Remembering Scott Sherwood

Peter Cobb By

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What does one possibly say when a treasure is ripped from our lives? What can you say? The jazz world lost a great light recently with the passing of guitarist, composer and educator Scott Sherwood. The rest of the world lost an even greater human being.

I don't know what the proper measure of a man is. I'm sure that opinions vary. I'm definitely sure that I'm not qualified to answer that. But I will say this: in his far too short time here, Scott created great art and beauty on a daily basis, inspired countless others to do the same, taught gently, loved strongly, and made better people out of all those he came into contact with. I'd say that's as good a measure as any.

It would be easy to talk about his accolades. I could get into how some of the greatest musicians of our generation Steve Giordano, John Abercrombie, Steve LaSpina) all admired Scott's talents and loved playing with him. I could tell you how Scott's last album, Ripples (a duo with the incomparable pianist Bob Rodriguez and featuring music that Scott wrote following his first bout with lymphoma), was called "nothing less than the absolute peak recording of all existing guitar-piano-duos in jazz history" by Swiss critic Juerg Sommer. Or how it went without saying that he was beloved by his legions of students of all ages and abilities.

But that would only show you Scott the musician, not the man who made the music, and there is a difference. So I will try to describe what he did to change the life of one person—me—in hopes that when you listen to his music you will also hear what imbues each note he played with tremendous meaning...

I met Scott several years ago in Philadelphia at a session with guitarist Steve Giordano back when I was still working as an attorney. I had heard him play both live and on some recordings, and I was a little nervous to be playing with him. Let's just say that a lot of times great players do not have attitudes that reflect the quality of their playing. But Scott had one of the humblest and gentlest personalities I had ever encountered, and he immediately put me at ease. Consequently, I enjoyed playing the session with him very much. I also took note of how pretty his composition "Ripples" was, and kept a copy of it.

And that might have been all I knew of Scott Sherwood had I not moved to New York last September. Steve Giordano gave me Scott's number and also put a call into Scott to say something to the effect of "look after this guy, won't you?" And he did.

Man, did I ever need that. When I first moved to the city I felt like I had fallen off of a cliff. I had left a stable career (complete with a desk job), and a comfortable and cheap apartment in a quiet Philadelphia neighborhood. I drove my car to the supermarket. I hadn't had a roommate in years. I had a great group of friends. And then overnight I'm living in Chinatown, I have two (sometimes three) roommates, the only thing moving faster than the pedestrian hordes are the rats, and I'm trying to follow a subway system that appears to have been transcribed directly off of the wall of John Nash. Oh, and I don't know a soul and everybody I meet thinks I'm crazy for quitting law. Except for Scott Sherwood.

And he didn't need me—he was on top of the world at that time. He had beaten lymphoma two years earlier, he had just released an amazing album of original music earning rave reviews, and he had a thriving teaching practice at the prestigious Turtle Bay Music School in Midtown. He worked there with his wonderful wife, Jennifer, who was about to be featured on the hit reality T.V. show "What Not to Wear" (the first person to ever write herself in :-)). They had a beautiful Manhattan apartment. He didn't need any strays...

But he took me in anyway. On days that I had late classes and he had late students, I would take the 6 train up to Turtle Bay and wait in the grand old lobby of the school, sipping coffee and eating a bagel from one of the nearby carts. Scott would walk in with a smile and we would get to playing—exploring new directions with old standards or bringing in songs with which we were both unfamiliar but were on our mutual "wish list." I attempted to learn his compositions—some of them stretched the limit of my technique, but Scott was always incredibly patient with me. Sometimes I would bring in some of my homework or a song I was struggling to comprehend (some of Kenny Werner's tunes come to mind). Scott was very well-schooled and had an incredible harmonic knowledge, and he was an excellent teacher.

But mostly we just played. It's a very special process that occurs when two like-minded musicians begin to play together, especially in a duo context. There's a give-and-take, a constant interaction, and adjustments of timing and taste until you learn the other's strengths and weaknesses as a player. The result can be magical, and with Scott it was an easy process. He was constantly listening and evaluating, striving to bring out the best in me. That is rare.

