JACO: The Genius That Is


It’s 1976 and the greats of music are redefining everything we know about contemporary music: from James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Hendricks to Elvis. Along comes a completely unknown musician who will pretty much change the face of music for decades to come. Born in 1951, John Francis Anthony Pastorius (his mother gave him the name Jaco) would become one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 70s and the 80s.

The documentary JACO is a heartfelt and personal journey that takes you through the becoming and unbecoming of this passionate artist, who lived and breathed his music. Filmmakers Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak do a stellar job, with their use of extensive archival footage (most of it 8 mm), photos and other recordings to bring us the celebrated life and tragic end of Jaco.

Jaco started out when he couldn’t even land an easy gig, yet he was always ready to break the rules and create music that was his own, defined by his own beats. He didn’t have the support system that an artist needs to sustain and create their art. Notwithstanding his struggles, from the get go there was no doubt in his mind that he was the best. Enough that someone remembers meeting his wife Tracy and she introduces herself as the wife of the greatest bass artists in the world, and when Jaco shows up he seconds the compliment.

From the early days, when he was on tour, Jaco would be seen travelling around with three t-shirts and two corduroy jeans. He would save every penny and send it home to his family. He was always aware that in addition to being the musician he was, he was also a ‘travelling dad’. A friend recounts that when Jaco first saw the face of his newborn daughter, he remembers Jaco having said, ‘I have to do something on the electric bass that has never been done before.’



Jaco would rise to sudden and unprecedented fame after he landed a record deal in New York and came out with his first album Jaco Pastorius in 1976. This puts him front and center in the music world and is to this day considered one of the best-recorded jazz albums.

He goes on to work with different artists of the time and continues to make groundbreaking ‘sounds’. It wasn’t till 1981 when on a tour of Japan that the first signs of his bizarre behaviour surfaced. Jaco was also in the midst of breaking up with his wife, who had been his home and comfort for a very long time. Personal troubles and his own emotional traumas took hold and Jaco would never be able to totally recover from them.

The film engages you as the unraveling of this extremely talented artist unfolds. Jaco is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and his back and forth from hospitals to therapy. His personal charm and ability to connect with people remains legendary; that even at the medical facility where he spent his first few weeks, he was able to connect with patients like no one else. Multiple colleagues, friends, and contemporaries credit Jaco for being able to communicate his music to even the average person on the street. And that perhaps was his genius.

With his solo album Word of Mouth (1981), his music became very intimate and has audible references to his tumultuous emotional self. The film’s use of personal narratives of various friends and colleagues gives varied insight into the life of the man.

In the years that followed, Jaco was living on the street for many weeks for a stretch and things only got worse. At a Carlos Santana concert in 1987, he is forcibly removed after he jumped on stage mid-performance. Later that evening he is found fatally injured after having been in a fight with a bouncer of a club he was trying to get into. Jaco succumbed to his injuries right after. The film ends on a somber note but the reverberations of this man’s music don’t cease.

The film is now playing at Cinema du Parc in collaboration with the Montreal Jazz Festival.