He played with jazz greats like Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Stan Kenton and Bill Evans. He’s been described as “the most influential bassist in the last 50 years” more than once, regardless of the fact that four albums and word-of-mouth stories from jazz musicians are the only proof of his whirlwind success. He died a tragic death in 1961, at the young age of 25, but is immortalized in the world of jazz. Geneva’s own Scott LaFaro was, indeed, a jazz great.
In early 2014, the Geneva City Council formally named April 3, Scott’s birthday, as Scott LaFaro Day, and also renamed the portion of Linden Street that runs from Seneca Street to South Exchange Street, “Scott LaFaro Drive.” Last April, Scott’s life and legacy were celebrated at the monthly “Geneva Night Out” event, which featured live jazz performances, recordings of Scott’s work and copies of Scott’s biography, Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro.
Inspired by the event – and the book, written by Scott’s sister (and my cousin) Helene LaFaro-Fernandez – here is a small peek into the short but well-lived life of Scott.
Life father, like son
Scott’s father, Rocco “Joe” Joseph LaFaro, was somewhat of a child prodigy – he played mandolin alongside adult musicians when he was just 3 years old. He learned the violin at the age of 5, and was soon performing with professional musicians.
After studying violin at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music from the ages of 12 to 18, he followed the big band scene to New York City, where he played with the stars of the 1920s – the Dorsey Brothers, Smith Ballew, Ed Kirkeby, Paul Whitemman, Bea Lillie, the California Ramblers and Rudy Valle.
Although Joe didn’t earn his living with music, he instilled in his firstborn son a deep love for jazz, taking him to live concerts regularly and enlisting him in long discussions of the music afterward.
When life gives you jazz … play jazz
Scott’s first music lessons truly began in sixth grade with the piano. “He had perfect pitch,” even at that time in his life, noted Helene in her book. His musical prowess would only expand throughout his four years of high school, as he learned to play the bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and the baritone bugle.
He was involved in every musical group, class or event he could manage. In his freshman year, he joined the high school band and took private music lessons with band instructor Godfrey “Brownie” Brown. He was afforded the opportunity to play his instruments at both the New York All-State Music Festival and the New York Music School All-State Concert.
During his junior year of high school, he and bandmate Tom Kirk began a seven-player dance band called Rhythm Aires, and would perform at local high school dances and other civic venues. When he took on the bugle that same year, he joined the Appleknockers, a well-known American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps. in Geneva. “He got his first taste of the road life of musicians,” wrote Helene, “traveling as far away as Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Florida for national competitions.”
In his final year of high school, his clarinet playing won first place honors at the Seneca Symphony Society’s Orchestral Performance Competition. He became student band director and the youngest member of the Chess Men, a sextet of adult professionals who played at local venues. It wasn’t until this time in Scott’s life, when he decided he wanted to attend Ithaca College, that he and his father agreed he should pick up a string instrument since it was required by all students enrolled in Ithaca’s music program. The two chose the double bass so Scott could practice by playing with his dad’s music group on weekends and holidays.
With graduation just days away, and already accepted into the music program at Ithaca College, he wrote this in his girlfriend’s senior yearbook: “I’m going to really study this time; it won’t be like high school because now I realize what I’ve waited to do since I started taking clarinet lessons. I’m going to practice until I’ve become as good as Konitz, Desmond, Getz and Sims rolled altogether and then I’ll still practice some more. For the rest of (our lives) we’ll live, eat and sleep modern jazz. There is something about music that I could never explain to you. I just go crazy when I hear it and I get the wildest feelings when I, myself, play it. I know that I can become a top-flite performer and I will realize that ambition.”
He couldn’t have been more correct.
The Bill Evans Trio
The summer after his first year of college, he’d already decided he wasn’t going to return to Ithaca and began playing bass wherever he could – sometimes with his dad at Geneva’s Belhurst Castle, sometimes with friends at local Club 86. By 1956, Scott was an official bass player in the big band group called Buddy Morrow Orchestra and was touring across the country with them.
By fall of that same year, he knew his heart was with jazz, not big band, so he left the orchestra and joined the Chet Baker Quintet, which is when Bill Evans first heard Scott play. It wasn’t until 1959, after playing with Baker and other jazz stars like Victor Feldman, Stan Kenton, Cal Tjader, and Benny Goodman that, for the second time, Scott met Bill, who had recently departed from the Miles Davis Sextet. The two teamed up with drummer Paul Motian to form the Bill Evans Trio.
This was a crucial time in Scott’s musical career and when he truly developed the counter-melodic style that would change the jazz world. During those two short years the trio was together, they recorded four albums – Portrait in Jazz (1960), Explorations (1961), and two live albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961) and Waltz for Debby (1962).
In the summer of 1960, Scott began to play in Ornette Coleman’s Quartet and less than one year later started playing with Stan Getz. He would do so until his tragic death on July 6, 1961, when he fell asleep at the wheel, hit a tree, and was killed instantly, along with high school friend Frank Ottley.
“That night’s dreams became nightmares, then reality,” wrote Helene. “That short interruption of a lazy July morning would bring a loss whose effect would be felt in two very diverse places – a modest home in Southern California and in the esoteric world of jazz.”
Life after death: a jazz immortal
According to Bill Evans Trio drummer Paul Motian, Bill was “numb with grief” after Scott’s passing, though it’s clear through interviews with Bill that Scott would remain immortal in the jazz world. In an interview with George Klabin in 1966, it’s clear that Scott had become a permanent part of Bill, as he described Scott’s approach:
“His approach to the bass was a beautiful thing to see. He would just pick up the bass and get involved. He would get involved with maybe one figure, one particular type of cross-fingering or cross-string fingering or double stop or quadruple stop or whatever. He would just work it and work it and work it. And develop an insight. And work it farther into an intuitive insight into the hidden mechanics of string instruments. His approach was this total approach. It was not a study approach. It was a total encompassing and enveloping approach, where he seemed to master a whole area. His technique was built through fire, as some kind of spark in him took over. He would work and work and work in, and lay it down.”
All information written here is from Helene LaFaro-Fernandez’s book, Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro. You may order it from your nearest bookstore.
by Alyssa LaFaro