“Extending a concept begun by Red Mitchell and Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro developed a rapid fingering and plucking system, and found the perfect place to use it when he joined the Bill Evans Trio in 1959, with Paul Motian on drums. Together, the three musicians invented a style of jazz in which no one was required to spell out the tempo with an explicit beat. This gave LaFaro the freedom to invent a new kind of "conversational" bass accompaniment, made up of short melodic figures and phrases rather than of a steady pulsing line.”
- Bassist Bill Crow, The Bass in Jazz, in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz
“His recordings with Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman [1960-61] set the standard for a new generation of Jazz bass players who varied their accompaniments by mixing traditional time-keeping bass lines with far-ranging countermelodies in free rhythm.”
- Barry Kernfeld, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
The following piece about Scotty first appeared in the July and August 2005 editions of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter.
“Though he is known primarily through the albums with Evans, LaFaro played with a great range of jazz musicians during his short career, including Chet Baker, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Hampton Hawes, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, Booker Little, Bobby Timmons, Victor Feldman, and Herb Geller. Feldman and Geller loomed large in his life.
Scott LaFaro was born on April 3, 1936, the eldest of five children. Next in line was his sister Helene, who later married a Cuban-born engineer and artist (and a very good one) named Manny Fernandez. Helene was followed by Linda, Lisa, and Leslie. She and Scott were particularly close.
A few months ago, she and Manny paid me a visit, bringing along Herb Geller, with whom I had struck up a friendship in the previous few months.
Manny has a vivid memory of the kind of ear Scott had. He said, "I had an old 1955 Jaguar. I was in the garage trying to tune the car. I was messing around with a timing light to get the spark right. And Scotty had his hand on the fender. He said, 'It's tuned now.' I looked at him. He said, 'There's no vibration now. You've got it right on.' I was shocked. Just by touching the car he could tell."
Helene says: "Scotty and I were born in Irvington, New Jersey, which is a suburb of Newark, but my mother and father were born in Geneva." Geneva is in a verdant agricultural area of Upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region.
Scott was named Rocco Scott LaFaro, Scott from his mother's maiden name. Helen Lucille Scott was twelve years Joe LaFaro's junior. They married, with the approval of both families, eleven days after she turned eighteen.
Helene continued: "My dad went to the Ithaca Conservatory of Music when he was twelve. He studied under Fritz Kreisler's professor. It later became a credentialed college. It's still one of the major schools in the east to study music, like Eastman in Rochester."
It was founded in 1892, added a drama course within five years, and continued expanding.
"My dad," Helene said, "was eighteen when he had finished six years of the Ithaca Conservatory.
"It was the middle of the roaring twenties. My dad played with Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, and both the Dorsey Brothers. He was pals with George Van Eps. He was with CBS studio orchestras in New York. In World War II, work was just non-existent. My dad was too old for military service, and he had flat feet. It would have been better for his career if he had gone into one of the service bands, like many of the guys he worked with. They kept their networks of connections, and all ended up better than my dad did, but finally he went back to his hometown. He had a society band there at a private club all the rest of his life."
His father in turn was an immigrant: the family's origins lay in Calabria, which is in the toe of the Italian boot. Calabrese have a reputation among Italians for being stubborn, and Scott LaFaro was all of that.
"My dad told us we had to appreciate everybody's music. He wouldn't allow us to make fun of hillbilly music or anything like that. He said it has a value, because it's an expression of the people. He also had this other side. He said, 'If you can't do something really well, do the world a favor and don't do it.' Both of those things came through to Scotty and myself. I think that some of that intoleration that Scott had came out from my dad. My sons have the same thing, so maybe it's a familial thing: an impatience with people who don't see things immediately. Just aren't as sharp as they should be.
"Geneva High School was a really terrific school. It still has a pretty good music program. In junior high you had to take music. You had a choice. You could take general music or you could take an instrument to prepare for the high school orchestra. I took general music. That was real basic theory, sitting there and singing to show you could read the notes. But Scotty thought, I'll take an instrument.
"There wasn't really any choice. It was whatever instrument the band director was going to need. He would tell the kids, 'Once you get into high school, you can switch over to what you want.' Scott ended up playing bass clarinet. He was very very good at that too right away, and by the time he was in eighth grade he was invited to be in the high school band. They had theory and advanced theory. Scott was in, I think, three different choruses as a tenor. He was in Varsity Chorus, Boys' Chorus. We both had to join the Presbyterian church because the organist was so fantastic. My father said, 'You have to go there, you have to sing.' When it came to religion, our family always went wherever the music was best. Sometimes we'd be at the cantor's Friday night for the Shabbat dinner because he would sing the service. At the Presbyterian church, there was this fabulous organist that my father just couldn't stop talking about. Scotty sang tenor and I was a second soprano.
"At the high school, they had a concert band, and marching band, and orchestra and jazz orchestra. Godfrey Brown was Scotty's mentor. He kind of gave Scotty the discipline that my father was loath to do. He was never going to force music on him, but Godfrey was very exacting and stern and he and Scotty had a great relationship and admiration. He really made Scotty get concentrated on things.
"Scott had four serious girlfriends, and I've got the things he wrote to them. He told each of them, 'You're very important but you're not music.' That kind of ended some relationships." Helene laughed. She continued:
"In the early years, he really was only interested in being a sax player. He wanted to be the next Zoot Sims and Parker and everybody rolled into one. And he was going to be better than them all. And that's how he left high school, thinking that that's what he was going to do. He started on bass clarinet in junior high and then went to tenor saxophone and the only reason he took clarinet was that when he was going to go to Ithaca College, you couldn't major in sax.
