The moving, startling tale of a near-forgotten jazz master’s return from oblivion.
Veteran music biographer Ritz (Aretha, not reviewed, etc.) is attuned to the complicated life of Cleveland-born Jimmy Scott. An unusual, Candide-like figure, Scott was traumatized early by his mother’s death, his exploitative father’s dissolution of the family, and by Kallman’s Syndrome, a condition that essentially halted his physiological development in puberty. Yet Scott, a perpetual optimist, gravitated toward the thriving Cleveland jazz scene. By the late 1940s, he’d made his name as vocalist in Lionel Hampton’s band, known for his hypnotic phrasing and a haunted alto singing voice that seemed to transcend gender. Although few of Scott’s vocals charted, he became a signal influence among his peers; friends and supporters included Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dinah Washington, and Ray Charles. Like many African-American musicians of the time, Scott signed an ill-advised recording deal that paid tiny advances and kept him contractually bound for years. The villain here was Savoy Records’ notoriously cheap executive, Herman Lubinsky, who refused to record Scott after the 1950s yet twice scuttled releases (including one with Charles) that would have revived his career. Instead, Scott spent the next several decades in obscurity, holding service jobs in Newark and Cleveland. Ironically, his performance at the 1991 funeral of songwriter Doc Pomus, another of his stalwart supporters, reintroduced him to a fickle industry and resulted in a new record deal. Ritz writes smartly about Scott’s recordings and unique musical qualities, but his unadorned style cannot match the dark drama of his subject’s travails. That comes across most vividly in the extensive quotes from Scott himself, who offers a humorously unvarnished account of his life, including his misadventures with touring, women, and drink. His recollections provide a rare, engrossing first-person account of the African-American musical scene of the 1940s and ’50s.
An invaluable life narrative of a key jazz stylist that raises disturbing questions about the shabby treatment accorded Scott’s musical generation.