Scott LaFaro‘s influence on jazz is widely recognized, but his musical legacy cast an long shadow on the development of rock music in the late ’60s and beyond.
If you’re a jazz fan, you know that Scott LaFaro is one of the heavyweights of the genre. His philosophy, approach and style influenced generations of jazz musicians, and his impact continues to be heard and felt today. What may be lesser known is his role in the development of some legendary rock bassists in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
While these rock bassists made their marks on the electric bass, they all cite LaFaro as an influence on their respective styles. And like Scotty, they all began their musical journeys playing instruments other than the bass.
Jack Bruce (Cream) – “I wanted to be Scott LaFaro”
Cream was known as rock’s first ‘supergroup,’ consisting of guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker, and bassist Jack Bruce. The band took the rock and pop world by storm with their bombastic approach to blues-based rock, and driven by the jazz-inflected songwriting of Bruce. Cream was one of the first rock bands to make improvisation a large part of their incendiary live performances. Their influence on generations of hard rock bands is undeniable, and their hits “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” can be heard blasting from jukeboxes around the world to this day.
Jack Bruce was a childhood musical prodigy who won a scholarship to study cello at the prestigious Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, Scotland. He gained notoriety as a part of Alexis Korner’s group Blues Incorporated, and with the Graham Bond Organization in England in the early 60s. Bruce first played the upright bass, later switching to electric in 1962, but his knowledge of classical and jazz made him one of the most talked about bassists of the London scene.
Bruce often cited Scott LaFaro as a major influence on his style. Speaking about his early years as a bassist, Bruce joked in an interview published after his passing in 2015 “I wanted to be Scott LaFaro—that’s why I kept getting fired on the double bass.” Although Bruce was drawn towards blues and rock music at that time, he became widely acclaimed as a bassist whose style exemplified freedom and melody.
Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) – “I stole that…from (Scott LaFaro).”
In 1965, in Palo Alto, the Grateful Dead were creating the ‘jam band‘ musical genre and culture, fusing elements of jazz, rock and roll, bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and more. At the center of the burgeoning counterculture and psychedelic movement of the San Francisco Bay area, “The Dead” were a band whose uniquely free-form live performances created a fiercely loyal army of fans called “Deadheads.” By the time the original band concluded their career in 1995 following the death of founding guitarist Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead had sold over 35 million records worldwide and were consistently the top revenue-generating live act in music, with thousands of concerts played in which they never repeated a set list.
Holding down the low end for the band was bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh started out as a trumpet player but moved on to multiple instruments and was a student of avant-garde classical music and free jazz. Lesh had little background in rock music, and when asked to become the bassist for the Grateful Dead, had never before played bass.
Over the years, Lesh has rarely cited any specific bass players as influences on his style. However, he has mentioned Scott LaFaro on a few occasions, most notably in 1995, when he said “LaFaro was a very melodic player and jumped around alot between registers – I stole that partly from him.”
More Grateful Dead-LaFaro connections can be noted. First, Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia played on three songs with jazz great Ornette Coleman (whose 1962 album “Ornette!” featured Scott on bass) on Coleman’s 1988 album “Virgin Beauty.” Then, on February 23, 1993, Coleman joined Lesh and the Grateful Dead live onstage in Oakland, CA.
The other bassist that Phil Lesh has most often noted as an influence is Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane, another LaFaro fan.
Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane) – “I sat in front of jazz guys like…Scott LaFaro, and I was always amazed.”
Jefferson Airplane was one of the most successful rock bands of the late 60s. Along with the Grateful Dead, they created the San Francisco Sound, providing the music for the countercultural revolution in the US and world. Perhaps most notably, they headlined the biggest music festivals of the era – Monterey Pop Festival (1967), the first Isle Of Wight Festival (1968), Woodstock (1969) and Altamont (1969). Their renowned 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow” spawned two seminal and timeless hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady began his musical journey as a guitarist, later switching to bass in his teens. Growing up in Washington, DC, he eventually found his way into the backing bands of Little Anthony and the Imperials and Ray Charles. It wasn’t until moving to San Francisco that he was invited by friend (and bandmate in the DC-area rhythm and blues band “The Triumphs”) Jorma Kaukonen to join the Jefferson Airplane in September 1965.
While Casady’s influences include notable blues and r&b performers of this era, he has always spoken over the years about his jazz heroes. As a youth growing up in Washington, DC, with the help of a fake ID to get into the clubs, Casady was afforded the opportunity to witness some of the greatest jazz bassists of the late 50s-early 60s era, including Scott LaFaro.
“I heard acoustic instruments first, so I always measure my electric sound against the sound you can get from a standup bass. I sat in front of jazz guys like Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, and I was always amazed at the diversity of sound coming from the same instrument played by different people,” said Casady in 2011.
John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
Formed in 1968, Led Zeppelin grew into not only one of the biggest selling rock acts of the 1970s, but also one of the most influential and successful musical acts of all time. While considered one of the originators of the ‘heavy metal’ genre, Led Zeppelin are also renowned for their innovative and expansive catalog of songs, many of which are instantly recognizable rock classics. The band called it quits in 1980 after the death of drummer John Bonham, although they intermittently reunited a few times afterward. One of the driving forces behind Led Zeppelin’s musical adventurousness, especially on their later material, was bassist, multi-instrumentalist and arranger John Paul Jones.
Born outside of London in Sidcup, Kent in 1946, John Baldwin was the son of a big band leader and a mother who was also a touring musician. John started as an organist and bought his first bass guitar at age 14. By age 15, he was playing in a collective called Jett Blacks, which included guitarist John McLaughlin, who would go on to fame as a jazz-fusion guitarist, including a stint as a member of (LaFaro fan) Miles Davis‘ band. Baldwin later became an in-demand session musician and arranger in London, working with the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Jeff Beck, more, and adopted the stage name “John Paul Jones.” Jones met future Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page while working on a 1967 session for The Yardbirds, and within a year, Led Zeppelin was formed.
In multiple interviews, Jones has often noted two schools of bass (Soul and Jazz) that influenced his style. In 1997, when asked to name his influences, Jones said “A lot of bass players from a lot of different styles of music…to name a few…James Jamerson from Motown, Duck Dunn (Booker T & the MGs), and some of the great jazz players such as Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro.”
While all of these bassists were inspired by LaFaro, their respective bands’ sounds don’t particularly resemble the jazz that Scott revolutionized. Still, his spirit is certainly infused in their music. Scotty’s legacy of innovation and exploration touched an entire generation of rock bassists and musical trailblazers who redefined rock music, just as LaFaro redefined jazz.
On April 1st, 2015, Geneva Night Out will host the third annual “Scott LaFaro Day Edition,” with music and activities to celebrate the life of Geneva’s own jazz legend. The event runs from 5pm-8pm. Then, at 8pm, the Nicholas Walker Trio will perform at the Smith Opera House during the annual “Scott LaFaro Celebration Concert,” highlighted by a very special on-stage appearance by Scott’s beloved Abraham Prescott bass.