Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro

Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro

by Helene LaFaro-Fernández

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Winner of the Best Book of 2009, Jazz Division, sponsored by AllAboutJazz-New York, 2009.
Selected for "The Best of the Best" from University Presses, ALA Conference, 2010.
Winner of the 2010 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in Jazz, 2010.
Jade Visions is the first


Winner of the Best Book of 2009, Jazz Division, sponsored by AllAboutJazz-New York, 2009.
Selected for "The Best of the Best" from University Presses, ALA Conference, 2010.
Winner of the 2010 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in Jazz, 2010.
Jade Visions is the first biography of one of the twentieth century's most influential jazz musicians, bassist Scott LaFaro. Best known for his landmark recordings with Bill Evans, LaFaro played bass a mere seven years before his life and career were tragically cut short by an automobile accident when he was only 25 years old. Told by his sister, this book uniquely combines family history with insight into LaFaro's music by well-known jazz experts and musicians Gene Lees, Don Thompson, Jeff Campbell, Phil Palombi, Chuck Ralston, Barrie Kolstein, and Robert Wooley. Those interested in Bill Evans, the history of jazz, and the lives of working musicians of the time will appreciate this exploration of LaFaro’s life and music as well as the feeling they’ve been invited into the family circle as an intimate.

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From the Publisher

Winner of the Best Book of 2009, Jazz Division, sponsored by AllAboutJazz-New York, 2009
Selected for "Best of the Best" from University Presses, ALA Annual Conference, 2010Winner of the 2010 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in Jazz, 2010

“Fernandez’ insightful comments about her brother offer far more than jazz scholars have ever known about this significant and somewhat enigmatic figure in the history of jazz. All in all, a very complete portrait.”—Bill Milkowski, author of Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius

"LaFaro's story is compelling not only because of his own prowess as a musician, but also due to the company he kept. How many musicians by their twenty-fifth year could say they had played with Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Stan Kenton, and Bill Evans? Only one. Scott LaFaro."—Frank Alkyer, publisher, Down Beat

"Scott LaFaro was a true jazz innovator. His sound, sense of time and melodic invention blazed a trail for modern bassists and he was a beacon of light for those players who dreamed of more freedom within structure. Bill Evans once described Scott’s playing to me:  'He was really discovering something every night on the bandstand. He had all these ideas that were just bubbling up out of him. And he had a way of finding notes that were more fundamental than the fundamental.' " —Marc Johnson, bassist

"Scott LaFaro was a brilliant artist whose untimely death remains one of the great tragedies of jazz more than four decades later."—Jed Eisenman, manager of the Village Vanguard jazz club

"Scotty was amazing. . . worked with all five fingers. . . ridiculously wonderful. . . most inventive."—Dick Berk, drummer

"Scotty’s playing was the bible for bass players … Jimmy Blanton the old testament, Scotty, the new."—Christian McBride, bassist

"It's astonishing that [LaFaro's] massive reputation is primarily based on a handful of albums that feature him in full flower: the four recorded with the Bill Evans Trio, two by Coleman and Jazz Abstractions, a Gunther Schuller recording. His work on these is so amazing, his facility on his instrument so fluid, his melodic ideas and group interplay concepts so advanced that they still reverberate today. Finally LaFaro has a worthy volume commensurate with his stature in music."--AllAboutJazz.com

"LaFaro, simply put, changed jazz bass playing. . . . His professional career lasted a mere seven years, but during that brief but prolific tenure he collaborated with a dizzyingly diverse array of leaders, among them Bill Evans, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman, Stan Kenton, Steve Kuhn, Stan Getz, Victor Feldman, Booker Little, Herb Geller and Chet Baker. . . . The bio provides not only a detailed account of LaFaro's too-short life, but also insight into his personality."--JazzTimes

"This portrait by his sister, with help from an army of fans and enthusiasts, aims to set down a comprehensive portrait of the man and his music. And it succeeds admirably. . . . [T]his is a book no serious enthusiast for LaFaro or his music can afford to be without."--Jazzwise

"In the jazz world, Scott LaFaro was truly a shooting star, leaving behind a huge legacy for others to study and enjoy. . . . Throughout the book, musicians he worked with comment on his phenomenal abilities. his strong work ethic and his absolute dedication to jazz, in all its forms."--L.A. Jazz Scene

Product Details

University of North Texas Press
Publication date:
North Texas Lives of Musician Series, #4
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Jade Visions

The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro

By Helene LaFaro-Fernández, Chuck Ralston, Jeff Campbell, Phil Palombi

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2009 Helene LaFaro-Fernandez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-357-1


La Famiglia

"Ovington, New Joisey. On toidy, toid and toid." (Family joke whenever someone asked where Scotty and I were born)

Scotty was born Rocco Scott LaFaro in Irvington, a suburb of Newark, New Jersey. Our heritage is what America is all about—a bit of this, a bit of that. The family stock of our Mom, Helen Lucille Scott, was Scottish, Irish, and English. Her grandparents immigrated as children with their families late in the nineteenth century. Motherless at an early age, she was raised by a father who was surprisingly supportive, for the times, of his daughters' activities and independence.

