© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
[As you read the following substitute the words “string bass” for “violin.”]
“Grammarians are to authors what a violin maker is to a musician.
— Voltaire, Pensées, Remarques et Observations [Thoughts, Remarks, and Observations]
“Étienne Vatelot started as an apprentice at the family workshop in 1942 at the age of seventeen. The young violin maker gave up a career as a soccer goalie with no regrets. At II bis rue Portalis, behind the Church of Saint Augustine, an atmosphere of silence reigns, of humility, of secrets shared in coded words, to the sole cadence of creaking wood. On the tables covered in green baize, sick violins are surrounded by wood screws, hand clamps, varnish brushes. An inheritance not left by any will. A sixth sense, a feel, the soul is heir to an intimate understanding of artist and instrument that no school can teach.
You learn by methodically repeating the same actions on practice violins: removing the strings, tuning pegs, bridge, soul post, end pin, tailpiece, nut, and fingerboard, tirelessly fieldstripping and reassembling your gun. Prying off the soundboard with a knife, removing the bass bar, the blocks, and scratching at drops of glue with a gouge. Lined up on the green cloth like an inventory: back, bridge, button, chin rest, corner block, end blocks, fingerboard, frog, heel, mortise, neck, nut, purfling, ribs and lining, scroll, … , soul post, soundboard, thumb cushion, tuning pegs. A grammar, in preparation for handling the instrument, to which will eventually be added, as with writers, liberation from the constraints of syntax, through style. The sorcerer's apprentice scrutinizes the mystery and dreams, gouge in hand, of animating violins the way the brooms in Fantasia are made to dance.
It is a commonplace to write that a violin maker is a doctor to musicians. No violinist will deny the analogy, as the relationship between artisan and instrumentalist often extends far beyond the violin.”
- Adrien Bosch - Constellation [winner of 2014 Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie Française]
Here’s the conclusion of Gene Lees’ piece on Scotty that appeared in the July and August 2005 edition of his Jazzletter.
“Much has been made of the supposed good looks of Chet Baker, including assertions that he could have been a movie star. His flat face put me in mind of the kind you would see at the bar in a Kentucky road house; but to each his own. Scott LaFaro, on the other hand, really was strikingly handsome.
I used to wonder about the origin of the name: grammatically, it fit none of the Latin languages. But it turns out that it is one of those names distorted by some forgotten immigration officer. The name is Italian, and since the article must agree with the noun in all languages that I know of (except English), it really should be LoFaro, according to Helene. It means "lighthouse", and in French it's lephare. But only their father was Italian; their mother was of Scottish, Irish and English descent; to me Scott looked pretty WASPy, with short-cut slightly curly hair. He was six feet tall, thus the same height more or less as Bill Evans.
"Scott was quite a good looking guy — young, vital. His hair was slightly curly, blondish-Italian but blond. Fair skin. He was intense in experiencing anything but bullshit, not wanting to waste time. And yet selecting values that others might not think worth their attention. He was discriminating about where quality might be. He didn't overlook traditional playing, realizing it could contribute a great deal to his ultimate product.
"Scott was in life right up to the hilt, but wasn't going to mess with indulging in experiments with drugs. Once in awhile he might smoke a little pot or something but it didn't mean anything. He was physically a clean and pure kind of cat....
"I was very happy when after the Vanguard date we were listening through stereo headphones, and he said, 'You know, we didn't think too much of it while we were doing it, but these two weeks were exceptional.' He said something to the effect that 'I've finally made a record that I'm happy with.'
"Scott's playing had evolved tremendously. My first impression of him . . . was that he was bubbling out almost like a gusher. Ideas were rolling on top of each other; he could barely handle it. It was like a bucking horse.
"I think what happened during our time together was that the format, the very pure, strict, logical kind of discipline that the trio worked with — though there was all the freedom within that structure to do whatever he wanted — it gave him firmer control over that creative gusher.
"The most marvelous thing is that he and Paul and I somehow agreed without speaking about the type of freedom and responsibility we wanted to bring to bear upon the music, to get the development we wanted without putting repressive restriction upon ourselves.
"I don't know — Scott was just an incredible guy about knowing where your next thought was going to be. I wondered, 'How did he know I was going there?'And he was probably feeling the same way.
