Talking With Scott Henderson

By Bob Bahr

(After a brief conversation with Scott Henderson following his performance at Zena's on June 6, reporter Bob Bahr felt that an interview with the jazz guitarist would be of interest to our readers. The interview follows.)

Bob Bahr: I'd like to start off with a rather broad question. If someone came up to you and asked you to describe jazz, what would you say? What is jazz?

Scott Henderson: (Laughs) That is pretty broad. Jazz is an American art form. It has its own unique rhythmic qualities to it, mainly swing, and it employs improvisation. Those are the two main differences from other music forms. All good forms of music employ improvisation, but not like in jazz. The swing element is essential, I think. Other musics use improvisation, but not like we do, playing it over chord changes.

BB: You've played and taught in Europe. How do European audiences differ from American audiences?

SH: They seem to enjoy it more (in Europe). They seem to accept it over there. It's a hipper audience. I could never understand whether it's a fascination with things American, or if it's that cultural things have always had a lot more prominence over there.

BB: So jazz is seen as very American in Europe?

SH: Oh yeah. They have people over there who are doing it. But the best guys, the best musicians, have lived in America for some time and learned the craft over here. They're definitely more accepting and there's more respect for the musicians (in Europe) -- you get paid more. It's always enjoyable going over there. The jazz students you get are quite different.

BB: How?

SH: Well, I think a lot of it is their nationalistic tendencies. The Germans tend to be excellent students. They tend to be very thorough, whereas the Scandinavians are a lot more laid back with everything. It's almost like being in California. They're late for classes, they're kind of sluggish (laughs) you know, kind of lethargic about things. Just a different type of student.

BB: Talk to me about the role of the guitar in jazz music. In early jazz it seemed like more of a rhythm instrument, sort of strumming ...

SH: Oh yeah. Originally that's what the guitar was intended to do -- to support the bass. The bass would be walking -- sort of "bomp bomp bom bomp" and the guitar had to play that "chunk chunk chunk chunk" just to support the bass line. That's essentially what they were doing. But with the advent of electronics and amplifications the bass player didn't need the guitarist to do it. And then in the late '50s and early '60s people like Les Paul started to change that.

BB: What group of guitarists ushered that in, taking guitar to the forefront?

SH: The first guitarist to do anything was Charlie Christian back in the 1920s. He was the first really great jazz guitarist -- the first guy to ever play an electric guitar solo. He was very popular then, playing with Benny Goodman at the time, which was really probably the hippest gig anyone could get back then. Certainly the most lucrative gig you could get. He (Christian) died of tuberculosis, but he inspired a whole bunch of guitar players, but there wasn't anybody coming along. The guitar was literally on the cutting edge of jazz at that point -- harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, linearly. The things that Charlie Christian was doing were as hip as anything anybody was doing at that time. When some other guys started coming along like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, running into Charlie Parker, guitarists really weren't doing anything at all. The guitarists were playing really muddy, and they seemed to be straining at their instruments. They seemed real uncomfortable with it. And then from 1930 to 1950, it was kind of a dark age for guitarists, with the notable exception of Django Reinhardt. Then Jimmy Raney came along, and he was basically the guitar equivalent to what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone. Jimmy really had that unique gift. He hung out with Charlie Parker, and he managed to assimilate a lot of the characteristics of bebop for the guitar for the first time.

BB: Who was he playing with then?

SH: He was playing with a bunch of people back then. He was living in New York and he was playing with Woody Herman, and that legendary quintet with Stan Getz. As far as guitar is concerned, that was some of the most important stuff. For the first time, the guitar had a real free-flowing, almost a horn-like quality to it. That's something that I try to get, that's something really everyone is trying to get -- from John Ambercrombie on. Everybody tries to get the guitar to sound horn-like, rather than guitar-like.

BB: Why is that? Why the striving for a horn-like sound?

SH: Basically that's what jazz is. Jazz came from saxophones and trumpets. They're the ones responsible for the breakthroughs. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. Right there, those are the four biggest voices in jazz. Duke Ellington, of course, but on a different level. But what you hear are mostly horn ideas.

BB: How did you try to get the horn sound? By studying or transcribing horn solos?

