Articles

The LaFaro Legacy

In the tragic early morning hours of July 6, 1961, the Bass world lost a true jazz innovator and legend.

Rocco Scott LaFaro was the victim of a senseless automobile accident, depriving the jazz world of unforeseen musical accomplishments – but leaving an unprecedented style of playing, setting a standard that all bassists have strived to attain since Scott’s untimely passing.

In the automobile was Scott’s most prized possession – his bass.

      

The instrument, an Abraham Prescott made in Concord, New Hampshire circa 1825, was obtained by Scotty through the efforts of the legendary Red Mitchell, a close friend and colleague. Red found both his cutaway Lowendahl Bass and the Prescott at Stein On The Vine, in Los Angeles, California. Red immediately contacted Scotty, who came out to see the Prescott and subsequently purchased the bass. The bass was perfect for Scott… not only was this bass a rare example of the work of Abraham Prescott, but is of a most unique, smaller Busetto cornered design, unlike most larger examples of Abraham Prescott. This design drew Scotty to this bass immediately.

In mid-1959, the late George Duvivier met Scott LaFaro at a joint musical project involving Gunter Schuller. George immediately recognized and was amazed by Scotty’s talent. George, who was a lifelong friend and client of my father, Sam Kolstein, insisted that Scott meet him. George brought Scott to Sam’s establishment, then located in Merrick, New York. Sam and Scott developed an immediate mutual admiration, respect and friendship. Two decisions were reached between them in their discussions.

First, the Prescott bass was to be fully restored enabling LaFaro to play it at its full potential. The second decision was the meeting of Scott with the revered Frederick Zimmermann, whereby a formalized approach to the bass would be introduced to Scott in order to embellish his phenomenal natural talents. Unfortunately, only one of the two decisions were fully accomplished, that being the restoration of the Prescott bass.

The original restoration accomplished by Samuel Kolstein included completely replacing all cross bars on the back table of the bass, repair of all damages to the ribs of the bass, full restoration of the top table including the installation of a new seasoned bass bar, and full cosmetic restoration of the bass and of the instrument’s varnish. Samuel Kolstein was further challenged with a new concept in set-up for this bass, thus allowing Scott to accurately play the Prescott with his gut string set-up of Golden Spiral gut bass strings at an unprecedented low string height.  The success of this restoration can be attested to by the quality of sound produced on Scott’s last and perhaps most acclaimed recording, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, with Bill Evans- piano, and Paul Motian- drums, recorded at the famed Village Vanguard in New York City, June 25. 1961.

  

A few days later, the creative genius of Scott LaFaro abruptly ended.

After the reality of this tragedy was accepted, the only remnant of Scott’s shattered career was offered to Samuel Kolstein by Scott’s mother Mrs. Helen LaFaro. It was the wish of the LaFaro family that the bass be offered to Sam Kolstein at a fair and equitable price in hopes that the bass would be resurrected back to life as Scott would have wished it to be.

The bass suffered terrible damages to both the body chamber and scroll. The damages were primarily caused by the impact of the collision and the ensuing lire that followed the actual crash. Both the neck ind scroll were completely charred and shattered, as was the upper left bout of the top table and the upper left rib bout
(Photos A, B, & C).

In addition, the top table of the bass sustained extensive damage in the left F-Hole area. Internally, all cross bars were loosened from the top table. As was the Bass bar. Extensive damages were incurred to four of the six rib sections of the bass, with the most extensive damages sustained by the upper left rib bout which endured the brunt of the exposure to the intense heat of the fire following the auto crash.

Dismayed by the tragic loss of his dear young friend, Samuel Kolstein chose to keep this remnant of the creative genius of Scott LaFaro in a stable condition that would not allow the bass to deteriorate the Bass any further,  until Sam could bring himself to the point of emotionally facing the arduous task of restoring this instrument or delegating the responsibilities of the restoration to one who would approach this instrument, an extension of Scott LaFaro’s life, with the same reverence and respect that existed in the relationship between Scott and Samuel.

Iconsider myself to be most fortunate to have been delegated this responsibility. Although I was too young to have known Scott well, I grew up aware of his creativity, listening to his creative genius in his recordings. Many hours were spent studying and contemplating the immense task of restoring the LaFaro Prescott.

This famed Bass lay dormant for more than twenty-four years.

Sam and I decided that the restoration of the Prescott would be completed within the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the death of Scott LaFaro. With the International Society of Bassists organization dedicating the 1988 Convention in UCLA, California to honor Scott LaFaro and Fred Zimmerman, it was decided that the Bass would be displayed at the 1988 Convention.    Although the restoration of the Prescott spanned a longer period of time than anticipated, it was to our immense satisfaction that the LaFaro Prescott was once again played within the twenty fifth year, and was fully restored in time for the ISB 1988 Convention.