"But the mechanical problems are something else — the physical, theoretical, and analytical problems involved in playing together intuitively within a set structure. We understood music on pretty much the same basis. But at that time nobody else was opening trio music in quite that way, letting the music move from an internalized beat, instead of laying it down all the time explicitly."
Paul Motian said:
"Bill and I had worked together, for Tony Scott and for Don Elliott. But with Scotty we became a three-person voice — one voice, and that was the groundbreaking point. I loved Scotty, man. One thing that knocked me out was that his rate of improvement was so fast. He was practicing and playing all the time. Also, Bill and I were both sort of inward types, and Scotty just clonked you over the head.
"I remember the last time we played the Vanguard. I was packing up the drums and as we were leaving, we all said, 'Let's really try to work more often.' Because we were really enthusiastic about the music. It seemed we had hit a really good peak and we wanted to continue on from there."
That final recording is available on a three-CD boxed set from Riverside, distributed through Fantasy. Orrin Keepnews wrote in his notes to the 2003 reissue that when he learned that the trio was booked to play the Village Vanguard for two weeks beginning June 1, 1961, he made immediate plans to record them. He wrote:
"Somewhat unexpectedly, I had no problem getting Evans to agree — he was entirely aware of what this trio was creating, and undoubtedly even more worried than I about how fragile their unity might be. It was realistic to plan to work on Sunday; the Vanguard routinely scheduled two matinee sets that day in addition to a standard evening program....
"Almost from the very first moments of recording, it was impossible to ignore the importance of these performances. And that, in itself, was rather unexpected. Bill Evans, as a human being, was always just about as introverted as he sounded. He was not yet sufficiently widely popular to provide substantial audiences at the two Sunday matinee sets or the last one that night, and was not yet likely to interact dramatically with an audience. There are times during these recorded sets when you hear glasses clinking and almost feel you are overhearing conversations at the tables .... I intend to continue to think back on this day as anticipating its own eventual immortality."
Paul Motian told an interviewer for the PBS radio show Fresh Air.
"Bill was really particular. If the result wasn't top-notch, really great and satisfying for him, he wouldn't want it released. I'm sure he would be against a lot of the stuff that is being released now, second takes, out takes, and that stuff. He did really think of himself sometimes as not really playing great. I remember one time at the Vanguard, we were playing something and it was really good and it was moving along, and all of a sudden it seemed like it took a nose dive. He just didn't feel like playing any more or something. After the set I asked him what happened. It just seemed like you weren't into it any more. He said, 'I heard some people laughing at the bar. I thought they were laughing at me.'
"And another time he said to me, 'Gee, I don't know if what I'm doing is real. Sometimes I think I'm a phony.' He did say things like that that made you think he was low in self-esteem."
I can support Paul's observations. Bill once said to me, "I had to work harder at music than most cats, because you see, man, I don't have very much talent."
Bill recalled the bass that Scotty owned, an exceptional instrument, three-quarter size, which Scott bought on the recommendation of Red Mitchell. Made by Abraham Prescott in Concord, New Hampshire, around 1801, it became part of the LaFaro legend. Bill said: "It had a marvelous sustaining and resonating quality. He'd be playing in the hotel room and hit a quadruple stop that was a harmonious sound, and then set that bass down on its side and it seemed the sound just rang and rang for so long."
Bill marveled at Scott's ability to play in the upper register, saying, "Other guys would hit a couple of high notes, and then come down. But Scott made it part of the total plan. As young as he was, and only having played for [a few] years, he brought a great, mature organization to what he was doing."
All of that is evident in those Village Vanguard recordings of June 25, 1961. He had only ten more days to live. Stan Getz had booked him to play the Newport Jazz Festival on the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. The rest of the rhythm section included Steve Kuhn on piano and Roy Haynes on drums.
Scott's mother and sisters were living in Los Angeles. Helene recalled, "Scotty and I had relocated the family out here. And the guy who had had a lease option to buy our house in Geneva was vacillating. My mom really needed the money, so Scotty said, 'Well, I'll swing by and see him, and see if I can get him to make a decision.' We talked to him on the third, but he said he was going to hang around for another day. So that's why he went back to Geneva. The holiday, the Fourth of July, was Tuesday. The irony is that on the Monday, a letter arrived from these people that settled the affair. I tried to reach Scotty, but that was in the day before cell phones. I wanted to tell him, 'Don't bother, go back down to the city to see Gloria.'
