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


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This article appears in Chapter 3 of Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius by Bill Milkwoski (Backbeat Books, 2005).

By the fall 1969, Jaco would find out what it was like to run his own band after forming his first group as a leader, an R&B organ trio called Woodchuck. With his good friend Bob Herzog on drums and vocals and local sensation Billy Burke on Hammond B-3 organ, Jaco had put together a formidable outfit with a decidedly funky appeal. And although Woodchuck was never a commercial success beyond the hip inner circle of other working musicians on the South Florida scene, its three members would stay together for almost two years out of pure love for the music.

In Herzog, the group had a sloppy yet syncopated drummer and a raucous, white trashy soul singer who personified South Florida funk. His lazy, behind-the-beat timekeeping on the kit was unpredictable yet undeniably greasy while his rough-hewn rasp perfectly suited their repertoire of '60s R&B and soul chestnuts like "If You Were Mine," "Think," "Barefootin,'" "The Chicken" and "Mr. Pitiful" along with a medley of Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway" segueing to James Brown's "Lickin' Stick" and the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing." The only drawback to having Herzog play drums and sing at the same time was the fact that his time did suffer a bit as a result. But in this band, Jaco was actually the one responsible for keeping the time feel rock-solid with the groovin'est basslines he could muster while Herzog slipped in and out of synch. Normally, this would be problematic in any band but Jaco felt that Zog's raw funk factor easily made up for any misgivings he may have had about his time.

A free-spirited, pot-smoking Bohemian, Herzog was also a black music aficionado who frequently skipped school to go into the 'hood and lazily stroll through the shops looking for a cool hat or a funky hand bag. Invariably, he could be found rummaging through the record bins for any new arrivals at Spin City, a small record shop on the corner of 13th Street and Sistrunk Boulevard run by WRBD dj Larry Hardgrove. This obscure soul music haven is where Bob and Jaco hand-picked the material for Woodchuck's repertoire.

In Burke, Jaco had found a one of a kind virtuoso musician who had an experienced ear for modern jazz harmonies and a penchant for mastering the sounds of the Hammond B-3 organ. "Woodchuck was a real funky group," Burke recalls. "We were doing Major Lance tunes, 'Cleanup Woman' by Betty Wright, all kinds of obscure, hip R&B tunes that hadn't crossed over to the white neighborhood yet. It was a real rebel-type band. It was basically R&B, but it was really jazz in the sense of stretching out and improvising on the bandstand. It was very daring for the time."

Les Luhring recalls first seeing Jaco with Woodchuck in 1969 at The Flying Machine. "This was a club down by the airport. I walked in there with Rich Franks, who had been the drummer in Las Olas Brass, and there was Billy Burke wailing on that B-3 with Jaco and Bob Herzog... and I couldn't believe how good they sounded together. I remember thinking it was a funny instrumentation, just organ, bass and drums...no guitar. But man, they just killed! It was an eye-opener to me."

Being a keyboard player himself, Luhring was especially impressed with the sound that Burke was getting from his Hammond B-3. "I was in a band at the time called Bridge (with Scott Kirkpatrick on drums, Jim Godwyn on guitar and David Neubauer... Jaco's predecessor in Las Olas Brass... on bass) and I played a cheesy-sounding Vox Continental organ in this band," he recalls. "But Billy had this wicked B-3 organ with two Leslie speaker cabinets and the hippest setup on it. I would've died to have a rig like that. And he said that he had done something to it like pulling some tubes out and whatnot to make it distort so that when they did songs like 'Whiter Shade of Pale,' those Leslie's would literally start wailing!"

Samples of Jaco's first band excerpted from the upcoming release of Woodchuck.

Audio samples courtesy of Bob Bobbing and JacoTheEarlyYears.com.

Luhring also remembers thinking that Jaco's bass playing had made an incremental leap in Woodchuck. "I had seen Jaco play bass in Las Olas Brass twice—once at the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame down at A1A and another time at the warehouses where they were just having loose rehearsals. I thought it was neat what they were doing; the niche that they chose to specialize in... nobody else in town our age was doing that. We were all playing British Invasion covers and these guys gravitated toward soul music and rhythm and blues, which was cool. But to tell you the truth, Jaco didn't knock me out at the time. He was solid and holding down the parts... nothing special, really. But then when I saw him playing with Woodchuck at The Flying Machine, that was on a whole other level. To me, that was the first time I saw the real Jaco, where he had progressed to a point where he was really doing something spectacular."

