LaFaro’s Lament: A Young Legend’s Unfinished Symphony

LaFaro’s Lament: A Young Legend’s Unfinished Symphony

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In the annals of jazz history, few names resonate with the profound impact and meteoric rise of Scott LaFaro. His journey from a musically gifted child to a revolutionary jazz virtuoso is a tale of raw talent, relentless passion, and a groundbreaking approach to the double bass. LaFaro’s story is not just about the notes he played; it’s a narrative of musical evolution, family influence, and a burning dedication to the art of jazz. Born into a musically rich environment in Newark, New Jersey, LaFaro’s path was shaped by a blend of inherent talent and nurturing surroundings, leading him to leave an indelible mark on the world of jazz.

Scott LaFaro’s early life in Newark, where he was born into a family enriched by music, laid the foundation for his illustrious career. His father, a big band musician, was instrumental in shaping his early musical environment. The family’s move to Geneva, New York, when LaFaro was five, marked the beginning of his formative years in a nurturing and musically vibrant setting.

LaFaro’s musical journey began with piano lessons in elementary school, a period that unveiled his natural affinity for music. As he progressed to middle school, he transitioned to the bass clarinet, and by high school, the tenor saxophone became his instrument of choice. These early years were crucial in honing LaFaro’s musical talents, setting the stage for his future jazz endeavors. Even a basketball injury to his lip, which might have deterred a less dedicated musician, couldn’t dampen his musical spirit. His resilience and dedication during this time foreshadowed the remarkable career that lay ahead.

In this environment, Scott was deeply influenced by his father, Joe LaFaro, a classically trained violinist and professional musician. Joe’s diverse musical background, spanning classical to big band jazz, provided a rich tapestry of influences for young Scott. The LaFaro household was a hub of musical activity, with regular discussions about music, listening sessions, and shared moments at the piano. This immersive musical upbringing fostered in Scott a deep love for music and a keen understanding of its varied forms and expressions.

The turning point in LaFaro’s musical journey occurred during his senior year of high school. Faced with the requirement to learn a string instrument for his major at Ithaca College, he chose the double bass – a decision that would redefine his life. LaFaro’s passion for the double bass was immediate and all-consuming, leading him to devote countless hours to practicing and mastering the instrument. His rapid progress and natural aptitude for the bass were unmistakable, marking a full commitment to his new-found love.

Though LaFaro’s tenure at Ithaca College was brief, it was immensely impactful. After completing his first year, he successfully auditioned for the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, a pivotal step that led him to leave college to embark on a professional music career. This decision marked the beginning of an exhilarating chapter in LaFaro’s life, one that would see him rise to become a revolutionary figure in the jazz world. His move to join the Buddy Morrow Orchestra was not just a leap into the professional jazz scene; it marked the true commencement of an extraordinary musical career that would forever change the landscape of jazz.

Bebop to Basslines: LaFaro in Jazz’s Golden Era

Scott LaFaro’s emergence in the jazz world coincided with an era of unprecedented innovation and transformation. The late 1950s and early 1960s, a period marked by the flourishing of bebop and the genesis of modal jazz and hard bop, provided the ideal backdrop for LaFaro’s artistic growth and exploration. This was a time when jazz was not just a genre but a cultural revolution, continuously evolving and redefining itself.

LaFaro stepped into this dynamic world after leaving Ithaca College to join the Buddy Morrow Orchestra, where he began to hone his craft among seasoned professionals. His unique approach to the double bass quickly garnered attention, setting him apart in a scene already brimming with talent. LaFaro’s style, characterized by its technical brilliance and bold innovation, began to redefine the role of the double bass in jazz ensembles, elevating it from a supportive to a more interactive, melodic participant.

In the post-war years, the jazz scene was a melting pot of new ideas and styles. The bebop movement, initiated in the 1940s by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, had already revolutionized jazz with its complex harmonies and rapid-fire tempos. LaFaro, with his profound talent and innovative approach, absorbed these influences and contributed his unique voice to this rich musical dialogue.

