In the jazz world, tradition is a severe master. Some players hew to it, making music that reflects and glorifies time-honored approaches. Some players rebel against it, creating rippling innovations and inspiring schools of disciples.
Jaco Pastorius, who died Monday night at age 35, belongs to the latter group. He was the among the major innovators of the jazz fusion era -- the first jazzman of his generation to die, as Bill Evans and Charlie Parker did before him, with more work to be done. That's another jazz tradition that remains unbroken: The innovator prematurely silenced.
The circumstances of his decline are now well-documented: At the end of a long and (some said) self-destructive slide during which he was away from music, Pastorius was allegedly beaten by the manager of a Wilton Manors private club on Sept. 12, after trying to gain entry. He remained in intensive care until his death at around 10 p.m., living for three hours after the family decided to shut down the respirator.
But the facts of his musical life, the career studded with accomplishment and fresh ideas and more than a little bit of on- stage hell-raising, live on. Like most musical geniuses, he was an ornery man. He lived hard. He played hard. He radiated a limitless intensity. Music was the overriding passion, the key to understanding him.
Mike Gerber, one longtime friend and associate, articulated it Tuesday: "There wasn't a day that went by where his dynamic as a person -- his creative spark -- didn't show itself to his friends and the people he was making music with."
Pastorius tested his musical knowledge in settings from the cerebral -- Weather Report -- to the gritty (Sly Stone) to the glitzy (Blood, Sweat and Tears), bringing an irrepressible personality to each one. He wrote music that crossed stylistic barriers, and had little use for the categories that divide contemporary music.
His work breathed the essence of fusion and, as a result, pushed the music in ways other musicians of the era couldn't. He re-invented the swing rhythm in a funk-fusion context, superimposing a loping feel onto the otherwise rigid eighth-note pulse. He picked at the electric bass with hands that literally flew across the fretboard, creating a bass sound that functioned as a support, but all the while sounded like a solo. This is most evident on Weather Report's live LP, 8:30, and the Joni Mitchell opus Mingus -- and on his still-astounding solo records Jaco Pastorius, Word of Mouth and Invitation.
For followers of contemporary music, the major difference between the loss of Pastorius and other innovators is the immediacy of it: We are aware of Charlie Parker's trials through records and books and folklore. But with Jaco, we know the trials he faced first-hand.
There was the pressure of his enormous and sweeping success, which drove him to continue to be "the best" even as he was winning polls and selling records. There was his often- stated frustration that his music, while recognized as revolutionary around the world, was not a popular success in his own country, or even in his own community.
He lived an unusual life -- and time after time encountered a society that wanted him to conform, to hang up his personality when he packed up his bass at the end of the day, to relinquish his individuality.
Jaco Pastorius never did that. With every breakthrough and each innovation, he retained one overarching constant: He played music with passion. That's become something of a rarity in the detached, product-oriented music business of the 1980s.
There will be a Jaco Pastorius tribute performance Thursday beginning at 9 p.m. at La T's, 4441 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. All musicians are invited to attend the jam session, which will run from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. Phone 792-7372 for details.
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Added to Library on September 26, 2002. (2464)
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