(This is an article I wrote for Bass Guitar Magazine, published in late 2008. The sidebar piece, "Rebuilding The Bass Of Doom", can be found in my View From The Bottom section)
When Jaco Pastorius was beaten to death in 1987 at the hands of an out-of-control nightclub bouncer, the music world lost one of its greatest innovators and the bass community its most significant virtuoso. A decade earlier, armed with a fretless 1962 Fender Jazz Bass and an unbridled imagination, Jaco forever changed the concept of what the bass guitar could be. With a sound all his own and mind-boggling dexterity to match, his landmark debut album and later work with musical pioneers Weather Report and Joni Mitchell rocketed him to international fame and brought critical acclaim. Today his extraordinary accomplishments on that ‘62 Jazz still amaze, and his status as the greatest bass guitar player of all time endures.
On that fateful night in ‘87 though, much more than a great musical figure was lost for four young people in particular, when in an instant the Pastorius children-- Mary, John, Felix and Julius-- suddenly found themselves fatherless. In the years to come the siblings would join forces to form Jaco Pastorius Incorporated, or JPI, to help preserve their dad’s legacy. With the help of family friend Bob Bobbing, JPI would go on to launch the official Jaco Pastorius website, eliminate unauthorized bootlegs from shelves, and stage several successful tribute concerts. Now, twenty years after his murder, Jaco's kids are attempting to recover their ultimate heirloom, their father’s historic fretless-- better known by Jaco fans as the "Bass Of Doom".
By most accounts, the bass had been missing since the summer of 1986 when it was stolen from Jaco in New York City. Despite his attempts with family and friends to locate it, the four-string‘s whereabouts were a complete mystery and would remain so for the next twenty years. The Bass Of Doom’s mystique would grow into the stuff of legend, and soon would be considered one of the most valuable bass guitars in the world. Despite the occasional rumor of a “Bass Of Doom sighting”, it seemed like the stolen bass might never be found. That is, of course, until it showed up one day in early 2006 in a small guitar shop on New York’s West Side.
For the Pastorius children, the discovery of Jaco’s bass in New York wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration just yet. In fact, they weren’t even notified. To make matters worse, Matthew Brewster, the owner of 30th Street Guitars who now had possession of the bass, would eventually file a lawsuit in United States District Court to establish himself as the rightful owner of the legendary instrument and permanently block the Pastorius family from taking any legal action to recover it. It soon became apparent that the very instrument that made Pastorius a household name was not headed for a Pastorius household anytime soon.
According to Brewster’s suit, in February 2006 an “individual” entered 30th Street Guitars with a bass to sell for a thousand dollars, claiming it had at one time belonged to Jaco Pastorius. Although an inscription on the back of the headstock read “custom rebuilt for Jaco Pastorius by Kevin Kaufman and Jim Hamilton”, Brewster claimed he didn’t believe this was actually Jaco’s bass because of its “more recent vintage” appearance. He also noticed that the neck of the bass had been “severely damaged and then repaired”. Thinking he could scrap the bass for parts, Brewster offered only 400 dollars, which the seller at first rejected but then returned the following month to accept. Brewster then took possession of the bass and several weeks later began disassembling it. Upon removing the metal plate in the back of the bass, he discovered that the Fender was manufactured in 1962, “consistent with it having been owned by Pastorius”.
Once Brewster suspected its authenticity, the Bass Of Doom‘s existence would virtually remain a secret of 30th Street Guitars for nearly two years. No attempt to contact the Pastorius family, either to return the bass or offer to sell it to them, was made. Although its unclear what his motivation might have been, Brewster finally decided in November 2007 to contact Kaufman, the luthier who’s name was inscribed on the headstock. Kaufman, who years before had rebuilt the instrument after Jaco smashed it into pieces, was surprised by the call but excited by the fact that the bass was found and still in pristine condition. Eager to help, he spoke with Brewster about the bass and indicated that it did indeed seem to be the real thing, especially considering the inscription. When Kaufman offered to contact the Pastorius family with news of the bass, Brewster was lukewarm to the idea. Kaufman then suggested that his friend Bob Bobbing could help resolve the matter, but again Brewster seemed disinterested.
With the incredible revelation that Jaco’s Bass Of Doom had finally surfaced, Kaufman himself called Bobbing. Optimistic that they would be able to resolve the matter amicably, they planned to call Brewster together the next day. As Brewster’s lawsuit states, he was contacted by “a representative of the heirs of Jaco Pastorius“, who, although not specifically named in the suit, was Bobbing. Bob informed Brewster that as heirs to their father's estate the Pastorius children actually had the legal rights to Jaco’s stolen bass. Recognizing the delicate nature of the situation however, and with the authorization of JPI’s president Mary Pastorius, Bobbing indicated to Brewster that he could likely arrange a $50,000 reward for the instrument’s return. When Brewster again declined, Bobbing informed him that the Pastorius family was not going to idly sit by and let him auction off the children’s most valuable heirloom to the highest bidder.
On June 26, 2008, the case of 30th Street Guitars Inc. vs. Jaco Pastorius Inc., Mary Pastorius, John Pastorius, Felix Pastorius and Julius Pastorius was entered in Southern District Of New York, seeking full and complete title of Jaco Pastorius’ famous bass. Among other revelations, the lawsuit mentions that Brewster had already received “one or more offers to purchase the bass in excess of $75,000”, and that the Pastorius children “do not have any valid claims to the bass”.
Not to be dismayed, JPI responded to Brewster’s suit by filing a seventeen page counterclaim of their own, specifically naming defendants Matthew Brewster and his brother Ned Brewster, who together “directed, controlled, and/or participated in the acts”, as well as an unnamed “Doe 1” who “wrongfully obtained the bass and purported to sell it to Matthew Brewster“. As stated in the JPI counterclaim, after the bass was stolen in 1986, Jaco, his family and supporters made “significant efforts to locate the bass and/or secure its safe return,” which included posting flyers and posters throughout New York City. “This historically significant instrument, stolen from their father years before, is the final, tangible representation of his legacy,” states the counterclaim.
In early 2008, Brewster was apparently ready to “tell the world”, now that the secret was out-- nearly two years after he took possession of the bass. He approached Bass Player magazine about writing an article, to which they agreed. For the feature Brewster allowed the instrument to be played by bass heavyweights Will Lee, Victor Wooten and Victor Bailey with writer Chris Jisi, and the story ran in the magazine’s March issue. According to JPI’s suit, Brewster, “in the wake of publicity generated by the Bass Player magazine article, received multiple offers in excess of $100,000 for the sale of the bass.”
At press time the case has not been resolved, and appears headed to court. Lawyers for both parties are still in talks and depositions are set to be taken in November. Stay tuned.