Clarinetist Tony Scott didn't make many friends. A good number of jazz musicians who knew him recall an egoist who was abrasively competitive and made less and less musical sense as the years wore on. Personally, I find Scott a mixed bag, in some cases producing lovely swinging music and in other cases using a purposefully dry and dull tone, especially as the '50s progressed.
What isn't as well known about Scott was his early involvement with bebop, when the clarinet was still a swing instrument. In the mid-'40s, Scott appears to have preceded Buddy De Franco out of the bop recording gate, largely because Buddy between 1944 and 1947 was with Tommy Dorsey, who detested the music.
Before serving in the Army in World War II, Scott fearlessly played clarinet in jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse. After his discharge in 1945, Scott picked up where he left off on 52nd Street, becoming further exposed to bebop's creators and developers.
On Scott's very first recording, with Buddy Rich in December 1945, the band recorded Tadd Dameron's bop composition Cool Breeze. In March 1946, Scott led a session for Gotham with "B. Bopstein" (a pseudonym for Dizzy Gillespie) on trumpet and saxophonist Ben Webster.
But the real bop breakthrough for Scott was a recording session in August 1947 led by vocalist Babs Gonzales [pictured]. In addition to Scott, the lineup featured pianist Bobby Tucker, bassist Arthur Phipps and drummer Roy Haynes. The four tracks recorded were Ray's Groove, Phipps Deed, Everything Is Cool and 1280 Special. The last one was likely named for the dial location of New York's WOV—where hip-talking disc-jockey Fred Robbins held court. Such tributes on disc were common attempts to draw air play or encourage an on-air personality to use the record as a theme.
What stands out on all four tracks is Scott's modern bop playing on clarinet and how well he understood the new style. Scott approached the idiom naturally, striking just the right feel and hitting flatted notes with cool confidence.
Scott's attack on the clarinet grew more frantic and flat in the '50s as he tried to keep pace with new modernist elements that were emerging. The shift left his tone more halting and colorless. But in 1947, Scott demonstrated for skeptics that the clarinet could indeed handle all of bop's intricate twists and turns gracefully.
JazzWax clip: Here's Tony Scott with Babs Gonzales, Bobby Tucker, Art Phipps and Roy Haynes on 1280 Special. Listen as the Peanut Vendor intro dissolves into a bop line, with Scott's clarinet icing off Gonzales' bop scatting...