It’s a great time for a book about some little-known corners of bassist Scott LaFaro’s life and influences in his tragically short 25 years, because while many in jazz’s old guard have had a lot of time to give us wonderful interviews throughout the decades in magazines, on blogs and in books, LaFaro has very little non-musical information to share with us. SOLID: Life and Death of a Jazz Genius, Scott LaFaro comes from a burning desire to know more, to tell more, and to bring what can be known about him straight into our lives. This book is loving research personified. Here, the author veers off from what is commonly known, providing the reader with glances into the bassist’s life such as via his sister Helene, who discusses his love for stream of consciousness and how he was a voracious reader. The book also includes interesting photos for context about his family background and ancestors from Italy: LaFaro’s grandfather’s birthplace and his own parents, among others.
The book is more a series of essays on the different phases of his music and whom he met and played with, jumping around in date and bringing the reader to different jazz scenes and venues, giving it an improv feel and matching the spirit of the art form. It pieces together interviews, conversations, historical data and an in-depth look at the bassist. At the time of his death, LaFaro had already played with some of the most outstanding names in midcentury American jazz including Chet Baker, bandleader Stan Kenton, Paul Motian, Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman, whose influence this book makes particular note of. There is little doubt that he would have gone on to create an exciting tapestry to contribute to the jazz lexicon. Here, Staiano says LaFaro has in fact achieved this in fewer years than most, which many jazz historians would agree with.
The author has been the artistic director of the Rumori Mediterranei International Jazz Festival (aka The Roccella Jazz Festival) since 2013 and is a writer and co-author of a variety of books, mostly in Italian.
What attracted you to LaFaro’s music in the first place?
I have to confess that I was attracted by other aspects besides the music. Two above all: his being Italian- American and his passion for literature.
His paternal grandparents were from the same area in Italy where Rumori Mediterranei International Jazz Festival, of which I am the artistic director, is held. In 2011, Rumori Mediterranei organized a tribute to him with a performance by the Eddie Gomez Quartet and a seminar on his music with contributions made by some music academics. A special edition dedicated to him was published by an Italian jazz magazine. It was just two years after the publication of LaFaro’s biography by his sister Helene LaFaro Fernandez with whom I began an email correspondence. At the time, only jazz lovers and musicians knew Scott LaFaro in Italy. By using some hints given by Ms. LaFaro, I was able to locate Scott’s grandfather’s birthplace.
LaFaro and literature is another important aspect I explore and explain in my book. I have found his interest in the Irish writer James Joyce and his “stream of consciousness” narrative device intriguing.
As bassists go, what do you feel made him unique?
Percy Heath, the double bass player of the Modern Jazz Quartet, asked him why he didn’t change instrument as, in his opinion, LaFaro was playing it like a guitar. Heath was trying to make a fool of him, but LaFaro’s reaction was decisive: he liked playing the double bass! I think his uniqueness has been explained by Ernst Joachim Berendt: “Hearing LaFaro improvise with the Bill Evans Trio makes clear what the bass has become through its second emancipation: a kind of super-dimensional, low-register `flamenco guitar,’ whose sound has so many diverse possibilities as would have been thought impossible for the bass only a short time before, but which still (when there is demand for it) fulfills the traditional functions of the bass.”
In my opinion, as a bassist he was able to achieve a level of expression never reached before, apart from Jimmy Blanton. He was the first one to give a relevant role to the double bass in a combo as he did in the legendary Bill Evans’s Trio where interplay prevailed.
In the short span of his lifetime, what do you feel are Scott LaFaro’s chief contributions to the jazz world and what do you most admire in his achievements?
He was only 25 when he died in a car accident, but his creative fire was vital to some of the most important recordings in the history of jazz. First of all, in in the famous albums recorded by Bill Evan’s Trio at the Village Vanguard in New York on June 21, 1961, and we can’t forget his presence in “Free Jazz” and “Ornette,” two projects of Ornette Coleman’s that are milestones in the history of improvised music.
Who have been the most influential musicians for him?
