“I have a couple of bags. The funk bag, the slow melodic bag, the jazz bag, the blues bag.… I think everybody has about three or four tunes in them—Beethoven included. And you just keep writing them over and over again, trying to get them right,” jazz guitarist and composer John Scofield told Bill Milkowski in Down Beat. Tagged “post-modern” because his music blends together a variety of disparate influences, Scofield appeals both to the connoisseur and the ordinary jazz enthusiast: he won Down Beat’s International Critics Poll in 1986 and ranked third on the magazine’s Reader’s Poll the same year. Scofield’s so-called jazz-rock fusion style combines the best of fusion, bebop, and the influences of legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis. “Sco’s distinctive sound and approach,” praised Jim Ferguson in Guitar Player, “coupled with his expert talents as a composer, place him at the vanguard of contemporary jazz guitarists.”
Born in Ohio on December 26, 1951, Scofield grew up in the suburb of Wilton, Connecticut. Although his parents had no special musical talents, young Scofield displayed an interest in the field at an early age. Having received his first guitar at the age of eleven, he is said to have stopped doing his homework for an entire year to concentrate on his music. His parents were concerned about his future but eventually yielded to his desire to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist. As Scofield revealed to Sam Freedman in Down Beat, he was enthralled by the time he was fifteen with the prospect of becoming a professional musician: “There was something at first about the image of New York being this great, cosmopolitan place, and jazz being the sound of New York, but all that romanticism got replaced really early by just a love for the music—abstractly, not connecting the music with any culture or groove. It was just the sound, the sound.”
“The music of my people—who knows what that is?” replied Scofield to Howard Mandel in Down Beat when questioned about his unlikely jazz origins. “The Connecticut Sound’s not a big part of my thing.” Throughout his career, Scofield has had to answer for a less than traditional musical background. Defending his early instruction, he explained to Mandel, “I learned from records and the radio and the few live bands and musicians I met.… And that’s the background of everybody I know, whether they’re from the ghetto or wherever. They learned from the media, and the few good musicians they’d meet.”
In the early 1970s Scofield spent three years taking
For the Record…
Born December 26, 1951, in Ohio; raised in Wilton, CT; son of Levitt and Anne Fay Scofield; married in 1979; wife’s name, Susan; children: Jean. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music, 1970-73.
Began playing guitar at age eleven; played at various clubs around Boston while attending Berklee School of Music; began recording with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, 1974; played with Billy Cobham/George Duke band, c. 1974-77; sideman with various musicians, including Charles Mingus and Jay McShann; played with Gary Burton and in Dave Liebman quintet, late 1970s-early 1980s; played with Miles Davis’s band, 1983-85; soloist, group leader, collaborating guitarist, 1986—. Guitar Player advisory board member.
Awards: Has won numerous awards from jazz magazine readers polls.
Addresses: Record company—Blue Note Records, 810 Seventh Ave., 4th floor, New York, NY 10019.
classes at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. While frequenting some jazz clubs in the area, he met a highly respected local guitarist, Mick Goodrick, who became his mentor. When Goodrick, who often worked as a sideman, withdrew from a show at Carnegie Hall reuniting Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker in 1974, he recommended Scofield to replace him. After the concert, which was recorded on two albums, Scofield was asked to join the Billy Cobham/George Duke fusion band. Though he played with the band for two years, Scofield was uncomfortable as the guitar hero of the fusion movement. “Billy’s band was really hot when I got the call,” he told Milkowski, “so all of the sudden I started getting national exposure. And all this time, ironically, I was trying to learn how to play bebop.” Scofield left the band in 1977 to perform on the sideman circuit with distinguished jazz artists Charles Mingus and Jay McShann, among others.
The next year Scofield joined Gary Burton and then formed a band with drummer Adam Nussbaum and bassist Steve Swallow, each of whom played bebop in the mode of Jim Hall. In the era that followed, the group’s albums Bar Talk, Shinola, and Out Like A Light debuted to critical success, but they lacked popular acceptance in the United States. Around the same time, Scofield also played in the Dave Liebman quintet. But he found his largest audience in Europe in the early 1980s.
