John Scofield: Jazz Can be Learned, but it Can’t be Taught

October 28, 2009

John Scofield

John Scofield’s rock- and RB-infused approach to jazz guitar has made him one of the most prominent voices on the instrument for decades. Along with Bill Frissell and Pat Metheny (the “big three” of contemporary jazz guitar), Scofield has exerted an immeasurable influence on generations of musicians who’ve followed.

Early collaborations in the ’70s with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Billy Cobham, Gary Burton, Dave Liebman, and Charles Mingus led to a successful solo career both as a recording and touring artist. A notable stint with Miles Davis in the early ’80s further cemented Scofield’s reputation as a master axeman. Subsequent solo work has yielded two number-one albums on the Billboard Jazz Charts, continued collaborations with fellow greats, and an acclaimed tribute to Ray Charles (That’s What I Say) in 2005.

JAZZed recently spoke with Scofield about his life in music and his thoughts on how to effectively teach, and learn, the language of jazz.

JAZZed: First off thanks for taking the time to talk; this is a real honor.
John Scofield: Not at all! My pleasure.

JAZZed: Let’s start off at the very beginning when did you first pick up the guitar?
JS: I began when I was 11. My mother instigated it, actually. She said, “Well, why don’t you play guitar?” So we went and rented one from the local music shop. I got this little student guitar and started to learn chords. What motivated me was rock n roll and pop music of the day.

JAZZed: When did your interests begin to go beyond pop music?
JS: Well, it’s important to note that the rock and pop music of the day was pretty damn cool, really. The Beatles were the big deal. Also folk music and soul music were huge then the real Golden Age of soul music in the mid ’60s was happening and all of this led me to blues guitar and I became a big B.B. King fanatic. I was taking lessons with this local guy who really turned me on to jazz guitar: Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow he played me all the greats.

JAZZed: Can you talk more about those early learning experiences? Who were some teachers who had the greatest impact on you?
JS: Well, I took those guitar lessons when I was a kid with the local guitar teacher in my small town in Connecticut. Then, of course, I went to Berklee. I never had any formal instruction before I went to there in 1970, really. The first year in Boston I got to study with John LaPorta and some of the great older teachers there Herb Pomeroy and all these other guys. They were all very inspiring musicians to be around.

Then, in my second year, Gary Burton came to teach at Berklee and he really was a mentor. I lived with a bassist at the time, Chip Jackson, and a drummer named Ted Siebs. We had a little rhythm section at our apartment and Gary used to come over and jam with us we had a set of vibes there. So I was very lucky in my sophomore year, because Gary hung out with us at our apartment all the time and we got to jam with him and spend time together. He really got me started; he was the first great jazz musician that I ever got to really know.

MSMW: Medeski, Scofield, Martin,  Wood.
MSMW: Medeski, Scofield, Martin, Wood.

JAZZed: Regularly jamming with someone like Burton in your college apartment that’s a pretty enviable position to have been in at that age.
JS: You’re telling me. [laughs]

JAZZed: Was it while you were at Berklee that you developed an interest in teaching, yourself?
JS: To be completely honest, I didn’t really have any true interest in teaching at the time. I had an interest in playing and learning music. I always did give guitar lessons for extra money, though.

JAZZed: So, no burning passion to teach.
JS: No, absolutely not. Not at that age. [laughs] I had a burning passion to play, but not to teach.

JAZZed: How did you wind up at Berklee, anyway?
JS: I knew about Berklee from some of the older musicians in my area, growing up. At that time, in the early ’70s, Berklee was still really one of the only places you could go to study jazz full-time. There were a couple of guys from my town who had gone before me. My guitar teacher was really into it. He had always wanted to go there and, as a matter of fact, after I started attending Berklee, he’d come up and visit me and look at the textbooks and absorb the atmosphere.

JAZZed: Let’s talk about your career after college.
JS: Well, I left Berklee after two and half years to hang out in Boston and just play gigs. There was a local jazz scene that I was part of and I was giving lessons between playing gigs. I was also doing what they call “GB” gigs general business gigs, gigs for money. I was just on the scene up there and I met [Gerry] Mulligan. Alan Dawson recommended me and that led to playing with the Mulligan/Baker reunion which was the first record I was on.

Right after that, I got the gig with Billy Cobham’s band and that allowed me to move to New York, so I left in January of 1975.

JAZZed: It was after the move to NYC that you began to actively do a lot of solo stuff.
JS: The funny thing is, people always ask, “When did you start your solo stuff?” I’d been doing my own gigs before I did anything else just stuff that I could hustle up, myself, because there wasn’t much else happening. So I’ve always had gigs of my own, but, yeah, primarily it started in the second half of the ’70s around New York. After I played with Cobham and Burton, I started getting my own group together and making records. The first album I released was in 1977.

JAZZed: And a little while after that you hooked up with Miles?
JS: I joined Miles in 1982, so I had had a few years on the scene there in New York. I made a lot of recordings of my own, played on a number of records for other people I was sort of a sideman for hire.

JAZZed: What kind of knowledge do you walk away with after getting to play with those kinds of guys Miles, Mulligan, Burton, and the rest?
JS: Those guys are the real teachers. I really believe that we learn by playing with people who are better than us. Anyone like Gerry Mulligan and Miles and any of the well-known players or unsung heroes who I got to play with and, later on, Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker these people that I got to play with night after night… that’s how I learned. Going up against them with my solos, too. They take their solos and I take mine and then you listen back to recordings, hone your stuff, and talk about the music with all the great players. That’s how you learn, how you improve, how you evolve.

