The guitar has always inhabited a space a little removed from the jazz mainstream. Because of the lack of amplification necessary for audiences to hear single note solos in concert or on recordings, in the early years of jazz was used primarily as a rhythm instrument. It was not until the advent of jazz-rock fusion in the late 1960s that the electric guitar assumed a full-fledged leading role in the evolution of jazz. Some guardians of the jazz galaxy have yet to get over it.
John Scofield, a native of Ohio who grew up in Connecticut in the 1960s, knew none of this history when he decided to become a musician. “I was just a kid with a guitar who had seen the Beatles,” he says. “When I started out, folk music was really popular in America. ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ was on the radio. The folk guitar world led me to blues, flamenco, bluegrass, all the guitar musics…”
In high school, Scofield’s guitar heroes were Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He credits a private teacher who worked at a local music store with steering him toward jazz. In 1970, Scofield enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, which was well on the path to becoming the premier music academy it is today.
“At Berklee I met great players,” Scofield told Marc Myers of the Jazz Wax blog in 2012. “I wasn’t a wunderkind by any means. Music was a slow, hard road for me from age 16 to 23. Vibraphonist Gary Burton was there, and bassists John Neves and Steve Swallow were there, too. Gary was the first great jazz artist I had a chance to play with often, and he was a big help in my development.”
In 1974, Scofield met drummer Billy Cobham – recently departed from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among the most successful of the first wave of jazz-fusion bands – at a demo recording session. Around the same time, he did a few gigs with cool-jazz baritone saxophone legend Gerry Mulligan, including a concert in New York that also featured Stan Getz and Chet Baker. Both asked him to come on the road with them; he chose Cobham, whose band at the time included Michael and Randy Brecker.
“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,” he told Jazz Wax. “At the time, I admittedly was torn. But Michael and Randy Brecker were my idols… Fusion was cutting edge and hadn’t sold out yet.” Cobham and Scofield soon joined forces with keyboardist George Duke, recording three albums in the mid-Seventies. Yet Scofield never considered himself to be a fusion musician. “I always thought I was playing jazz,” he says. “In a way, I consider myself to be a jazz purist, because I had to learn that harmonic chord structure and how to work in this tradition.”
This dichotomy between straight-ahead jazz and more groove-oriented projects has shaped his career. In 1979, Scofield formed an essentially straight-ahead trio with his college mentor Steve Swallow on electric bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums – a group that exists to this day, albeit with Bill Stewart replacing Nussbaum in 1990. In 1982, he joined Miles Davis’ unapologetically funk-based Eighties comeback band, appearing on the albums Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest. After leaving Miles, Scofield formed Blue Matter with funk-jazz drummer Dennis Chambers, and joined fellow guitarist Bill Frisell in acoustic bassist Marc Johnson’s atmospheric band Bass Desires.
In the 1990s, Scofield was a featured sideman on some of the most consequential straight-ahead jazz albums of the era: Joe Henderson’s So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) and Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard. In 2017, Scofield joined Jack DeJohnette, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier in the acoustic supergroup Hudson. Scofield’s solo projects in the current century have included his soulful tribute to Ray Charles, That’s What I Say; Piety Street, a gospel-tinged celebration of the music of New Orleans with pianist and vocalist Jon Cleary; and Country for Old Men, on which his quartet performed adventurous jazz reinterpretations of country standards. Scofield has also ventured beyond the jazz world to jam with psychedelic rock bands such as Gov’t Mule, led by former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, and Phil Lesh and Friends, led by the former Grateful Dead bassist.
What unites all these seemingly disparate directions is the blues feeling that initially inspired Scofield as a 16-year old aspiring guitarist in suburban Connecticut. Although he has never made a straight blues album, he is playing the blues in some form or fashion in everything he does. It’s what allows him to move effortlessly between funk, fusion and rock to jazz improvisation at the most harmonically sophisticated level. This ever-present bluesy feel for tone and groove is also what distinguishes Scofield from his only true peers among the most influential jazz guitarists of the past 40 years, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell.
“The whole trick is that it’s got to sound natural,” Scofield says. “Jazz is pretty intellectual, but the greats made it sound natural. That’s part of really learning your instrument. You go past technique. It’s the same with classical music.”
Scofield’s current touring band, Combo 66, covers a lot of ground but, in his own words, “It’s primarily a modern jazz band. … We do all kinds of jazz, including some funkier tunes I recorded with other bands such as Medeski, Martin and Wood. But we don’t get into hardcore funk, get up and clap your hands for 20 minutes type-stuff. We decided not to be a jam band.”
Where Scofield was once the young, white-guy guitar-slinger with Billy Cobham and Miles Davis, he is now one of the venerated elders in the jazz clan. At the time Scofield launched his professional career in the mid-1970s, a generation gap existed among musicians who’d come up prior to the ascendancy of rock and R&B in the Sixties and those who’d grown up listening to the Beatles and James Brown before they discovered jazz.
Two decades into the 21st Century, the debate has largely been resolved – it’s all good, so long as it’s good – though Scofield says he occasionally encounters young people who’ve recently discovered the genius of Monk and Coltrane and who are fresh with fervor for the bygone Golden Era, compared to which the music of today is of no interest to them.
“To me, it’s always been the Golden Era,” says Scofield. “I’ve never seen the down. There’s always been excitement about jazz for musicians and people in the know. I mean, I can remember seeing Joe Henderson and Stan Getz when there was no one in the room. But it’s always been a connoisseur’s music, elitist music, underground music. Even Charlie Parker was underground compared to Perry Como…”
He’s not exactly sure how long it’s been since he played in Houston. He can remember playing at La Bastille with Billy Cobham in the 1970s, and at Rockefeller’s with his trio in 1990s. He also remembers going to first grade in Houston, when his father had a job in the oil business.
Scofield admits the travel requirements of getting to the job have become more difficult as he’s aged, but the gigs themselves are more fun than ever. “People know who you are,” he says. “I get to play with all these people who are really good. They inspire me.”