Scofield recorded Solar, a duet of standard bop with John Abercrombie, in 1982. The limited success of the album fueled Scofield’s doubts about the breadth of his marketability: “It is possible to play this music for audiences that are not incredibly sophisticated. But let’s face it, it’s a connoisseur’s music,” he told Freedman. After resigning himself to a limited popular appeal, Scofield soon found himself in an advantageous position: he was asked to join the legendary Miles Davis band.
“My public persona expanded 100%,” Scofield told Ferguson in Guitar Player, summarizing his work from 1983-1985 with Davis’s band. “I can’t remember the first time I ever heard of Miles,” he related to Milkowski. “It seems I’ve been listening to him ever since I could think.” The aspiring artist was also interested in joining the ranks of such noted musicians as John McLaughlin, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea—all of whom worked with Davis’s band at some point in their careers. With You’re Under Arrest and Star People under Davis, Scofield made contributions to the group as performer and co-composer, but the album Decoy established Scofield as an electric guitarist of unparalleled distinction. “Scofield grabs Most Valuable Player honors on that album,” commented Milkowski in Down Beat.
Feeling he should leave Davis’s band while audiences still remembered the success of Decoy, the 35-year-old guitarist began to do solo work and concentrate on his own group in 1986. That same year, Scofield won top honors in Down Beat’s International Critics Poll and third place in the magazine’s Readers Poll. His 1985 release Still Warm, featuring a new group composed of drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Daryl Jones, and keyboardist Don Grolnick, presented a more muscular, rhythmic sound than his work with the Davis Band. With the album Blue Matter in 1986, Scofield led one of his most successful partnerships, uniting drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Gary Grainger. The group recorded several additional albums together, including the live from Japan release Pick Hits.
Throughout his career, critics have lauded Scofield’s play and compositions. “One quality that has always come out in his playing, no matter what context—fusion, bop, Miles, or his post-Miles solo career—is an authentic feeling for the blues,” wrote Milkowski. “And he’s evolving a distinctive voice as a composer as well.” Critic Mandel concurred: “His band may be an ensemble of several years’ accomplishment, a trio he called together, or a spur-of-the-moment collaboration. Scofield’s music is by turns piercing, lyrical, reckless, thoughtful—depending on his mood, the response of his colleagues and audience. When he’s hot—and he has a true professional’s consistency—he shoots off steely, far-from-predictable lines with natural, funky rhythm.… Scofield can rock a house with altered Tin Pan melodies, post-bop harmonies, and what-the-hell spirit.”
Critics frequently question Scofield’s tendency to abandon a musical group or style at the height of its success. When questioned by Mandel about the contradiction of moving from fusion to blues to other interests, Scofield admitted a need for novelty, concluding, “I don’t know if I’m going to do anything new in my life but I would like to … because all the stuff that I admire is new and different.”
Live, Enja/Lnner City, 1977.
Rough House, Enja/lnner City, 1978.
Shinola, Enja, 1982.
Still Warm, Gramavision, 1985.
Blue Matter, Gramavision, 1986.
Loud Jazz, Gramavision, 1987.
Pick Hits, Gramavision, 1987.
Flat Out, Gramavision, 1989.
Slo Sco, Gramavision, 1990.
Time on My Hands, Blue Note, 1990.
Meant to Be, Blue Note, 1991.
Grace Under Pressure, Blue Note, 1992.
Who’s Who, Arista/Novus.
Bar Talk, Arista/Novus.
Out Like a Light, Enja.
Electric Outlet, Gramavision.
(With John Abercrombie) Solar, Palo Alto, 1982.
(With Miles Davis) Decoy, Columbia, 1984.
(With Ray Anderson) Blues Bred in the Bone, Gramavision.
(With Paul Bley) The Paul Bley Group, Soul Note.