The actual restoration process extended well over a two-year period.  In approaching the restoration of this fine instrument, it was necessary to consider several factors: the functional reconstruction of the bass, and protecting the integrity of a master instrument that has left a tonal legacy in Scotty’s hands. In discussing the stages of development of the original restoration of the Prescott accomplished by my father in late 1950’s, it was realized that, as great as this instrument was, the actual restorative work to the instrument was never given full opportunity to mature due to the circumstances.

Thus, it was decided to leave as much of the original restoration work as possible, to not only restore the instrument to its full form, but to restore the sound as well – to what it was when LaFaro played it.

My first task was the actual disassembling of the bass. There was extensive damage caused by all facets of this tragic accident  (photo D).

It was necessary to first remove the top table, then remove the severely charred upper left rib bout. Next the extensively damaged neck within the neck block was removed from the body of the bass. This procedure not only allowed access to damaged areas of the back table, but fully stabilized the instrument, eliminating the possibility of further damage.

At this point the actual restoration to the Prescott commenced.

All loosened cross bars to the flat back table were steamed, and reglued. Total evaluation was made to ascertain whether the proper amount of spring still existed in these cross bars to protect the integrity of the back table. Naturally, quite a bit of the existing patch-work was dried out due to the nature of the accident as well as the considerable amount of time this instrument lay in storage. All repair patching was removed and replaced with highly seasoned patch wood.

With the back table stable and restored, we next turned our efforts to the restoration of the ribs. Unfortunately, the damaged upper left rib bout was charred beyond restoration. Thus, we were faced with the task of matching a section of maple that would be in total accord with the highly distinctive character maple utilized by Abraham Prescott some 180, plus years ago. I chose to quarter and veneer a choice, highly seasoned maple section of cello back wood of substantial age with most similar character to that of the remaining original ribs.  Preparation of the rib material was accomplished, then the rib was carefully bent to the proper alignment with the top and back table. Next, wood for the outer adjoining moldings were chosen, prepared, bent and glued into position on the new rib to match the traditional Prescott outer moldings on all original ribs.

Finally, the internal lining of highly seasoned pine was bent and glued into position (photos E and F) to the remaining ribs and cornerblocks, and endblocks were fully checked and repaired where deemed necessary. With full restoration accomplished on the ribs of the instrument, we elected to remove the remnants of the original neck from the already detached neck block. The neck block, being in usable condition, was repositioned and glued into proper position and alignment with the ribs and back table of the Prescott.  It should be noted that the original design of the bass never had a conventional neck block. Rather, the instrument had an integrated crooked neck, being glued to the back table with the upper ribs tucked and glued into the maple neck. The original conversion of this bass was accomplished in the original restoration by Samuel Kolstein.

The greatest challenge and task was faced next: the restoration of the top table of the bass. Unfortunately the top table, and the neck and scroll areas of the bass, sustained the major impact and heat damages. The top table section, located at the upper left bout (photos G and H), was virtually nonexistent due to the extensive heat damages sustained.

My first task was to repair the major cracks and damages other than the area of fire damage in order to stabilize the top table. This procedure made the further extensive restoration to this charred area a more viable undertaking. The multiple cracks to the top table (photos I and J) clearly reveal the extensive damages sustained by the top table and the variety of repair techniques utilized to successfully accomplish these repairs.

With the top table stabilized, we now approached the difficult task of matching a section of pine to blend with the character of the existing woods utilized by Prescott. I most unexpectedly found a section of extremely aged pine with dimensions just large enough to be utilized. Because of the limited size of this section there was virtually no tolerance for error in the placement of this section into proper position. This matching section of pine was placed into the instrument by a process of a scarf joint, whereby the area of the existing plate was tapered on an angle, with the matching piece of pine receiving a reverse scarfed angle, allowing the newly positioned wood section to be grafted into the plate as if it were part of the top table (photos K, L, M and N).

This technique also produced an exceptionally strong glue joint. With the new section of pine scarfed into position on the top table, this added section of wood could now be carved to match the original form of the top table , with the highest respect for the workmanship of Abraham Prescott. After accomplishing this work, normal restoration procedures were resume: re-edging the top plate and reinforcing all repaired areas of the plate with highly seasoned spruce patching. At this point all wood added into the chamber of the bass was re-graduated to proper thickness so as not to affect the tonal quality of this fine instrument. A thorough re-check of the top and back tables and all ribs was accomplished to make certain all repairs were fully completed. Next, the top was reglued to the chamber of the instrument.

