When the JVC Jazz Festival presents Legends of the Clarinet at the Iridium from June 17th-22nd it will mark the return of the bebop era's two greatest innovators of that instrument, now largely neglected in jazz, to the place where they both began to develop as the most important new voices of the woodwind more than half a century ago. 52nd Street, just a short block up Broadway from the Iridium, was lined with jazz spots like the Downbeat, the Three Deuces, the Spotlite and the Onyx Club in the ‘40s, earning it the title “Swing Street”. Hundreds of musicians frequented the many rooms, jamming with each other, pushing the music from swing to bop.
Of those many musicians Tony Scott and Buddy DeFranco were practically the only two who were making the transition on the clarinet. They had much else in common. Both are Italian American (a minority group on the New York jazz scene). Both were born in New Jersey in ‘20s (Scott as Anthony Joseph Sciacca on June 17, 1921 in Morristown; Buddy as Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco on February 17, 1923 in Camden). Both trained classically (Scott at Julliard in New York, DeFranco at Mastbaum in Philadelphia), before coming under the influence of Benny Goodman and switching to swing. And, perhaps most impor-tantly, both were eventually most powerfully affected by the music of Charlie Parker, learning to speak the language of Bird on the instrument that was king in swing but had virtually no prophets in bebop.
Scott has one of the most interesting curricula vitaes in the history of jazz. Following his graduation from Julliard he studied avant-garde and atonal music with Stephan Wolpe at the Contemporary School of Music. While in the army he performed on clarinet, piano, alto and tenor saxophone in various ensembles. He was a frequent player at Minton's where he shared the bandstand with Ben Webster (whom he calls his musical father), Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. On 52nd Street he jammed with Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Buck Clayton, Trummy Young, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, who became his mentor and close friend. He played in the big bands of Benny Carter, Tommy Dorsey, Lucky Millinder, Claude Thornhill and Duke Ellington. He worked with vocalists Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan and developed a close musical and personal relationship with Billie Holiday, serving as pianist/arranger, clarinetist and musical director for her “Lady Sings The Blues” Carnegie Hall concert and recording.
Later, Scott performed and recorded frequently with his own orchestras and small groups, the latter featuring stellar rhythm sections that included at different times Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Jimmy Garrison, Percy Heath, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Pete LaRoca, and Philly Joe Jones. His final recording of the ‘50s Sung Heroes, brought together the classic trio of Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian for the first time. He concluded the decade embarking on a five year trek throughout Asia where he performed with a variety of musicians from myriad Middle and Far-Eastern countries and cultures. In 1964 he recorded Music For Zen Meditation in Japan, featuring his clarinet improvisations with koto and shakuhachi. The seminal recording is widely acknowledged as the first New Age/World Music album. Following his return to the states Scott recorded the equally impressive Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys and Homage to Lord Krishna with the similarly spirited percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Colin Walcott.
Scott, who had returned home in hope of renewing his own jazz spirit, was disappointed by the dissipated scene and soon began a new round of world travels, this time through Europe. Eventually he settled in Italy, where he has settled for the most part, performing with local and visiting musicians, traveling occasionally, painting and working on his autobiography Bird, Lady and Me.