John Scofield on Charlie Parker


1) Charles McPherson and Steve Coleman

2) Tom Harrell and Mark Turner

>>> 3) John Scofield

4) Bertha Hope

5) Live Bird is the Best Bird (by Mark Stryker)

6) Bird is the Word (five famous solos and commentary)

7) Words about Bird (reception history, featuring Hampton Hawes)

(This interview was conducted August 18, 2020 via Zoom.)

Ethan Iverson: Dewey Redman told me, “Charlie Parker sounds better every day.”

John Scofield: That’s great! Bird was magnificent. Sometimes you hear something, and you realize that he’s even better than you thought.

I used to listen to Phil Schaap’s Bird Flight on WKCR every morning for years. Phil would play all this stuff, bootlegs and so forth, sides that were not as commonly known. Amazing surprises. Always great. Bird was so spontaneous and so sophisticated at the same time.

EI: Tell me something about bebop.

JS: It’s taken me a long time to get any Bebop language under my fingers. But when I first started to get into jazz guitar, when I was 15 or 16, when I started to get records, I was really lucky. Because one of the first albums I got was a Charlie Parker record on Everest records. It’s all live stuff, and two of the tracks are the famous tracks from Birdland with Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, “The Street Beat” and “Perdido.” The other stuff is is from ’48 at the Royal Roost.

I bought the record because I had heard of Bird I knew I was supposed to buy it. But I fell in love with that record, and fell in love with that music and those musicians specifically and what was on that record. I still listen to it, actually. To me, that Birdland session with Bird, Bud, and Fats is some of the greatest music ever.

There were maybe four volumes of that Everest Bird stuff, I got at least another one within a year or so. After that I listened to the Dial records and Savoy records and other studio records. They were very good, but…what about these other records with the live gigs, which were so perfect and raw in a good way? Those Everest LPs changed my life, for sure.

Bird with Strings is unbelievable, but it also had an element of popular music. I like it now. But at the time, I thought it was like The Dean Martin Show or something with Bird on top.

At the same time I was taking jazz guitar lessons from Alan Dean. He was a local club date musician in Connecticut and a jazz wannabe himself. One of the first things he wrote out for me were the changes to “How High the Moon,” and he told me, “That’s also ‘Ornithology.’”

This was another time and we didn’t have access to much. Especially in Connecticut, where I grew up, nobody knew shit about jazz. But I found this little yellow fakebook called Modern Jazz, which had all the Bird heads and a lot of West Coast stuff like Gerry Mulligan, which was pretty cool.

And I just started to love that music. And to this day, I still do. I feel really lucky that I listened the cream of the crop on record right from the get go. That got me going.

EI: What did Bird play?

JS: Yeah. What the hell is that stuff. Um.

He had a repertoire of pet phrases that became the phrases of everybody in modern jazz. He could put beautiful little filigree through the chords. Chromatic chord substitutions in diatonic music: the fastest shit perfectly placed.

He was so technically accomplished. I guess that was a natural thing for him. He might have been one of those people who always could get the ball in the basket. I have that feeling when I hear him play his instrument.

He had a thorough knowledge of harmony and that would have to be from classical music.

We don’t always remember there was all this light classical music on the radio in his era. Everybody who had a radio in the ‘20s and ‘30s heard a lot of easy listening classical: Mozart, Opera, and whatever. That kind of music was available to everybody. The popular American music, the Tin Pan Alley guys, their music was direct from 19th-century European harmony.

Bird really dealt with harmony that way. Right. His lines have something like classical music, like a solo violin piece by Bach. But the rhythm is so advanced, he starts his lines on any beat which gave him the ability to improvise in such an advanced way.

He swung his ass off on top of all that. Charlie Parker swung so super hard, you know, it was rhythmically really exciting when he played. It was jazz and had that jazz “thing.”

And then he was a crooner too, just like Lester Young. Now, when I hear the great popular singers of that era like Bing Crosby, I hear that Bird and Pres are right next door. This is more recently, when I was younger I didn’t realize that that might be what that was.