"Because he was a music major, Scott had to take a string instrument and percussion and piano. The girl who was a bass player in the orchestra showed him a few things, and when he talked to my dad about string instruments, he told Scott, 'Well with the bass, when you're at home, you can gig with me at the club.' That's how he decided that for strings, it would be the bass.
"He used to play basketball at the Y, and he cut his lip. He had a few stitches, and his lip hung. He thought it was going to affect his embouchure for saxophone. He was going to overcome all that. But the minute he touched the bass, that was it. My dad had him take a few lessons with a bass player named Nick D'Angelo. He was from Pennsylvania, but when he was in the Air Force up there, he liked the town, and after he went to Eastman, he got a job teaching music, and he's still doing it today. When Scotty was just a month or so into the bass, it was, 'My God! What have I been doing all this other time?' I was talking to his teacher only a few weeks ago, and he said, 'Teaching Scotty was like a Hollywood script because it was from A to Z in only three months.'
"Scotty was there all that year, and he went back for the beginning of the sophomore year. And Nick D'Angelo had a buddy who was playing with Buddy Morrow. His buddy called and said he was leaving the job, and asked Nick if he wanted it. He said, 'No, I enjoy teaching. But I'm giving lessons to a kid who's really pretty good.' Nick told me he covered the phone and said to Scotty, 'Hey, do you want a job?' And Scotty said, 'Well, do you think I can do it?' Nick said, 'It's a dance band. It's not going to be very hard for you.'
"And so he set it up for Scotty to have an audition with Buddy Morrow. It was only about three weeks into the fall term of the sophomore year.'
"How old was he then?" Herb asked.
"He was nineteen. So he auditioned for Buddy Morrow and he called home and said, 'I got the job.' And he was off. He'd been playing bass for about a year and three months. That's the first time he traveled across to California, the first time he saw the West Coast."
In New York City, in the fall of 1956, LaFaro auditioned for Chet Baker, and joined Baker's group.
Early in 1957, Scott met Victor Feldman, who would become one of his closest friends. In May of that year, the Chet Baker group went to Los Angeles, and played a gig there. The pianist on that job was Don Friedman, the drummer Larance Marable, and Richie Kamuca the saxophonist. Friedman said:
"Scotty and I worked [that] gig at Peacock Alley…. [It]
was for a week. As I recall, Chet didn't finish the week. The cops were looking for him and he literally escaped from the club and never came back. I don't remember whether we finished the week without him."
Scott was stranded, which experience may have contributed to his wariness about heroin addicts. And Baker was one of the worst. His habit destroyed his career and eventually his life. He was found in May 1988 close to a hotel in Amsterdam.
Whether he fell or was pushed or thrown no one knows, but the underworld of Holland is notoriously among the most vicious in the world, and it is widely believed that he was murdered over a narcotics debt.
During the Chet Baker engagement in Philadelphia, Scotty expressed his dismay at Baker's heroin use. He told Helene that of all the musicians he had met thus far, the one who puzzled him the most was Gerry Mulligan. He couldn't understand how anyone of Gerry's intellect could get caught up in heroin addiction. But intellect has nothing to do with it. As it happens, Gerry was a very close friend of mine and his drug habit, which he successfully broke, is something I discussed with him. Indeed, I discussed it with a lot of addicts and former addicts, including Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Arnold Ross, Bill Evans (on many occasions), Howard McGhee, and J. J. Johnson, who told me he found it easier to give up heroin than cigarettes, a not uncommon experience.
I became interested in the question of heroin use, because it had been epidemic in the jazz world, when I became editor of Down Beat in 1959. The magazine's owner, John Maher, wouldn't admit there even was such a problem, but there was. And then Art Pepper got a third-time conviction in California and was sent to prison for life; and Bill Rubinstein and J. J. Johnson were denied "cabaret cards" permitting them to play in places in New York City where liquor was sold. I raised so much editorial hell about this that, I have been told, I was partially responsible for the abolition of the cabaret cards. But it was the Art Pepper case that really bothered me, and I read every possible book on heroin use, including DeRopp's Drugs and the Mind, which I can no longer find. And I devoted an entire issue of the magazine to the drug problem.
I came to a tentative conclusion. All men (and women) who are operating at the highest levels of their own intelligence crave to expand beyond its limitations, and some take to psychotropic substances to help them achieve this. All such persons sense that there is more out there. Within a few years, I am certain, we will have means to lift the level of human intelligence to new and very high levels. But we are not there yet, and the substances we use in our aspirations to it are not efficient, and some of them, such as crystal meth, are devastating in their physical ravages.
I have never known a jazz musician who had quit drugs who didn't assert that they don't help your playing. I am not sure they are right. Alcohol is one of the finest intellectual lubricants known to our species, which is why so many of our greatest writers have been very heavy drinkers, from Shakespeare (by all the evidence) on through to Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, and many more. And since improvising music is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do, I'm not surprised that some musicians have resorted to drugs to lower the inhibitions, get the self out of the way, and let the conceptions flow from somewhere within.
And Scott worked for three heroin users: Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Bill Evans. No wonder he was leery of them.”
To be continued in Part 3.