finished the take, that was bleeding, too. So his whole hand was bleeding. But the music was magnificent, and he was so excited because he'd discovered a new thing. Later he built up calluses and you'd always see him doing those slides. But then he was mad with me because I had copped his new shit for my record! I think he might have had a different pain threshold.

Jaco was a self-proclaimed mutt. He had so many different bloodlines running through him. But one of them was Irish and I always felt that was fairly evident. Maybe it was an Irish spirit that the best of our communication went out on. Jaco, you know, was a gerner. A gerner is a funny-face maker. They have competitions in England. They pull their lips over their noses. A lot of the best gerners have no teeth-they can collapse their whole face. It's a folk art, and in rural places like the north of England, maybe Wales, they have contests where these hideous contortions are adjudicated. And Jaco was a master at it. He did all sorts of obscene things with his face. He'd say, "Do you want to see me make my face like a woman's pussy?" I swear! I don't know if I want to say this & but he'd do it. He'd turn his mouth so it went sideways, pull his lips into obscene shapes and I'd say, "Oh my God!" He was so much fun to be with.

He loved his kids; he was really good with kids and animals. Jaco was a great spirit before his deterioration by toxics. He'd come to L.A. to make his fortune, and spent a lot of time away from home. Once his wife called to say his child was mad with him because he never came home. Jaco said, "That's good, that's good, it shows the kid is thinking!" He had such a positive attitude about certain things. It was detached in a certain way, but not without warmth. I thought he had wonderful eyes before drugs clouded them. Look at that portrait of him on his first album cover and see if he doesn't look like some Tibetan sage.

He'd say, "I'm the baddest. I'm not braggin', I'm just telling the truth!" And I'd give him that. As far as I was concerned, he was telling the truth. It didn't even seem inappropriate to me that he knew it. But in order to keep the beauty of that bravado, you have to be able to back it up. And when his talent and inspiration began to be corroded by the clouding over of perception that accompanies overindulgence in drugs and alcohol, he became a tragic figure on the scene. Anyone who's that arrogant going up, people love to carve up going down. Therein lies the tragedy.

He started to get unruly, but I could deal with that. On Don Juan's Reckless Daughter there was a date where Henry Lewy and I waited for him. He was a hired hand coming in to play on a session, and he didn't show up. I thought I knew where we could find him. So when he was about two hours late I said, "Come on, Henry, we're going to go and get him." Sure enough, he and Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and Peter Erskine, the drummer who had just joined Weather Report, were rehearsing for a tour. Wayne was up on the stage noodling around with the piano, and down on the floor were Jaco and Zawinul playing Frisbee. The two of them reminded me of European circus people: Zawinul and his straight back and shoulders like an Austrian tightrope walker, so proud, and Jaco had that same kind of command-he'd jump over the speakers; there were a lot of circus aspects to his performance. So here they were tossing this Frisbee around, Jaco catching it just like a circus act. "Ta-daa!" You could hear the trumpet fanfare. Then they threw it to Peter Erskine. Now, Peter was the new guy in the band. Boy, that thing was coming toward him and there was panic in his eyes. He caught it in kind of a wobbly way, and he wobbled it back to Zawinul. And they looked at him kind of like, "Not the Flying Wallichi Brothers." They tossed it a few more rounds and then they tossed it to Wayne. Now, this was an insight into Wayne. Here was a Frisbee coming at him in his peripheral vision-he had both hands on the keyboards-and just at the perfect moment Wayne reached out his left hand, caught it and threw it back to them. He never turned his head, and he only took one hand off the keyboards.

When Jaco and I played one-on-one in the studio, it was a different thing. On Mingus there's a duet that we did, "God Must Be a Boogie Man." I heard that the other day and I thought, "God, I don't know how he hung in there with me!" I let a long time go by between notes. I'd go bomp and he'd catch it with me! There'd be a lot of space. It wasn't like there was a band or somebody keeping metered time. I thought, "How did he do that?" Then I remembered, he used to watch my foot. My right foot would be keeping the steady time.

The Shadows and Light tour worked out fine, but it didn't look like it was going to. Jaco was musical director, and he didn't show up until we'd already been in rehearsal for about two weeks. When he did show up, he decided he didn't like the band. As we'd been rehearsing without a bass player, we'd kind of fleshed it in to where it sounded pretty good even without a bass. So when Jaco came, he started tearing the arrangements apart, demanding more space onstage. He later came to love everybody, but he didn't hear it that way initially. He didn't like Don Alias on drum kit, he liked him on hand drums. Well, I really liked the feel of Don's playing-he's not a technical virtuoso on the kit like he is on congas and other drums, where he's in the top three in the world, but he such a good-feeling kit player to me. So we had this big argument and it didn't look like the thing was going to fly. As the tour rolled along, the tension dissolved-as a matter of fact, he took that band and played with them on his own record.

