Don Alias and Jaco Pastorious


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[Author's Note: This marks the last article in the four-part series for Cymbalism, a tribute to the great percussionist and my companion, Don Alias. Please look for the forthcoming photo book on Amazon.com, Don Alias: The Moments We Spent. As well, keep an eye out for my upcoming for All About Jazz interviews with David Sanborn, Miles Evans and others.]

Don Alias and Jaco Pastorius

I had been touring supper clubs, posh hotels and concert halls with Lou Rawls for three years, and now we had an engagement to do a television show in Miami. On the bill were Lou Rawls, Morey Amsterdam and a female jazz singer that slips my mind. The rehearsal was at The Flamboyant Fontainebleau Hotel with chandeliers that looked like ice crystals and a red carpet to boot.

When I walked into rehearsal, The Peter Graves Band (which was to be the backup band for the television show) was playing. The only sound I heard coming off the bandstand was the bass and it was something I had never heard before. I looked up and there was this gawky, lanky looking guy who was all ears.

I think the words I said were, "Who are you?" I introduced myself and apparently he knew who I was from all those Miles Davis records like Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner (Columbia, 1972).

From hearing him play, I knew right away there was something so unique that his sound had to become worldwide. We struck up a friendship like two high school kids. That night he took me to a club where the great multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan was appearing, and Jaco Pastorius was playing upright bass in the band. In that band were Alex Darqui and Bobby Economou, who later went on to make Jaco's first record [Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976)].

Following that period, Jaco and I played together with Lou Rawls and Blood, Sweat and Tears. We went on to have a very special creative partnership writing and playing together.

I remember the first time I played "Donna Lee" with Jaco. I didn't give it any thought to how unusual it was for a bassist to be playing that melody, let alone be accompanied by conga drums. It later became the signature tune for most aspiring bass players. Jaco, for a young musician, had this god-given talent, able to play all of the old bebop tunes, and he could write his ass off. There's no question that he should be revered in the annals of influential musicians of the 20th century.

It was the 1980s and common knowledge that there had been quite a bit of substance abuse during the last decade. Though I don't want to dwell on the drug subject, just let it be known that it was prevalent. The following story was a result of abuse. It was not Jaco's normal state, which was creative, loving and more sane than not. Jaco had left Weather Report and had already done a series of tours with bands that had a constant change of personnel.

This particular band consisted of Mike Stern, Delmar Brown, Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Othello Molineaux, Kenwood Dennard and myself. The musicians were fiery, intense. It was musical pyrotechnics. Audiences were primed to hear Jaco especially after his brilliant stint with Weather Report.

We had toured Japan, some of the East Coast in the States and were now appearing in California at The Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl. Many people in the industry were anticipating this concert with Jaco. We were on the same bill as such greats as Tito Puente and Ella Fitzgerald. Sad to say, also at this time, Jaco was starting to experience bouts of manic depression. Before our tour to Japan I received a call from American Airlines in Las Vegas. Jaco had attempted to board a flight without a ticket, just proclaiming that he was the greatest bassist on Earth. Somehow he had thought that was sufficient enough to get him on board.

While speaking with these authorities, in the background I could hear Jaco's voice shouting," Don, Don, tell them who I am." Obviously he was already showing signs of instability. Up to this day, I had no idea how he got on the flight. Finally on our way to Japan, Jaco showed up in a dress though perhaps today that wouldn't seem so out of the ordinary. Take into consideration any outrageous thing that Jaco did was fine with the Japanese. No matter how bizarre it looked, they still accepted him.

Keeping Jaco's steady decline in mind, we were all heading to The Playboy Festival. I was summoned by Bill Cosby three days prior to the performance to give a tribute for Willie Bobo. Bill Cosby was the figurehead of this Playboy Jazz Festival, as Quincy Jones was to Montreux. It was an honor for me to have been asked by Bill Cosby to do this tribute, as Willie Bobo was the premier percussionist while I was growing up.