Bobbing concurs. "To me, Woodchuck was the perfect band for Jaco because suddenly his thing made sense. He had all this room to create and it was all within a groove context. Some people thought Jaco's playing was nervous. But in Woodchuck his whole thing of creative overplaying suddenly made perfect sense. That was the band that put Jaco on the map, as far as South Florida was concerned. They had so much soul and feeling. Jaco's previous band, Las Olas Brass, was basically just a Top 40 cover band. But Woodchuck was it, man. That's where Jaco's Jerry Jemmott-style funk lines started coming together. [Jemmott was a top session bassist during the '60s and '70s.] And that's when he really started becoming a performer. He was singing, and he had a lot of stage presence as well. That's when people really started taking notice of Jaco."

Rory Pastorius has vivid memories of Jaco's remarkably rapid progress on the scene. "By the time he was 16, Jaco was probably the best bassist in Florida. By the time he was 17, he was definitely the best bassist in the entire state. In fact, I'll never forget something he said one day when he was coming up on his 18th birthday (1969). He looked me in the eye and said, real seriously, 'Rory, man, I'm the best bassist on earth.' I looked back at him and said, 'I know.' It may have been a case of brotherly pride, but Jaco was playing stuff then that nobody else was even thinking of. I remember him playing me the basic seeds of what later became 'Continuum.' He already had all that together when he was 18."

Woodchuck worked gigs at the Lauderdale Lanes bowling alley, the Button on the beach, the Flying Machine and the infamous original Four O'Clock Club. Not considered a really big draw by clubowners, they nevertheless had a steady following local musicians who would come by to check them out.

Burke, who was regarded as the Jimmy Smith of South Florida, was the main attraction in Woodchuck, and his superior musicianship challenged Jaco to rise to a new level in his own playing. Tracy recalls, "Jaco really loved those guys, not just the music, but as people. The only time I ever heard him say anythig negative was when he would come home after a gig all mad because Bob and Billy got high again and were arguing over who smoked more of the joint than they were supposed to."

Bobbing adds, "He hated it when they would get high on the gig because it always affected Bob's playing. In their defense, it was the late 60's early 70's and just about everybody except Jaco was smoking pot at that time. Plus, I personally thought the band sounded better when they would space out. It never got too far out of hand because the band was always grounded by Jaco's grooving basslines. But if Billy and Bob got too high during the breaks and would be laughing or spacing out on the set, Jaco would look notably pissed at them. He was just not into getting high."

It was in October of 1970, while still in Woodchuck, that Jaco made the first in a series of key discoveries that would significantly affect his approach to the bass. As Bobbing recalls, "I suggested that Jaco come along one night to my gig at the She Lounge on Lauderdale Beach to check out this new group named Nemo Spliff that we were playing along side of. Having caught them the night before, I was totally impressed with their bassist and called Jaco, insisting that he come along the following night to check this guy out. The bassist was Carlos Garcia and he was using this really cool left-hand muting technique that we hadn't seen before. I remember when we walked in they were playing 'I'm Tired,' a song by Savoy Brown that was popular at the time. Jaco really got off on how funky the bass sounded and he was really checking out Carlos to see how he was able to get those staccato notes happening in his bass lines.

"After that gig, Jaco went home and started experimenting with the technique himself. He would borrow Nemo Spliff tapes that I had and he'd check out Carlos to get that muting thing down." [That technique became the basis for Jaco's signature 16th-note funk style, which would later crop up on such tunes as "Come On, Come Over" and "Opus Pocus" from his debut album, Jaco Pastorius, and "Barbary Coast" from Weather Report's Black Market.]

Jaco was also impressed by Garcia's amplifier, an Acoustic 360, which would help ultimately help him attain his signature sound. As Bobbing points out, "Before that, Jaco mainly used a Sunn amp, which was a good amp for that time. But this Acoustic amp went far beyond anything on the market. It was the first of its kind. It had an 18-inch speaker that faced backwards in the cabinet. We never saw or heard anything like that before. It really was something new at that time, like the idea of a car driving backwards."

The next day after seeing Carlos Garcia with Nemo Spliff at the She Lounge, Jaco and Bobbing went down to Modern Music in Fort Lauderdale where they each ordered an Acoustic 360 amp. "That amp gave Jaco the power and clarity he needed to develop the signature sound he woud later become known for," says Bobbing.

