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They called him "the Jimi Hendrix of the bass." Jaco Pastorius (pronounced "jock-oh") took an instrument normally confined to the rhythm section and brought it out front. He's probably best known for his work in the band Weather Report in the 1970s, with whom he helped define the jazz-fusion sound. By the '80s, however, bipolar disorder had damaged his relationships, and a man who'd filled stadiums ended up on the streets, homeless. The musician died violently at the age of 35, beaten into a coma as he tried to sneak into a rock club.
A new documentary about his life is out Dec. 1, simply called Jaco. The film's producer is someone who modeled his own playing after the late musician's: Robert Trujillo, who made his name with the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies and in 2003 took over bass duties in Metallica.
"To see a person take command of the stage and the audience, and specifically a bass player, was really exciting," Trujillo says. "And just the fact that he looked like guys that I looked up to — he was doing backflips on stage, you know? That's usually rock 'n' rollers, and here's Jaco Pastorius. People tried to call him just a jazz cat, but he was beyond that. He was rock 'n' roll, he was jazz, he was everything."
Trujillo spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the highs and lows of his hero's brief life and career. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
Michel Martin: A lot of people are interested in how an artist kind of comes into his own — and there's a great story in the film about Jaco finding his voice about the birth of his first child. His brother Gregory explains, "When Mary was born, Jaco and I went to the hospital and were looking at her through the glass. And Jaco looks at me and goes, 'Gregory, I gotta do something on the electric bass that's never been done before.'"
Robert Trujillo: Jaco Pastorius gave the bass a new voice. I mean he was very inspired by singers like Frank Sinatra. And in a lot of ways, maybe he wanted to be a singer himself. With the fretless bass, you have a different tone and different sound, a different dynamic to the instrument, so you can really make it sing. I always say that when I first heard "Portrait of Tracy," it really changed my life, because I didn't know what kind of instrument it was.
The other big breakthrough came when the group Weather Report took off. That band had a couple of jazz giants and former Miles Davis sidemen; Wayne Shorter was one of them, and Joe Zawinul. When did the bipolar disorder begin to change things for him?
Well, I would say probably around Weather Report. When you're bringing in the alcohol, and whatever else was going on, that doesn't usually sit well with people that have that condition. He wasn't like a drug-addict type of guy; that wasn't what was going on here. He was an artist, and there just was not that awareness. At the same time, people tried to help, and he was just such a determined individual that he didn't want help.
In the film, Wayne Shorter suggests that maybe his bipolar disorder was a part of his genius. That's kind of a controversial thing, the kind of thing that a lot of people — families, even — might argue about. I'm not a medical professional, but as an artist yourself, what do you think about that?
Well, some say that without that, maybe there would be either distractions or more walls and barriers against what you will try to do. A lot of times, whether it's in sports or art or music, it's the ones where people say, "Oh, that person's crazy." It's not that. It's the fact that they're the ones that are actually going for it. They're trying to do something new and progressive and different. They're changing the landscape of creativity, and they're fearless. And Jaco was that — he was fearless. If he wanted to learn something, he was determined, so he would go to the best to learn it. He would show up at someone's doorstep if he knew that they could teach him. And the next thing you know, he's staying with that person for a week or so, and he's learning from them and jamming, becoming better, becoming great. So putting yourself in those types of situations, some would say that's a part of bipolar disorder. Maybe, maybe not. But I believe that you are more daring and more fearless sometimes with that.
The film has some amazing interviews and some amazing footage, but it also is deeply sad. There's a moment where one of Jaco's bandmates, Bobby Thomas, recounts a conversation from when they were both pretty young. He says Jaco started crying and said, "Listen, I'm going to die when I turn 34. And I would like you to look after my babies." And he did die young — he died on Sept. 21, 1987. What happened?
Well, you know, Jaco was beaten — to death. And what led up to that, we're not so sure. There's different accounts, so it's a bit of a mystery. You know, sometimes artists die young and we don't know exactly why.
I think that in life, you have these special individuals, whether it's Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain. They're on this journey, they're on this earth to change things, to make things incredible — and then they're not with us anymore. And Jaco didn't just recreate the instrument: I mean, he was so special and he was such a genius and a true talent. Sometimes it's just so much. There's just so much there. And I don't know why, but they can't stay with us, you know? It's just one of those things. And Jaco was a part of that legion. You know, he came from that mold.
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