John Scofield: ‘Be honest, play what’s inside, steal from everyone you can’

Over dinner in downtown Manhattan, the guitarist talks about what he learned growing up in the heady days of New York’s jazz scene

It's the week of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in America, and I'm in a taxi heading into downtown Manhattan. Images of the four fresh-faced Liverpudlians are everywhere, splashed across the giant screens on Times Square and staring out from magazines on the news stands. Local television stations are running non-stop footage of that fateful day, February 7th, 1964, when the Fab Four touched down in the newly renamed JFK airport. Less than a year after the tragic loss of a president, it was a shining moment, and one, the pundits are saying, that changed American music for ever.

But I have a date with another musician who, in his own quiet way, changed the music of his homeland, and the way his instrument is played in it.

“Meet me on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 11th street,” reads his email. “Let me buy you dinner.” Well, all right, Mr Scofield. If you insist.

John Scofield, or "Sco" to his friends and fans, has been a loud beep on my radar since the mid-1980s when his Still Warm album hit me between the ears with its taut New York grooves and exquisitely liquid guitar solos. He is a musician capable of almost chameleon-like changes of style, from gnarly acoustic jazz to down-home electric funk, and yet, whatever the setting, his sound is utterly distinctive.

When I arrive at the bustling corner in downtown Manhattan – a few blocks from NYU School of Music, where he has been giving a masterclass – Scofield is waiting, a tall, gaunt figure in regulation New York black, beard neatly trimmed and a smile spread across his open features. He is all warmth and affability, determined to play the host in his city. Within a few minutes, we are walking and talking, just two jazz nerds (his phrase) shooting the breeze and looking for somewhere to eat.

“This place is good,” he says, stooping to examine the menu outside a Thai restaurant a few blocks down 3rd Avenue. Soon we are seated before two plates of steaming noodles. When we rise an hour later, we have moved from opening biographical pleasantries through the parlous lack of women at jazz gigs to the elusive nature of art without missing a beat. He talks easily, with barely a trace of ego; I find that I like Sco the man as much as I like his music.

‘A Beatles maniac’

The Beatles crop up in the first minute. "My mother rented me a guitar when I was 11 years old, and that was in October 1963. A few months later, the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show , and everything changed. I had my guitar and I could already play three chords. I was a Beatles maniac overnight."

Growing up in "a lily-white town" in suburban Connecticut, Manhattan was just a train ride away, and as soon as he was old enough, he was making his way into the city to check out guitarists. When I ask him about those heady days in New York in the late 1960s, it turns out that, for all the early adoration of the Beatles and the Everly Brothers, the names that come most readily to his lips are black musicians: Ray Charles, James Brown, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and BB King.

“I got into the blues, you know, with this kind of blues thing that was happening around 1966. After the Beatles thing, I was a 14- or 15-year-old blues snob, and took the train into the city and got to hear all those guys playing live.”

Like most jazz musicians, it was a growing interest in becoming a better guitarist that eventually led him to jazz. At 16, a local guitar teacher turned him on to Wes Montgomery and the die was cast. He remembers seeing Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis playing in clubs in Manhattan, but he also remembers with a rueful smile missing the opportunity to hear John Coltrane play live because Montgomery was playing in another club down the street.

"Who the hell's this Coltrane guy?" He laughs deprecatingly at his younger self. "I'm going to check out Wes."

The early jam sessions
At 18, with a career in music firmly in view, he took his guitar to Boston to attend the famous jazz school at Berklee. "Within a month I was a bebop snob," he says. "I put away all my blues records, got myself a beret and a big guitar with heavy strings." But the most formative experience of that time happened after hours, jamming night after night with vibraphonist and Berklee instructor Gary Burton.

“Gary would get tired of rush-hour traffic, and my roommates played bass and drums, so I said, ‘Why not come and hang with us and wait for the traffic to subside?’”

He’s being modest. Burton is well known for discovering and nurturing young musicians, and he did not jam with just anyone.

It was on one of those evening jam sessions that Scofield first became aware of another famous guitarist, one with whom he is often compared. “One day, Gary came in and said, ‘I just met this 16-year-old kid from Missouri. And he’s better than you’.”

The kid's name was Pat Metheny. Scofield and Metheny, along with fellow Berklee alumnus Bill Frisell, are often described as "the big three" of contemporary jazz guitar. Scofield dismisses the term, however. "I hate that," he says, but not sourly. "It's actually the big 75. There's a bunch of great guitar players out there. And [John] Abercrombie, he was doing it before any of us."

He emerged from Berklee into the mid-1970s maelstrom of jazz fusion. A new generation of jazz musicians were plugging in, and the grooves of rock and funk were supplanting the swing of earlier generations. The bebop snob soon adapted, and gigs with some of the major names in fusion eventually led, in the mid-1980s, to a three-year stint with the great Miles Davis.

His Jekyll and Hyde career since then has seen him deftly balance serious credibility as a player of acoustic jazz with a parallel life as a purveyor of groove-based jazz funk, notably with his eternally popular band Überjam. Are there two John Scofields?

“Yeah, kind of,” he says. “I’m always trying to get Überjam to be successful as jazz for me, so that my inner gut goes ‘okay, this is happening, in a creative way’. And when I’m playing with acoustic jazz musicians, I’m always trying to get it to be funky in some way, so there’s some gut in there. I’m always trying to, you know, get my cake and eat it too.”

Is it a case of art versus commerce? He laughs, but rather than take the bait, he goes back to talking about the music that got him interested in the first place.

“When I first was deeply moved by all this music, that was black music, it was like Ray Charles and James Brown and BB King, and those guys, they were just on the radio.

“They weren’t playing art music. I think it’s art, but they weren’t trying for that.

“But you know, the whole thing of separating popular music from art music is really old and wrong, and it was never quite right anyway. Most of the stuff that is, you know, very self-consciously art music is just as unsuccessful as the stuff that is self-consciously popular.

“I think what we’re trying to do as artists, from wherever we’re from, is be honest, is play what’s inside ourselves. And,” he adds with a grin, “steal from everyone you possibly can.”

John Scofield joins composer and arranger Vince Mendoza at the National Concert Hall on Wednesday to perform Mendoza's 54, a composition for orchestra and electric guitar with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Big Band.