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Book Excerpts

Jaco Pastorius: Woodchuck and the Upper Hand (1969-1972)

By Published: December 22, 2008
During this period, Jaco and Tracy took up residency on Southwest Third Avenue in Fort Lauderdale. "It was just a small box of a house, square with a flat roof," recalls Scott Kirkpatrick. "I couldn't believe they were living there. Jaco was constantly listening to Ray Charles and other black music, and I remember thinking, 'God, what a lifestyle. This guy eats and sleeps and drinks music.' How Tracy put up with that, I don't know."

Mary Pastorius was born on December 9, 1970, just eight days after Jaco's 19th birthday. The prospect of suddenly having to provide for a family made the skinny man-child take stock of himself. "After Mary was born, we were in the hospital looking at her through the glass in the maternity ward," says Greg. "Jaco turned to me with a real serious expression on his face and said, 'Well, this is it. Now I gotta be the greatest bassist that ever hit the planet. I gotta go out and do something so I can make a real living at this. I can't keep playing in stupid bars for no money. I've got a family to take care of.'" A husband and a father at 19, Jaco became a man on a two-fold mission—to feed his family and become the world's greatest bassist.

Woodchuck eventually disbanded in April of 1971. To generate some income over the next two months, Jaco began playing aboard luxury liners embarking from the Port of Miami bound for the Caribbean. Gregory remembers skipping his high school graduation in June 1971 to go on one of these cruises with his older brother. Though these cruise-ship gigs were generally lounge-music situations, the money was decent and the voyages also gave Jaco an opportunity to soak up the sounds of calypso and reggae. Jaco later told Down Beat: "When we were docked, I'd just hang out, hit the streets. I got close to some guys in (Bob Marley's band) the Wailers." [Jaco would later record one track with reggae star Jimmy Cliff—"Brown Eyed Girl" on 1984's Cliff Hanger.]

By July of '71, Jaco had hooked up with Tommy Strand & The Upper Hand, a slick, white soul revue which worked as the house band at the Seven Seas Lounge on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Because of the leader's occasional habit for snorting coke and his reputation as a lady's man, Jaco would come to refer to the band as Tommy Toot & the Lower Root. Upper Hand drummer Scott Kirkpatrick, who had been a part of the warehouse scene a couple of years earlier, recalls Jaco as the ultimate groove player then. "I have never played with anybody since who could groove like Jaco could in that band. I don't think there will ever be anybody to come along who has that kind of groove power. He played so funky but he wasn't into the kind of slap-thumb style of bass that's so popular today. He was just playing with two fingers on his right hand, and he was laying down the funkiest, most innovative lines I've ever heard in my life."

On a typical night, the band would open their set with an arrangement of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" before moving into their Sly Stone medley of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and "I Want to Take You Higher." Then it would be something like Buddy Miles's "Them Changes," Chicago's "More and More," and a Beatles medley, followed by the obligatory "Proud Mary." They did faithful renditions of Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady," the Ides of March's "Vehicle," James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." And, of course, Pee Wee Ellis' soul staple, "The Chicken."

In the context of these commercial pop and soul tunes, Jaco unleashed a torrential downpour of ideas and was prominently featured as a soloist. On Bob Bobbing's archival tapes of the band (portions of which are sampled on Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years), you can hear the funky chordal riff that would later become the intro to "Liberty City" or the seeds of what blossomed into "Barbary Coast" and "Kuru."

Guitarist Randy Bernsen remembers marveling at Jaco's abilities back then. "Someone had told me about this guy named Jaco, a great bassist. I finally met him one night when I was playing a gig at a place in Dania called the Sandpiper. I was sitting on the stage during the break, and he walked up and started staring at me, like I was in his place or something. Then he introduced himself and said, 'Man, we got to play together sometime.' This was when he was playing with Tommy Strand & the Upper Hand, and I started to hang around with him a lot at that point."

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