Legendary Jazz Singer Jimmy Scott at Iridium Jazz Club
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The last date listed for Jimmy Scott at Iridium Jazz Club was Sunday November 29, 2009 / 10:30pm.
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Billie Holiday often singled out Jimmy Scott as her favorite singer, and over the course of a long, circuitous career that dates back to his 1949 jukebox hit ’Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ (with Lionel Hampton’s big band), and a series of 1950s-‘60s recordings for the Roost, Coral, Brunswick, and Savoy labels, Scott achieved notoriety as an R&B singer and pop balladeer. However, Scott himself took a much broader view of his talents, and always considered himself a jazz singer as well, a point driven home convincingly on his latest Milestone recital, But Beautiful. ’The standard book was like college for me,’ he insists. ‘These were the kinds of songs I always wanted to record, but one has to do many kinds of things in show business,’ he adds ruefully yet without rancor. ‘It makes all the difference in the world to work with a sympathetic producer who’s able to assemble compatible musicians, and lets us do our thing.’
That thing led to a triptych of recordings for the Milestone label, beginning with the sublime Mood Indigo, continuing with the emotional breakthrough that was Over the Rainbow, and culminating with this, his most polished and varied recital to date—But Beautiful. ‘The formula, as such, was not to have any formulas,’ allows producer Todd Barkan. ’I’m in awe of Jimmy’s artistry, and never felt as if we needed to gild the lily with anything ostentatious—simply surround him with a sensitive cadre of jazzmen who understand how to understate their own musicianship and shine the spotlight on the vocalist.’ In the process, Scott was able to bring his heartbreakingly fragile, eggshell vibrato, keening falsetto, and languid, floating style of jazz phrasing to bear on a set of magnificent chestnuts from the great American Songbook, transforming familiar tunes such as ‘Over the Rainbow’ into harrowing tales of loss and acceptance, while approaching Lady Day’s dark asterpiece ‘Strange Fruit’ with the unassuming wonder of a child—as incapable of comprehending such unimaginable evil as most listeners would be of picturing any other singer on earth having the chutzpah to take on the mother of all protest songs.
But then Jimmy Scott does not so much sing as conjure: through theatrical presentations that aren’t merely performed, but lived in, turning hurt into hope and longing into life itself. It is such a profoundly emotional experience, one could almost imagine his audience, hypnotically transfixed, following his trail of tears right up the gangplank of Charon’s boat for that final excursion down the River Styx. All aboard.
Still, there’s more to Jimmy Scott’s jazz artistry than an ability to encapsulate and personify a sense of the tragic.
Born on July 17, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, Jimmy was one of ten siblings who often sang together in church to the accompaniment of their mother’s piano. However, Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hereditary hormonal deficiency, stunted Jimmy’s growth and his voice never deepened with the normal onset of puberty. As a result, during his time with Hampton’s seminal, R&B-inflected jazz big band, the labels of some Decca 78s mistakenly credit Irma Curry, when in fact the keening, feline vocals belonged to one Little Jimmy Scott—a fact not lost on his swooning female fans, who followed him adoringly through the next decade’s output on those Coral and Brunswick sides documented on Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool (GRP) and the three-CD The Savoy Years and More, which encompasses his 1952 Roost sessions and his 1955-1975 output for Savoy. But like so many master musicians of that era, Jimmy was artistically, emotionally, and economically strip-mined to such a degree by music industry bottom feeders that for many years thereafter he plugged away as a hotel shipping clerk, while attending to the care of his ailing father.
In 1990, however, he returned to performing, and two years later at songwriter Doc Pomus’s funeral, Jimmy’s vocal tribute to his old friend was so moving that record exec Seymour Stein literally signed him on the spot for what turned out to be two recordings on the Sire label and one for Warner Bros. A final outing of contemporary songs for the Artists Only! imprint followed before he began his Milestone collaborations with Todd Barkan.
After a long climb, Jimmy Scott has finally achieved the stardom he deserves. He’s established a dedicated international audience through triumphant tours of Europe and Japan; he’s been the featured subject of a Bravo Profiles television special, and of an in-depth biography by award-winning author David Ritz (Faith in Time: The Jazz Life of Jimmy Scott, due out in the fall of 2002 from Da Capo Press). Now, with But Beautiful, Jimmy Scott fleshes out a persuasive portrait of his jazz mastery and storytelling. ‘It represents a logical evolution of our Milestone sessions,’ concludes Barkan, ‘and everything Jimmy has worked so hard for.’ Mr. Scott adds a final coda: ‘The record is quite simply exquisite, and I really am as proud of it as anything I’ve ever done in my life.’