Jaco Pastorius: a documentary



Here and here are the first two parts of "Punk Jazz", an absolutely tremendous documentary about Jaco Pastorius. It's presented by Charles Shaar Murray and was produced by Steven Shepherd. Here are Steve's recollections:


Making Punk Jazz

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes. I've never heard anyone say that you shouldn't make radio programmes about them but I'd say that it's equally good advice. "Punk Jazz" nearly killed me (mind you, nearly everything I made nearly killed me). In retrospect I realise that my problem was that I only pitched ideas that I was personally invested in. Luckily, commissioning editors back then were sympathetic to me and the documentaries I offered: Lenny Bruce, Jaco, John Zorn, The Westbrooks, Moondog, Wayne Shorter, Randy Newman to name a few.

Jaco Pastorius was especially close to my heart. My younger brother Jason was a bass player and loved Jaco. We would spend hours listening to and analysing his LPs. Then in 1990, suddenly and unexpectedly, Jason died. He was 22. I had just started working for the BBC. It took me a few years to get back on track. When I did, telling Jaco's story was high on my list of priorities. 

I can't over-emphasise the anxiety and sense of responsibility I felt embarking on documentary portraits. For one thing it is unlikely anyone else will get a chance to make a show about the same person for at least a decade (a rule of commissioning back in the 1990s). Then there is the feeling that you mustn't let the subject down with a superficial or crass treatment of their life and work.  Finally there is general self-doubt and terror (what qualifies me to tell this story?).

Jaco's story is a tragedy and I approached his family with care. My detailed knowledge and obvious love of his music helped. His father Jack, brothers Rory and Greg and eventually his daughter Mary, who had not spoken before about her dad, were all open and candid. Mary even put me in touch with the psychiatrist who treated Jaco in New York. In addition, all of  the musicians I approached from Don Alias to Joe Zawinul (including, as you'll hear, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter) were keen to talk about a man they knew and universally considered a "musical genius".

The choice for presenter was easy.  I had worked with Charles Shaar Murray on my Lenny Bruce documentary. He is extremely hip, lightning quick and a wonderful writer. He also has a humbling knowledge of music and of society in general. Critic as radical sociologist, that's Charles.

When I returned from my travels, on this occasion New York and Florida, I spent weeks transcribing hours of tape into notebooks and cross-referencing them. A structure emerged over time and when I had something rough and manageable I met with Charles to listen and discuss the script. We aimed to allow most of the story to be told by the subjects themselves. Then there was the problem of featuring as much of the music as possible. Think four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. David Chilton at Essential Music in Soho was and probably still is the best sound designer in the business.

There are no famous fans in the series; those big-name celebrity talking heads who plague  documentaries. Having someone like Sting in this kind of show is something you do to sex-up the pitch for the commissioning editors. It can work but once you've been commissioned you are stuck with people more famous and less interesting than your subject telling everyone how much they liked Lenny or Jaco or Randy. In my opinion it's a cynical and deathly practice that blights the genre.

Anyway, that's probably way too much information about the process. It's time to learn about Jaco Pastorius who, thirty-three years after his death and a quarter of a century after this four-part series was originally aired, is still arguably "the greatest bass player in the world".



Steve Shepherd writes poems and takes photographs. He used to make radio programmes, mostly jazz. Charles Shaar Murray is a journalist and a writer of books which include Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop (Canongate Books), Shots From The Hip (Aaaargh! Press) and Boogie Man: Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American 20th Century (Canongate Books).