Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro - The JazzProfiles Synopsis

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I HOPE THIS BOOK WILL BRING a glimpse into the development and the life of Scott LaFaro, and an understanding of the man and his music. In my approach to writing this book, I've tried to be a modern-day Jack Webb—perhaps my own—looking to separate the facts from the legend. It is not the story of an artist's angst, a life of hardship, emotional deprivation or shattered family relationships. It is a story of Scotty's obsession with music. Scotty was an intensely private person. He was well aware at an early age that he was set down on this planet to do something special with music. His head was full of it. He was dedicated and driven. Many thought him aloof, even haughty. He was intense, centered, and serious. He rather enjoyed being regarded as an enigma. It is also a book with chapters unwritten and ending in an abrupt and tragic plot twist. Scotty, himself, felt he didn't have a lot of time. He did what he set out to do, and we are all the richer for it.

It also has long been my desire that, when all is said and done, to have "all things Scotty" referenced in one place, thus my inclusion of the reprints of some of the more difficult to find articles, and the detailed bibliography and discography.

Are we all the sum of how we are perceived by others? I was the person who was constantly closest to Scotty during his too few years, and while I can relate many aspects of his life—and many have come to ask me about his life over the years—this book also relies heavily on my research and interviewing many musicians who knew Scotty or his work, or both, and are far more qualified to speak to his abilities, career, the technical aspects of his output, and his contributions to music than I.

I thank them immensely.
- Author Helene LaFaro Fernandez, Preface to Jade Visions

In June of this year [2016], I ran a four-part series by Gene Lees on bassist Scott LaFaro.

Essentially, Gene took the Introduction that he had written for the biography that Helene LaFaro-Hernandez wrote about her brother and expanded it into a larger essay which he published in his Jazzletter as Young Mr. LaFaro.

At the time of my posting of Gene’s piece I had not read Helene’s biography of her brother.

The nice folks at the University of North Texas Press were kind enough to send me a preview copy of Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro and I thought I would provide you with a synopsize of it on these pages.

It’s an important book about an important Jazz musician and one that I should have read when it was first published in 2009. Frankly, I thought I basically knew all there was to know about Scotty who died at the ridiculously young age of twenty-five.

Boy, was I wrong about that assumption.

The key elements to Scotty’s importance in terms of the development of the bass as a Jazz instrument are highlighted in fellow bassist Don Thompson’s Foreword to the book:

"In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart gets to see the world as it might have been if he had never been born. This is something everyone thinks about now and then. We all like to think we will have made a difference in the world but nobody ever knows for sure.

In music there are people who are so important that it is impossible to imagine the world without them. Think about music without Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Think about jazz without Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. In the history of jazz there have been only a handful of real innovators on each instrument. These people have shaped the way their instruments have come to be played. On the piano the list would include Art Tatum, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. On saxophone there would be Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. On bass there would be Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Red Mitchell and Scott LaFaro. Of that group of bass players, Ray Brown and Scott LaFaro stand out from the rest. Ray Brown personifies the bassist's role in a rhythm section. With his beautiful sound, amazing groove and Bach-like lines, Ray was the man everyone wanted to sound like. That is until Scott LaFaro came along.

The first time I heard Scotty play was on Portrait in Jazz with Bill Evans. I had been playing the bass for three or four years but was not really that interested in it. I was playing a lot of piano and vibes at the time, so playing the bass didn't really matter to me that much. But when I heard that track of Autumn Leaves, all that changed, There was a spirit of adventure and freedom I had never heard before and all of a sudden it became very important to me to really learn how to play the bass. Hearing Scotty play with Bill Evans had opened up a whole new world of music to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Everything about Scotty's playing killed me. His sound, his solos (which actually reminded me a bit of Red Mitchell) and his time feel, which was amazing. But what really got to me was the interplay between him and Bill Evans. The idea of a musical conversation was not really that new but the combination of Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro proved to be a magical one and together they took that concept to a whole new place. Bill had provided the setting that gave Scotty the freedom to play the music however he happened to feel it.

Being free is one thing but along with that freedom comes a great responsibility and it takes a great musician to work in that setting and really succeed on all levels. Scotty had everything he needed to make it work. He had great time, extraordinary ears, a fantastic sense of form, and so much chops he could play pretty well anything that came into his head. He was also blessed with the gift of melody and countermelody but most important of all he had a beautiful musicality and sensitivity that enabled him to respond and interact with the other players without playing all over them. He knew exactly what the music needed and no matter what he played, or how much he seemed to be playing, the music was always his first concern and he never let the music down.

What Scotty played was amazing then and is amazing still today. His solos were technically overwhelming but melodically breathtaking. The solo on My Romance is one of my favorites and the last eight bars, in particular, is pure melodic perfection.

Scott LaFaro is one of a small group of musicians who really changed the course of jazz. It's hard to imagine where he might have gone with music had he not been taken so early in his life. For me, and probably most of today's bass players, it's even harder to imagine the world of the bass without Scotty in it. He brought a brand new concept to the bass and in doing so he changed the way people would play it forever. Forty-five years later he is still probably the most powerful influence there is on the bass.

I regret never having known him but he will always be a part of my world and I will always be thankful for everything he contributed to it.”

The author explains how the book came about in the following excerpts drawn from her Acknowledgements.


At least a decade ago, Chuck Ralston began a website dedicated to Scotty. Chuck is from Geneva [New York where both Scotty and Helene were raised], but I did not know him then. His dad at one time was the president of Geneva's local musicians' union and knew both Scotty and our dad. Ralston senior acquainted Chuck with jazz and with Scotty. His work took him and his family to France and it was there that they received the news of Scotty's death. Not too many years later, Chucks interest in and appreciation of Scotty's jazz legacy led him to begin his self-assigned task of archiving, via the internet, whatever he could uncover.