Dad, Rocco Joseph LaFaro, was the first generation of his family born in America. His parents were from the province of Calabria in the extreme south of the Italian boot. Grandfather LaFaro was a stonemason by trade, an ice cream maker, and later a bootlegger to supplement the family income.

Both of our parents' families ended up settling in the small town of Geneva in upstate New York in the middle of a lovely farming area of the Finger Lakes Region. However, their families were never acquainted during the years prior to my parents' marriage.

Dad's parents, like many Italians, loved music and opera. They realized early on that their son, Joe, had an unusual talent. At age three he was playing the mandolin in groups with adult musicians and began violin lessons at age five. He was performing with his teacher and other local professionals soon after. Our cousin Karmy Crupi-Henke recalls her mom, Dad's sister Mamie, telling her that practically the only memory she had of Dad as a young boy was hearing him practicing his violin in another room all the time, "even when the rest of the family was at dinner." His belief in the value of disciplined practice became deeply ingrained and he would pass this belief on to Scotty in the years to come.

At age twelve he was sent to Ithaca Conservatory (now College) of Music to study violin, where he was a student of Otakar Sevcik, the renowned violin teacher from Prague. When Dad was eighteen and finishing up his last year at the conservatory, he and his friends decided to put aside their classical training and set their sights on the exciting big band and big money scene in New York City they were hearing so much about. Shortly after graduation he hit the road with the big name bands and stars of the twenties: Ed Kirkeby, the Dorsey Brothers, Smith Ballew, the California Ramblers, Paul Whiteman, Bea Lillie, and Rudy Vallee. Kirkeby and the Dorseys were playing what was called New York Jazz in its earliest days. Paul Whiteman was presenting Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at his concert titled "An Experiment in Modern Music."

Though formally trained in the classics and forever the lover of the symphony and opera, Dad also loved jazz from the start. Over the years he kept up with all the major jazz players, took Scotty (and sometimes me) to concerts nearby, and shared a lot of discussions about jazz with him.

It was a stint with an orchestra from CBS Radio that brought Dad back to Geneva to play at a debutante ball in 1934. Mom was most certainly not a deb, but her father wanted his three daughters to hear this orchestra from New York, so they dropped by the dance to catch a bit of music. That was when Dad met Helen Lucille Scott, the middle daughter of a widower and twelve years his junior. She was still in high school but this short meeting between sets was the beginning of a relationship that continued by correspondence and the occasional visit for the next year. Scotty and I used to tease Mom that she was the original groupie. On March 30, 1935, Helen turned eighteen, and on April twelfth, less than two weeks later and with the blessing of both families, they were married at the parsonage of the local Methodist minister. The young couple left immediately for New York City. They eventually rented a house across the river in Irvington, New Jersey, where Scotty was born on April 3, 1936. I followed on January 28, 1938.

"Sister," Scotty, nearly two, uttered as he pointed to the baby tightly wrapped in a receiving blanket that February morning. And so Sister it was. The beginning was the future writ large. The appellation given to me by Scotty when I was brought home from the hospital was how I was known and what everyone called me—parents, all relatives, friends and acquaintances. We became "Scotty and Sister," almost always spoken to and about as one during our early years. As I grew, "Sister" became "Sis." Only the occasional authority figure in our lives ever used my given name, Helene.

In those early years we were surrounded by Dad's many friends and fellow musicians: college cronies he came down to the city with and newer friends met on gigs. They'd gather at our home for dinner and backyard suppers or at the beach in summer. And family? There was always family. Relatives from both sides. At first, Dad's sisters came to help young Helen with the work of motherhood. Later, Mom's two sisters, Aunts Ginny and Elsie, also chose to live in Jersey in nearby East Orange while they made their careers in New York City. Granddad Scott would be there often to spend time with his three daughters. The pattern was set early—an interdependent, close, supportive family. Scotty and I bonded with all these family members and shared special relationships with all of them throughout our lives.

