She resembles most anyone else her age–a slightly pale office clerk in her early 50s with thick frames perched high on the bridge of her nose, conservatively dressed in faded blue jeans and a black blazer. Her long gray hair falls over the coat, swinging freely below her generous shoulders. Her smile is huge.
It’s not a stretch to picture her some 30 years ago at Woodstock, the brilliant blonde hair that radiates in her teenage snapshots brightening a dreary Yasgur’s Farm. But she wasn’t there.
“I didn’t even know who Crosby, Stills & Nash were until about two years ago,” she laughs loudly, bending her head forward to catch her breath. “We were always listening to Miles and Coltrane, Miles and Coltrane. He wouldn’t let me listen to any of that ‘rock n’ roll stuff’ except Jimi Hendrix.”
The “he” is her ex-husband, a musically obsessed, Pennsylvania-born, South Florida-bred punk son of a good-timin’ jazz musician. They’ve been divorced 24 years. He, a father of four, has been dead nearly 16, beaten to death in a one-sided donnybrook, courtesy of a black-belt bouncer at a scandalous Ft. Lauderdale all-night watering hole.
His name was Jaco Pastorius.
Tracy Sexton was just a 15-year old girl–painfully shy, captivatingly gorgeous–cruising the Ft. Lauderdale strip late one night in a friend’s Ford Galaxy when she spotted him, a confident young artist, strutting along in a T-shirt on which he, an aspiring architect, had sketched the local black rhythm n’ blues station’s logo–an alligator in shades wailing away on a saxophone.
“He was just walking along with a friend, so we stopped and offered them a ride. He jumped straight into the back seat with me. So we parked for a little while, and my friend and this other guy were already making out,” Tracy says, the memory flickering across her face with a smile. “Jaco and I just went and sat on the beach and talked for hours and hours.”
The two immediately found common ground. Like Jaco, Tracy had been raised in sheer penury, suffering through “the short and simple annals of the poor” at the hands of a father more passionate about his liquor and music than his wife. When Jaco professed his love for music to Tracy, she bolted, already too familiar with the loathsome financial plight of the musician to consider marrying one. But Jaco didn’t get the point. Then, and for most of his life, he was tenacious, applying his never-give-up mantra in the relentless pursuit of gigs and a girlfriend.
“During school, he would walk up and down the halls and just end up outside my classroom window, leaning against a wall and pretending he wasn’t even looking at me! I guess he was telling us he was a little bit crazy back then, too,” Tracy hazards, her smile momentarily lapsing into a frown as she considers the miserable truth of her words.
That Pastorius resilience paid off, as Tracy “got hooked,” surrendering to a 12-year, all-or-nothing whirlwind of a romance. They dated throughout high school, Tracy playing the shy girlfriend as Jaco, named “Most Talented” as a senior for his artistic musings, learned more and more each day what music meant to him and–ultimately–just what he meant to music. He began to play any instrument anywhere someone needed a musician, picking up the bass just so he could join his favorite local act, Las Olas Brass. Still, Jaco would sit in on drums at the area’s black clubs for a dollar a night at the age of 15, or he would fume on the sax at The Downbeat Club well past midnight.
Jaco and Tracy married at 18, surviving by scraping, saving and living in a low-rent efficiency house in someone’s backyard. She worked oddball hours as a telephone operator while he struggled to find work that actually paid, on the local circuit. Disgusted by the thought of a humdrum life, Jaco gladly quit the only regular day job he’d ever had after a month. His college plans for architecture never developed, and he never went back to his first music theory class after his teacher snapped, “But you just can’t write a song like that.”
A year after the birth of their first child, Mary, Wayne Cochran–the man behind the band that inspired Dan Akroyd and John Belushi to create The Blues Brothers–invited Jaco to go out on the road as his bassist.
“Only if I can take my wife and kid,” Jaco told him.
