Scott Colley

Jazz icon discusses his musical upbringing, studying with Monty Budwig and Charlie Haden, tours, solo projects and more

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 30, 2010

A native of Los Angeles, Scott Colley attended California Institute for the Arts on a full music scholarship.  He studied under bass greats Monty Budwig and Charlie Haden and classical bassist Fred Tinsley. He has since become one of the most in-demand session bassists, appearing on more than 200 albums to date.

Scott has performed and/or toured with Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Hall, Clifford Jordan, John Scofield, Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Bobby Hutcherson, Pat Metheny and many others. As a leader, Scott’s album releases include Portable Universe, This Place, Subliminal, The Magic Line, Initial Wisdom and Architect of the Silent Moment.  His latest effort, Empire is being released this week.  Scott currently resides in New York City.

FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing.

SC: My grandfather was a painter and violinist, my dad played clarinet about once a year and my mother a little piano.  Most of my early exposure to music was through my older brother, Jim. He played music in the house all the time and shared what he was listening to with me. Jim listened to everything from jazz to Tower of Power and Weather Report. In fact, he bought me my first record, Thelonious Monk’s Underground. He also played in the high school band and I would go hear their concerts.

Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, where I grew up, had an amazing music program, directed by a trumpet player and great teacher, John Rinaldo. He would raise money and take the high school bands all over the country to play. He would put on concerts in the high school auditorium Sunday nights. Almost every week he would invite amazing musicians from Los Angeles to sit in.  Sometimes, he’d get touring musicians who happened to be passing through town to play with the band, too.

Even before I started playing the bass I can remember hearing these concerts. Eventually, when I got into junior high school, I started playing in the big band.  I did a lot of small group stuff, too. When I was 13, I started playing in the house band at a jam session two nights a week at a place in Pasadena. All the older musicians would give me recordings and expected me to learn certain songs by the following week. It was a great learning experience.  It taught me to internalize song forms quickly by ear.

FBPO: Was there a turning point – a defining moment – in your life that made you realize you were going to become a professional musician?  It almost seems like your destiny was defined by the time you got out of high school.  Is that about right?

SC: That sounds about right, although I don’t remember a single “defining moment.”  At some point in high school I realized that I really loved playing music.  I started paying close attention to the musicians that I played with, as well as the ones I used to listen to on recordings. I could see the direct correlation between meaningful practice/listening and making music on a high level. I think that realization made me want to work harder.

FBPO: You studied with some remarkable bassists.  Tell me about your experience with Monty Budwig.

SC: I began studying with Monty when I was 13.  I think I worked with him, off and on, for about two or three years. It was a very fortunate thing for me that I was able to hook up with him because he was such an amazing player and also a really great teacher. He was an incredibly generous person. The running joke with Monty was that he wanted his $15 up front! I think some of my lessons with him lasted two or three hours. They included playing scales, etudes and duets with the bow and learning to play standards.

Monty helped me begin to develop a sound on the instrument. One of the most valuable parts of the lessons was when we would listen to recordings together.  He would show me what to listen for, what to focus on. Then he would give me LPs to take home and study until the next week. He introduced me to so much music. His stepson Dean was a drummer and a friend of mine.  He and I played together in the junior high school band. Monty’s wife, Arlette, is a wonderful pianist and teacher. They kind of adopted me, musically. Just being around this family that was so involved in music was really inspiring for me. When Monty played in clubs in Los Angeles, they would take me with them. That was my first experience seeing so many great musicians, like Jimmy Rowles, Zoot Sims, Shelly Manne and lots of others.

My lessons with Monty provided me with much more than just learning how to play the bass.  They were my first real introduction into what it means to be in a musician, to be a part of a musical community.

FBPO: How about Charlie Haden?

SC: I began focusing on Charlie’s music when I was 16 or so. The first recordings I remember listening to were some of the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet recordings, This Is Our Music and Shape of Jazz to Come.  I also used to listen to the group Old and New Dreams, made up of former Ornette sidemen Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell and Charlie.  The things that drew me to Charlie’s playing, initially, besides his incredible sound, were the clarity of his ideas over chord changes and his ability to create harmony over music with no preconceived form.

I found out through a friend of mine that he was teaching at California Institute for the Arts, so I went up to the school to audition. I don’t remember much about the audition except for the fact that I was incredibly nervous. I auditioned for Charlie and David Roitstein, director of the jazz studies at CalArts and great pianist. Paul Novros, a saxophonist, teacher and filmmaker, was also there. They ended up giving me a scholarship to study at the school. It was an important moment for me because, up until that point, I was just playing around L.A. and I was ready for new influences and ideas. Also, it was a great boost to me that they thought I had something to offer.

CalArts opened so many doors for me and exposed me to so much great music and so many great musicians from all over the world. I was also very fortunate to study for three-and-a-half years with bassist Fred Tinsley, who’s been with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1974.  Fred taught me so much, not just conceptually, but he also changed my whole physical approach to the instrument.

FBPO: I admire how you’re careful not to label or characterize music.  Still, practically your entire resume reads like a who’s who of, well, jazz.  What were your musical aspirations when you were an up-and-coming student?

SC: When I was younger, I had no musical aspirations, really. I just enjoyed playing music and listening to music. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to work in a more focused way and develop. I guess my only real aspirations, even to this day, have been self-expression, communication and new experiences.

In terms of labels, there is no doubt that my experience and focus has been to learn from the jazz tradition.  Still, I am influenced by so many different kinds of music.  Those influences make their way into my music in very subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle ways. It would just slow me down to stop and try to figure out what is influencing me at a particular moment.

One of the things that I love about jazz is that it is a very open, living form in which influences of all kinds can make their way into the music. The whole process and the resulting music can be completely unique to each individual.

FBPO: You’ve spent time in both New York and L.A.  To me, it always seemed that the music coming out of each of those cities was very different, comparatively speaking, including jazz.  What’s your take on that subject?

I’ve lived in New York for twenty years now, so my perspective on the subject is much different now than when I first moved here. I was initially drawn to New York because so many musicians that I was listening to in college were either living here or had lived here in the past.  New York, obviously, has a very vibrant and dynamic music scene and that’s the reason I choose to live here. I still have a strong connection to my musical friends in Los Angeles.  In fact, I do concerts and recording projects in Los Angeles three or four times a year.

I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in the local scene in Los Angeles any more, but I do know that there are so many great musicians there.  For me, growing up in L.A. gave me an incredibly rich musical environment to draw on.

FBPO: In addition to so many iconic jazz figures with whom you’ve performed, you’ve also stepped out as a leader in your own right.  Tell me about your group.  Who’s in it and what sort of stuff are you doing?

I have a new recording coming out in late August on the CAM Jazz label. It’s called Empire.  I have nine new original compositions on it and one song from an old recording of mine that I reworked. The musicians are Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Bill Frisell on guitar and Brian Blade on drums.  Craig Taborn plays keyboards on a few songs, too.

FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?

Right now I’m busy with a lot of touring in the United States and Europe. I just finished touring with Jim Hall and Joey Baron.  I’m also doing some concerts with Chris Potter’s band, Underground.

I have tours coming up with the Kenny Werner Quintet, some concerts with Michel Portal and Gary Burton’s New Quartet. I also have a teaching residency at the Siena Summer Workshop in Siena, Italy.

FBPO: What lies ahead for Scott Colley?

I am looking forward to playing live with the music from Empire. I’m also just beginning to write some new music for a trio that I will tour with in Spring 2011.

FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?

SC: Mostly I enjoy spending time with my wife and daughter.  If there’s any time left over after that, I sleep!

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