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Jimmy Scott: Across the Universe

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Study the material that you want to sing. Know what the story is in the material, so that you can portray it in your song
Listening to Little Jimmy Scott sing is different from listening to any other singer. His high-pitched voice carries more emotion than any instrument can reasonably bear, and seems to come from a special place deep within his heart. Yet that voice also seems to resound from a profound source far beyond any one man, a place where individuality no longer exists: The everlasting pulse of the universe. Jimmy Scott's voice soars in the heaven of romantic love, and burns in the hell of a broken heart. When he sings, his voice surrounds, from the inside and out.

Now 86, Scott has seen more ups and downs than an investment banker. Born into a large family in Cleveland, he saw his mother injured in a fatal car accident when he was just 13. He turned inward, to an intense and intimate relationship with singing, in response. In his early teenage years, Scott learned he had Kallmann's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the hypothalamus and as a result kept him from going through puberty. His voice would remain high and elusive, a bird quivering and luxuriating in each song's lyrics and beat. In David Ritz's Faith in Time: The Life of Jimmy Scott (De Capo Press, 2002), Ruth Brown described the first time she saw Scott perform, in the mid-1940s: "Like all the clubs back then, the joint was packed with pimps and hookers, rough guys and tough gals, and every sort of criminal you could name. But when this child got to singing, tears ran down the cheeks of cold-blooded killers. The room was frozen with respect for a true artist.

"We'd already known we were witnessing the start of a genius generation," Brown continued. "Charlie Parker was flying; Dizzy Gillespie was coming on; Dinah Washington was killing; soon Sarah Vaughan would be scaring every singer in sight. But this little man would hold his own among the giants. His soul scorched you clean. By exposing his emotional insides, he exposed yours."

Scott fluttered between the jazz scenes in Cleveland, Newark, New York, and elsewhere, and caught his first big break in 1948 when he was hired by Lionel Hampton for Hampton's world-famous Orchestra featuring Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Griffin, and other jazz masters. Scott remained in royal jazz company for several years thereafter. One of his earliest recordings ("Embraceable You") features Charlie Parker in the ensemble, and, for a time, through the cousin of one of his wives, Scott was one of Billie Holiday's in-laws.

But even though Scott's balladry strongly influenced Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Nancy Wilson, and many other subsequent hit makers, the music business never seemed to figure Scott out, and vice versa. In 1952, he released the single "I Won't Cry Anymore," but Tony Bennett's subsequent version became the hit.

Thanks to legal machinations by Savoy Records owner Herman Lubinsky, who claimed to hold Scott's rights through some long-forgotten document, his two finest albums weren't released until years after they were recorded: 1962's Falling in Love is Wonderful (Rhino), with Ray Charles as pianist and producer (for his own Tangerine Records), was eventually released forty years later; 1969's The Source, with a constellation of session aces (bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, guitarists Billy Butler and Eric Gale, and pianist Junior Mance), produced by Joel Dorn for Atlantic Records, came out in two pieces in 1993 and 2002. Between 1975 and '92, except for a few recordings on his own vanity label, Scott was mostly silent.

He resurfaced almost inexplicably in 1992, with Carter and Newman once more on hand for All the Way (Sire). 1995's Dream (Warner Bros.) featured soloist Milt Jackson. Scott then teamed with bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a duet on The Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" for Lounge-a-Palooza (Hollywood Records, '97).

More recently, Scott and producer Todd Barkan launched a quartet of albums for Milestone Records: Mood Indigo (2000); Over the Rainbow (2001); But Beautiful (2002), which opens with a heart-stopping rendering of "You Don't Know What Love Is" arranged by pianist Renee Rosnes and features "Please Send Me Someone to Love" by Scott's good friend Percy Mayfield; and Moon Glow (2003). In total, these sessions—with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, guitarist Joe Beck, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and others—returned Scott to the company of new jazz royalty generations removed from where he began.

Through it all, Jimmy Scott simply continues to bare his soul through his voice.

All About Jazz: You will be performing in the UK in October (2011). Where will you be performing and for how many shows? Who will be accompanying you?

Jimmy Scott: So far, I'll be performing at St. Stephens Hall in Hampstead for two concerts on October 15 and October 16 with my band, The Jazz Expressions, directed by Hilliard Greene, my bassist, and featuring Alex Minasian on piano, Dwayne Broadnax on drums, and T.K. Blue on alto saxophone and flute. That's the group.

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