Jazz guitar master John Scofield takes wing at BGSU festival

John Scofield, right, with Ariel Kasler at Orchard Guitar Festival at BGSU


BG Independent News

Jazz guitarist John Scofield is devoted to the art of improvisation, even when he’s presenting a master class.

“Improvising to me is as natural as music,” he said at Bowling Green State University Saturday,

The headliner for the Orchard Guitar Festival said he was there to answer questions. “I don’t have any teaching system,” Scofield said. “I do talk a lot”

Everyone, whether or not they go to music school, is self-taught, he said.  “You have to teach yourself especially jazz. “

Ultimately, the self-described “music nerd” went into music because he liked it. “The more you learn about music, the more you learn it comes out of you, not the instrument.”

The doors of Bryan Recital Hall were locked, he said in jest, and no one gets out without asking a question. Scofield said questions could be about anything, and even include “a plug for your band.” He told the first person who posed a question that he could leave now. He didn’t, and none of the other 100 or so attendees did either.

For an hour Scofield, 65, talked about the lessons he’s learned in his almost 50 years as a professional musician. “I haven’t had a real job since Arnold Palmer’s Dry Cleaners.”

Here was someone those in the audience, at least half of whom were guitarists, had heard on record, both his own, and with legends such as Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Charles Mingus.

Asked about advice for prospective professionals, he said being able to get along with other musicians was key. “It’s a group effort,” he said. “If you make someone else sound good, they’re going to want to work with you.”

He was asked what the most important element for jazz was rhythm, harmony or melody.
“Melody that’s the la-la-la?” he responded, before saying unequivocally, “rhythm.”

That’s the roots of the music. “Jazz is first of all song and dance,” he said.  “Jazz came from African-Americans playing this way, this different kind of music. They took the same songs and swung them and made American music.”

Scofield then started singing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” at first as John Philip Sousa intended, then gradually loosening the rhythm, and swinging, ending with a dollop of improvised melody.

“That rhythm thing is so important. … You have to internalize it.”

But Scofield said learning theory is also essential.

Scofield, who had an early love for the blues, talked about one of his idols, Howlin’ Wolf. He was so enthusiastic about sharing the bluesman’s music he placed his phone next to his guitar pickup and played Howlin’ Wolf for everyone.

The bluesman, toward the end of his life, was studying music theory by mail, Scofield said. “If Howlin Wolf wants to learn about music theory, then music theory must be the best.”

And retired guitar professor Chris Buzzelli used his question to ask: “Are you going to play?”

Scofield said sure, and then let his host Ariel Kasler pick a tune. “All the Things You Are,” Kasler suggested.

Then he showed, with Kasler’s support on second guitar, why they were all spending part of their Saturday afternoon hanging with Scofield. True to form, Scofield brought a raw blues edge, executed with flawless technique, to the Jerome Kern evergreen.

It was a taste of what would come that evening when, Scofield promised, “you’ll get to hear the incredible faculty group … and me winging it.”

Among those at the master class and later the performance was Tom Orchard, who with his wife, and fellow BGSU grad, Martha, fund the festival.

Orchard said he came to BGSU in fall, 1970, to play baseball and study what other people thought he was good at, math and computer science.

Injuries sidelined his baseball career in his freshman year, and academically “it didn’t feel like the right fit.”

So he started playing solo gigs around town as a guitarist and singer. He joined the Bowling Green Singers, later the Mid-Am Singers.

Wanting to change directions, he decided to study music. But there was no guitar program at BGSU at the time. Instead he switched to the College of Business and got interested in investments.

“That’s what I’ve done for the past 40-plus years, and I’ve had some success at it,” he said. “In hindsight it’s great I went on in business and had success. Things worked out extremely well.”

But, he added: “Through that entire time period, guitar is what kept me sane. I still play every day. I collect vintage guitars. I love all kind of genres of music.”

He visits legendary blues and rock guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, a few times a year, to study, play and hang out with noted guitarists from around the world.

Orchard, senior vice president, investments, for UBS Wealth Management in Columbus, is a member of the BGSU Foundation Board. “You think about all the different ways the university has touched you,” he said. He decided he wanted to support the guitar program and help it get more exposure.

So he suggested a guitar festival to the College of Music.  He said he’d “front the money for a little while and see if it works. I can’t speak for the university, can’t speak for the College of Music, but I think it’s great. I’d love to see it continue.

“The guitar has kept me sane for 55 years,” he said. “If it can do it for me, it can do it for someone else and be a nice therapy along the way.”

That night in Kobacker Hall, the doctor was in.

Scofield joined by Kasler and fellow faculty members Jeff Halsey, bass, and Dan Piccolo, drums, delivered a 90-minute demonstration of why several hundred music lovers were there.  At its core, the music was jazz, but jazz infused with gospel, blues and rock. The set was mostly Scofield originals, which the faculty played with an ease as if they were tunes they jammed on all the time at their weekly sessions.

The quartet took Dolly Parton’s hit “Jolene” places she’d never gone before as they ended their set. The audience was on its feet before the musicians were even off the stage. The band returned for another hard rocking Scofield original “A Go Go.”

The music demonstrated what Scofield had talked about earlier in the day, full of high flying improvisation, performed by musicians locked in to what their bandmates were doing, and swinging. Music that was good for what ails you.