EI: You mentioned Bird with Strings. Someone like Bing Crosby could have sung with those kinds of arrangements.

JS: Right!

EI: And that’s why you didn’t like it back then when you were a kid: You didn’t want to listen to Bing Crosby.

JS: Our generation, the Rock and Roll generation, my generation, we were really weird. All the kids agreed to hate the music of their parents. There was no real reason to hate it, and in fact we secretly kind of liked some of it anyway. After all, it was still music.

But in 1966, everybody canceled everything before 1965. It was just no good. So the whole Old School pop thing that had been happening up to that point, which was the Tin Pan Alley, and the great songs and and Frank Sinatra and all that, we canceled on it.

And that was prejudicing me and everybody else against jazz, against the feeling of swing. I heard Louis Armstrong or Count Basie and said, oh, that’s okay. You know that I love that. But Glenn Miller, I don’t know.

And now I listen to Glenn Miller and it’s a hell of a lot closer to Count Basie than I knew.

That was my feeling about Bird with Strings. I loved to hear what Bird played, but I would rather hear him with Bud Powell and Curly Russell, you know,

EI: You’ve always been so great, but I hear more bebop in your playing than ever these days.

JS: Yeah, I’ve been trying to get that together.

I first came on the scene in 1974, that’s when I first made my first record. Fusion came in. John McLaughlin changed guitar playing: All of a sudden, you could get jobs playing like John McLaughlin. What appealed to me even more was the funky stuff, and I started playing with Billy Cobham, George Duke and these kinds of bands. Bebop did take a backseat, because what I was learning and getting together was what I was playing on gigs, and I was trying to shred.

But you know what, all through the early days in the ‘70s, when left to my own devices, I’d be listening to jazz and tunes and trying to learn that music. I think I did get it together, or least grew and improved, trying to learn the figures on the guitar to get stuff to swing. It’s been a slow, steady thing. Maybe I’m a slow learner, or at least some people are faster than me.

I didn’t take off or transcribe complete solos ever, but I would listen to so much Charlie Parker. Not just Bird, but all the jazz musicians. If they played a 12 bar blues in F or if they played “I Got Rhythm” changes in B-flat: everybody drew on the bebop language, to a certain extent.

You just can’t beat Sonny Rollins. Bud Powell on the piano and everybody that came after him is great. I went through a big Wardell Gray period. Certainly Dexter Gordon is in there. I like them all. I love Coltrane and McCoy too, even though they sounded different from bop.

EI: I sometimes feel like there’s less scale theory in bebop then there is in post-60s jazz.

JS: Scale theory was the way I was taught by Alan Dean. He wrote out those chords and then he wrote out a scale for each chord. On his chart of “How High the Moon” it would be G ionian, then G dorian, then C mixolydian.

I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. “Why do you play this scale? That’s not that song.”

He said, “No, those are the right notes and then you just improvise using those scales.”

And that didn’t help me at all. Actually, it kind of hung me up.

Sure, the scales are absolutely correct. But knowing some of the older musicians, they didn’t know scales, really. My man Steve Swallow said he didn’t know the modes until he went to teach at Berklee.

The older guys were like, learn the chords so you can play the changes. Playing the changes meant connecting the notes for the changes with whatever the hell you want in between — which ends up being scales doesn’t it — but the chord tones give you the sound of the harmony.

Scale theory is very important and very accurate, but, also, scale theory doesn’t teach jazz.

EI: No one defeats chord scale analysis more than Bird.

JS: There’s so much chromaticism with Bird, and then the arpeggios, and then the chord substitution. It wasn’t about scales, it was about about harmony.

EI: What about Charlie Parker and the blues?

JS: Well, he was from Kansas City. There’s nothing like it. I’m a fan of Kansas City blues and just blues in general. Right!

But as it turns out, in Kansas City, there was this thing, where they began jumping the blues. Swinging the blues. It was a thing they did, you know, we’re going to “swing the blues.” Count Basie, Lester Young, Jay McShann and all that.

