If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.
~ Charlie Parker
Jimmy Scott has been living it since he began singing with native Louisvillian Lionel Hampton’s band in 1948 at the tender age of 23, and last night at the Jazz Factory, he shared some of the lessons from this long and creative musical life with a packed house of ardent fans.
Our friends Jon and Natasa outdid themselves for this occasion, miraculously procuring a table directly in front, yielding as close a view of the 81-year-old singer and his letter perfect backing trio as would have been possible without actually crawling on stage.
At an early age, Scott was diagnosed with Kallman’s Syndrome, a rare hormonal deficiency that effectively precluded puberty, stunting his growth and leaving his voice with a boyish, high pitch.
In a testimonial to the power of positive thinking, Scott uncomplainingly played the hand he was dealt, developing an expressive vocal technique, with cadences of vowel-rich phrasing sometimes reminiscent of Billie Holiday, and other times punctuated by percussive bursts – all wrapped up in an emotive, warm and conversational stage presence.
As America’s music, jazz bears testament to the very best and the very worst that this country has to offer, and as a prime example of the latter, there is the oft-told and deeply disturbing story of Jimmy Scott’s decades of mistreatment at the hands of the lesser, blasphemous managerial and bean counting lights of the music business.
Singing credits were erased, ridiculously bad contracts signed, royalties withheld and masterpiece albums withdrawn from the market. By the early 1960’s, Scott had had enough of the punishment, and he disappeared into the menial workaday world of his hometown of Cleveland for two decades, performing only occasionally, before emerging in the 1980’s to rejoin a world more attuned to his abilities, and since enjoying an autumnal period of productivity, acceptance and popularity.
Straddling a stool last night, Scott delivered selections from the Great American Songbook -- “Blue Skies,” “Embraceable You,” “Someone to Watch Over Me” – with impish bravado, sly suggestiveness or wistful reflection, and sometimes all these and more in the course of a single number.
Entering his ninth decade, and with a roller coaster career behind him, Scott is utterly without weariness or bitterness. His set last night was short, but just as rewardingly sweet, with keynote emphasis on our ability to love, and lose, and love all over again, all the while retaining a childlike wonder at the intensity of the experience, and the sublime beauty to be experienced during every moment of our all too brief time on the present stage.
Long may he run, and many thanks to the Jazz Factory for making such a revelatory musical event possible. It was our first visit to the basement of the Glassworks, and it won’t be our last – but topping Jimmy Scott will be very, very difficult.