It was all Miles Davis’s fault. At least indirectly. The instigators, with their coinciding last names, were the singer Betty Davis, one of his wives, and the corporate shark Clive Davis, the president of CBS. She turned him on to the likes of Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic and other black musicians in rock and funk. He redirected the artist’s waning career toward the former genre and introduced him at festivals like Isle of Wight, and at the Fillmore and other cutting-edge venues in the rock circuit. The result was the double album Bitches Brew(1969), which revolutionized the jazz and rock markets, consummating the electrification process that the trumpet player had begun the year before. Bitches Brew was not only the beginning of a more polemic and explosive stage in Davis’s career, it was also the advent of a new genre, called jazz fusion, or jazz-rock, that triumphed in the 1970s.
The idea began with a bang. Davis’s electric discography is full of discoveries, tension and shamelessness; having let fly some fierce titles. The consequences of this red hot cocktail, and not exactly epic ones, were a different story. Most of the musicians who played on the trumpeter’s first fusion albums ended up creating their own projects. These included Return to Forever by Chick Corea and the Mahavishnu Orchestra by John McLaughlin, nearly all of which were signed by CBS, thus creating a monopoly on an audience that was blown away by the outpouring of virtuosity, velocity and decibels recorded in this unknown territory. It’s no wonder they broke away. Those years were characterized by excess; in every sense, but especially in rock music. At a time when the symphonic formula was in full swing, it aspired to the same respect that was usually reserved for classical music and jazz. That’s eventually how the crossover, although it was one-sided, introducing rock audience to the likes of Mussorgsky or Miles Davis himself, bred a new dogma: music as a science – and the more cerebral and excessive, the better. Musical theory alone wouldn’t cut it. It seemed like you also had to be a civil engineer if you were interested in playing fusion.
Along with the dinosaurs of the old guard, jazz fusion (in Spain mainly picked up by the “Ona Laietana” movement in Barcelona and by Andalusian rock), symphonic rock and prog rock – the latter, without cause – were all subject to the wrath and contempt of punk, despite the emergence of the punk jazz style. That makes it all the more unique how coincidentally Jaco Pastorius advanced the safety-pin-wearing ethos on a metaphysical plane, from his place at the heart of jazz fusion. To begin with, he died young, at 36, beaten down in a street brawl. Hot-headed, antisocial, dismissed by the big industry, by 1987 he was seriously down and out. He was barely scraping by, sleeping on park benches, and suffering from bipolar disorder aggravated by alcohol and drugs, as well as from his overflowing talent. A sad end for one of the most gifted musicians in the jazz fusion trade, who had never had any need for modesty. He used to say he was the best bass player in the world. But underneath his arrogance, there was a convoluted and tortured soul, a shy and fragile personality, and a profound sadness that groaned with the anguish of broken machinery.
Produced by Robert Trujillo, bassist for Metallica, the lazily titled Jaco: A Documentary Film provides a scholastic portrait, delving into Pastorius’s vulnerable persona and the vicissitudes of his life. He was a genius with the pretensions of a mega-star, and you could forgive him for just about all of it because he had the music flowing in his veins, as a cornball would say. A lack of understanding on the part of his record companies, his inner demons, his mental state, and an innate ability to ruin opportunities – look no further than Trio of Doom, the superband he put together with John McLaughlin and the drummer Tony Williams – slowly but surely suffocated him. Along with the envy of certain of his friends. For example, the pianist Joe Zawinul, the front man of Weather Report, one of the banner bands of jazz fusion – perhaps the most paradigmatic and personal of the groups that emerged from the “Davisian” enclave, and where Pastorius would make a name for himself – is painted in a despicable light in the documentary. He shows nothing but scorn for the bassist, the exhibitionist, the born showman, with his Hendrix-like ostentation and his extraordinary sensitivity. But Pastorius took the worst blow when his solo career was obstructed by Warner’s nearsightedness – too afraid that the composer’s eclecticism, the risks he took, would elude the everyday consumer, accustomed to the circus antics of a bass player who was so much more than a bass player.
Jaco Pastorius with Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report.
This business disagreement was compounded by Pastorius’s constant dissatisfaction, as an eternal perfectionist, hastening the ravages of his bipolarism. His decline was stunning. The fame that had gone to his head hit rock bottom, resulting in an exemplary self-destruction, which fueled the legend of the man who had redefined his instrument like someone who discovers a new way of writing, leaving his mark on various subsequent generations including greats like Bootsy Collins. In a trade that is rife with technical narcissism and out-of-control egos, a showcase of going over-the-top, a flying trapeze show for ambitious money-hungry aerialists, Pastorius ate them all alive, including himself in the end, in a tragic demonstration of auto-cannibalism. Jaco: A Documentary Film breaks down this feast of Baroque mastery by probing into the offshoots of his career outside the area of jazz, into the bordering neighborhoods of rock and pop – he worked with the great , Wayne Cochran, with Ian Hunter and with Joni Mitchell– while paying careful attention to his private life as well, which was idyllic for a time, according to what his closest family members have said.
Stratified in stills from the film like a ghost that won’t be chased away, his eyes have the look of a helpless little animal, a poor lost mutt imagining his fate as a stray while the rain pounds down on his back. And it brings up lingering questions that neither medical diagnoses nor the curiosity of the camera can answer. Hanging in the air, there is a feeling that Pastorius was suffering from something like what the sexual hygenist Max Von Gruner summed up with the aphorism omne animal post coitum triste est. All animals feel sadness after sex. And rightly so; he’d had one hell of a creative orgy.