His collaborations with various jazz greats, including Victor Feldman, Chet Baker, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Stan Getz, and Ornette Coleman, were not just professional engagements but invaluable learning experiences. Each collaboration enriched LaFaro’s musical vocabulary and influenced his evolving style. However, it was his association with the Bill Evans Trio that would become the most defining aspect of his career. With Bill Evans and Paul Motian, the trio created a new language in jazz, where the double bass was an equal voice in the ensemble, engaging in a complex and intuitive dialogue with the piano.

LaFaro’s time in this vibrant jazz scene was also marked by personal stylistic development. Influenced by the sounds of hard bop, he experimented with aggressive, melodic lines and ventured into the upper register of his instrument, a realm seldom explored by bassists at the time. This innovative approach was a revelation in the jazz community, adding a new dimension to ensemble playing and expanding the role of the double bass in jazz.

The recordings of the Bill Evans Trio, particularly the sessions at the Village Vanguard, captured LaFaro’s genius in its full glory. Albums like “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby” stand as testaments to his talent, showcasing his ability to weave intricate, lyrical lines with a deep harmonic understanding. These recordings remain pivotal in jazz history, exemplifying LaFaro’s impact on the genre.

The Bill Evans Trio: A Revolutionary Ensemble

The Bill Evans Trio, comprising pianist Bill Evans, drummer Paul Motian, and bassist Scott LaFaro, stands as a landmark in jazz history, symbolizing a period of extraordinary creativity and innovation. The collaboration of these three musicians in the late 1950s and early 1960s marked a revolutionary phase in jazz, redefining the potential and dynamics of the piano trio format.

Before LaFaro’s involvement, the conventional role of the double bass in jazz ensembles was primarily rhythmic, anchoring the harmony and maintaining the beat. However, LaFaro’s arrival in the trio heralded a significant paradigm shift. With his virtuosic technique and melodic approach, he transformed the double bass into a lead instrument, capable of engaging in intricate dialogues with the piano and drums. His playing was not just accompaniment; it was an integral part of the trio’s collective improvisation and expression.

The synergy within the Bill Evans Trio was palpable. Evans, known for his introspective and lyrical piano style, found in LaFaro a kindred spirit. Their musical conversations were intuitive and deeply connected, creating a sound that was both innovative and timeless. Paul Motian’s subtle and responsive drumming added another layer to this interplay, completing the trio’s unique sonic landscape.

The trio’s repertoire, a blend of jazz standards and original compositions, provided the perfect canvas for their exploratory approach. Their performances were characterized by a high level of spontaneity and interaction, with each member contributing equally to the creative process. This was a departure from the traditional hierarchical structure of jazz trios, where the piano often dominated. In the Bill Evans Trio, each instrument had a voice, and the conversation between them was fluid and dynamic.

Their albums, particularly those recorded live at the Village Vanguard, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and “Waltz for Debby,” are revered in the jazz world. These recordings capture the essence of the trio’s innovative approach and stand as a testament to their collective genius. The music they created was not just groundbreaking; it was transformative, influencing countless musicians and ensembles in the ensuing decades.

The trio’s approach to performance and recording was also revolutionary. They emphasized the importance of each instrument’s role, ensuring that the bass and drums were not merely accompaniments but equal partners in the musical conversation. This egalitarian approach was reflected in their recordings, where the clarity and interplay of each instrument are distinctly audible, a rarity in jazz recordings of that era.

Mastering the Double Bass: LaFaro’s Signature Style

Scott LaFaro’s approach to the double bass was characterized by remarkable technical agility and speed, a signature trait that set his playing apart. He utilized multiple fingers for plucking the strings, a technique that allowed for greater intricacy and continuity in his lines. This approach enabled him to perform complex musical phrases with exceptional fluidity.

LaFaro frequently explored the higher register of the double bass, showcasing his ability to articulate ideas in this previously underutilized range. In the Bill Evans Trio, he transformed the bass role from a rhythmic backbone to an active, conversational participant, engaging in dynamic interplay with the piano and drums. This interactive playing style elevated the bass to a new level of engagement in jazz.

His harmonic interpretation was another defining aspect of his style. LaFaro had the freedom to play around the written harmony, significantly contributing to the ensemble’s harmonic depth. His performances were marked by rhythmic intensity, particularly in medium-tempo numbers, featuring intricate interactions and counterpoints with Evans. This rhythmic richness added a dynamic layer to the trio’s sound.