Our next task was the replacement of the existing scroll and neck. As mentioned earlier, the scroll and neck were subject to the brunt of the auto accident and, unfortunately, could not be restored to functional condition. The only alternative would be the copying of the Prescott scroll. The scroll model we chose was one of the traditional deep volutes with a convex channel at the rounded heel of the bass of the scroll. The installation of the gears involved the traditional inlaid Prescott brass plate tuning gears with Tyrolean knobs on the tuners.  Upon the completion of the carving of the replacement neck and scroll, the neck was set into proper elevation and pitch in accord with the modern school of steel string playing.

The final stage of restoration was the cosmetic restoration of the instrument. Analysis of the Prescott varnish was exactingly accomplished, thus yielding the observation that a terpineol oil base varnish must be made and utilized in order to match the original varnish and patina of this fine instrument. All damaged areas of the bass were meticulously restored to match the original varnish.

With the full restoration of the LaFaro Prescott accomplished, the instrument completed its last stage of resurrection with the set-up and tonal adjustment of the bass.  We equipped the bass with a Kolstein Adjustable Bass Bridge and a conventional lower saddle. Although Scotty played on Gut strings, I decided to set the instrument up with Heritage Perlon Core strings, that emulate gut string quality, but offer the responsiveness and trueness of a fine steel string.. but at a reduced string tension. In our opinion, this set-up offers the quality of sound that this instrument produced in the hands of Scott, but yet fulfills the modern requirements expected of an instrument of this caliber.

Ihave considered it a great privilege and honor to have been delegated the responsibility of restoring Scott LaFaro’s Prescott.  We are now past the 30th anniversary of this fine bass having its’ restoration completed. Over those 30 years, I have been honored to have the LaFaro Prescott displayed at numerous ISB Conventions, International Jazz Conferences, photographed in the famed Milt Hinton Scholarship Photo Session at the Manhattan Center in New York City and, being recorded for the first time since Scotty recorded the “Live at the Vanguard” album, by Jazz great Marc Johnson, last Bassist with the Bill Evans Trio. The Bass can be heard on the CD “Something for You”.

Since that time, Phil Palombi has recorded and performed with the LaFaro Prescott numerous times, as have numerous other International artists.  2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Scott LaFaro, who Phil honored in his recording  “Person I Knew – A Tribute to Scott LaFaro”. The recording features the working trio of piano legend Don Friedman and Bill Evans alumnus Eliot Zigmund on drums. The special guest on the recording was LaFaro’s bass. I was the owner of the bass at the time, and with the blessing of the LaFaro estate, I granted Phil the honor of using the instrument for the recording as well as the weekend CD release concerts months later at the Kitano Jazz club in Manhattan.

In 2015 Phil recorded his third CD as a leader ”Detroit Lean” with the Prescott, and headlined the International Society of Bassists convention in Fort Collins, Colorado the following month.

Perhaps the biggest event for Phil that spring was returning to the Village Vanguard with Scotty’s bass for two performances with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which marked the first time that the instrument had crossed though those hallowed doors since LaFaro himself walked through them to record Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans in 1961.

In 2015, with loving honor to the LaFaro Family, the Kolstein family endowed the LaFaro Prescott Bass to the International Society of Bassists. It now has its’ home at Ithaca College, under the amazing watchful eye of Professor Nicholas Walker.

I have been most gratified to complete several copies of Scotty’s Prescott as well.

Sam and my sincere hopes were that this restoration was to not only awaken a sleeping giant, but to continue the creativity that this instrument was so well known for in the hands of Scott LaFaro.

I am most pleased that these hopes have been fulfilled.

Phil Palombi on the LaFaro Prescott

The only known footage of Scott LaFaro playing his Prescott

 

Descriptive information of the LaFaro Bass Violin
This instrument is the work of Abraham Prescott, made in Concord, New Hampshire circa 1825.

The instrument is a three-quarter size, flatback model Bass Violin with gamba shaped upper corners and traditional Busetto lower bout corners. The instrument is quite unusual in that it is one of the few Prescott designs that were made of smaller dimensions.

The top i is a six-piece sectional plate of pine ranging in grain from medium at the outer flanks to slab cut at the center joint. The back table is a two-piece sectional plate of moderately flamed maple with flame ascending at the center joint. The back has an ebony strip inlaid at the center joint running the entire length of the back table. The ribs are of moderate slab cut maple of highly irregular flame. The ribs have maple outer molding adjoining the back and top plates. The color of the varnish is a deep brown amber.

Dimensions:
Inches   Centimeters
Upper bouts:
19-5/8   49.85
Center bouts:
14-1/2   36.83
Lower bouts:
28-1/4   71.76
Measure:
41-1/2   105.41
Overall body length:
43   109.22