SH: Well, the main thing is, when I first started listening to jazz, I wasn't listening to guitarists. I was listening to horn players. I listened to Freddie Hubbard lines like (plays a phrase on his guitar) and then one time Jimmy Raney said, "You have a horn-like quality to your playing." And I said," I do? (Laughs) I mean, doesn't everybody?"

BB: Who were some of the people you listened to when you were first getting into jazz?

SH: I like Freddie Hubbard a great deal. I still do. I still consider him one of the great living trumpet players. I guess I can say now, with the exception of one or two, that I have played with most of the great living trumpet players, and I still feel that Freddie Hubbard is probably the best. He's got this relaxed intensity in his playing which is so nice, and technically, no one can touch him. As far as playing fast and playing clean, and having a lot of energy in his lines. That's what I like best. I think I consciously try to play like trumpet players. That's the kind of feeling I try to get on the instrument. I'm a frustrated trumpet player. I even tried to play trumpet for a while. I almost got evicted from my apartment. (Laughs)

BB: You can't control the volume on them.

SH: Yeah. The only thing worse than a beginning trumpet player is a beginning violin player.

BB: You mentioned at Zena's that you listened to a lot of blues when you were young.

SH: Yeah. When I was 13, 14, 15, 16, I was listening to a lot of blues guitarists and ...

BB: Like who?

SH: Oh, Eric Clapton, Hendrix, and B.B. King. I always liked B.B. King a lot. I always liked the way he could get so much out of just one note. He said a lot with one note, very expressive qualities. (Demonstrates on guitar, strumming a few blues chords then executing one note with heavy vibrato.)

BB: And you admired the simplicity of it?

SH: Oh yeah. There's a real art to doing that. I mean you look at that and you say "Oh yeah, I think I can do that." I mean he's just playing one note. But he's doing a whole lot. And that's a quality that I recently have been trying to work into my playing. I'm trying to get a little more back to the blues, actually. From the time I was 16 or so up until just a few years ago I was so into the jazz and the bebop that I was neglecting the blues element, which is a very real part of it (jazz). You can't effectively play jazz today without paying some regard to the blues. I'm basically trying to get back into that now, incorporating blues elements into my playing.

BB: And when you say that, are you talking about bent notes, or just the feel, or ...

SH: Mainly just the feel. Blues has a real intensity to it, a real life force.

BB: Do you favor great chops or more sparse playing?

SH: I don't know. They are both a matter of taste. I've been playing the guitar most of my life -- for over 20 years -- and over the course of that time if you're practicing you can't help but develop technique. I like that, I mean one of the things that always impressed me about jazz musicians is this ability to play very fast, cleanly -- real virtuoso stuff. I really appreciate virtuosity. On the other hand, some of the most profound melodic things come from guys like Jim Hall. He really doesn't have the technique to, you know, zoom all over the place. But he has a melodic sense that is very highly developed. Do I prefer slower, tastier players or fast players? I like it both. To be good you gotta incorporate both into your playing. You can't be playing a million notes all the time. That can be boring after a while.

BB: What style of jazz is your favorite? Cool? Or Bebop? Or fusion ...?

SH: I guest post-bop is my favorite, if you have to nail it down. John Coltrane and that hard bop, the stuff that was going on in the late '50s. All the classic Blue Note albums. That for me was so great because we had managed to assimilate Charlie Parker, and now they were going to take that a little bit farther. They were very relaxed with bebop. When Charlie Parker first came on the scene, it took everybody by storm. Nobody knew what to make of it. A lot of musicians just quit. A lot of guys just could not get that together. For about 15 or 20 years people were trying to play over chord changes like those Bird licks. But by 1959 and 1960, players had got that down, and you began to see what direction they were going in. It was at that point that Miles was doing his greatest playing. From 1959 to 1968, for about ten years there, it was great. All these great players were really coming into their own, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and Freddie (Hubbard).

BB: What's your favorite size of group to play in? Do you like trios or quartets ...

SH: I really like trios. I think trios are the way for a guitar player. It's a real traditional way, you know, everything from the Jimi Hendrix trio to the Jim Hall trio, the Jimmy Raney trio -- John McLaughlin was touring with the trio. I like playing in trios. There's no piano player so I can play a chord when I want to play a chord. I like the interaction with drummers. When you got a keyboard player a lot of times that will get in the way of the drums.