I think he played very well on that tour, especially, oddly enough, the day we filmed. Something personal had happened to him that day. I don't know what. Something between his wife and his mother, some family thing. He was in the midst of some tempering revelation. When we started the first few notes he played were from "I Was High and Mighty." For a minute I thought, "I can't believe it! I'm watching Jaco have a humble attack! It's not really good for him to be this humble. Come on, Jaco, be a little arrogant!" Toward the end he took off, but he used to jump over his amp and beat his bass with his strap every night on that tour-this was the one night he didn't do it. It was a shame because Mike Brecker and I had cooked it up that when he jumped over the speakers and beat his bass, Mike was going to jump out and beat his saxophone. We were going to have a real donnybrook up there. I thought, "Maybe I'll come out and beat the piano." But he didn't do it.

There wasn't any real parting point between us; we stopped playing together because Jaco didn't play well anymore. Then I lost contact with him. It was more of a drifting apart than a breaking off. He went off with Weather Report and they played Japan and I heard tales of him jumping into fountains naked, going amok in the Orient. I just didn't see him that much.

I think he had a beautiful animal wisdom that I don't see as a madness at all. It's something that we lost. You could view it in this time as madness, and certainly it could be seen as a madness. Maybe I have the same madness but it's not so expressed. In Jaco I saw some of those expressions as a celebration of life. Strange behavior, certainly. But I love animals, and Jaco loved animals. To run down the street taking off his clothes was different if he did it from if you did it. I don't think of it as demented. I know he lost it at the end; you couldn't talk to him. It was tragic. And coke inflamed his mean side. Coke shuts off the heart and allows meanness or anything that's lying there-a cruel wit-to develop. We all have it. In whatever form, it's lying there.

I saw him for the last time in New York a couple of years ago. I went to an art opening with a group of people. We came out and were looking for a place to eat. We saw this little restaurant across the street with a hand-painted sign: JACO PASTORIUS TONIGHT. So I went across to see him. We all walked in and he was sitting at the bar. I went up and tapped him. When he turned his face to me he was just . . . gone. It was a gone face. He hugged me like he was drowning. Then he switched into this gear: he started yelling my name around the club. "Joni Mitchell is the baddest! She's the only woman this, she's the only woman that." Until it was embarrassing. Everyone there was embarrassed. The room was embarrassed, I was embarrassed. He kept hollering my name. It was a very small club, there were maybe ten people present. Anyway, we ended up jamming for a minute. I just got up and started improvising on this electric piano. There was a vocal mike on it, with a cord draped along the back of the piano. At one point Jaco moved forward and he short-sheeted me for a joke; he pulled the cord down so it ran along the keyboard from the middle C down, an obstacle course. In trying to move it back up, I inevitably hit a clunker and somebody in the audience yelled out, "Never mind the mistakes, Joni." Jaco was laughing. So I just stopped and said, "Look, this isn't going to work. I'm just going to let Jaco play and I'll sing to him." So I grabbed the mike and let him take the lead. He'd used to play "out," but there's out and then there's out. This was not good. It was frustrating. It was heartbreaking. And so I just let him play and I followed him and sang with him. That way, no matter where he went I could try and be supportive. But he was not in the mood to be supportive. That particular evening, he was a saboteur.

The day after Jaco died I went back and listened to Mingus. I went back, basically, to reminisce. And gee, there was some beautiful communication in that playing. I hadn't listened to it for years. The grace of the improvisation on that record-there's space, and then one voice comes in. It's not three people grabbing, feeling a pressure point coming up and all landing on it at once. Jaco was not a road hog at that point. When you put him in that chemistry with Herbie and Wayne, I think they all played splendidly. "Courtesy" sounds so formal, but it was the best of musical manners. And the voices they speak in when they do come in! I thought that was some really good playing. And there were a lot of magic evenings like that.

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Added to Library on October 5, 2007. (129413)


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GaryAbersold on

What a great article first of all! So I lived in Fort Lauderdale Fla. in the 1980's Jaco was considered the Mozart of Bass Playing. He came to my high school and gave a clinic on playing and as a teenager I was blown away. Several years passed on I would see him playing at the Musicians exchange he really was the best at it. I used to live above Jacobs Bakery on Broward Blvd, I was living with a band in this little shotty apt., there was a time I found him sleeping in the bushes hugging his Bass. It really broke my heart to see him like this. He got sick with bipolar disease and the vices made it worse everyone tried to help him. He used to hangout at Liberty Park at times...he was hard to deal with kinda like a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde persona. Like Mozart he was complicated personally, but you can never take his amazing musicianship from him. Everyone today sounds like a cheap knockoff of him,...better to just be yourself and enjoy listening to his style. RIP Jaco the Bodhisattva of Bass Playing.

Gary Abersold

kenmc on

I saw Jaco asleep near the basketball court not far from The Blue Note, across the street from where the second incarnation of Folk City was, in the Eighties when he was wandering around Greenwich Village. I was shocked. Recently I saw a video of him explaining how he learned how to play bass. He was so articulate it surprised me and made me sad he is no longer with us. Drugs and mental illness can take down the best of us but I'm happy to have found this wonderful tribute to him from Joni.