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Jaco Pastorius: How One Oakland Parker Changed Music Forever


Tucked behind Funky Buddha brewery on Dixie Highway is a space that, to many, is the heart of Oakland Park.

If you’ve been to any of our cultural festivals, Holiday Village, movie nights, or food events you know the iconic fountain and archway that lead into Jaco Pastorius Park.

You know the name, which is pronounced “Jocko” by the way, and you know the face courtesy of the enormous murals adorning the building – but have you ever wondered about the man himself? Or wondered why the park is named after him?

According to a former Oakland Park resident Jaco Pastorius is “the most important musician you might never have heard of.” If the bass in a song just hits different – you’ve got Jaco to thank for it.

(Yup, even the sky is a fan of Pastorius!)

The Man Behind The Mural

John Francis Pastorius III (“Jaco” to his friends) grew up right here in Oakland Park. Before he became arguably the greatest bass player to ever live, he was just a normal South Florida kid. He was an altar boy at St. Clements and a student at Northeast High. As a young adult, he had a job teaching bass at the University of Miami.

The child of a jazz drummer, Jaco was a passionate percussionist at a very early age but a wrist injury when he was thirteen forced him into surgery – and into another instrument. He picked the bass, and the seeds for a legend were planted.

Our city has a way of working its magic on people, though, as Jaco would soon learn.

When he first started playing, Pastorius focused on the upright bass since he had fallen in love with the deep tones and aspired to be a jazz musician. The Oakland Park weather said no.

According to him, the South Florida humidity made it impossible to maintain the enormous wooden instrument. Eventually it cracked, so he traded it for an electric bass and began to play and compose. This would have been about 1969.

By 1970 he was already playing with bands that would go down in history. By 1974, he was recording albums that focused on his work. In 1976 he began playing with folk legend Joni Mitchell. 1976 was also the year he released his solo album: Jaco Pastorius.

It’s that album people point to as the turning point in music history – and it came just a few years after he first picked up an electric bass.

Before Jaco, bass didn’t know what it was.

So What Made Jaco Different?

Once again, the answer starts with Oakland Park.

Before Pastorius hit the scene, bass players typically hung out in the back and played as part of the rhythm section. Their job was to thump a beat, or maybe to funk things up a bit if that’s the kind of music they were playing. The instrument was low key and behind-the-scenes. Jaco didn’t play that way.

Jaco was a self-described beach bum whose younger brothers called him “Mowgli” after the Jungle Book character. He spent a lot of time doing what Florida kids do – enjoying nature, playing barefoot in the trees, and finding every excuse to get in the water.

Pastorius brought that uniquely relaxed and fun South Florida vibe with him to the stage. He often played barefoot and without a shirt, danced, did flips, and joked with the audience the way a front man would.

His charisma and creativity even came through in the revolutionary way he handled his instrument.

The expected bass thump often gave way to melodic, almost vocal sounds. Pastorius toyed with techniques that nobody had used before, resulting in a sound nobody had heard before.

Maybe one of the best examples of this is the way he used “false harmonics” – basically playing and stopping notes at the same time – to make the bass harmonize with itself.

Watch this live clip from a Weather Report concert in Germany, 1978. You can hear the oddly electronic sound of the bass harmonies, and Jaco’s unique style is showcased front and center.

His bare chest, headband, and brightly colored loose pants are a massive contrast to his bandmates muted tones and long sleeves.

Pastorius is undeniably Pastorius, right down to the playful vocal harmonizing on top of his already harmonic bassline.

He changed the face of electric bass playing forever and a great poet would be needed to attempt to describe it, so I will just remain humbly awe stricken like everyone else.

Music experts rank Jaco Pastorius and the way he played the bass right up there with the masters like Jimi Hendrix. So why isn’t he a household name?

Throughout Jaco’s life people attributed his wild behavior to him being a creative genius – which was true in some ways; but it was also true that he had bi-polar/manic-depressive disorder.

As he got older, drug and alcohol use worsened his mental health struggles and his behavior became increasingly erratic. It forced him away from the spotlight in the early 80’s. He was homeless for a while in the mid 80’s, but had found his way back home to South Florida by 1987.

According to his friends and family, being home both helped and hurt Jaco. He had support, but he had also developed a bad habit of provoking violence and allowing himself to be hit. That was the situation the night of his death in 1987.

He snuck on stage during a Santana concert in Sunrise and was removed from the premises. After making his way to a nearby bar, he kicked in a window and continued provoking people until an employee hit him. The resulting injuries lead to his death a few days later. He was only 35.

Many believe that this story would have ended differently with better mental health resources. One of them is Robert Trujillo, the bass player for Metallica. He put together a 2014 documentary about Pastorius.

The film is as much about the musician as it is someone’s struggle with manic depression. It has given me a huge amount of empathy and understanding, to the point where now, if I see a homeless person I see this whole story that could have led to that point.

Jaco Pastorius Park

In 2008, Oakland Park decided to honor our home-grown legend and open Jaco Pastorius park. The space is maybe best described as an open space to just enjoy Florida.

It’s an expansive triangular lawn lined with trees, a walking/jogging path, and a fountain that encourages you to play and walk under streams of water.

The space truly does encourage people to run and have fun outside for a while.

Pastorius’ spirit of joy, fun, and a deep love for Oakland Park live on in this space – a place we use to gather, celebrate, and share music, food, friends,and festivities. Those closest to him think it’s a perfect way for the legend to live on.


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