Friday, December 3, 2021

"John Scofield: It's Magic" by Mike Zwerin

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The late Paris-based jazz musician and International Herald Tribune writer Mike Zwerin posted a 41-week series entitled Sons of Miles to Culturekiosque Jazznet. In this series, Zwerin looks back at Miles Davis and the leading jazz musicians he influenced in a series of interviews and personal reminiscences. Here is the John Scofield piece in that series. It was published on September 3, 1998 so add 20+ years to any math in the article.

“John Scofield picked up a guitar in 1962 at the age of 11; it was a role waiting to be filled.

Playing electric guitar was about to become a major macho pose, like throwing a touchdown pass or hitting a home run. It was something little boys mimed in the air without a prop. "Look at me, ma, I'm Jimi Hendrix." It proved how masculine you were, that you could distort and feed back and if your father made enough money you could destroy a guitar or two. Burn it. Guitar players took names like Slash.

It was also more than a pose. The guitar would soon overtake the saxophone as the major instrumental voice of our times. Guitar heroes were coming of age, coming out of the woodwork thanks to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and on and on. To say nothing of Elvis. It was the pose of coming of age. Like firing a Kalashnikov.

Except for Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, with Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney on the sidelines, the jazz guitar was still just part of the rhythm section. In the classics, Segovia was something of a curiosity. If you didn't play rock, forget it. You were a 90 pound weakling.

The young Scofield was knocked out by early Beatles and Ricky Nelson. He watched Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio on television and plugged into the folk phase. There were no teachers in tiny Wilton, Connecticut, where he was growing up, so he taught himself. He listened to Delta blues, the so-called "hippy jazz" of Charles Lloyd and early fusion guitarist Larry Coryell. He played with rhythm and blues bands in high school.

At the turn of the decade, Sco's quartet performed for a packed house in the New Morning in Paris after 40 one-nighters in 15 countries in 44 days. At the same time he celebrated - paraphrasing Ronald Reagan - the 10th anniversary of his 29th birthday. It was a good time to take stock.

John Scofield has become arguably the most influential jazz guitarist. Better known, a bigger draw, the guitar megastar Pat Metheny still told me that as far as he's concerned "Sco is the main man." Metheny's main man is a...MAN!

Scofield learned to be at home with difficult articulation in non-guitar key signatures. Expanding Johnny Smith's sweet monotony, he combined John Coltrane's harmonic advances with the textural innovations of Jimi Hendrix.

Not the least of it, he had also learned how to play 40 concerts in 44 days without drugs (he even stopped smoking cigarettes). There's a lot of strength under the surface of this good-natured, soft spoken family man with the high forehead and ready smile. He makes it sound simple:

"Psyching yourself up with dope is dumb. I did that long enough. It doesn't work. Your timing has to be perfect. You want to get a little numb, but not so numb that the music stops flowing out of you. You're always tuning yourself. It's too much work, you find that you think about nothing else and it screws up your body too. It's not practical and you pay too much. So now I just try and keep cool."

If you get stoned too early you come down too fast - too late and it doesn't hit in time. Cool is the operative word here.

Graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music in the early '70s, he played with Chet Baker, Gary Burton and Charles Mingus; with McCoy Tyner and Dr. John. He was basically a bebopper, "something of a purist." But then Miles Davis "turned me around, said I was bluesy and got me into wah-wah pedals, back-beats and heavy electronics."

His reputation took a quantum leap in the early '80s when he became a collaborator more than a sideman for three years with Davis, who admitted to building tunes from Scofield's improvisations. Rather than feeling ripped off, Sco was flattered.

After he left the band, however, the trumpeter began to bad-mouth the guitarist in the press. He said, in effect, the Sco was too cool; he said he played behind the beat. He said it and said it and said it - though implying it was not really Sco's fault, poor boy. He's white.”

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