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Remembering Jaco

Jazz legend Jaco Pastorius, held by many to be the world's greatest bass player, was born in Norristown 60 years ago today.

When the World’s Greatest Bass Player was born in Norristown on this day 60 years ago, the music community and the world at large had no idea what it was in for. John Francis Pastorius III (Jaco to the uninitiated) was the firstborn of Stephanie and Jack Pastorius’ three sons and lived the beginning of his incredible life at 25 E. Elm Street. 

Current neighbors of that property need not worry that it is in danger of becoming a shrine to Jaco Pastorius, since he made his mark primarily in the Jazz world. Even after more than a century, Jazz has not really caught on in America as it has in Europe, Africa and Asia. If this humble location in central Norristown were in Brussels, Paris or Tokyo, it would be revered and regularly inundated with passionate followers as is the grave of Jim Morrison in France or the Justin Bieber dressing room anywhere in the world. 

But the house only sets the stage for this story. Jaco, the son of a devout Roman Catholic family, was baptized in in early January 1952, and lived here, and briefly in King of Prussia, until his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL when Jaco was seven. But we’ll still take credit for being his initial influence! 

It should be noted that after he had become a worldwide musical giant (again, other than in America), he seldom appeared on stage without his Phillies cap. He often extolled the musical virtues of fellow jazz legend and Norristown compatriot organ genius Jimmy Smith and regularly recalled for all who would listen that he knew “where (he) stole every note” that was credited to him in his later years of improvising and writing. Many of those notes were remembered from his upbringing here where his father was a lounge singer and drummer who appeared in local venues as well as nationally.

After starting his musical life as a drummer, Jaco taught himself to play bass and began to make his mark while still in his teens appearing with various bands in Florida and eventually throughout the south. Although he began his performance career playing top forty rock and roll, his heart and soul were grounded in blues and jazz. He played briefly with Lou Rawls and then for several months with Blood, Sweat & Tears as a fill-in and was subsequently signed to a record deal by the BS&T drummer (and Warner’s A&R man) Bobby Colomby. Jaco’s first foray as a leader in 1976 resulted in the eponymous album which contained primarily self-written music and included on its players' list (among others) Herbie Hancock and Sam & Dave.

He joined the quintessential fusion group Weather Report and became world renowned not only for his incredible playing, composing and arranging, but also for his ability to simply entertain. Bill Milkowski, author of JACO: the Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, described the Jaco experience:

"His grooves were transcendent and contagious, combining the funk of Wilson Pickett… with the most seductive swagger of Sinatra... over the jaunty roar of the Count Basie Orchestra. There was no musical influence left wanting in a Jaco performance."

As he grew older and more famous, his sophisticated virtuosity and larger-than-life-stage presence became more and more influenced by the ravages of the mental illness which began to appear when Jaco was in his early thirties. In combination with a taste for the alcohol and illegal drugs which became a dominant part of his later life, an undiagnosed and untreated bi-polar disorder led to his mental and physical deterioration. 

It was in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub in 1987 that he was ushered from the place after he had rushed the stage during another performer’s show proclaiming that he was the “world’s greatest bass player.” This forced removal included his being beaten by the doorman after which Jaco lapsed into a coma and eventually died several days later.

The end of the Jaco Pastorius story is sad and it is too much of a cliché to say that the entire context of Jaco’s life overrides this horrible ending. The music lives on even though he is not here to further the art form. This unfortunate circumstance leaves those of us who appreciate Jaco’s genius always wanting for more.    

In order to get a real taste and feel for this Norristown musical giant whose artistry has been compared at various times to John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky and J.S. Bach, listen to any of the three Jaco solo albums or check out his vast discography (including appearances with Joni Mitchell). Also consider a visit to the two websites hosted by his family – jacopastorius.com and jacop.net. You could also read the Milkowski book mentioned earlier or check out a vast array of articles in issues of various music magazines including Jazz Is, Bass Player, Guitar Player and Downbeat. Demonstrative of Jaco’s powerful influence, even now, nearly a quarter century after his death, an interested reader can find archived biographies, interviews and discussions  as well as current Jaco song transcriptions and tributes from highly-regarded musicians.

As we remember this Norristown legend six decades after his arrival on the planet, let us hope that the legacy may live on!

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