JAZZed: You’re currently on staff at NYU. How do you like it there? What’s your schedule like?
JS: It’s been great because Dr. Dave Schroeder has made it possible for some people like myself who are on the road all the time to have kind of a limited schedule over there. I teach seven days a semester. In each day, I teach one guitar group comprised of five or six players for two hours and then I do a two-hour combo. I’ve been there for about four years.

JAZZed: Prior to NYU, had you been teaching actively?
JS: I hadn’t taught for years only the occasional master class.

JAZZed: What are you finding that you like best about being an instructor, these days?
JS: I like the people. It’s funny when I was younger and giving lessons for a living I think I was more selfish, really, and concerned with myself. I just kind of jammed through the lessons. Now I really appreciate the young people and it’s a very personal thing of helping people and maybe giving a little insight into what it is that I do. I don’t have a “method” for teaching; I don’t believe in that. Whatever method I have is very much kind of… organic. I’ve come up with little tidbits of knowledge that I can patch together and share with others.

JAZZed: Flipside of the same question: what do you find to be most frustrating or un-enjoyable about teaching?
JS: Unfortunately, it’s teaching people who are not very talented. That’s always going to be a problem for any instructor students who really want to get it, but just don’t have what it takes to play at an advanced level. Then it gets very difficult, trying to explain to someone how to play jazz. What is it that makes jazz good? Because it’s way too intangible to try and explain.

John ScofieldThis phrase is probably not very popular, because it’s a little too cute, but I do like it: “Jazz can be learned, but it can’t be taught.” I think when you have a talented student, it’s a pleasure and a very, very wonderful experience for a teacher. But when you have someone who really wants to know, but just doesn’t have the skills… it’s sad in a way, because you can’t help that person much past a certain point.

JAZZed: What would you suggest to, say, a middle- or high-school music teacher who’s trying to get a jazz program started at his or her school?
JS: The primary goal would be to get some people excited about jazz music. If you can kindle a real interest, that’s what you want to do. Once there is an interest, help them learn about the music through appreciating recordings, through learning the music, technically, on their instrument, and through the explanation of musical theory. That may seem obvious, but that’s basically it and it all starts with getting them to love jazz.

JAZZed: Well, here’s a question you mentioned that players learn by playing with those who are better than them. What if you’re a teacher and you have a student who’s far better than the rest of the kids in that school’s jazz combo, far better than any other kids in the area? How do you help that student to have that type of valuable learning experience playing with and against musicians who are superior in that scenario?
JS: Well that’s who I was. I became the best guitarist in my high school pretty easily. From there, it took Berklee to kick my ass around and that’s what did it for me. If you’re teaching a student who’s one of those types of players, maybe help them meet others outside of their universe to work with other, better, older players and then, beyond that, help them decide if they want to study jazz full time at a music university or conservatory situation and help them find a school.

JAZZed: Yourself, Bill Frissell, and Pat Metheny are commonly regarded as the three most significant guitarists of your era how do you, personally, view your place in today’s jazz scene?
JS: I think that the three of us and others my age are lucky because we were there at a time in the ’70s when jazz and rock were mixing. New things were happening with the guitar technological advances as well as changes in the musical climate. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

JAZZed: What are your thoughts on up-and-coming jazz guitarists?
JS: Man, they talk about our generation there’s a whole bunch of really good younger players, far younger than I am. There are some other guys in their 30s right now who are bringing the guitar to new levels. Too many to name just a few, really.

JAZZed: What do you think are some common snags for teaching jazz guitar to younger students and what suggestions would you offer to teachers in terms of overcoming those hurdles?
JS: I think you have to really slow everything down for younger students. Most guitar players start out by playing simple blues lines in the pentatonic shape. If you can, somehow, show somebody that improvising over a jazz tune at a medium tempo in a lyrical way can be almost the same as playing blues in that you get the lines in your ear and you can sing them they can be lyrical and not just technical. If you can show somebody that and how that can be done and maybe get them to listen to Grant Green, Jim Hall, and other people like that rather than only the flashy fast guys, then maybe they can start to get a sense for the architecture of the music and the shape and form, so that improvisation is not such an incredible mystery.

JAZZed: That leads nicely into my next question how do you approach helping younger players begin to understand improv?
JS: I try to make an analogy between verbal conversation and improvising. When I’m talking to you, I’m talking in sentences, but I’m trying to express a larger idea that may ultimately be a couple paragraphs long or something. I go from one idea to another. Improvising with melodic phrases is the exact same thing. I’d start to explain it like that you develop a vocabulary and then you start to form sentences and paragraphs and, on a good day, maybe you can conceive of a whole page of ideas in a larger musical conversation.

JAZZed: What do you consider to be some of the highlights of your professional career?
JS: I think getting to play jazz professionally at least 150 nights a year for 30 or so years has been the high point for me. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to consistently do that with great players. And making 38 records as a leader and getting to write tunes and be on all the records as a sideman there really have been too many things to think what the high points truly are. Getting to play with so many of my idols, people whose records I listened to over and over and analyzed and dreamed of playing with… getting to do that has just been incredible.

JAZZed: What advice would you impart to today’s jazz instructors our readership?
JS: I think there’s a lot of jazz related music that’s very valid and a lot of high school or college aged kids that you run into will be into other things that are not just straight ahead be-bop, you know? I think that jazz educators should really encourage that type of interest on the part of their students. It’s a big world out there and a lot of the kids will be into different forms that you may not be into, yourself, but it’s still challenging music and they should really be allowed to pursue those passions, as well, and not feel that jazz is an elite old boy network and club that only certain people can be in.

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