When he was a student, he saw Leroy Vinnegar performing in a venue and got something from him. In the same period, he also used to listen to other double bassists like Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Percy Heath on records. Later, Red Mitchell was a kind of mentor to him, but the double bassist who influenced him the most was Ray Brown. Meanwhile, his favorite musicians were Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.
Did he have any particularly unique technique in playing bass or interpreting music?
In the year he was in college, he studied the double bass following a method by Franz Simandi. That is normal for a student, but he was obsessed with perfection. Many reported that he could spend 10 hours a day practicing, and clarinetist Buddy De Franco said that LaFaro, in order to increase his playing speed, applied to the double bass a method for clarinet by H. Klose. His friend Charlie Haden revealed that he used to practice Sonny Rollins’s solos and didn’t like to use a pickup on his instrument. Really unusual for a double bass player!
He changed the approach in playing the double bass and he was one of the first ones to use two fingers with his right hand. He got that technic from Red Mitchell. In the only interview given in his short life, he said he didn’t consider himself just a jazz musician, because he also liked classical and contemporary music. In fact, he was involved in some projects associated with Third Stream the genre created by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller.
What did your research consist of and what would you say was the biggest surprise that you found out about him that you didn’t know?
In Italy, my research consisted of attempts to find some evidence of his paternal origins. An interesting detail was Scott’s paternal grandfather’s passion for opera and bel canto that was transmitted to Joe LaFaro, Scott’s father, who was also a great musician. Scott’s grandfather Rocco Lofaro (his real surname) in Italy was connected with a local big band in Calabrian town, Siderno, where he lived for a certain period before he emigrated to USA.
The rest of the search concerning Scott’s life and music was done on the internet.
The fascinating aspect I discovered about him regards his collaboration with Ornette Coleman. Along with others, Coleman broke the rules of jazz by creating the so-called “New Thing.” Scotty was integral to this revolution, not just part of the cultural and musical experience of the Bill Evans trio.
How long from first concept to publication?
My interest was whetted more than ten years ago, thanks to the tribute to him we organized at Rumori Mediterranei Jazz Festival when we learned of his Calabrian origins from his sister’s book.
What was the most fun part of the process of writing the book and what was the most challenging?
Writing this book kept me focused during the lockdown period of COVID-19. It kept me busy in those years of captivity. The most challenging part of the process was the search for the documents concerning the relationship between James Joyce and the music of Scott LaFaro. It has been a very difficult task, because LaFaro’s interest in Joyce was just simply hinted at by his sister in her biography. It is still a wide prairie for researchers and is the most important aspect of my book.
You released this for the Italian market and the US market. What kind of reader feedback have you received?
In Italy it has been successful, most of all among musicians, but also with general readers, not just jazz lovers. It received an excellent review from “Il Corriere della Sera,” the most important Italian newspaper. It was presented in universities from Reggio Calabria to Milan. “La Repubblica,” another very important Italian newspaper, included it in a literary competition. In the US, the book has just been published and has been warmly received.
What is the most important thing for a person who is new to his music to know about LaFaro?
LaFaro always tried to be the best and was obsessed with perfection following his father’s advice to always do things very well. He was a smart, educated, handsome young man. It was said he could have had a career in cinema, but he loved music and gave a certain something, the passion of his youth and a new approach to every project and combo he was involved in. That’s why a giant of jazz like Miles Davis wanted him in his group. Without him, Davis wrote, his quintet was not solid. Hence the title of my book, Solid: Life and Death of a Jazz Genius.” Even if he was very young, he had a prominent role in the Los Angeles and New York jazz scene in the late fifties and played with the most pre-eminent jazz musicians of that period.
Other comments about either LaFaro or writing this book?
LaFaro hasn’t been given the recognition he deserves. He was a genius and writing this book has been an attempt to give some idea of the great contributions he gave to music, not only to jazz.
For more information, visit www.amazon.com/SOLID-Death-Genius-SCOTT-LAFARO/dp/1470932660.
Photo courtesy of the author.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
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