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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
3 September 1998

John Scofield picked up a guitar in 1962 at the age of 11; it was a role waiting to be filled.

Playing electric guitar was about to become a major macho pose, like throwing a touchdown pass or hitting a home run. It was something little boys mimed in air without a prop. "Look at me, ma, I'm Jimi Hendrix." It proved how masculine you were, that you could distort and feed back and if your father made enough money you could destroy a guitar or two. Burn it. Guitar players took names like Slash.

It was also more than a pose. The guitar would soon overtake the saxophone as the major instrumental voice of our times. Guitar heroes were coming of age, coming out of the woodwork thanks to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and on and on. To say nothing of Elvis. It was the pose of coming of age. Like firing a Kalashnikov.

Except for Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, with Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney on the sidelines, the jazz guitar was still just part of the rhythm section. In the classics, Segovia was something of a curiosity. If you didn't play rock forget it. You were a 90 pound weakling.

The young Scofield was knocked out by early Beatles and Ricky Nelson. He watched Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio on television and plugged into the folk phase. There were no teachers in tiny Wilton, Connecticut, where he was growing up, so he taught himself. He listened to Delta blues, the so-called "hippy jazz" of Charles Lloyd and early fusion guitarist Larry Coryell. He played with rhythm and blues bands in high school.

At the turn of the decade, Sco's quartet performed for a packed house in the New Morning in Paris after 40 one-nighters in 15 countries in 44 days. At the same time he celebrated - paraphrasing Ronald Reagan - the 10th anniversary of his 29th birthday. It was a good time to take stock.

John Scofield has become arguably the most influential jazz guitarist. Better known, a bigger draw, the guitar megastar Pat Metheny still told me that as far as he's concerned "Sco is the main man." Metheny's main man is a...MAN!

Scofield learned to be at home with difficult articulation in non-guitar key signatures. Expanding Johnny Smith's sweet monotony, he combined John Coltrane's harmonic advances with the textural innovations of Jimi Hendrix.

Not the least of it, he had also learned how to play 40 concerts in 44 days without drugs (he even stopped smoking cigarettes). There's a lot of strength under the surface of this good-natured, soft spoken family man with the high forehead and ready smile. He makes it sound simple:

"Psyching yourself up with dope is dumb. I did that long enough. It don't work. Your timing has to be perfect. You want to get a little numb, but not so numb that the music stops flowing out of you. You're always tuning yourself. It's too much work, you find that you think about nothing else and it screws up your body too. It's not practical and you pay too much. So now I just try and keep cool."

If you get stoned too early you come down too fast - too late and it doesn't hit in time. Cool is the operative word here.

Graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music in the early '70s, he played with Chet Baker, Gary Burton and Charles Mingus; with McCoy Tyner and Dr. John. He was basically a bebopper, "something of a purist." But then Miles Davis "turned me around, said I was bluesy and got me into wah-wah pedals, back-beats and heavy electronics."

His reputation took a quantum leap in the early '80s when he became a collaborator more than a sideman for three years with Davis, who admitted to building tunes from Scofield's improvisations. Rather than feeling ripped off, Sco was flattered.

After he left the band, however, the trumpeter began to bad-mouth the guitarist in the press. He said, in effect, the Sco was too cool; he said he played behind the beat. He said it and said it and said it - though implying it was not really Sco's fault, poor boy. He's white.

John Scofield

"That's just Miles being Miles," Scofield said, with a sigh of understanding for a flawed hero. I loved him. It was kind of sad, he wanted a hit so badly, it made him bitter. But he can't do anything but play great, except---" He hesitated and shrugged: "Except when he doesn't play great.

"It's weird. Even on an off day, he makes everything come into focus. Miles is into all sorts of power trips but whenever he put his horn to his mouth that's what counted. He made music happen. It gave me faith in humanity."

Miles taught him that being a leader is a full-time and not always enjoyable responsibility. Although sometimes he would rather be sitting and riffing in somebody else's band, Scofield takes leadership as an acceptable price to be able to play his own music. His record, "Time on My Hands" (Blue Note), sold 45,000 copies. Suddenly, he could afford to hire a tour bus. He filled thousand-seat houses. It came down to this: "I love hiring people. I'm not so comfortable firing them."

I asked him whether he hires people more on the basis of technical brilliance or on chemistry.

"Chemistry!" he replied without hesitation. "Which turns out to be rhythm. Time. You've got to play together. It's all about being collective. You don't have to have anything else in common except the concept of time. The right chemistry. It's totally conceivable for me to make great music with somebody I couldn't talk to, like some right-wing reactionary.

"It's a question of intuition. Once you've played with people like Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden, people who play intuitively, for the moment, which it turns out is the way all the great players played, then you get the feeling there's nothing else that matters.

"Some musicians are born to make music together. Some guys just have it. Whatever 'it' is, it's magic."

Photo: John Scofield.
Credit: Christian Rose

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