Echoes Beyond the Strings: The Life, Legacy, and Tragic End of Scott LaFaro

Offstage, Scott LaFaro’s life was as rich and complex as the music he created. Known for his sharp wit and somewhat introverted nature, he was a man of depth and intrigue. His dedication to his craft was profound, often spending countless hours honing his skills. This relentless pursuit of perfection was a clear reflection of his commitment to music, mirroring the depth and complexity of his playing. LaFaro’s passion extended beyond music to a love for fast cars, a thrilling but risky counterpoint to his musical pursuits.

Despite his reserved demeanor, LaFaro formed deep connections with other musicians, marked by mutual respect and a shared language of creativity. He was not one to dominate conversations, but his words, like his music, carried a weight and wisdom that belied his years. This combination of musical genius and personal warmth made him a beloved figure in the jazz community, respected and admired by peers and fans alike.

Scott LaFaro’s tragic death occurred in the early hours of July 6, 1961, following an evening spent with friends in Geneva and Warsaw, New York. Among those present was Gap Mangione, who recalls LaFaro referring to Chet Baker as “an American tragedy,” a term hauntingly ironic given the events of that night. Driving back, LaFaro, apparently asleep at the wheel, veered off Route 5-20 and collided with a tree, resulting in fatal injuries for both him and his companion, Frank Ottley. The news of LaFaro’s death sent shockwaves through the jazz community, with musicians like the Getz Quartet, who were playing in Saranac Lake at the time, attending his funeral. Notably, a St. Christopher medal LaFaro always wore aided in identifying his badly burned body. His untimely passing deeply affected Bill Evans, who spoke in later years about their intense musical connection and his personal regret over lost opportunities due to his own struggles. LaFaro’s death marked the end of a significant chapter in jazz history and left a profound impact on those who knew him and admired his work.

Despite his brief career, LaFaro’s impact on jazz was monumental. His approach to the double bass – melodic, fluid, and harmonically rich – opened new possibilities for the instrument and for jazz ensemble playing. He championed the idea of the bass as a proactive, equal voice in jazz ensembles, paving the way for future musicians to explore and expand their roles. His work with the Bill Evans Trio remains a cornerstone of jazz, studied and revered by musicians and enthusiasts alike.

Music Recommendations:

  1. Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (Bill Evans Trio) – This live album, recorded in 1961, is one of the most acclaimed in jazz history. LaFaro’s interplay with pianist Bill Evans and drummer Paul Motian is extraordinary, especially on tracks like “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions,” both composed by LaFaro.
  2. Waltz for Debby” (Bill Evans Trio) – Another live album from the same 1961 Village Vanguard sessions as “Sunday at the Village Vanguard.” It includes more of LaFaro’s innovative bass work, with the title track being a standout.
  3. Portrait in Jazz” (Bill Evans Trio) – Released in 1960, this album features some of the earliest recordings of the Bill Evans Trio with LaFaro. Tracks like “Autumn Leaves” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” demonstrate the trio’s chemistry and LaFaro’s skillful bass playing.
  4. Explorations” (Bill Evans Trio) – This 1961 album further showcases LaFaro’s talent, particularly on tracks like “Nardis,” where his bass line weaves seamlessly with Evans’ piano and Motian’s drums.
  5. Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (Ornette Coleman Double Quartet) – This 1961 album by Ornette Coleman features LaFaro in a more avant-garde setting, highlighting his versatility and ability to adapt to different jazz styles.
  6. Pieces of Jade” (Scott LaFaro) – Although not an album by LaFaro as a leader, this posthumous release includes rare recordings of him, including a solo piece and some trio tracks with Don Friedman and Pete La Roca, providing a glimpse into his potential as a bandleader.

While LaFaro’s career was tragically short, his contributions to these albums were pivotal in the evolution of jazz, especially in the role of the double bass. Each of these recordings is a testament to his virtuosity, creativity, and enduring influence in the world of jazz.

This article was originally written by Olivier Meunier-Plante for PMA Magazine.