Smooth Jazz Cover Story - Boz Scaggs
[By: Melanie Maxwell and Jonathan Widran - 2003]
When Boz Scaggs hits the Hollywood Bowl stage this month headlining at the Playboy Jazz Festival, he´s certain to hear audience members shout out requests for "Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle," "Jojo" and any number of other hits that made him one of the most acclaimed pop/rockers of the 70s and early 80s. They might be momentarily puzzled when they don't see an electric guitar slung over his shoulder; but instead, a quartet settling in behind him.
Some might expect acoustic interpretations of his best known ballads, "Love Look What You've Done to Me" and "We're All Alone" (from Silk Degrees, the 1976 platinum album that made him a superstar). He may sneak a few of these pop classics in the mix, but Scaggs will be debuting live his own unique twists on the many familiar jazz standards he recorded on the just released But Beautiful - including "How Long Has This Been Going On," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "What´s New." Smooth jazz stations have been blending a handful of his well known ballads (including the Bobby Caldwell penned "Heart of Mine") into their playlists for years, and tracks from 2001´s Dig (which he called "the best work of my life") received much Adult Contemporary radio support. Scaggs also received a Grammy nomination for his 1997 blues-R&B oriented Come on Home. But Beautiful, however, represents the singer/songwriters first true venture into the jazz world.
"It´s been in the works for some time," he says. "I got together three years ago with pianist Paul Nagel, who I met through work he was doing at my studio. He was at the piano and I was on the stool next to him and we ran through our first tunes. We just did it casually. We got together a few times and found my key and I started singing into some of these charts and I took some of his recordings of his piano with me and sang into them and became more comfortable with some of these songs. We kept in touch, and did it more as a side interest thing. It began to take more and more shape.
I became more interested, more connected with the material. We got together about a year ago with a quartet and tried some stuff that we had accumulated on the long list and began to refine and shorten it. Then we set a time to record in September and moved toward it."
Scaggs spent nearly 30 years as an artist on major labels. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner helped the Ohio-born, Dallas-raised singer parlay his late ‘60s success with The Steve Miller Band into a contract with Atlantic, but an early solo recording failed to catch steam. He became a critics darling with his first few Columbia releases, then a pop superstar when Silk Degrees became all the rage in 1976. He took a recording hiatus for much of the 80s (to, among other things, run his San Francisco nightclub, Slims) and when he came back with Other Roads in 1988, he was frustrated when a label executive told him to record more songs, because he didn´t hear a hit. He left and a few years later, hooked up with Virgin for his 90s resurgence.
"That experience was the only time they´ve ever tried to influence me," Scaggs says. "At the time, I felt like I had no choice but to do it. I didn´t like it, so I left the label. I can never be part of that kind of scene. All labels aren´t necessarily like that. I guess, my generation, you couldn´t change some of us."
Considering the corporate, bottom line "where's the hit single?" mentality of major record companies today, its hardly a surprise that Scaggs released But Beautiful on his own indie label. "My manager started an independent distribution label with Jimmy Buffet a few years ago," he says. "Jimmy tours a lot, records a lot and has a large following. It just made sense in his case to try out this independent distribution, the assumption being that people like Buffet and myself who have been around for a long time have a fan base. When we put out a record, our fans just basically need to be informed that there's a new record out and they will go listen to it and maybe buy it. So that idea has just made more and more sense as recording companies have become more uncertain and confused as to what to do with artists of our generation. They had already set up the company and the network, so we just put it together. Each route has its pros and cons and in my case I feel this was sort of a no-brainer;
Long before he hit it big in the mid 70s, the 58-year-old Scaggs (who turns 59 on June 8) was a true product of the 60s, finding a way to mix his love of music with the idealism of being something of a spiritual itinerant, trying to "find himself." He played in local Austin and Madison, Texas bands in the early 60s, then brought a group over to play in London. From there he launched his travels in the Jack Kerouac-coined "dharma bum" tradition, hanging in Stockholm for a time (and recording his first album), then moving on through the Middle East, India and Nepal. In Sweden, Scaggs met a number of folks from his generation who had returned from the Far East, and he and a friend just left one day, with no plan or agenda.
"There was a generation of travelers in Europe, a lot of people my age from all countries who were traveling from country to country. There was generally a meeting place and a network of people who knew each other and started exploring," he recalls. "I think I got a sense of something that wasn't necessarily some spiritualism that might be found in any kind of formal or organized religion, but just the sort of spirit that's contained in poetry and in art and ones own personal sense of the world, of life. I think that by seeing other countries, other ways of life, other ways that people think at that time... I mean, I was in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India... I spent a year doing that, living on the street with people. I formed my world views at a time when I was very impressionable. That experience has been very important in the way I see myself and approach the world."
Although he's always loved playing for audiences, he points out that the work travel has never measured up to the journeys of this freewheeling time, nor the fun trips he was able to take during his 80s/early 90s hiatus from recording. "Its not sightseeing, its not traveling for the most part," he says. "I'm pretty disciplined when I tour. I don't go out much, I don't get to talk much, or eat and drink in restaurants too much because I have to keep myself focused on what I'm doing, take care of my voice, etc. Its a lot different being in New York when you can go out and do all the things there are to do, or you've got a show that night at eight oclock. I love Italy, the South of France, and play Japan from time to time. I'd love to see more of that."
Scaggs, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1967, has been married to his second wife for 11 years and has a 25-year-old son, Austin, who is also a musician and also works as a writer for Rolling Stone in New York. Scaggs´ San Francisco restaurant/bar, Slim´s is 15 years old and what began as a blues and R and B club now features younger, cutting-edge bands. He also has a small place up in Northern California's wine country where he grows grapes, makes wine, enjoys cooking and has slowly begun to appreciate the benefits of life in the country. He's also an avid reader who loves to keep up on international politics. Since starting But Beautiful, he´s also become quite learned about the great composers and jazz musicians of the pre-rock-and-roll era.
"Taking some time away from the business gave me a chance to put life in a pretty good perspective for when I chose to go back and get fully into it; he says; I realized that there's important time when one needs time to ones self and there´s time to go to work. I´ve got a wonderful working situation and people that I work with, so I don´t try to do the business. I´ve been associated with the same management for over 25 years, so I don´t really have a lot of the headaches I´ve had in the past. I feel very lucky to have developed long and trusted meaningful associations, and I´m very excited about going out and performing this new music and the fact that its a whole new approach.