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Remembering the rhythm: Fans celebrate life of Jaco Pastorius

Tammy Goss is sitting on a park bench in a small patch of green wedged between Dixie Highway and the FEC railroad tracks. Staring down from the southeast wall of the corner community center is a huge blue-toned mural of a man’s face, his fingers curled around an electric bass guitar. She knows his name.

“Jaco Pastorius, I think,” said Goss, 45.

But that’s all she really knows about John Francis Pastorius III.

“I don’t remember him," admitted Goss, as she drags on a cigarette. “I guess he was before my time or something. So I’m not really sure what he did."

Johnny Boston says he hangs out in the park nearly everyday. He’s seen Pastorius’ name on a sign.

"And that’s who that dude is?" asks Boston, 57. “I didn’t know he was a musician."

Pastorius’ lightning-fast fingering and use of harmonics elevated the electric bass guitar from rhythm section pulse to a virtuoso’s instrument. He toured with jazz fusion band Weather Report and Joni Mitchell and won two Grammy nominations for his own debut album in 1977.

Unfamiliar to many but beloved by a solid group of devotees spanning generations and musical genres, Pastorius will have a tribute concert from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday marking the 25th year since his death. The concert, “A Tribute to Jaco,” will take place at Jaco Pastorius Park, 4000 N. Dixie Hwy. in Oakland Park.

The namesake park is a good start but much more is deserved, said Oakland Park resident Robert Rutherford, who in 2005 started a petition drive to name the seven-acre park near the railroad tracks after his musical hero.

“I think it could be a catalyst to more things in the future," said Rutherford, who is now throwing all his energy behind another grass-roots effort: a petition drive for a Jaco Pastorius commemorative postage stamp.

The spirit of Pastorius lives through devotees such as the four members of the Miami progressive metal band Neolythyc. All are 17 years old, born nearly a decade after Pastorius’ death. The band is among performers scheduled for Saturday’s concert.

Neolythyc bass player Jerry Caceres refers to Pastorius as "one of the old homies from down the block."

"He’s my dawg!” said Caceres, who sports a long mane of Jaco-ish hair. “He took a lot of trumpet leads, like in the be-bop days, and played it on the bass. And that’s amazing. To have that kind of speed."

In the late ’60’s, at just about the same age as the kids in Neolythyc, Pastorius was playing every gig he could get in South Florida, and earning the chops that would make him the most influential jazz fusion bass player of his time. Over a relatively short recording career, he managed to leave behind a huge body of work. But the guys in Neolythyc are unanimous when asked about their favorite Pastorius composition, Portrait of Tracy, recorded in 1976.

In Pastorius’ musical prime, the bi-polar disorder that plagued him all his life began to quell his incandescent talent. The illness often revealed itself in irrational behavior that left his fellow musicians baffled.

After struggling for years with the illness, the trail-blazing musician who performed with jazz fusion giants Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock ended up homeless on the streets of Fort Lauderdale.

In September 1987, after trying to force his way into a Wilton Manors nightclub, Pastorius was beaten by the bouncer on duty. He died nine days later, Sept. 21, at age 35.

But Rutherford said Pastorius was more magic than tragic. And he hears that in the music.

"I can picture flocks of ibis flying in the morning or in the evening back to roost,” Rutherford said. “You know, it’s going to be different for everyone how they interpret these songs. But the place and his music are so intertwined, they’re inseparable."