Jaco saved my life

Happy birthday to the incomparable Jaco Pastorius!

I spent countless hours, as a developing drummer, playing along with Weather Report and Jaco solo albums, hoping to catch a mustard seeds’ worth of the genius that emanated from those sessions. During my ’85-’86 pilgrimage to the Big Apple jazz mecca I actually got to play with Jaco for somewhere between 15 and 28 seconds.

Desperate for a gig, I scoured the Village Voice for any mention of an open jam session and saw a listing for a late night jam at the Barry Harris Jazz Cultural Theater. The sessions started at the other-worldly hour of 3:00 a.m. You had to pay to sit-in, $2.00 per tune. I ponied up $4.00 for two tunes.

The first rhythm section of nameless hopefuls was called to the bandstand. “On drums, Scott Lanima…Lerninge…Lameingham.” Inspite the butchering of my name, I could hardly contain my excitement. “This is NYC,” I thought. “These cats are gonna burn!”

“So what are we gonna play?” I inquired.

“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” announced the pianist with all the enthusiasm of a comatose mummy.

What? I move to New York with no job, regularly hike four flights to a roach-infested rent controlled closet (ie. one-room apartment), subject my nose to the aroma of the Manhattan subway system, and this guy calls Don’t Get Around Much Anymore?

He counts the tune off so slow that I can measure the space between each beat by counting to ten in Spanish. Piano, guitar, and bass take four or five choruses each and just as I think the end is near I notice a line a sax players along the wall waiting for their opportunity to stretch this tired lounge number into the next millennium. After fifteen minutes of Don’t Get Around I’m ready to thrust a drumstick through my ear and end it all. Then suddenly, we tag it. I don’t think I would have felt more relief if I’d just crossed the finish line at an Iron Man contest in Death Valley.

“Alright, now let’s really swing one or do a Latin thing!” I blurted out.

“Satin Doll,” droned the pianist. “Ah ooonnnee, ah twwwwooooo, ah one, twoooo threeeeeeeee, fooouuurrrrrrrr.”

Back to hell we went as the growing line of sinister saxists reassembled like Kindergartners waiting for the field trip bus. I thought, “I’m being being punished by an unseen hierarchical jazz tribunal for harboring unrealistic and premature career expectations. I will now die playing Satin Doll at the Barry Harris Jazz Cultural Theater on the lower east side of Manhattan at 3:30 a.m. on a weeknight as the tempo drags down to the point of creating the equivalent of a rhythmical black hole. I feel the band being sucked in now. AAAAAHHHHHHH!”

Suddenly, the front door to the club swung open. Standing in the rain, silhouetted against the darkness stood a haunting, powerful figure sporting a cape and shouldering a large weapon. I might have guessed Keanu Reeves promoting The Matrix, but that film hadn’t come out yet. As the mysterious figure stepped into the dim light of the club, a gasp went up from the few of us in attendance who were unfamiliar with the latest antics of the by-then declining Jaco Pastorius. There he stood in a trench coat (what I had mistaken for a cape), drenched to the bone with his bass strapped on (the assumed weapon) and ready to play. It was a surreal image. I thought, “If anyone can pull me back from the precipice of the lounge abyss, it is Jaco.” In a way, I was right, for Jaco chose to drive right over the precipice and mow down this extreme lounge moment with an even more extreme moment of his own.

As he strode defiantly through the crowd, boos and hisses began to cascade over the room. “What is this outrage?” I wondered. “Why are they disrespecting this great jazz pioneer?” Later I would learn that the behavior I was about to witness was becoming regular Jaco fare at the Barry Harris. But all I knew was, Jaco had come to save me. He mounted the stage in the middle of the Satin Doll-induced hypnosis, plugged into channel 2 of the guitarist’s amp, and exploded into a Jimi Hendrix impression as if he were Spartacus liberating the slaves. The pianist, guitarist and bassist left the stage in disgust, the crowd booed ever more loudly, and Jaco turned to me like we were on stage at Newport. He had that “JAM WITH ME!” look in his bloodshot eyes.

I jammed. Together, we made short order of Satin Doll in a glorious 20 or so seconds of chaotic speed, volume, and an tsunami of notes. Then the power was cut and the drum sticks were confiscated. “You’re done!” I was scolded by Roy Hanes, Jr., son of the famous senior. “You got that right,” I retorted. “I’ve been liberated!”

As I walked from the club I couldn’t resist the impulse to speak to the phantom bass freedom fighter who stood near the door, Fender still strapped on, chatting with a friend.

“Jaco…I;”

“You played your ass off!” he said, swinging around and delivering the less than original jazz compliment in one uninterrupted motion. Of course, our brief duet was more like shock treatment than music. But a good 110 volt surge was what had been needed, even though by now the room had already recovered its lethargic tone and drifted off into another mind-numbing marathon of a tune.

I saw Jaco a few nights later at the LoneStar Cafe. He’d actually said, “Come and sit in with my band,” and I was naive enough to expect a delivery on the invitation. I found him sitting alone at a table during a break and approached to say hello. As before, he cut me off in mid sentence. Placing his finger to his lips he said, “ssssshhhhh.” I paused, opened my mouth, and began to whisper. “Sssshhhh, ” he came again, this time with his eyes closed. Then he got up and walked away.

I never saw him again.

But that’s alright. Jaco saved my life.

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