John Scofield: This Meets That And More

R.J. DeLuke By

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At Berklee, his focus was more on learning how to play changes and play traditional jazz and tunes. It was working, and so was Scofield, at venues in the Boston area. Then he was recommended, by noted Beantown area drummer Alan Dawson, to Gerry Mulligan. "He had decided to extend his band to include guitar and vibes, then a regular piano trio, Scofield recounts. "I played about a week at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, and then there were no gigs for like a month or so. Then he called me up and said, 'Make this next gig,' which was at Carnegie Hall. It was a live recording session in concert, which was on CTI. That was my first record. I only stayed with Mulligan a couple months because I got the call from Billy Cobham. His band at that time was the Brecker Brothers and John Abercrombie. I replaced John Abercrombie on guitar. But it was a big touring band and I couldn't keep playing with Gerry, because Billy Cobham's band worked non-stop. It was famous, like a rock band. I went on tour with the Cobham band for two years and then it became the Cobham-Duke band, with George Duke.

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 celebrity—which 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.

John Scofield

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 if—at the time—many 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?


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