So with a toddler in tow, Tracy and Jaco joined the scintillating ranks of The C.C. Riders. They lived on a tour bus, going from town to town as a troupe of some 11 musicians, their wives and children. The setting provided Pastorius with a newfound musical urgency. He was compelled to compose, to innovate, to revolutionize. While everyone slept as the bus swept across a highway late at night, he plugged his bass into a small amp through primordial headphones and practiced. He began composing with the aegis of The Riders’ director Charlie Brent, scrawling charts for his first originals on the bus and in hotel rooms. His commitment to melody–inspired by his dad’s devotion to big bands and Frank Sinatra–blossomed with the outfit, as did his fleet, ovation-inducing solos. In a fit of inspiration (and what some call insanity), he pulled the frets from his only bass just before a Riders’ gig, creating the first fretless electric bass. He constantly experimented with epoxies and sands, as he worked to develop the earliest slide and harmonic techniques for the newfangled instrument.
After nine months with The Riders, Jaco returned to South Florida with his family, settling in an apartment above a Laundromat. While Tracy was pregnant with their second child, John, Jaco played and wrote with trumpeter Ira Sullivan for two years, gradually composing pieces like “Continuum” and incessantly fiddling with harmonic progressions, chords and a custom-made acoustic bass. Most evenings, he played with the revered Peter Graves Orchestra, even convincing them to perform and record his “Domingo.” When he was free, Jaco automatically headed to nearby Criteria Studios, cutting demos of his work late into the night with friend and former Las Olas Brass saxophonist, Alex Sadkin (Bob Marley, Duran Duran).
After a set at Bachelor’s III with the Orchestra, Jaco proudly announced to Tracy–by then, a stay-at-home mother with two toddlers–that he had found her a job.
“I want you to work as a cocktail waitress at Bachelor’s so you can develop a personality!” Jaco, who saw nothing queer about his statement at all, told his mortified wife.
Tracy reluctantly said yes, terrified more and more each night of the skimpy garb she had to wear at the bar. Though she would quit after only a few weeks, that job was as important as any either one of them would ever have. One night, during a Blood, Sweat & Tears gig, Bobby Colomby–by then not only the drummer for the explosive funk unit, but also a producer for Epic Records–hit on Tracy, making small talk with her. Proudly, she proclaimed, “My husband is the greatest bass player in the world!”
Intrigued, Colomby asked to meet this alleged phenomenon. Jaco, who firmly believed everything Tracy had said, agreed to play for Colomby. Not long after the first few songs, Colomby made the necessary calls and pronounced that Jaco Pastorius–an unknown bass player out of Florida with only a few obscure, scattered album credits–would be his first Epic client.
Pastorius soon headed to Colomby’s home studio in New York to record his first album, Jaco Pastorius, and as Tracy puts it, “Nothing was ever quite the same.”
The debut was a musical smash. An opening take on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” takes simplicity to the stratosphere and back again, though the awe-inspiring combination of Herbie Hancock on keys and Pastorius riding the bass for “(Used to be a) Cha-Cha” still reigns as a benchmark for not only playing jazz, but also for composing jazz–amateur college professor be damned! His fingers pranced along, coddling the essence out of extravagant melodies through a six-string bass in precedent-defying conceptual leaps and bounds that left most guitarists and virtually all bassists scratching their heads and adjusting their jaws–especially during those transcendent moments like the harmonically-borne piece de resistance, “Portrait of Tracy.”
“Jaco’s practicing never bothered me at all, but it could be really boring … watching him run through scales and fool with one thing for hours. But one day, he started playing this melody, and I remember it was just so beautiful,” says Tracy of the song that bears her name. “He played it whenever I took a bath, so I used to call it my ‘Bathtub Melody.’ I didn’t even know it was called ‘Portrait of Tracy’ until the night the album came out.”
With the release of his debut recording, Jaco exploded into a series of sold-out gigs, brilliant collaborations and star-studded parties. He was continually amazed with the faces he encountered backstage–Leo Sayer, Billy Dee Williams, Joni Mitchell. But the star-studded galas and the critical raves brought mounting pressure. Jaco’s ego–alive and well most of his life–grew with each celebrity appearance and with each well-received tour. He joined the seminal fusion band Weather Report for their legendary 1976-77, one-two punch of Black Market and Heavy Weather. In 1978, he spent some 280 days on the road while Tracy minded the children back in Florida. His relentless schedule, coupled with his escalating temper and vanity, led to their 1979 divorce.