The concept of a tight cabinet with the speaker mounted backwards is akin to indirect lighting—not as bright but still projecting. As Bobbing explains, "What it gave you was a strong, tight low end that didn't break up. Now for the first time Jaco could play a loud open E as well as chords without the amp distorting or bottoming out. It was a giant leap for us considering what we were using. Jaco played a Sunn amp with two JBL 15-inch speakers and I was using a Fender Dual Showman amp. Both were great amps, but nothing compared to the Acoustic 360. You did lose some high end as a result of the big 18-inch speaker and the horn-loaded design, but the benefits far outweighed any shortcomings. Also, the speaker cabinet, which stood approximately five feet tall, would vibrate and resonate in all directions like the body of an upright bass. At low volumes, Jaco could make his fretless Jazz sound exactly like an upright bass."

Jaco's early years collection of Rhythm & Blues records.

"The pre-amp had some unique qualities too, specifically the 'veri-amp' setting," adds Bobbing. "I remember us having to set it just right to get the amp to really pop. This helped Jaco to get those funky 16th note grooves to pop with almost a percussive effect. And because this new amp had plenty of bass, Jaco would use only his bridge pickup on his Fender Jazz bass to make it tighter. He also played directly over the bridge pickup too; that was very important. That is, until later on when he would play jazz gigs, which called for a little different touch and approach.

The Acoustic amp, combined with the sound of his Fender Jazz Bass, the muting technique he got from Carlos Garcia, and Rotosound round wound strings, all helped to give Jaco his unique sound. It was a tighter, punchier sound with longer notes. That became Jaco's voice on the instrument.

While Jaco had been been playing his 1966 Fender Jazz bass exclusively since his stint with Las Olas Brass, he acquired his first pre-CBS Fender bass (a black 1960 Fender Jazz bass) as the result of a trade he would make with Bobbing in exchange for his upright bass. It was fitted with two stack-knob pots for volume and tone, one for each of the single-coil pickups. After receiving the bass, Jaco replaced the concentric pots with the controls that were standard on all Fender Jazz basses made after 1961—two pickup volumes and a single tone control. [As he told me later in an interview, "The circuits within the concentric knobs just didn't seem to have enough punch. In a studio or a nightclub setting where you're playing straight-ahead jazz with just a pianist and a drummer, it sounds great. But when you're playing in a larger musical environment with a loud band, the bass just doesn't cut through. You end up having to turn your amp up too loud, and you wear out the amp that way."]

By the summer of 1970, Tracy and Jaco were wed. "I don't remember the exact date," says Tracy, "because we weren't into that sort of thing then. But we were both 18 at the time." They had been committed to each other all through high school and were living together when Tracy became pregnant earlier that year.

As brother Gregory confides, "Jaco didn't believe in the convention of marriage. You know, it was part of that whole '60s hippie aesthetic. But they ended up getting married when Tracy was pregnant, more to please my Mom, I think, than for themselves."

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."

Sometime that summer of '71, Jaco pulled the frets out of the black '60 Fender Jazz bass he had acquired from Bob Bobbing. "It was just an experiment," Bobbing recalls. "The neck always buzzed a bit when I owned it and this couldn't be adjusted out without raising the action really high. The frets were the real thin ones and up the neck they were totally worn down, so Jaco carefully removed them by tapping them out. I think he initially intended on replacing those frets immediately, but instead he strung the bass back up and played it that night at a gig with Tommy Strand at Mr. T's on Commercial Boulevard. The fretless didn't seem to have enough punch and clarity for a funk gig, and he had some trouble playing it in tune."

Though the experiment was daring, the results proved frustrating for Jaco and he ended up refretting the bass the following day. He would continue playing fretted Fender Jazz bass with Tommy Strand & The Upper Hand for the duration of his tenure with the band. Gregory recalls spending the remainder of that summer of '71 with Jaco and Tracy and their newborn daughter Mary in Ocean City, Maryland, where Tommy Strand & the Upper Hand had a rare extended engagement.

Jaco continued to play with the Strand band, which represented a steady source of income for him, through June of 1972. At that point, another golden opportunity was about to present itself to Jaco which would significantly alter his career course.

Learn more about Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius.

© 2005, Bill Milkowski.

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