"He went out with a buddy to hear some music in a small town close to there, where a friend of theirs was house sitting. They had a really good stereo and a good record collection." The house was in Warsaw, ninety miles west of Geneva. Pianist Gap Mangione, brother of trumpeter Chuck Mangione, was there. He knew Scott only slightly.
Mangione later recalled: "They were pretty blasted, so I said, 'Stay a while.' But Frank (Scott's friend) and the lady went off, and Scott and I stayed in the living room and drank coffee, listened to records, and talked. We played an album by Chet Baker, and I remember one ironic thing Scott said: 'There's one of America's greatest tragedies. Chet could have been as successful as Miles Davis. But instead he gets himself into drugs and into jail and there goes that.'"
It occurs to me that Scott was probably thinking about Bill and wondering about their future together.
"After two or three hours," Mangione continued, "Scott was a lot straighter, but he was very tired. But when the others returned, he insisted on driving back, despite our efforts to have them stay and rest. So Scott and Frank got into the car— it was a huge Chrysler, Scott's bass was in the trunk — and they drove out, taking a side road, Route 20. Later on I heard they hit a tree. They both died."
Helene said, "Scott had driven nine hours from Newport and swam all afternoon at my aunt's house, which was on Seneca Lake. He really hadn't been to bed for a day and a half. And he fell asleep at the wheel."
The car went 188 feet on the shoulder of the eastbound lane of Route 5-20 before hitting a tree and bursting into flames.
In a 1996 article for the journal of the International Society of Bassists, Scott's friend from their high school days, Robert Wooley, wrote:
"The tree that he hit was in the front yard of Joan Martin, who was the pianist with our dance band. She still lives there, and, speaking with her recently, she said she thinks of Scott every time she looks at that tree."
Helene said: "We got a phone call about two o'clock in the morning. It was from Gloria Gabriel, the girl he was going with. Her dad was Filipino and her mother Italian. She was a Broadway dancer. She was one of the original children in The King and I. He met her in New York. I answered the telephone, and I really didn't understand what she was saying. It took me a while, because she was hysterical. She kept saying, 'He's dead, he's dead.' Ever since then, I don't like getting calls in the middle of the night. That did it for me."
Paul Motian got a call from Bill in the middle of that night. Bill told him Scott was dead. He thought he was dreaming and went back to sleep.
When the word spread of Scott's death, it was said that his Prescott bass had been destroyed in the fire. This is not correct; but it was badly damaged.
George Duvivier met Scott in April, 1960, and recognized the incredible scope of the younger man's talent. He took Scott to meet Samuel Kolstein, who repaired basses. Kolstein's son Barrie wrote a memoir of that meeting published in the Spring 2004 issue of Bass Line, the magazine of the International Society of Bassists.
"I was nine years of age when the wonderful George Duvivier brought Scotty to my father's house and shop in Merrick, New York .... Scott had recently acquired his small Prescott bass through the efforts of his close friend Red Mitchell. Red had found both his Lowendahl bass with the famous cut-away in the shoulder, and the three-quarter-sized Prescott while in California. Red felt the Lowendahl was perfect for his own needs and the Prescott was ideal for what Scotty was looking for. He immediately contacted Scotty about the smaller Prescott. Scotty made the purchase and brought it back to New York.
"Scott soon realized that while the Prescott was dimensionally ideal, tonally it was not. While in collaboration with George Duvivier, this problem surfaced. George was a lifelong client and a virtual member of my family. He suggested to Scotty that they make a trip to see Sam Kolstein, and ask him to evaluate the bass and see what could be done to improve its tonal and playing qualities.
"George arrived with Scotty, and in his deep robust voice said, 'Sam, I have a young man I want you to meet.' Even before Sam could walk out to greet Scott for the first time, he heard the kind of playing coming from the showroom that he had never heard before. Sam looked at George and simply said, 'Who is that and what is that?' You have to understand, this was in the late fifties, and even by today's standards, Scotty's playing would turn heads. But back in those years, this style of playing was unheard of and unique in every aspect. George looked at my father and said, 'Let's go meet this young man.'
