CARRIE KAHN, HOST:
Guitarist John Scofield has had a remarkable career in jazz. Without even finishing music school, he found himself playing with jazz legends like Chet Baker and Miles Davis. His latest release, called "Past Present," is up for two Grammys. NPR's Tom Cole visited Scofield at his home north of New York City and brought back this story.
TOM COLE, BYLINE: John Scofield did not come from an especially musical family. And there was not much music happening in the suburban Connecticut town where he grew up. But he is definitely a product of his place and time, the early 1960s.
JOHN SCOFIELD: I think music was actually really important to everybody in that generation. It just was the only thing. If you weren't a high school football player, you were into music. And it was everything to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD SONG, "MELINDA")
COLE: Before he started playing jazz, Scofield had to find it in the suburbs. Fortunately, there was a record store nearby.
SCOFIELD: And a woman named Sally worked there. And she was a jazz fan and saw me as a kid who was in there looking for jazz records and was really nice to me and said, well, you like guitar; you'll like this guy, Jim Hall. He's one of the main guys. You'll like Wes Montgomery. She made me buy these records.
COLE: People, it seems, have always been important guides throughout John Scofield's musical journey, from the older musicians who encouraged him to the younger ones he met at college.
JOE LOVANO: John and I both attended Berklee College of Music up here in Boston in the early '70s.
COLE: Saxophonist Joe Lovano was Scofield's partner in the early 1990s quartet that reunited for the new album.
LOVANO: And we've been playing together with this kind of approach of sharing the space all along, listening and following the sound. And that's always been happening in our music.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD SONG, "EISENHOWER")
COLE: One of John Scofield's most important guides throughout his journey has been his wife, Susan, who helps deal with the business side of the music.
SUSAN SCOFIELD: I get the grubby things to do - answer the phone, put the stamps on the things. And I just sort of help glue it all together so he can keep going on. It's proven to be sustaining for us, a family cottage industry, if you will.
COLE: She came up with the name of her husband's new album, "Past Present," and with titles for many of his tunes. She got one sitting in a club, listening to John play.
S. SCOFIELD: And there was a woman sitting at the table next to us, talking through his entire set. And at one point during a pause in the music, the woman said, and now she's blonde. And that's where that tune title came from - right from that rude woman. I just liked the phrase. Some titles come from the racing form. If you really get desperate, you get things that have nothing more to do than words that you like - 'cause John is - this is not his forte.
COLE: Playing music is, and so is composing.
LOVANO: John writes songs.
COLE: Again, Joe Lovano.
LOVANO: He doesn't just write, like, little vamps and episodes and things. He writes tunes. There's a lot of things to explore.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
COLE: But composing seemingly isn't easy for Scofield.
SCOFIELD: You only get tunes if you work at it. It doesn't - I can't wait for inspiration. I have to have a project. Like, I'll be making a new record, and I need a ballad. I don't really compose for fun, ever. You know, I don't ever have the, oh, that's a nice melody. Usually, I think, oh, gosh, I've got to write some tunes. And I have to write this kind of tune. And then I can do it.
COLE: Scofield says the discipline of writing didn't change for his latest album. But the circumstances of his life did.
SCOFIELD: My son Evan passed away two years ago, in 2013. He had been battling cancer for two years before that. And he had lived here at home with us during that time. And that's when I wrote these songs, most of them. So even though I think when you write music, you just write music, you know - but when I hear the songs or think of the songs, I know what I was going through. And I wasn't thinking about music, really. I was thinking about him.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD SONG, "MR. PUFFY")
COLE: One song is called "Mr. Puffy."
SCOFIELD: Because we joked that he was Mr. Puffy because he was getting puffy from the chemo. I'm Mr. Puffy, you know? And when I told Joe - Joe has known Evan since Evan was born and was really moved by our plight. And when I told him this was for Evan, he didn't say much. And then, the next day, we went to record it. And right before we recorded, he said, this one's for Evan, right? That's all he said. And the way he played that melody on "Mr. Puffy" just kills me.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN SCOFIELD SONG, "MR. PUFFY")
COLE: So sometimes music isn't just about music. It's about people, the people who make it and those who inspire it.
SCOFIELD: I used to play with these guys years ago. Here we are playing again. The past is there, but here we are in the present. And when I think of my son, he's with me in the present even though he's in the past, you know.
COLE: Tom Cole, NPR News.
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