Eventually, Chuck, now headquartered in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, got in touch with me and over the years I have worked with him on the accuracy and dates of things posted on the website. Through all this time, Chuck has constantly been a voice in my ear saying I should do a book about Scotty. There is much to be told that only I could tell. "These are things people want to know," he'd tell me when I'd relate incidents to him. But Chuck's contribution goes far beyond urging. He helped set the outline for this book and did the total work on the detailed discography and bibliography, drawing on his past labor of love and his vast knowledge and ability as an administrative librarian.

In the mid 1990s I came to know Madeleine Crouch, general manager of the International Society of Bassists, and, echoing Chuck, in July of 1998 she wrote me: "PS: I hope you will seriously consider writing a biography of your brother. I'll buy the first copy!" This to someone who to that date had published only a couple of short stories and human interest articles in local newspapers and a couple of short pieces about Scott prefacing partial discographies of his work. Madeleine has been my constant cheerleader—telling me I could indeed do this. Every time I wavered she was there telling me I could do it and, more importantly, ready and willing to help. I needed a lot of help and help she did. She put me in contact with many folks who would make vital contributions to this book. She has been there every step of the way, helping in any and every way she could: the midwife, as it were, on this project.

Gene Lees. Madeleine had given me a phone introduction to Gene. And it is Gene who would give me the confidence to give it a shot. Gene Lees needs no introduction to anyone reading these pages. With his talent, background, and skill as a foremost author and chronicler of musicians, lyricist, composer, and journalist—highly esteemed in all his endeavors—he is a quintessential erudite, and to me, simply awesome. That he would treat me with such dignity and respect and encourage me at every turn is what would, in the end, make me urge myself to go forward. For all of this—to share his great knowledge about the craft of writing, to offer and be willing to do line editing, and checking, and to contribute to the book his Introduction—how could anyone not feel blessed. As important, however, is that over these past two years Gene and his wife, Janet, have become true friends to my husband, Manny, and me.

I am indeed fortunate to have Don Thompson write the wonderful piece that became the Foreword for this book. A great many thanks as well to Jeff Campbell and Phil Palombi, who gave of their time and talent to write the two indispensable chapters that discuss aspects of Scotty's music in detail. Over the past few years another contributor and I have also become friends: Barrie Kolstein. Barrie’s dad, Sam, had a special relationship with Scotty and it is Barrie who lovingly restored the Prescott bass. I am so grateful that Barrie has for this book, shared his personal story about Sam and Scotty, and his chronicling of his restoration efforts.

Appreciation and thanks go as well to an old friend from Geneva, Bob Wooley, who has kindly allowed the reprint of his article recalling his school-days memories of Scotty.

Helping me all along the way also has been Dave Berzinsky. Dave is a font of knowledge about almost everything to do with the history of jazz in Los Angeles during Scotty s time there. Stan Levey at one time described him as "a walking encyclopedia of jazz." He has given me much of his time—always willing to go through archives with me, help in identifying any album or player, or find a way to find the answer. Ken Poston [Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute] was immensely helpful in opening his archives to me and personally looking through old magazines, cover to cover. Thanks to Joe Urso for his generous help. At the Geneva Historical Society, Karen Osburn and John Marks have given me great assistance. Special thanks to my editor, Karen DeVinney. who has graciously guided me through this entire process.

Of course this book became a reality not only because of all of those mentioned above, but because to a person, everyone I contacted, or who contacted me, everyone I met and spoke to over these past three years with regard to the book, has been most willing and open in discussing Scotty and most gracious in sharing their experiences and feelings which I have tried to accurately set forth in these pages. …”

In addition to her wonderfully, loving narrative about Scotty which brings to life who he was as a person and how other musicians viewed his work, the detailed and annotated discography by Chuck Ralston is truly a treasure trove that offers the reader/listener an opportunity to explore this gifted bassist in action, so to speak. Spanning pages 249-290, Chuck’s discography provides a comprehensive overview of Scotty’s recorded history which goes well-beyond his famous association with pianist Bill Evans. For one who lived such a short time, it is amazing to behold the number of influential Jazz musicians Scotty played with, a list that includes Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Victor Feldman, Herb Geller, Chet Baker, Steve Kuhn, Booker Little and Ornette Coleman.

Chuck Ralston is also responsible the annotated bibliography that concludes the book.

During the half-dozen or so years that he was a professional musicians, Jazz underwent many rapid changes and Scotty was at the forefront of many of them. Indeed, one could say that he caused some of them with his singular style of bass playing.

I think that the following review from the AllAboutJazz website pretty well sums up Scotty’s importance as well as the significance of Helene’s biography of him.

"It's astonishing that [LaFaro s] massive reputation is primarily based on a handful of albums that feature him in full flower: the four recorded with the Bill Evans Trio, two by Coleman and Jazz Abstractions, a Gunther Schuller recording. His work on these is so amazing, his facility on his instrument so fluid, his melodic ideas and group interplay concepts so advanced that they still reverberate today.

Finally LaFaro has a worthy volume commensurate with his stature in music."

For order information from the UNTPress go here.

1 comment:

  1. Helene sent me an email yesterday (1 August 2016) with a link to this Jazz Profiles posting of the Jade Visions book about her brother. It's been seven years since its publication and even though I enjoyed the labor of love helping Helene bring her book to fruition, whenever I look into Jade Visions, my wonderment about Scotty and his musical vision grows. This is a solid book. Thanks for what you do, Steven.


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