(With Gary Burton) Times Like These, GRP.
(With Billy Cobham) Funky Thide of Sings, Atlantic.
(With Cobham) Life and Times, Atlantic.
(With Cobham/Duke Band) Live on Tour in Europe, Atlantic.
(With Davis) Star People, Columbia.
(With Davis) You’re Under Arrest, Columbia.
(With Davis) Siesta, Warner Bros.
(With Marc Johnson) Bass Desires, ECM.
(With Johnson) Second Sight, ECM.
(With Dave Liebman) If They Only Knew, Impulse.
(With Jay McShann) Big Apple Bash, Atlantic.
(With McShann) Last of the Blue Devils, Atlantic.
(With Charles Mingus) 3 or 4 Shades of Blues, Atlantic.
(With Missing Links) Missing Links, MCA.
(With Don Pullen and George Adams) Live at Montmartre, Timeless.
(With Bennie Wallace) Twilight Time, Blue Note.
(With Wallace) Sweeping Through the City, Enja.
(With Wallace) Bordertown, Blue Note.
Down Beat, September 1982; January 1987; March 1989; August 1989; December 1989.
Guitar Player, September 1984; June 1987; July 1988; January 1992.
Born: Dayton, Ohio, 26 December 1951
Genre: Jazz, Fusion
Best-selling album since 1990: A Go Go (1998)
John Scofield is a pragmatist among jazz's electric guitarists. He is a multifaceted but artistically inclined musician who has increasingly focused on transforming popular elements of soul jazz, blues, New Orleans R&B, "jam band," and ambient styles into something recognizably his own. Simultaneously, he has retained the expansive sensibility of jazz, and he does not deny its complexities and abstractions.
Raised in Connecticut, a guitar enthusiast since his early teens, Scofield played in high school rock and blues bands and attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He entered the professional jazz world by performing and recording with established artists, including "cool school" musicians Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie Hall in New York, and was soon freelancing on recordings by veteran Kansas City pianist Jay McShann and composer/bassist Charles Mingus. He also joined drummer Billy Cobham's fusion group. Beginning to record under his own name in 1977, Scofield demonstrated a confident mastery of a spectrum of modern jazz idioms, including a skill for composing quirky but hummable melodies and improvising imaginative variations on them in small, interactive combos.
In 1982 Scofield joined trumpeter Miles Davis's band. Compositions derived from his improvisations appeared on Davis's album Decoy, and Scofield wrote the title track of You're Under Arrest. He remained with Davis until 1985. Throughout that tenure, he continued to record his own albums, including Electric Outlet (1985), on which he over-dubbed multiple parts.
In 1990 Scofield released Time on My Hands, his first album on Blue Note Records. Though he was already well known and had produced a catalog of well-received, commercially viable albums, this project, with bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and saxophonist Joe Lovano (who continued in his quartet), signaled the guitarist's arrival among the top tier of jazz leaders. His original compositions refer to the deeply rhythmic works of Mingus and the bluesy but melodically unpredictable songs of Ornette Coleman; they contain country music inflections, reflective passages, and humorous turns.
His subsequent recordings continue in those directions, and his earlier recordings, many reissued during the 1990s, foreshadow them. Scofield typically writes a sheaf of new material and works in small group settings, with special guests contributing to particular tracks. He collaborates with his foremost peers, guitarist Bill Frisell on Grace Under Pressure (1992) and guitarist Pat Metheny on I Can See Your House from Here (1994). On Hand Jive (1994), he delves into soul-jazz with master-of-the-style Eddie Harris and organist Larry Goldings.
On Quiet, his 1996 debut on Verve, Scofield plays acoustic guitar exclusively; tenor saxophonist Wayne
Shorter is his other principal soloist, and reeds and brass sections perform Scofield's extended yet subtly muted arrangements, which show a side of his sensibility he also drew on for saxophonist Joe Henderson's albums So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (1993), and Porgy and Bess (1997).