There’s just nothing like it. That was black music. And yes, Charlie Parker played the hell out of the blues. “K.C. Blues” or “Parker’s Mood.” And he developed a sophisticated blues that’s so special.

In Stanley Crouch’s book on Bird, I really liked the part where he talks about Bird living down the street from the club that Basie played when Bird was 14 or something.

Lester Young and Basie played the original shit at that famous club, and Bird happened to live up the street, half a mile away or something, and go stand outside the club and hear them.

That was blues central.

EI: In that Crouch book, Stanley also talks about how those cats would go to the movies and listen to the scores. I think some of what you’re talking about the influence of European harmony in American music was from the soundtracks on the silver screen.

JS: Well, that’s where you learned. in those days, you could stay in the movie theater all day and see the same feature over and over again. There was no TV, so that was probably a thrill and a half to watch Clark Gable six times in a row.

My earliest musical memories are of that kind of popular music from the ’50s, you know, something a little classical and a little Hollywood.

EI: You used the phrase light classics. That’s a great phrase. I think a lot of very serious and deep American music has this element of “light classical” lurking in the background. Leroy Anderson was a worthy American composer of light classics; Wayne Shorter recorded a version of an Anderson piece a few years ago.

I’m sure you still study Bird.

JS: The Bird lives. Bird lives. I still listen and learn from his playing. I’m astounded at how consistent he was. And what’s truly amazing is how his language is something he pretty much invented. Well, we can probably trace back everything to somewhere else. But, like the we do in jazz, Bird picked this and that, put it together, and it was so comprehensive. Many songs in there, too.

Bud Powell: That’s another guy, talk about comprehensive. With Dizzy, I love Dizzy, but I don’t quite get it as much as with Bird and Bud. I’m amazed by Dizzy’s playing, especially his early stuff.

When I played in Miles Davis’s band, Miles would tell us, “Oh, man. You guys, you don’t know Dizzy. Back then Dizzy was unbelievable. The music that came out of that man!”

EI: I heard that Dizzy was the teacher.

JS: He really taught everybody. Dizzy would like to expound, you know.

EI: Dizzy would tell you, sit at the piano and show you chords, maybe even write it down and hand you a chart, but from what I’ve heard, Bird would play. He didn’t talk music much, but he led by example.

JS: Miles told me about playing with Bird. “I was up there with Charlie Parker,” he said, “Night after night at this very young age, and it blew my mind. It changed my whole life.”

Miles would have to just work all day to get back on the bandstand! Because the music that was coming out of Bird was at such a high level.

Some people say that Miles isn’t very good on the early records. But I think he sounds fantastic. He was like 19 on “Billie’s Bounce” and those early sides. Of course, it only got better, but you hear echoes of the later Miles from the very first.

EI: You talked about live Bird being even more exciting than studio Bird; some of the live Miles with Bird is great.

JS: Yeah, really great! Miles sounds incredible on that stuff. Yeah.

EI: Do you think Charlie Parker is underrated in American society?

JS: I think jazz is underrated for sure. People don’t really even know what it is, you know. I’m surprised at smart people that still kind of don’t get what the whole thing of jazz and improvisation and spontaneity.

Jazz is perfect for recording. When they learned how to record, there was jazz. You didn’t have to write it all out.

Now that we’re in Covid-19, people are saying to me, “Well, now you can just, you know, sit back and relax and record a whole lot, and really get it right.”

But the whole thing is for us to get it right just on the spur of the moment. Laboring over jazz in the studio makes it worse!

After talking to the Old Masters — Miles included — that’s the message. Just do it right now. Study forever, but: Let it come through you, right now. For this kind of music to be really good, it has to just be coming through you.

It can be that lick that you know how to play, but that lick has to come through you. You can’t have thought about a half a second before. It has to be now.

That kind of inspiration is underrated in our society, even though everybody intuitively knows that what happens in a flash is what makes for good art.

(go on to part four, Bertha Hope)