WWII slowed the music scene in New York. The mood of the nation was changing, growing somber. It wasn't a time for parties and hot jazz and soirees with society orchestras. Folks had to tighten their belts, and there was talk of shortages and rationing.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor when the United States entered the war, Dad tried to enlist with his many friends in the hope of being assigned to one of the services' entertainment units. He was thirty-six and deemed too old. He also had flat feet, which at that time was considered undesirable for the military. Reluctantly, he decided to take his young family back to their hometown and into the bosom of the extended family. So Mom and Dad returned to Geneva in 1942, at least for the duration of the war.


Geneva: The Early Years

Arriving back in Geneva did not solve all the problems Dad faced. Geneva now had a population of about 18,000, having grown with the wartime installation of an arms depot and Sampson Naval Base some twelve miles away on the other side of Seneca Lake. Dad had done nothing but play music since he was three. The only work he could qualify for right away was as a night watchman at the arms depot. At least the hours were something he was used to, leaving him free to be with his family for many hours of the day, as well as time to continue his daily practice. His situation afforded Scotty and me a childhood that was at once both ordinary and extraordinary. From this earliest of ages we felt secure, loved, and trusted. We were allowed the freedom to move around in our little world—free to absorb our surroundings and personally interpret them. Free to be ourselves.

Scotty and I were also, in these early years, completely oblivious to the troubles of the world and played out the idyllic small-town childhood. Geneva, agriculturally based, had no heavy industry, then or now. It also had a broad ethnic mix for a city of its size: "WASPs" Roman Catholics, Irish, Italians, and blacks. We were set down in the middle of it, Dad choosing specifically not to live in his original ethnic neighborhood. He had left that and most of the Italian language behind him when he went off to the conservatory. The family spent a couple of months in a small apartment until a rentalhouse became available. Mom and Dad were more accustomed to being city sophisticates. Their friends were well-read, talented folk who came from a wide economic and ethnic spectrum, with an appreciation of all the arts. But now life was different, which gave them even more time to devote to Scotty and me.

Mom and Dad wanted to create for us the idealized childhood they never truly had. They encouraged us in all of our endeavors. Imagination was applauded, creativity encouraged. In fact, throughout our family life, there was no dogmatic input imposed; our feelings and questions were always respected. And we felt always that our parents truly enjoyed our company. What more could one ask for?

Pretending and play-acting were important in our earliest years. At ages six and four we had a theater in our yard, with a blanket hanging from the clothesline serving as the curtain. We loved the exuberant applause of our parents, Granddad Scott, who lived with us, and neighbors who were invited to our performances.

We were allowed to wander about the immediate neighborhood and into the small forest behind our back yard. We were considered old enough to go together every now and then to the neighborhood market to get the few things on Mom's grocery list.

As a result, Scotty and I developed a great closeness and interdependency. Mom's evening ritual, now that Dad worked all night, was to put us to bed, then spend some time with Granddad listening to the radio for news of the war, or maybe the Jack Benny Show, Fibber McGee and Molly or another of their favorites. Often she'd visit with her lady friend across the street in the early evening, then read and nap before rising early enough to prepare a large, hot breakfast upon Dad's return. They went to bed in the early hours of the morning, leaving Scotty in charge until they rose in the afternoon. I was his charge. Throughout his life he watched out for me, paved the way, and never seemed to mind.

At six he had the burden of family handed to him, the responsibility to look after me and, by extension, "la famiglia," something often mentioned by our Dad and not unheard of in the Italian culture. This was something that Scotty never let go of, taking it in stride and seriously. He was always in charge of his own life as well, and he lived by no one's standards but his own. Our relationship was such that when Scotty started first grade in the fall I was beside myself with grief. Mom talked the principal into allowing me to enter kindergarten a year early so I could go off to school with Scotty each day.

"Does that frutin' dumb bunny (A local term. To this day I have no idea what it means.) always have to be with us?" It was 1943, and one of Scotty's friends asked the question while we were hiking in our forest with two other boys. They were all seven and I was five. Scotty became my hero for life when, quietly, he not only assured the fellow that I did, but added in my defense that I wasn't any such thing. Even as Scotty's circle of friends grew it always included me, apparently whether they liked it or not.

Though we later learned how financially lean those years were, Scotty and I never knew or felt any strain. We seemed to have whatever we needed and wanted, and did what the other kids did. We weren't aware that we were renters, and when we moved from one house to another at the end of each year's lease, we found it pretty neat. Each neighborhood had intriguing areas for Scotty and me to explore. Even though moving necessitated a change in schools as well, that didn't bother us since Scotty and I were still, in these grade school years, closer to one another than to any schoolmates.