“Who knows what was going on in his head?” says Tracy, a bit of regret in her voice. “I just thought he was being an egomaniacal jerk.”
But Jaco wasn’t just being a jerk. He was sick. In a few years, he would be diagnosed as a manic depressive, and, already, it was taking control of his life. He and Tracy lost touch for years at the time. He married her again, only to divorce her in three years. He fathered two more children, twins Felix and Julius. They never knew him. By the early 1980s, Jaco’s mental health had reached the point of sheer havoc. He moved to New York City, living in the streets and playing sporadically. Onstage, he seemed to be in total control; offstage, however, his behavior was erratic and illogical, leading some to dismiss his illness and to believe that his behavior was either a facade–a twisted ruse for attention–or the work of drugs.
“My Dad was a wild dude some times, but so what? So am I,” John Pastorius IV says in a rising, rapid-fire voice, cruising down a South Florida highway with a cell phone pressed to his ear. “But people would throw bags of cocaine at him when he didn’t want it and buy him a beer when he didn’t want to drink. It was hard being Jaco Pastorius.”
Things didn’t get any easier. Jaco returned to his hometown in 1987 after a particularly lucrative gig in Europe with more money in his pocket than he had ever had. He was feeling better, but the medication caused tremors in his hands. Jaco–the sheer perfectionist, fully aware and proud of his own prodigious talent–couldn’t deal with the physical weakness. He replaced the pills with alcohol, and–drinking through the night–he lost control. Jaco would storm into Tracy’s home and ask, with that uncanny, piercing gaze and startling voice, if they were still 16. When Tracy said yes, he would march out as he had marched in, only to reappear with the same inquiry weeks later.
Then, in September 1987, Tracy got the call. Rory, Jaco’s younger brother, called to inform her that Jaco had been beaten outside of a bar the night before. It was bad, but he didn’t know just how bad. Tracy left the kids at home and went to the hospital, staying by Jaco’s side for an entire week. A bouncer had mistaken a drunk and angry Jaco for a bum as he kicked the door asking to be let in to the bar; when Jaco ran, the man chased him several hundred yards. His face was literally crushed by the hands of a man who served four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“I just kept thinking he was going to wake up, that he would wake up and smile, and it would be fine,” Tracy says. “But he didn’t.”
They moved on. Mary was diagnosed with manic depression a year after her father’s murder. Initially with medicine, but now with a combination of yoga, poetry, art and family, she has only occasional relapses. Mary is working on an alternative rock album with her band, Queen Mary, and she plans to tour on the release. She is married with two children, Sophia and Francis. Jaco Pastorius, at last, has grandchildren. But he’ll never have a chance to know them.
John is the businessman and playboy of the bunch. He (along with a host of others) recently finished work with Jaco’s longtime bass pal, Bob Bobbing, on a two-disc, 13-years-in-the-making box set entitled Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years, 1968-1978, a sort of audio documentary that portrays Jaco’s bass playing and his personality at their peaks.
“The first time Bob played the finished product for me, I cried. I told him that I wouldn’t change a note, that it was beautiful, a masterpiece,” beams John, a bartender who manages Jaco Pastorius Inc. and sometimes forgets to call his mother.
Tracy Lee–who dropped both the Pastorius name and her family name of Sexton out of complete frustration with the musicians in her life–remarried two years before Jaco died, remaining in South Florida until her husband found a job in Research Triangle Park last year.
“I just plain love the Carolinas. It’s odd, but there’s something I find here that makes it feel more like ‘home’ than Florida,” she explains in her first press interview in 30 years, trying her best to nail the southern accent she has been so happily cultivating the past few months.
In every local record store she visits, she heads for the “Pastorius” placard of the jazz section, checking the stock with a nostalgic grin and moving what she terms the “good” releases to the front of the pile. She’s taking guitar lessons, learning three-chord Bon Jovi ballads and listening to Eminem at high volumes. She hasn’t listened to the entire box set yet. She’s afraid to hear just how nervous she was when Bobbing interviewed her; much like her son, she tears up when she listens.
“There’s not a moment on there that doesn’t come with memories for me,” Tracy reflects, pausing. “I remember the writing of every song on here. I remember what was happening in the world, with us, what the weather was like … what Jaco was like.”