"As Sam told me many times, Scott was ... a kid in a candy store, playing on every bass he could lay his hands upon. It was an immediate mutual admiration between Dad and Scott.
"Dad ... told Scotty that he would take care of anything it would take to make his Prescott bass right, and that Scott should not even worry about the costs.
"The work went on for several months and the bass was fully restored. When Scott got his Prescott bass back, it was what he hoped for and the bass became an extension of this brilliant young bassist."
On another occasion, Barrie Kolstein wrote, "The success of the restoration can be attested to by the quality of sound produced on Scott's last and perhaps most acclaimed recording, Live at the Village Vanguard. ..."
Kolstein said that for all practical purposes, the bass was destroyed in the crash. He wrote:
"Scotty's mother offered [it] to Sam. My father wanted [it] and did purchase the bass in total disarray, promising Mrs. LaFaro that [it] would be resurrected. But Sam never had the heart to restore the bass. I think this was due to his emotional connection with Scotty and the sense of a deep, profound loss that stayed with him ....”
"In 1986, the ISB [International Society of Bassists] announced its next convention would be held at UCLA in California and dedicated to the memory of Scotty. I went to my father and asked his permission to do the restoration on the LaFaro Prescott that we had stored for twenty-five years. Sam was very pleased at the prospect of seeing the bass returned to playing condition in time for the convention in the summer of 1988.
"The restoration was quite arduous, but over a year and a half, I accomplished the work. I know that it pleased my father, and I can only assume that the work would have pleased Scotty as well."
For the past thirty-one years, Scott's — and Helene's — alma mater, Geneva High School, has given the Scott LaFaro Memorial Award to a graduating student with a serious dedication to the school and its music program. It is a stipend to help with college costs.
When, early last year, the school contacted Helene to ask permission to dedicate a spring concert to Scotty, she learned that the school did not currently own an acoustic bass.
"My three sisters and I," she said, "just found it appalling and decided to right the situation.
"Working with Barrie Kolstein, we arranged to have a new acoustic bass presented to the music department as a surprise at the end of the concert. It is a DiVacenza with Busseto corners, similar to the design of Scotty's Prescott....
"Since I could not be there to make the presentation, I had my friend, and Scotty's mentor's daughter, Gail Brown Kirk, present the gift with another of Scotty's old band mates, Al Davids, who still lives in Geneva.
"Needless to say, they were all pretty surprised and delighted and the music department director has a couple of students working on the instrument now."
I once told Gerry Mulligan that he and I must be just about the only WASPs in the music business. He laughed and said, "Speak for yourself. I'm an Irish Catholic." Since he didn't practice religion, I asked him on another occasion if he felt Catholic. He said, "No, but I do feel Irish." And I laughed in turn and told him that all his solos sounded like I Met Her in the Garden Where the Praties Grow. He told me in turn that Judy Holiday, listening to Zoot Sims, would say, "There he goes, playing that Barry Fitzgerald tenor." And she laughed like Barry Fitzgerald. Zoot was of course Irish. (And Gerry was part German.)
I began keeping mental note of national origins in white jazz musicians. There are remarkably few of actual English ancestry. And those of other origins all tend to play in styles influenced by their family origins. No one ever played in a more Jewish style than, at times, Artie Shaw, and you can hear such influence in Al Cohn and Stan Getz. The Italians in America tend to play in a lyrical melodic manner, as witness Mike Renzi, Guido Basso, and Frank Rosolino, and the composers of Italian background write that way, as witness Henry Mancini and Harry Warren.
And Scott LaFaro's magnificently melodic and lyrical playing strikes me as redolent of Italy. I hadn't even thought of him as Italian until I met his sister.
I am endlessly aware of the roots and origins of events. Had I not done this, that wouldn't have happened. Or: if only I had done this, this might have happened. And so on.
If the dilatory purchaser of the LaFaro house in Geneva hadn't delayed his decision, Scott might be alive today. He would be seventy.
One of the best tributes to Scott LaFaro is this: bassists all over the world, classical and jazz alike, still call him Scotty.
As Gary Peacock put it to Helene, "Scotty kicked everybody in the ass."”