Ironically enough, Jaco had played with Willie Bobo and Alex Acuña. During those three days before Jaco arrived, the word was out about his behavior. It had been rumored that he had been acting in bizarre ways and everyone was a little bit nervous about his arrival. Bill Cosby inquired about Jaco, but I couldn't divulge his personal antics. I thought that once Jaco had his bass in hand, then no matter what his condition was he would play his behind off. So far, this had been consistently the case, as it was in Japan. He had still played magnificently. I replied to Bill that I didn't know.

When Jaco arrived for the sound check the day of the concert at ten in the morning, he had been up for three days and quite obviously under the influence. The sound check consisted mainly of the band playing and Jaco running around The Hollywood Bowl, end-to-end, supposedly listening. In reality Jaco was completely mad. That night, downstairs in the dressing rooms, were Tito Puente and his members of his band.

Jaco was in rare form, I mean out of his fucking brains like I'd never seen before. First, Jaco was throwing beer bottles around the dressing room. We were trying desperately to shield Bill Cosby from the events that were transpiring downstairs and we were running around trying to keep the doors closed. In the midst of Jaco's favorite phrase of "Who loves you?" he insulted Tito Puente, calling him a maricon. Taboo!!

A no-no. This was the utmost in disrespect to this Latin icon. The members of the band had to do everything they could to hold back the members of Puente's band and entourage from crucifying Jaco. Through the grace of God, especially Puente, everyone realized that Jaco was drunk and out of his mind. Puente showed great class and grace that night. While Tito was performing, Jaco ran onstage with no shirt on, interrupting his concert. Now the audience had gotten a glimpse of his strange state. The only thing that would save him now would be a stellar, outstanding performance. Behold the moment of truth as our band was now on.

The place was jammed with dignitaries, celebrities and fans. We set up onstage behind our respective instruments and before a note was played Jaco—who now was in football make up with black patches under his eyes and still bare-chested—came over to me and said, "Don, take a solo." This was the most inappropo time to take a conga drum solo. That solo should have come in the middle of the show as planned.

Everyone was taken by surprise and completely flabbergasted, especially myself. I accepted the hallenge knowing his mental state and started to play. About a quarter of the way into playing, it really hit me how absurd this was to continue, and slowly exited out of the solo. As soon as I did that, Jaco ran over to Kenwood and hollered at him to take a drum solo. Kenwood immediately started flailing away at the drums. In the midst of this cacophony, I got up to helplessly reach for a hand percussion instrument. When I turned around, Coke Esquevedo was blindly beating on my congas. Apparently Jaco, in his burnt-out state, had asked Coke to sit in. Not to take away from his expertise, but Coke had no business sitting behind my congas.

Then I heard the sound of a trumpet. It was not Randy Brecker's sound but of that fine trumpeter Johnny Coles. Without informing the band, Jaco had asked him to sit in. Once again, it was not the right thing to do. Hold on; the best is yet to come.

Jaco turned up his bass to full volume and threw it across the stage. When it hit it sounded like a 747 had landed in The Hollywood Bowl, or use your imagination for the most thunderous sound you can imagine. It was the ultimate sonic boom. Under different circumstances, this may have been a great opening for a Lollapalooza concert, but for The Playboy Jazz Festival this was beyond inappropriate. It was the first time that I had ever performed with Jaco Pastorius, in which he got jeered at, whistled and booed. My heart sank and I bet so did the musicians that were watching backstage.

The Pièce de résistance was that Bill Cosby, observing all this fiasco shouted out, "Turn that stage around!" The stage revolved, the lights went down and it was over. At that moment it was clear that Jaco was on a death wish, and I could not stay around to see it or help him. No one could help him. That night I quit the band.

I don't think about his death because I am in denial. When I do, I realize we have again lost one of the great ones and I have lost a great friend.

Photo Credits

Page 1, Jaco Pastorius: Chris Hakkens

Page 2, Don Alias: Melanie Futorian

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