Interview: John Scofield


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John Scofield has one of the most distinctive sounds of all the electric guitarists who came of age in the jazz-fusion era in the early 1970s. John is able to make his notes ring like a bell, and his lines are horn-like, living in the space just where rock meets the funky blues. [Photo of John Scofield in 1968 by Joe Marone]

John is perhaps best known today for his period with Miles Davis, though he has recorded plenty of albums before and after. With Miles, John recorded Star People, You're Under Arrest and Decoy, as well as all of the touring dates in the U.S. and Europe between 1982 and 1987.

In my conversation with John, 60, the guitarist talks about entering the jazz space with rock exposure, and his experience with Davis:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

John Scofield: In Wilton, Conn. My parents had met in Washington, D.C., during World War II. My father was a market researcher for a petrochemical company. He knew a great deal about rubber. I was born in Dayton, Ohio, but we moved to Houston for a year in 1959 when he worked for a company there. Then we moved to Wilton when he took a job nearby at Mobil Chemical.

JW: Were you a prodigy, or did you take to music slowly?

JS: The latter is probably accurate. In my suburban town, everyone was into rock. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were early influences. I had heard them in concert and also began to become interested in folk music, R&B and the blues. That led me to jazz in high school and lessons with Alan Dean, a guitar teacher and frustrated bebopper who worked at Merritt Music, a local music shop. I took lessons with him starting at age 15. Before that I was a run-of-the-mill rock guitar kid. Alan helped me with jazz and the blues.

JW: And after highs school?

JS: I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston starting in 1970. At Berklee I met great players. I wasn't a wunderkind by any means. Music was a slow, hard road for me from age 16 to 23. When I went to Berklee, it was still the Herb Pomeroy Berklee. Drummer Joe Hunt came up to teach. Vibraphonist Gary Burton and bassists John Neves and Steve Swallow were there, too.

JW: By 1974, you were a big deal.

JS: I was discovered by drummer Billy Cobham just after I had recorded The Gathering with Gary Marks, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who was sort of like Michael Franks, only jazzier. I had been playing with vibraphonist Dave Samuels around Boston. We were trying to attract enough attention that we'd get booked to play in New York.

JW: How did you catch the attention of Cobham?

JS: Dave Samuels was friends with vibraphonist Dave Friedman and drummer Horace Arnold. Horace wanted to record a demo and put together a band. He had already made records for Columbia and was playing at Richard's Lounge in Lakewood, N.J. So I went in with him to make the demo, which was produced by Billy Cobham.

JW: What happened?

JS: A month later, Billy invited me to join his band. The band was playing rock venues. Michael and Randy Brecker were in the band. I had already heard them play with Horace Arnold.

JW: Before Cobham, you recorded with Gerry Mulligan, yes?

JS: I had played a few gigs with Gerry. He had come up to Boston to appear at the Jazz Workshop in 1974. Drummer Alan Dawson got Dave Samuels and me on the band for the week. Gerry wanted to experiment. When the gig was over, Gerry said, “That was nice. See you next time." Then one day I got a call from Gerry asking me to come down to New York to play a concert.

JW: What did you do?

JS: I drove down and made the job. Stan Getz was on the gig with his quartet. They did stuff with three horns. Then Chet Baker, Gerry and Stan played. Gerry was nice to us and would hang. I remember he had gigs and wanted me to be in his band.

JW: What did you do after you joined Cobham's band?

JS: I had to call Gerry and tell him. He was nice about it.

JW: Looking back, a good move?

JS: Now when I tell people I went with Billy Cobham instead of Mulligan, they don't know who Cob is and wonder why I did that. At the time, I admittedly was torn. But Michael and Randy Brecker were my idols.

JW: Weren't you also motivated by a need to play music younger people identified with?

JS: Oh sure. When you went to Paul's Mall, a pop-rock club that was part of the Jazz Workshop, young people were lined up waiting to get in, and the club was packed. Fusion was cutting edge and hadn't sold out yet. 

JW: How did you join Miles Davis' band in November 1982?

JS: Through Bill Evans, the saxophonist. By then I had been around. I had been playing with guitarist Mike Stern at 55 Grand Street in New York. I played there weekly, and we had become friends. The club had become a happening hangout. I knew Miles' drummer Al Foster and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller.

JW: Two guitars?

JS: Mike Stern was terribly strung out at the time. He's since cleaned up. But at the time, Miles didn't want to fire him. But he did want another guitarist in the band in case Mike didn't make it. Miles had just straightened up himself and was clean.

JW: After you joined, what happened?

JS: The group played with two guitarists for a year. Playing with Miles wasn't a stretch. I started out playing the blues, and had already played in fusion groups. I had been pushing myself as far as I could go and was a huge fan of Miles.' I was 30 years old and had had enough time to sit with Miles' records and listen to everything he had recorded.

JW: How did the band sound?

JS: At the time it seemed un-together. We would just show up and play. Miles had these vamps and heads in between vamps that Gil Evans had written out for him and recorded on a cassette. Miles would listen to Gil's cassettes and improvise a bunch of stuff. Miles had given some things to Gil and asked him to turn them into heads.

JW: What about Gil's sheet music?

JS: Mike couldn't read them because he was wacked. Miles wanted another guitarist who could read. While we read the music, Miles would come up with vamps. I learned the existing book, which happened to be other vamps. Miles was in another place.

JW: How so?

JS: He had just married Cicely Tyson in 1981 and was cleaning up his act. He was coming out of his shell of being high all the time. Cicely was helping him enjoy his celebrity. Miles was never worried. He wanted a big rocking beat to play his stuff over.

JW: What were you listening to when you first joined the band?

JS: B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. I joined the band when Miles was making Star People in 1982. After that, he was listening heavily to Prince, Madonna and Top 40.

JW: Madonna?

JS: Miles was always listening deeply for production value. He heard what most of us didn't. His way of thinking was, “I want to incorporate that. How do I do it in my space?"

JW: I'm surprised he covered so few pop tunes. I think it's a shame.

JS: I do too. When he recorded Time After Time, the Cyndi Lauper tune, he also was considering about 10 other pop tunes, too. I think one was by Kenny Loggins. But we never completed them.

JW: Why?

JS: He told me he could only play them once. If a pop tune worked when he ran it down, we'd record it. We had about 8 or 10 lead sheets to different songs, but only Human Nature, which Michael Jackson had recorded, and Lauper's tune made the cut. Miles believed in first-take magic.

JW: What were the others?

JS: I think Loggins' Footloose, a Lionel Ritchie tune, maybe Lady, and Life Begins With You, an El DeBarge tune.

JW: That's so funny. I wrote a post in November saying I wished Davis had recorded DeBarge's All This Love.

JS: That's a great song, too. Miles played along with the DeBarge LP while he taped it. I have a tape that I made at his house of him playing Life Begins With You. What Miles did with it give you chills. Playing with Miles was a big deal for me, but I always wondered where the It Never Entered My Mind Miles was.

JazzWax tracks: John Scofield's latest album is A Moment's Peace with Larry Goldings (p,org), Scott Colley (b) and Brian Blade (d). Tracks feature originals and standards including I Want to Talk About You and You Don't Know What Love Is.

Jazzwax clip: Here's John Scofield's Plain Song from his new album...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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