Our third home in Geneva was actually the upper floor of a large older house that had been converted into two apartments in the center of town. Since there was no room for Granddad Scott, he moved in with our Aunt Elsie, who had a similar converted apartment around the corner from us. She was now alone because her husband, Burt, was overseas fighting the war. That was about all we knew about the war, and that it somehow meant that we took small books with rationing stamps to the market with us. Also, because of the wartime food shortages, Aunt Elsie specialized in putting neat rows of whole cloves and brown sugar on a square of strange-looking meat called Spam that Scotty and I found quite tasty.

Scotty and I found this new place pretty nifty. There was a city park on the corner between our place and our aunt's, and we had a rooftop terrace on the side of the house with access from our kitchen and stairs that led down to the yard. There was also a front balcony with a view of the houses across the street through the trees. Lovely as the balcony was, Scotty and I long remembered it as the site of one of our less enjoyable experiences. We had gotten head lice from a visiting Canadian cousin and had to sit up straight in hard chairs for what seemed like an eternity as Mom carefully parted our hair, inch by inch with a sharp metal comb and dabbed on some strong chemical that burned our scalps and brought tears to our eyes. For quite a while after that Scotty and I were wary not only of visitors, but of Canadians in general!

The most wonderful thing about this house was our secret place. This old home had a wraparound porch that was set quite high, perhaps six steps up from the entry sidewalk.

The area under the porch was closed off with latticework but we found a loose piece we could pull out a bit. We crawled in and whiled away our time in the semi-darkness on the cold, damp earth. We'd tell each other stories, talk about our great plans, make curious noises at passersby to spook them, and once even invited in a friend from the neighborhood after swearing him to secrecy. When Mom called us for lunch or dinner or came looking for us, we always waited quietly until she had returned indoors, so no one would be the wiser about where we were. We never really knew if this place was off-limits: we never asked. Scotty and I just loved the idea of it being our place and nobody knowing about it.

It was at this time that books became special to Scotty and me. Our mom's other sister, Aunt Ginny, was still working in New York City for a publishing company and now had a horse that she boarded in Geneva. She would fly upstate to visit us and ride her horse. We thought her very brave since she was the only person we knew who had actually been on an airplane. We'd see them zoom overhead and, like most folks in those days, found that thrilling. This was not the age of huge airliners but of yellow Piper Cubs with seating for two and commercial planes like the Douglas DC-3 that seated only about twenty.

Upon her arrival, Scotty and I would beg to be allowed to open her suitcase because she always had books for us, sometimes autographed by the author. Scotty also began to collect some metal airplanes and got a leather aviator's cap that Christmas.

Although our mom did not technically finish high school, she was an avid reader and read an average of three books a week throughout her life. She let Scotty and me read books that some thought unsuitable for our ages: Fitzgerald, Williams, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway early on in high school. Later when Scotty was out on the road playing with various groups, he'd write me to recommend something I should read, or send me a book. He sent me James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the summer of 1956 when he was with Buddy Morrow's orchestra. He was twenty and I was eighteen, and I confess I had a difficult time with it. At first I was embarrassed to admit it to Scotty, not wanting him to think I had become a "frutin' dumb bunny."

In 1960, after I had married and Scotty often stayed with the family whenever he was back in Los Angeles, he continued to give me copies of the books he was reading. One of his favorites was Rainer Maria Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Larids Brigge. Looking back, it doesn't surprise me that Scotty liked Rilke's impressionistic style and Joyce's stream of consciousness. Maybe some parallels to be drawn to jazz here?

In 1944, Dad finally got work as a musician once again. Belhurst Castle, an exclusive club in town with a reputation for great food, was doing a growing business with well-heeled folks from the surrounding area and the brass from the naval base and decided to hire a small musical group to entertain. Through friends he had made since returning to Geneva, Dad got a steady gig at the Belhurst and kept it until the end of his life. This job meant a move back to what Dad considered a better part of town. We found ourselves on the same street where we began, once again in a single-family home.

This is the time that Scotty and I first became aware of music on a more serious level. Dad began practicing more and it became mandatory that we be quiet and out from underfoot during those hours. Often the two of us would sit in the upstairs hall outside of the bedroom where Dad was practicing with the door ajar. When he was finished, he finally noticed us and we'd beg to have him play Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" day after day, and he'd always comply.


Excerpted from Jade Visions by Helene LaFaro-Fernández, Chuck Ralston, Jeff Campbell, Phil Palombi. Copyright © 2009 Helene LaFaro-Fernandez. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

HELENE LaFARO-FERNáNDEZ was born in Irvington, New Jersey, but spent most of her youth in Geneva, New York. In 1957 she joined her brother Scott in Los Angeles and has made her home there ever since. This is her first book.

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