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Book Review

Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius: Deluxe Edition


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Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius: Deluxe Edition
Bill Milkwoski
Backbeat Books
ISBN 0-87930-859-1

In the 1982 film Blade Runner, Tyrel, the man responsible for designing the synthetic humans who are the focus of the story tells one of his aberrant replicants, Roy Batty, "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long—and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy." The same could be said for the late Jaco Pastorius who, in the space of a few short years not only redefined the role of the electric bass in contemporary jazz, but built a small but incredibly significant body of composed work that is still revisited often nearly 20 years after he was assaulted by Luc Havan, manager of the Midnight Bottle Club in Oakland Park Florida on September 11, 1987 (he was left in a coma for eight days, passing away without ever waking up on September 19).

Which story is the truth—Havan's account of simply throwing him out if his club, where he fell and hit his head, or the more supportable eyewitness account of a martial arts expert pummeling Pastorius multiple times in the head and leaving him broken and bleeding on the ground—is something that may never be conclusively known, but Bill Milkowski's updated and expanded edition of his 1995 book Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius actually goes a long way to clarifying many things about Jaco's life—and untimely death at the age of 35.

The bulk of Milkowski's new material bookends Jaco's years of fame, from the 1976 quadruple punch of his remarkable debut album, Jaco Pastorius (Epic,1976); his joining one of fusion's most popular groups Weather Report on Black Market (Columbia, 1976) for a run that would last through to 1982; his work on guitar icon Pat Metheny's debut as a leader, Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976); and the beginning of a four-year musical (and, at some points, personal) partnership with singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell on Hejira (Asylum, 1976), to the last album to truly demonstrate his sheer brilliance, Invitation (Warner Bros., 1983). Other than a significantly fleshed-out final chapter of testimonials from friends, family and musicians who either worked with him or were heavily affected by his work, it's Jaco's early years and his latter days that are the real focus of Milkowski's nearly 100 additional pages. If anything, this deluxe edition only makes Jaco's story more tragic, and begs the question as to how his bipolar disorder (i.e. manic depression), further fueled by drugs and alcohol, could have gone unnoticed and unchecked for so long that by the time it was clear there was a problem it was too late.

What's perhaps the most surprising aspect of Jaco's life is that, prior to 1976 when he played in a variety of touring groups based in Florida, despite being surrounded by countless musicians who both drank and abused drugs, Jaco's substance abusing didn't start until around the time he joined Weather Report. In some ways it would appear that this precocious bassist, who first introduced himself to Weather Report co-founder Joe Zawinul as "the world's greatest bassist," began running into trouble when the rest of the world began to agree with him. With a reputation for almost unfathomable technique (with legions of bassists still tearing it apart and analyzing it today) that never sacrificed musicality and groove, a broad stylistic reach that ranged from R&B to the avant-garde, one possible explanation for Jaco's increasingly aberrant behaviour is the sheer pressure that was first self-imposed, but then became a more external pressure when he literally burst into the spotlight in 1976. But what's closer to the truth is that these pressures acted as catalysts to a condition that already existed.

While not provable, it's highly likely that Jaco's illness emerged in his younger years, explaining his incredible energy and creative spark—for an interesting take on manic depression and creativity check out Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Free Press, 1993). At that time his energy was devoted to honing his craft and in healthier athletic pursuits. But once the substance abuse started, Jaco began experiencing the more conventional manifestation of the illness—the extreme mood swings that ranged from incredibly highs to completely abject lows. Unable to maintain personal relationships, and severely testing those of the musicians around him, Jaco's behaviour became more and more unpredictable, leading to an almost complete dissolution around 1983-1984, which was the beginning of a downslide from which he never recovered and, while not directly responsible for his death made it, in some ways, sadly inevitable.

The real tragedy is that treatment might have saved him, although better medications exist today that have far fewer side effects, and at the time, there were few choices. During the one period where he was committed to an institution and put on lithium he became so emotionally flat that, while his life might have ultimately been saved, one wonders whether his creative spirit would have been irrevocably impacted.

Milkowski's book was controversial when it was first released, and it may be even more so with this new edition. On the other hand, in the intervening years he's managed to obtain far more interview footage, making his take on Jaco's life and death less conjecture and more supportable fact. While Milkowski's style is eminently readable, the book is by no means an easy read, because when Jaco begins to slide the reader is taken right down with him. If one of Milkowski's goals is to hammer home the immensity of the tragedy, then it's an unequivocal success, as one is left feeling as hollow and empty as those who knew him did when he passed away.

As an added bonus to the book, a CD is included that's a 44-minute excerpt from the two-CD audio biography Portrait of Jaco (Holiday Park Records, 2003). While listening to a young Pastorius solo endlessly over an R&B vamp may be a little much, listening to Jaco's father, Wayne Cochran, Ira Sullivan, Bobby Economou, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock speak frankly about the late bassist is a terrific adjunct to Milkowski's own words.

There are those who suggest that speculating on what artists like Jaco, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker might have done had they lived longer to be pointless, implying that we should be grateful for what we have, for what legacy they did leave. And that may be true—certainly Jaco's brief legacy, which continues to be felt today, is more significant than that of many who have lived to a ripe old age. But after finishing Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius: Deluxe Edition one is left with such a powerful sense of loss that it's only natural to think about what he'd be doing today, had his illness been properly managed and his twice-as-bright creative spark left untarnished.

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