Scott LaFaro Remembered on 80th Birth Anniversary

2014 marked 100 years since the start of the First World War, with armies modernized to use then advanced technologies like tanks, armored cars and chemical gas. In Jazz arena, last year was centennial celebration of singers Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. This year we have Charlie Christian, then next year we will see Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald, followed by Hank Jones in 2018, Art Blakey in 2019, and here comes Charlie Parker in the following year.

Now, today is the 80th birth anniversary of Scott LaFaro. THE great bass player, who as member of the first trio of Bill Evans(1929~1980), which existed from October 1959 to the last day of his life, completely revolutionized the way the piano trio performed.

Born in Irvington, suburbs of Newark, New Jersey and raised in Geneva, upstate New York, Scotty first studied clarinet and saxophone at Ithaca College, soon he changed his instrument to bass. It seems that the existence of his father, professional violinist, and his respect and love for his father’s passion for musical perfection, may have a major influence on this change to string instrument. He joined the Buddy Morrow Orchestra in late 1955, and he decided to leave it and live around Los Angeles until he returned to the East Coast jazz scene after finishing the gig with Benny Goodman Band in March 1959. Scotty’s days in LA was the groundwork for his later accomplishments as bass player that have never seen before.

Bill, on the other hand, left Miles Davis Band in November 1958, and was seeking for how his own trio should perform and who the members should be and in so doing he was playing for various players including Lee Konitz and Chet Baker. He even taught piano at the legendary Lenox School of Jazz for three weeks in August 1959. He was definitely  “setting the pace”. And there he is, Scotty was on board. The first trio of Bill, with Paul Motian on drums, was fully equipped and played in Tony Scott’s Sung Heroes on October that year. Interestingly, prior to Scotty joining Bill’s trio, the bass player was Jimmy Garrison, who would be playing with John Coltrane.

The aspect that I think important for Scotty to develop his gift to bloom, was that he played with Thelonious Monk in November 1959 at the Town Hall and at Storyville in Boston in January next year, and that he told in an interview that he learned a lot about rhythm when he played with Monk and that it was great experience. (p.111, Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro by Helene Lafaro-Fernandez ) Wow, we should definitely find whoever has tapes for these incredible sessions!

On Sunday 2, 1961, Scotty was on stage for Stan Getz at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. After finishing the gig, he drove his car heading for his parents in Geneva and in midnight on July 6, his car went on the shoulder of the Route 20 and hit a tree and burst into flames killing him and his old pal Frank Ottley instantly. He was only 25, and his future so promising and it is still, after those years, painful and agonizing.

Scotty’s greatness is that he set the norm of the bass player not only in the Bill’s trio but also for any serious bass players in a short time, which is therefore revolutionary. People who respect him include Marc Johnson who himself was on bass for Bill’s last trio. Marc played Scotty’s tune Jade Visions with Dave Catney, and more recently Phil Palombi recorded a tribute to Scott, “Re-Person I Knew”, and he uses Scotty’s 1825 Prescott instrument occasionally; all of these are evidential matters as to greatness of his legacy.

In commemoration of his 80th birthday, I pick as “today’s catch” three tunes of Scotty’s last performance in the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival. These are in “Miles Davis and Stan Getz: Tune Up” coupled with Miles’ 1956 performances in Germany, and the other Stan Getz group members were Steve Kuhn, piano, and Roy Haynes, drums.

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On introducing the second tune, Stan announced that the next is “Where do you go” by Alec Wilder, however you will notice it is not. It is Gigi Gryce’s Wildwood, instead. Jazz fans talked about this mystery and one of them reasoned that this was caused by a slicing error of recording tapes. I listened to Gryce’s Wildwood played by Art Farmer in 1954, and I agree that it is indeed Wildwood. Take a listen to this crispy wonderful work of Art, really.

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On Scotty’s life, his younger sister Helene wrote a great book “Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro”. There are lots of interesting and heart-warming testimonies by her and Scotty’s friends and colleagues.





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