Smile Politely

John Scofield: Playing music is all he ever wanted

When a legend like John Scofield refers to your local guitar festival as “beautiful” and “unique” you should probably check it out. Scofield has collaborated with an extensive list of musical acts including Herbie Hancock; Medeski, Martin and Wood; John Mayer; and Miles Davis. Not only does he have a rich musical history touring in America and abroad for the last forty years, but he is a husband, father and adjunct professor at NYU. His meaningful and candid advice about how to make music and the necessity of collaboration is practical wisdom. Scofield is modest too, giving credit to his family, other musicians, and the great fortune he has had in being able to live his dream. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.

Smile Politely: You’ve collaborated with so many amazing artists.  When and how did you start collaborating with Jon Cleary?

John Scofield: It was on an album I made called Piety Street. I would say that was six or seven years ago, maybe. I was a fan of Jon’s and knew him through mutual friends for…I don’t know…15 years before that. But we finally got to play together when I made the Piety Street record. I went to New Orleans and recorded with a bunch of musicians, and Jon was one of the key players on that record.

SP: Speaking of collaborating with other artists, do you have any favorite stories from being out there and doing it?

Scofield: It would be nice if I had something for you and I probably do. I’ve actually been doing it for a long time. It’s my life, really…playing. And I think that collaboration is so important in this kind of music. It’s not like Beethoven sitting down and writing a symphony or even a pop musician who is a singer, writes a tune, and has a faceless back-up band. The music I play is about how we play together, so that’s why collaborations are so important. This thing with Jon Cleary is kind of different for me, because I’m really coming out of jazz. I played blues and I played in jam bands and all that, but I’m really a jazz guy and Jon is the master of the New Orleans blues piano tradition — like Professor Longhair and all that kind of stuff. He is really well-versed in that. So we overlap but we are in kind of different worlds.

SP: But really you’re kind of in every world, it seems, because you’ve collaborated with basically everyone.

Scofield: Well, I’ve done a lot of stuff and thank you very much. There’s a lot of music I can’t play, you know what I mean? I’m not a classical musician and I have no business, even though I love classical music, playing that. I can’t play Indian music and I really love that too, but I’m not well-versed in any of that. I have played with a lot of the old jazz guys. Because I started with blues and rock, I’ve been able to make my kind of jazz work with guys from the R&B world, old school especially. I’ve played with Phil Lesh and what they call “jam band” music, you know? Yeah, I’ve covered a lot of ground. I’m lucky.

SP: You’ve spent time with so many musicians with different types of backgrounds. Has that impacted your world view in any way?

Scofield: I’ll tell you what’s impacted my worldview more than anything — since 1975, I’ve been going to Europe every year for like, two months to play gigs. It’s this other very wonderful place where they really love music, and they really love American music, and that’s what’s impacted my view of what’s going on on the planet because they have a different perspective. It’s similar but it’s different so I feel lucky that I am an American and live here and, you know, have grown up here but I’ve gotten to go to Europe so much. It’s just been wonderful. And also you know what? In Europe they really like old concert tradition. It’s still intact there so people will go and hear a group, a jazz group or whatever you want to call it, the stuff I do. I mean, that’s where I played with Cleary. We did a big tour of Europe like six months ago and you go and you play your concert and they advertise it in the city whether it be Amsterdam or Rome or eastern Europe or wherever. All over Europe, and people will go to hear different stuff. There’s a lot of public funding, you know, government funding for the arts so the venues, they don’t have to worry as much about making money, and so the people will go and check out this band or they’ll check out ballet or, you know, poetry or any of that stuff and that’s been great playing over there on the Schnitzel circuit.

SP: John, you mentioned several styles of music that you enjoy. Is there any new music that really gets you excited?

Scofield: I hear all kinds of great stuff…I’m still kind of checking out my old jazz records. There’s so much stuff I didn’t get to. I mean, right now I’m getting ready to make a record of all country and western tunes. I want to do them my own way with a jazz quartet, so I’m checking that out and that’s been fun sort of rediscovering and discovering country music that I’ve always been a fan of. But I’m not a country musician by any means.  As far as new music, the Tedeschi Trucks Band is really great. I love the way Derek plays. My buddies in this band called Lettuce [are] my old friends. I’ve seen them come up, and do really great stuff. Those guys are all killing and there’s a lot of great stuff around.

SP: You once said, “Self-promotion can be damaging to a young person.” Can you elaborate on that just a little bit?

Scofield: Well, it can be damaging to anybody.  If you’re trying to learn how to do music, and to be a performer, and to present music, you got to work on the music. One of the downsides of the internet allowing everybody to get their music out there is a lot of young musicians spend time self-promoting rather than working on their art.  And you want to get your stuff out there too, but you run the risk of looking like a business rather than an artist, you know? The other thing is I really think that the music speaks for itself. Sure, there’s a lot of great music that’s not as famous as Beyonce and stuff, but that’s ok. That’s the way it is and if the music’s really great, the people who love music will hear it and be interested.

SP: Aside from being a husband and father, you’re an adjunct professor at NYU and have been touring for 40 years. How do you maintain your sanity?

Scofield: I’m completely insane! I’m lucky enough to be busy, really. And first of all, I’m lucky my family puts up with it. My wife and my kids have been very supportive of me being a musician. And I know a lot of musicians who have been unable to make a family work and I’ve got to hand the credit to my wife who puts up with this stuff.  A lot of wives would walk if their husband was gone half the time.  I think on the other hand, anybody who wants to be a musician knows how hard it is to be able to perform professionally. So if you get the chance, you have to do it if it’s what you always wanted all your life. It’s all I ever did. It’s all I ever wanted.

SP: Do you have anything special up your sleeve for ELLNORA?

Scofield: It’s a beautiful festival. I’ve played there before, and I’ve seen what an incredibly diverse festival it is with all these different types of music. I haven’t seen any other festival, in the United States especially, that’s like this. I really congratulate the people that put the program together, first of all. Also, I would really recommend it to anybody who wants to hear some stuff. The people pick stuff they love from all over the world. It’s really, really, really cool to hear all of this incredible music in one place, in one festival with such incredible diversity.

SP: Is there anything we’re missing by not asking you?

Scofield: This is [our] first gig in the U.S. as a duo. You know the group Soulive? Well, they have a festival they do every year at the Brooklyn Bowl and they invited [us] to play. Cleary played with them, then I played with them, then we all played together. And we asked, “Can we do a duet, just the two of us?” And it worked out so well we thought we should do this more often. So then we did a month long tour of Europe, and we have a nice repertoire. We do a bunch of new Orleans R&B kind of classic, and even some jazz standards, and Jon sings them in his inimitable way. We put together a nice little group of tunes and this is the first time we get to do them in America, so it’ll be an American premier at ELLNORA.

Scofield will be performing with John Clearly this Saturday at ELLNORA Guitar Festival as the duo debuts in the U.S.

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