Playing with Cobham allowed the now-seasoned guitarist to move to New York in January of 1975. "So I was on the scene in the second half of the '70s in New York, playing with everybody and trying to get established on the local scene. I joined Dave Leibman's band, which was a great group at the end of the '70s.
Then came the brush with Miles, that would make a stamp on Scofield, as it has with so many other musicians over decades. He was playing with Liebman one night at 7th Avenue South, "in about 1981, I guess. Miles came in the club. Dave introduced me. About a year after that Miles called and I joined his band.
That was in 1982, when the band already had guitarist Mike Stern. Stern left after about six months and Scofield's fiery guitar blazed over the funk-influenced rhythms and even future sounds that were part of the Miles Davis band of the day. It was a heavy musical experience and a career boost even beyond the Cobham band.
"It's really interesting to meet your idol, because I was really into Miles' music at that time. I decided I wanted to play melodically and also play hip lines and all that. I really used him as a basis for the absolute epitome exemplar of that type of thing. And then, meeting this guy in his late fifties or early sixties, at the time, who has already done all that and doesn't want to think about it at all.
It was after Miles' famed exile period when his health and life in general had deteriorated. But in 1980, he decided to come back and was enlisting the services of young musicians to try and make a musical statement befitting the times, refusing a return to bebop.
"He had a new outlet and he wanted to be a pop star and he was, which people don't understand. It wasn't that he was a pop star, he just wanted to be a star and take advantage of his celebritywhich he did. He was huge in a way that nobody is today, with his charismatic thing. But it was all about the music. The cool thing about him was he was this real handsome, outspoken, charismatic trendsetter who also backed it up 100 percent with the music. He wanted to hang out and talk to us about the music all the time.
"As a student of jazz it was fascinating to get his perspective on all the previous jazz that had gone before. And here was this guy with this high set of standards for what made good music. It was so much about what he liked, a lot from the bebop and swing era. So here we are playing Cyndi Lauper tunes, and he was bringing his swing and his criterion to that music. He played his ass off every night, even when his horn wasn't together. I think he had some physical problems, and we didn't play gigs sometimes for long periods of time. But he still played his ass off, even when his chops were down. It was all about the music.
The experience of playing with an icon who refused to address that with which he had earned icon status made a mark on Scofield. Davis was fearless in his musical choices, confident in his tastes, and knew he had good musicians trying to create every night, even ifat the timemany music critics didn't think so.
"He was a purist as far as creativity happening and whether something was fresh. He didn't want to hear any bebop. He just had come from that and he would get bugged at us [if he heard bebop]. I don't feel like that. I love to hear and play lines from bebop. But it was because he had played with Bird and Bud Powell when it was so fresh. So he was always looking for something that would give him the same feeling that he got from that music. But it couldn't be that music again, you know what I mean?
His presence in that band gave Scofield and the others a certain stamp, "just the fact that all of a sudden everyone knew who you were in a different way. Because I've made records and had gigs in New York with Swallow and Adam Nussbaum. We had a trio. All of sudden, after I played with Miles, everyone knew who you were. After leaving Miles in 1985, Scofield started his own band, "and I was able to, business-wise, because Miles had put me in the spotlight by putting me in his band. It was such that everybody knew who you were after you played with him. So from then on I formed my own groups.
Scofield's groups have played quality over the years. He's recorded over thirty albums as a leader, including collaborations. There's something to find in them all, which include the likes of That's What I Say - John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005), Works For Me (Verve, 2001), Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995), or I Can See Your House From Here (Blue Note, 1994), with Pat Metheny. Right through to today, his playing remains sharp, aggressive, thoughtful, and searching. He seems to be touring constantly and still finds time to take on students as an adjunct professor oat New York University.
"You keep looking for something to keep it interesting. It's not that I get bored, but there's some instinctive thing that happens when you can feel, 'Wow, this is cool and we can play this song, this instrumentation, this group of people.' So I am always looking for that, says Scofield. He doesn't get worried if he might face criticism for playing groove music, or funk or anything in between.
"It turns out all of us like jazz for a lot of social reasons too. It's like the 'real deal' as opposed to the world of commerce. So I think when people hear me playing stuff that is really related to rock and roll and hip hop, because they've chosen to become 'jazz people,' a light goes off and people say, 'Wait a minutethat's not the kind of music I like. It's setting me up to be this kind of person. That's not my personality.' It's a kind of pompous thing. You could just say that you don't like that kind of music, that's one thing. I think a lot of it is some kind of social thing. You can't please everybody all the time, that's for sure.