BB: How?

SH: Comping behind your solo. If you play an idea and you leave some space for the drum to fill, sometimes you get the piano player and the drummer playing something that rhythmically goes against each other. I just like playing with a trio. That or a quartet with a horn player. My next record that I'm going to do is going to be a quartet with a horn player.

BB: Let's talk about Miles Davis a little bit. You said at Zena's the other night that everyone that seems to have touched his garment has gone away changed. How has he influenced you?

SH: He's influenced everybody, a lot of musicians. I love his playing today; I think Miles can do no wrong. If I had any gig to pick, that would be my ideal job: to work with Miles Davis. I really hope to do it before he passes away. I would really like to play with Miles before it's too late.

BB: What is it about him that has put him in the front of every revolution in jazz ...?

SH: Oh yeah. Since jazz started. He was with Charlie Parker in the beginning. He's said that when he was playing with Bird, he felt like quitting every night. Miles has always been on the cutting edge of everything. When electronics came around, Miles was really the father of jazz fusion. He just has these amazing musical instincts, he always knows what's going to make it.

BB: How has he influenced you personally?

SH: The way he phrases and the way he uses space. Those are the main elements of Miles' style. Playing a phrase where the space is actually resolved, and playing a phrase where the space creates tension. I always think of that as positive space.

BB: If you were giving someone a crash course in jazz, what albums would you play them?

SH: Top ten?

BB: Sure, okay.

SH: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Charlie Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. There wasn't a whole lot of soloing on the album, but just the feels, all the different ways to swing. I'd never heard anybody do anything like that. Duke Ellington, maybe. Some Charlie Parker records. Coltrane's Impressions album. Coltrane's Crescent. Those are the main ones, right there. And then Bartok's String Quartets. (Laughs) I listen to as much classical music as I do jazz. I like Glen Gould a great deal. There's a lot of things about his playing, his philosophy that have affected me.

BB: And Stravinsky? You said at Zena's that ...

SH: I think I see that coming out of my playing more and more. The way I approach the way a line begins and ends. The rhythmic phrasing of certain things I do. I used to listen to a ton of Stravinsky. If you've ever listened to Stravinsky's violin concerto, it has a lot of these really jagged phrases that are long lines. The way that things start and stop. I've always really admired that, and I've tried to incorporate it into my playing.

BB: What's your nightmare request?

SH: Oh man, most requests are nightmares. (Laughs)

BB: Some of the old standards?

SH: Most of those tunes are really beautiful, I like them. There are few though. (Laughs) They've been played to death, and not always played to death in a good context. You know, played by poor musicians, or by musicians who are half asleep. A tune like "Misty," it's really a beautiful song, and I wouldn't mind playing it more often, but the fact is you play it on every wedding gig you ever do. You know -- "Oh, we want to dance to Misty." Well so you shall. It's a great tune, but I'm really sick to death of it.

BB: What does jazz mean to you? What does it do for you?

SH: It puts money in my pocket. (Laughs) I don't know. It seems like when I first heard it, I was immediately drawn to it. There are a lot of little things about jazz: I love the way it feels, the way it just flows, the freedom of expression in it, the virtuosity. I have sort of an athlete's approach to playing an instrument. I practice all the time. I'm either in shape or I'm not in shape. If I have an important gig coming up, then I feel like I have to work out, to break a sweat when I practice. I'm always pushing myself a little harder, a little faster, like an athlete. Faster, quicker, sharper, cleaner. I think it's that element. You gotta do the work every day, discipline. The mental attitude. You need to maintain this relaxed intensity, like a basketball player. I've heard them talk about this and I know exactly what they mean. You have to be very intense, because you've got a lot of hard stuff that you've got to pull off, but you have to make it sound relaxed. You've got to be relaxed with it. Because if you're on edge when you're being intense then you're going to get so wrapped up in the little detail things that you're going to miss the larger picture. That's the thing about Miles and John Coltrane. I've got videos of them from the '50s. I remember the first time I watched those videos, I thought, "That's the relaxed intensity." They were not moving, they looked like they were half asleep. But that stuff was so intense! That's what it's really all about.