Even more than playing, I loved just spending time with Scott. Sometimes we would grab breakfast before we played, and I would take that chance to pour my guts out to him—the older brother I never had. Life goals, rent issues, ex-girlfriends—nothing was off limits. He possessed an uncommon wisdom that perhaps came from confronting his mortality at a young age, but which I suspect was just an innate part of his character. He had a Midwesterner's dry sense of humor, and he would immediately cut to the root of any problem. He helped me to define my own goals as an artist ("Do you know why you're working on that, Pete? Where do you want it to take your playing?"), and as a person ("You must be getting something out of that or you wouldn't keep doing it, right?"). He was firmly rooted in the moment but still thought about grander artistic concepts ("People create art for three reasons, I think. Beauty, self-expression or to impress.")

When I think about Scott, I will hold one memory above all others. The night before Halloween the Turtle Bay Music School held a volunteer get-together to decorate the building. I had a Halloween gig but nothing else to do that weekend, so Scott invited me along. We hung out eating pizza in the basement until Jen tasked us with moving furniture. We were then pressed into service hanging skulls and cobwebs in the halls, and I literally lost track of him through the gauze webbing. But somehow at the end of the evening we all ended up in his studio, drinking wine and playing trio with a cute cellist I think he might have been trying to fix me up with. He was a really good sport, tolerating hours of mediocre sax-cello-guitar renditions of, frankly, boring tunes. Jen finally rescued him well after midnight :-) As I stepped out into the chilly night air, I looked back at the two of them standing so happily together there and waving goodnight. I can't describe why I felt this way, but I experienced a moment of contentment, maybe even bliss, that I had not had in years. I have only had a few moments like that in my life, and I cherish them. I owe one of them to Scott.

He got sick again after Thanksgiving. I cannot imagine—do not want to imagine—what he felt physically and emotionally during that time. I'll leave it that he had to endure things no person should ever endure. And he fought like hell. He was the toughest, most courageous guy I've ever met, inspiring me at every turn. And he never complained to me. On the contrary, he was always asking about my family and what I was doing. I tried to visit him as often as I could, and we would play like before. As tired as he was, his love of music was so great that we would play for hours (sometimes he'd take a nap, and hop up ready to play again), and it never mattered that he hadn't touched the instrument for a few weeks, he just seemed to get better and say more. His advice and companionship were still wonderful, and I took as much of it as I could get.

The last time we played was about three weeks before he passed. He was in the hospital and had just received his new custom-built guitar that he had ordered many months earlier. He had lost a lot of weight and could no longer speak. But somehow—with the help of his family to find a way to hold it—he got the guitar out and found the will to play. I have no idea what reserve he must have tapped to do so, but he just kept playing—we ran standards that we had played many times before and he still found new ways of interpreting them and motivating me, taking me directions I had never been musically. He was even asking whether I found the timbre of the new guitar easy to mesh with... So I guess that is something else I will never forget. Because even through horror of medications and operations and injections in a fight against an incredibly cruel disease, Scott found the strength to stand up and say—through his actions—enough already. You can take this all away from me, but you will not take who I am and what I love or the music I've worked so hard to build. I am Scott Sherwood, and I am a jazz guitarist no matter what...

He played his ass off. And on that day at least, he beat that disease.

I could go on forever—we all could. There are so many stories. So I'll exercise a little self-restraint. And I know that when a person dies the accolades pour in, and everyone says what a great guy/gal he/she was. Put that aside. Scott Sherwood was the real deal in every sense. Most of you reading this will never know his personality, and I am truly sorry for that because he was different than the rest. But you can listen to his music which was so much an expression of him, and maybe you can listen closely enough to hear the man behind it. You'll know it if you do, because you'll walk away like I always did... just a little lighter than before. Goodbye, my friend. You were there when I most needed a friend, you will always be with me, and I'll make sure that I finally get your songs right.

There will be a musical memorial service for Scott on November 7th at the Turtle Bay Music School. Contact them for more information if you would like to attend.

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