Bobby Scott is one of those virtually unknown jazz artists today who had a brief career as a top-flight pianist, composer and arranger in the 1950s. Then he moved into the pop world and disappeared from the jazz scene as a leader, working instead mostly as a studio sideman. In the 1960s and beyond, Scott worked extensively with Quincy Jones and wrote the music for two enormous pop hits: A Taste of Honey with Ric Marlow and He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother with Bob Russell. But before his pop success, Scott was a fascinating jazz player, composer and arranger, as evidenced by three albums now on one CD from the early 1950s. Yesterday I spoke with Ira Gitler and Hal McKusick, both of whom knew Scott.
Born in 1937, pianist Scott was a music prodigy. By age 8 he was studying composition intensively, and he worked his first professional gig at age 11. By the time he was 15, Scott had performed with Louis Prima and other name bands. In the mid-1950s he played with Tony Scott (no relation), Hal McKusick and Gene Krupa. He also recorded as a leader on his own trio dates. In the late 1950s he resumed his studies, and recorded several albums as a singer.
In 1960, after A Taste of Honey was released, Scott recorded with Jackie Paris (The Song Is Paris), Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, and Quincy Jones, appearing on a dozen or more of the West Coast arranger's albums. In the 1970s and beyond, Scott turned up as the arranger and pianist on albums jazz-pop albums. Scott died in November 1990.
It's a shame Scott's jazz work isn't better known today. In late 1954 he recorded The Compositions of Bobby Scott Vol. 1, which featured Ronnie Woellemer (trumpet), Eddie Bert (trombone), Hal McKusick (alto sax), Al Epstein (baritone sax), Scott (piano), Milt Hinton (bass) and Osie Johnson (drums). A little over a month later, Scott recorded Vol. 2 in Los Angeles with an all-star West Coast personnel: Conte Candoli (trumpet), Frank Rosolino (trombone), Charlie Mariano (alto sax), Bill Holman (tenor sax), Jimmy Giuffre (baritone sax), Scott (piano), Max Bennett (bass) and Stan Levey (drums).
In 1956, Scott recorded Bobby Scott and Two Horns for ABC Paramount with John Murtaugh (tenor sax), Marty Flax (baritone sax), Scott (piano), Whitey Mitchell (bass) and Howie Mann (drums).
All of these sessions have a certain understated confidence and charisma that sound terrific today. Clearly inspired by Gerry Mulligan's writing of the time, Scott had a seductive way with counterpoint, choosing to have instruments function as choral voices rather than relentlessly resolving competitors. He also had a fine ear for the distinct sounds of individual instrumentalists and where each should solo. You also can hear the kind of restlessness in the writing that comes from someone whose intellect is ahead of his years.
Recalls jazz writer and historian Ira Gitler...
"I knew Bobby very well. When we'd meet in the supermarket on the Upper West Side from time to time in the 1950s, that would be the end of shopping. He'd jump into subjects, and we'd cover many topics in a single chance meeting. Bobby had a brilliant mind that went far beyond music. He was tall and lanky and also a bit manic. He had kind of a hyper edge, going a mile a minute on a topic. When I think of Bobby I remember a guy who was very passionate about jazz." [Photo of Ira Gitler by Michael Wolff]
In 1955, Scott wrote and arranged Immortal for Hal McKusick's In a Twentieth-Century Drawing Room LP (RCA). The composition was an elegy to Charlie Parker just months after the alto saxophonist's death. Scott also teamed up with Hal on Triple Exposure (1957), arranging Saturday Night, A Touch of Spring, Con Alma, and The Settlers and the Indians. This Prestige album is staggeringly great and features Billy Byers (trombone), Hal McKusick (clarinet, tenor sax and alto sax), Eddie Costa (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Charlie Persip (drums).
"When I first started working with Bobby in the early 1950s, he was 16 years old. He put together a band for a summer job at a hotel in the Catskill Mountains. Bobby was playing piano and composing and arranging—at that age. The rest of us were already in our 20s, so seeing Bobby in action was amazing. I remember Jack Eagle was on trumpet. Jack [pictured] went on to do a lot of work in advertising as an actor, including playing a monk in ads for Xerox in the 1970s.
"Up in the Catskills, Bobby wrote all these wild, far out things in strange keys. It was a nice Jewish hotel, and the people vacationing there couldn't figure out what he was doing. But they liked him because of his energy and spirit. We had a blast.
"Soon after we did those sessions for Bethlehem Records [The Compositions of Bobby Scott]. I remember Bobby as being proud, self-confident and cocky. He was friendly, but as time went on he became more and more concerned about being perfect. I remember sitting with him in his Upper West Side apartment for many hours as he'd crank out charts.
"Toward the end of his life in the late 1980s, I was going to play a concert at Southampton College [on the east end of New York's Long Island]. Bobby called and I asked him to play with us. He said he wasn't in the best of health. I urged him to come out to Southampton, saying that playing would probably make him feel better. So he did, and it raised his spirits. He played piano with my quartet, a few piano solo numbers, and he sang a few. I remember he didn't like the position of the enormous concert grand on the stage, so we had to turn it and set up the mikes in a special way for him. That was the last I saw of Bobby. He passed away not long afterward. What a great talent." [Pictured: Hal McKusick]
Brash and musically mature beyond his years, Scott's writing in the early 1950s was lyrical and compelling. As arranger Sy Oliver said at one of Scott's early recording sessions, "How did he get so good so young?"
JazzWax tracks: Scott's two albums for Bethlehem, in November 1954 and January 1955, as well as Bobby Scott and Two Horns in 1956 for ABC Paramount, have been issued on one CD: The Compositions of Bobby Scott (Fresh Sound). The material is terrific, using a patient linear approach that meshes both East and West coast jazz sounds of the time. The "Birth of the Cool" recordings by Mulligan and Miles Davis were certain influences. Scott also had a marvelous ear for voicing and texture. Arrangements have horns coming and going in harmony and then uniting to gently move a composition's rich melody forward. Tender stuff with edgy soloists.
The Compositions of Bobby Scott can be found here used from independent sellers.
As for Scott's work with Hal McKusick, you'll find In a Twentieth-Century Drawing Room as part of a two-CD set from Lonehill Records here, and Triple Exposure is here. Both are shrewd examples of mid-1950s small-group writing, arranging and playing, featuring leading first-call musicians of the day.