This post was written for the Copyright Alliance as a part of their “Secret History of Copyright” series.
Jaco Pastorius was a larger than life personality, with a penchant for hyperbole. Early on in his career, he referred to himself as “The World’s Greatest Bass Player.” 1 At the time, it might have seemed to some as an attention getting boast, used in the same vein as Muhamad Ali’s claim to be “The Greatest.” But many years later, it seems his self-applied sobriquet is pretty much spot on.
Jaco revolutionized the playing of the electric bass, not only for the followers of jazz, but across the musical spectrums of funk and rock. If you watch the documentary “Jaco,” 2 you can see musicians as diverse as Sting, Bootsy Collins of Parliament/ Funkadelic and Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers all attest to his influence. 3
In the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, I was at the University of Miami, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. Jaco was in the prime of his career. When word got out that Jaco was going to make an appearance at the school, everybody turned out, whether you were a bass player or not. He was that good. And armed with only his bass and an EchoPlex, he put on quite a show.
It is now June 13, 1982. I have graduated music school and am trying to make my way in the music business. Today, my band is playing a music festival put on in the parking lot of a local music store. Jaco’s band is the headliner. Because of the stage set-up, we have to store our gear backstage and cannot move it out until the concert is over.
I am sitting backstage after the concert, and Jaco walks over to me. He grabs my hand and shakes it forcefully.
“Did you see the fireworks?” he asks. “I shot them off to celebrate. My wife just gave birth to twins. I’m the happiest man in the world.”
Trust me, Jaco had no idea who I was. He was simply over the moon with joy, and wanted to let everyone, and anyone, know it.
It is now 1987, and fortunes have changed. Jaco developed a bipolar mental disorder, slowly ruining his career and life. The greatest tragedy was that if he took medication to control it, his hands would shake, preventing him from playing. If he went off of the medication, he could play but would descend into the grips of severe mental illness. It was during one of these episodes that he got into a fight with a bouncer at a local bottle club. The bouncer fractured Jaco’s skull, causing a brain hemorrhage. He died September 21, 1987. He was 35 years old. 4
As for me, I had given up on the music industry and gone to law school. Three weeks after Jaco died, I was sworn in as a member of the Florida Bar. Because of my course work at UM, and being in the music business, I knew a thing or two about how it worked, and how copyright worked. But, I had no idea that Jaco’s and my paths were about to cross again.
In the fall of 1989, I took a call in my office from a Circuit Court Judge that handled probate.
“I have here before me the Estate of John Francis Pastorius, III,” he said.
“Jaco,” I replied.
“Yeah, Jaco. How did you know?”
“Trust me, Judge, I know.”
“I have a lady in my chambers named Ingrid Pastorius. She needs a lawyer. Can I send her to see you?”
Ingrid Pastorius was Jaco’s second wife. She was also the mother of the twin boys born June 9, 1982. The following weekend, Jaco set off the fireworks after the concert that my band had opened. The twins were just 5 years old when their father died.
Ingrid begged me to shut the estate proceedings down. There were debts and large claims filed in the estate, not the least of which was the hospital bill. Jaco’s mental illness had crushed his career. He had no tangible assets, and no money coming in. No one even knew where his bass was.
I told Ingrid that out of respect for Jaco, I would represent her for free…if I had to. But I remember telling her “I don’t think I’m going to have to.” There were records in stores that were still being sold. There had to be money someplace.
There was. Because of the Copyright Act.
The first thing I did was order a search of the records of the Copyright Office for “Jaco Pastorius” and “John Pastorius.” It showed that Jaco had filed copyright registrations for all the songs he had written. And better still, he had retained 100% ownership of these songs. He was a registered writer with ASCAP. There were surely performance royalties to be had. He had songs on his own records, as well as those he recorded with Weather Report. That meant there had to be mechanical royalties payable on those songs. The Weather Report album “Heavy Weather” had sold 500,000 copies, a huge amount for a jazz recording. Jaco had two songs on the album. And a co-production credit.
The previous attorneys for the Estate had erroneously assumed they had a great wrongful death case. This turned out not to be so, because neither the club, nor the bouncer had any money and more importantly, no insurance. The bouncer pleaded guilty to manslaughter and spent a mere four months in prison. 5
They never realized that the secret, truly valuable assets of the Estate, were the copyrights.
And all they had to do was knock on the right doors, ask the rights questions, and the money would begin to flow again. It did. I discovered that Jaco was very popular in Europe. He was huge in Japan. The Estate settled with its creditors and slowly paid off its debts.
And when the debts were paid off, the money began to flow to Jaco’s children. And still does today.
This is one of the reasons why it rubs me the wrong way when people complain about the long terms of copyright, particularly the portion that survives the death of the author. What happens when the author dies young? Say at age 35? Now it seems that the copyright term is not so long after all.
A valuable asset. And a valuable legacy.
I can’t imagine what would have happened to Jaco’s children without it.