Scofield contributes significantly to pianist Herbie Hancock's The New Standard (1996), adapting rock and pop hits by Peter Gabriel, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Prince, and Kurt Cobain to jazz explications. However, on his own A Go Go (1998), with jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood as the rhythm section, Scofield is even more successful in addressing what has proved to be his abiding interest: the use of sharp, sometimes distorted guitar figures to build coherent statements over syncopations redolent of Chicago blues, New Orleans rhythm and blues, and Motown hits.
His follow-up, Bump (2000)—with "enhanced CD" content, including a slide show and video interview—expands on similarly emphatic backbeat material, adding sound effects from samplers, extra drums, and percussion to his palette, employing musicians from the bands Deep Banana Blackout, Soul Coughing, and Sex Mob. Scofield turns to modern swing (and one free improvisation) with young lions Kenny Garrett (alto sax), Brad Mehldau (piano), and Christian McBride (bass) on Works for Me (2000), as if to reestablish his credentials with jazz purists. Another such step is his membership in ScoLoHoFo, a jazz superstar quartet with Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, and Al Foster.
On Überjam (2002) Scofield facetiously flirts with musical elements associated with late 1960s psychedelic rock. A liner note states "John Scofield wants his audience to know that (despite evocative tune titles) he has not used drugs and alcohol since 11 July 1998." This, as well as his music, suggests that whatever costume he dons, Scofield is essentially about catchy rock/blues/R&B-meet-jazz melodies—"hooks"—and late twentieth-century American vernacular rhythms.
Time on My Hands (Blue Note, 1990); Meant to Be (Blue Note, 1991); Grace Under Pressure (Blue Note, 1992); What We Do (Blue Note, 1993); Hand Jive (Blue Note, 1994); Liquid Fire: The Best of John Scofield (Rykodisk, 1994); Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995); Quiet (Verve, 1996); A Go Go (Verve, 1998); Works for Me (Verve, 2000); Bump (Verve, 2000); Überjam (Verve 2002); Up All Night (Verve, 2003). With Herbie Hancock: The New Standard (Verve, 1996). With Joe Henderson: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (Verve 1997); So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles) (Verve, 1993). With Pat Metheny: I Can See Your House from Here (Blue Note, 1994). With ScoLoHoFo: Oh! (Blue Note, 2003).
Scofield, John, influential avant-garde jazz guitarist; b. Dayton, Ohio, Dec. 26, 1951. He was raised in Wilton, Conn. He picked up his first guitar at age 11 and started out playing rock, but soon turned to jazz. He attended Berklee (1971) with Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, George Garzone, Billy Pierce, Billy Drewes, and Jamey Haddad but left when he started to get gigs. In the early 1970s, he played or recorded with Charles Mingus, Jack Dejohnette, and Gerry Mulligan. During this time, Gil Evans, a friend and neighbor, was his role model for composition. He toured with the George Duke-Billy Cobham band in the mid-1970s, sometimes on the same bill with Weather Report. He became even better known through a three-year stint in Miles Davis’s band from 1984–87. Scofield went on to record an award-winning series of albums for Blue Note, three of which reached #1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Since about 1987, he has played once a year with Palle Danielsson, Knut Riisnes, and Jon Christensen at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway. In 1993, he toured with Joe Henderson in a Miles Davis tribute. In addition to leading his own band since 1985, Scofield has guested with McCoy Tyner, Gary Burton, Chet Baker, and Herbie Hancock. He continues to tour with his band about half of each year. During the 1990s, he won numerous Readers’ Polls and awards for his recordings and performances.
John Scofield Live (1977); East Meets West (1977); Bar Talk (1980); Shinola (1981); Loud Jazz (1987); Live Three Ways (1990); Hand Jive (1993); Groove Elation (1995); Quiet (1996); A Go Go (1997); Bump (2000); Steady Groovin’: The Blue Note Groove Sides (2000).
J. S.: Guitar Transcriptions (Winona, Minn., 1987); with K. Chipkin Time on My Hands (Miami, 1991).