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

Bill Milkowski By

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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.
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