Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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LaFaro, Scott (Rocco)

Scott LaFaro helped bring the bass out of the rhythm section's mix to make it an independent melodic instrument. In a few short years, in his work with Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman, LaFaro changed the course of the way the bass is played in jazz.

Rocco Scott LaFaro was born on April 3, 1936 in Newark, New Jersey to Rocco Joseph LaFaro and Helen Scott. The LaFaros lived in nearby Livingston, New Jersey, and at the age of five the family left Livingston and moved to Geneva, New York.

LaFaro’s father was a violinist who studied at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. He played with a number of the era's most successful jazz bands, including the Dorsey Brothers and Paul Whiteman, and also led his own band in Geneva.

LaFaro began his musical education at the age of ten, when he started playing the piano. In 1950, LaFaro entered Geneva High School, where he played the bass clarinet and tenor saxophone in the school band under the direction of Godfrey Brown. In the band he also met Gail Brown, who played bass, and taught LaFaro chord positions on the instrument.

Mr. Brown began to teach LaFaro music theory during his freshman year, and he advanced at a steady rate, and was selected to play saxophone in New York‘s “All State” high school band. However, in 1953, a basketball injury damaged his embouchure and LaFaro was forced to abandon the instrument.

LaFaro’s interest in the bass was renewed when he heard bassist Leroy Vinegar perform at a club in Geneva. LaFaro ultimately made the bass his primary instrument the summer before he entered college, partly due to a requirement at Ithaca College which required all music education majors to learn a string instrument.

After a brief period at Ithaca College, LaFaro joined the big band led by trombonist Buddy Morrow, and stayed with him until September 1956. In late 1956, LaFaro also began to play in the group led by trumpeter Chet Baker.

In early 1957, LaFaro played with Baker's group in New York, where Victor Feldman was in attendance. LaFaro’s playing impressed the British pianist and vibraphonist, and one year later, Feldman asked him to play on his first American album, The Arrival Of Victor Feldman.

After leaving the Chet Baker group, LaFaro moved to Los Angeles. Since steady work as a musician was hard to come by, LaFaro began to study with renowned composer and arranger Herb Geller, with whom LaFaro lived for a time.

LaFaro’s luck began to turn in 1958, when his work alongside Feldman brought him to the attention of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Hampton Hawes, with whom he recorded "Hip."For a short time, LaFaro also played in a group led by pianist Paul Bley, where he first met alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

In 1958, LaFaro appeared on an album co-lowed by vibraphonist Cal Tjader and Stan Getz entitled “The Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet.” On “Crow’s Nest,” LaFaro exhibits skills beyond his years, by choosing not to congest the instrumentation with unneeded notes, but instead allowing the saxophone and vibraphone to be at the forefront of the song.

In 1959, LaFaro became a member of the Bill Evans Trio (http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/evans-bill-william-john). Evans had recently left the group led by trumpeter Miles Davis group to pursue his own endeavors as a leader. It was with the Bill Evans Trio that LaFaro began to play with drummer Paul Motian, who helped LaFaro develop his style.

On the album Portrait in Jazz, the trio conceived of a method of jazz in which no one was singularly responsible for keeping a concise beat. This allowed LaFaro the liberty to formulate a new kind of melodic approach to playing that included brief motifs and phrases rather than a continuous pulse.

During his tenure with Evans, LaFaro found time to collaborate with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. LaFaro appeared with bassists Charlie Haden and Jimmy Garrison on a 1959 session released on the 1970 album The Art of the Improvisers. On “The Alchemy of Scott LaFaro,” LaFaro navigates the fast tempo with ease while still providing a lyrical platform for Coleman to freely improvise.

In December of 1960, LaFaro also appeared on the album Golden Striker / Jazz Abstractions with Coleman and guitarist Jim Hall, playing compositions by Gunther Schuller. He also appears on Coleman’s December, 1960 record Free Jazz, an experimental album on which two quartets were recorded separately on separate channels of a stereo recording. In January of 1961, LaFaro returned to the studio with Coleman, along with drummer Ed Blackwell and trumpeter Don Cherry to record the album "Ornette!"

In February of 1961, Evans' trio recorded what would be its last studio album, Explorations. On the track “Israel,” LaFaro breaks apart the beat while still maintaining the chord changes. LaFaro’s technique results in a more explicit tone, a result of plucking the notes from the strings’ underside. The rhythmic interplay between LaFaro and Motian is rather dynamic, allowing Evans to continuously showcase his sophisticated timbre.

The trio followed up this session with live dates at New York's Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, material from which was released on two albums, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, which were ultimately compiled by Riverside Records as The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961.

On July 3, 1961, LaFaro performed with Stan Getz at the Newport Jazz Festival; it would be his final performance. On July 5, LaFaro returned home to Geneva to visit his mother. In the early hours of July 6, LaFaro and his friend Frank Ottley decided to drive back to New York. LaFaro lost control of the car and hit a tree causing the car to catch fire, ending both of their lives.

LaFaro was laid to rest on July 8, next to his father at Glenwood Cemetery in Geneva. The loss of Scott LaFaro was felt immediately in the jazz world, with Bill Evans feeling so distressed he didn’t play live for almost a year.

Though LaFaro’s career was brief, his inventive style continues to influence generations of bassists.

Select Discography

With Victor Feldman

The Arrival of Victor Feldman (1958)

Latinsville! (1959)

With Cal Tjader

The Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (1958)

With Bill Evans

Portrait In Jazz (1959)

Explorations (1961)

Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)

Waltz For Debby (1961)

With Ornette Coleman

The Art of the Improvisers (1959-61, released 1970)

Free Jazz (1960)

Ornette! (1961)

Contributor: Eric Wendell