With more bands on the scene incorporating influences from all over the globe, and from all styles of music, Scofield sees it as a good thing for contemporary music, including jazz. Eyes and ears may be opening up to more things, with fewer turned up noses than in the past.
"I think, in a way, it is easier with the young generation. The jazz purists of all generationsand I'm one of them, believe it or notthe younger people don't even know what you're talking about when somebody says Weather Report sucks and Miles is only good until 1970. They can't really understand and I think that's a much healthier attitude. Because I think Weather Report is really great and I think [Miles'] Live at the Fillmore East (Columbia, 1970) is really great. So that old battle is moot to them, in that way.
The confused, and sometimes unfriendly, state of the music industry also doesn't seem a cause for concern. It is what it is, and the guitarist's focus stays on the music and his career.
"I don't even think about the industry ... I really have no idea, it's so all over the place. I think one good thing is that live concerts and clubs seem to be thriving. There's still a scene in Europe, too. We've always made our money on gigs, right? No jazz musicians ever said, 'Well, I'll just sit back and let the royalties accrue,' he says with a laugh. "As far as the CD scene, it's pretty bleak, but I think maybe it's just changing, and new opportunities for the music to get out there and for musicians to profit from that will come. I just don't think it's quite there yet.
"I don't think anybody knows how this is going, he says of the shift away from the traditional recording industry and the influence of the Internet and new media. "Everybody's trying to figure out what this all is. I've been going to YouTube for six months and watching all this great shit. Then it dawned on me that this is six months of not paying copyright royalties to the composer. I've been obsessed with watching old Gerry Mulligan clips or whatever. It's not on the radio and not on a TV show where they're showing this, where they would have to pay royalties. I really never thought about it. And then I wondered if there is anybody else out there like me.
"You see shit on YouTube from guys' phones. Then I saw this TV show of a gig I did at the North Sea Jazz Festival that somebody put on. It was Dutch television, so it was a nicely produced thing. Then they kept showing these people in the audience holding up their cell phones and recording this. So he doesn't fight city hall, at present, and allows recording.
How those things will sort themselves out, even music industry insiders don't know. It's a crazy time filled with a lot of uncertainty, but a feeling seems to prevail that it will be worked out and artists will get their due in one form or another. Hopeful optimism.
More foremost to Scofield is his instrument, his music, his bands. He wants to continue to grow and fights the complacency that comes with being human. He's content that his bands and his music are popular, and his playing is recognized. But that isn't the end. More to do. More to learn.
"Quite honestly, a lot of what people play when they're really trying to play this shit, when they're really trying to play 'the music,' this thing that's been set up in their minds about what great jazz is, it can chain you to a formula. And I'm in there too, man. I'm trying to fight it too. If I'm doing well, hopefully it's because it sounds good.
John Scofield, This Meets That (Emarcy, 2007)
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto, 2006)
Trio Beyond, Saudades (ECM, 2006)
John Scofield, That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays The Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005)
Marc Johnson, Shades of Jade (ECM, 2005)
John Scofield, EnRoute (Verve, 2004)
John Scofield, Uberjam (Verve, 2002)
John Scofield/MMW, A Go Go (Verve, 1998)
Gary Burton & Friends, Departure (Concord, 1997)
John Scofield, Quiet (Verve, 1996)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)
John Scofield, Hand Jive (Blue Note, 1994)
John Scofield, Meant to Be (Blue Note, 1991)
John Scofield, Time on My Hands (Blue Note, 1990)
John Scofield, Loud Jazz (Gramavision, 1988)
John Scofield, Blue Matter (Gramavision, 1987)
Marc Johnson, Bass Desires (ECM, 1986)
Miles Davis, Decoy (Columbia, 1984)
Miles Davis, Star People (Columbia, 1983)
John Scofield, Shinola (Enja, 1981)
Dave Liebman Quintet, If They Only Knew (Timeless, 1981)
John Scofield, Who's Who (Novus, 1979)
John Scofield, Rough House (Enja, 1978)
John Scofield, Live (Enja, 1977)
Billy Cobham, Shabazz (Atlantic, 1974)