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The Garden

Shirley Scott

When we think about jazz, a few instruments come to mind. Trumpet. Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, the two names at the top of the all-time greats list. Saxophone. The hipster favorites John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Piano. Thelonius Monk and Dave Brubeck, fire and ice. Maybe if we dig deep, we picture the guitar. Django Reinhardt and his gypsy jazz. The trombone. J.J. Johnson, the musician’s musician, or Don Drummond, the father of ska. Clarinet. Artie Shaw by way of Woody Allen. Flute. Stay classy, Ron Burgundy. Keep going down the list and eventually we arrive at the organ, funky cousin to the piano. There, outside of the purists and the aficionados, we struggle to think of any names. Jimmy Smith, if you really know your stuff. 

Maybe we’ve also noticed something else. Everyone we’ve named is a man. There’s no shortage of great female singers, headlined by one-namers like Ella and Billie. Maybe being a siren was kosher by the standards of the time, but on the instrumental side, doesn’t jazz feels like a boys’ only club? Enter the late virtuoso of the organ, Shirley Scott, one of the genre’s most underrated talents. A respected artist and collaborator in her own time, Scott helped push jazz standards into a more contemporary era. She may have looked like she could play on Sundays at your neighborhood church, but behind the keys she was dynamic. More interpretive than improvisational, maybe, but not without her own flair. Scott’s style drew on gospel and soul, centered around bebop infused with rhythm and funk.

Born and bred in Philadelphia, a late bloomer of the jazz metropolises that exploded in the era of bop, she drew on the sounds of the city, but also the spirit of experimentation that produced Coltrane a decade before and Sun Ra the decade after her emergence onto the scene. Maybe it was this spirit or simply being a woman in a man’s world that pushed her to incorporate elements of Latin, blues, rock n’ roll into her sound. You can feel her influence all over Philly soul, a little bit on disco too, though ironically this era marked a creative low point in her career. 

Like any good jazz musician, Scott also knew how to play her role. She could lead, support, complement, bending her notes to the needs of the song, always respecting the musical flow. She could riff serious and somber, playful and energetic. Maybe this spirit grew out of her open-minded approach to jazz, a sense that the style needed updating but in a way that respected the already rich history; she did moonlight as a jazz educator. Certainly, her most grounded, traditional sound emerged in mid-1960’s collaborations with her then husband, the saxophone player Stanley Turrentine. Is this emblematic of her secondary status in the annals of jazz greats? That’s probably a bigger conversation. For now, we can enjoy Ms. Shirley Scott’s signature styling from the comfort of our virtual lounge. 

Image Credits


Jazz Keys by Ri Butov from Pixabay

Philadelphia by David Mark from Pixabay

Music Notes Abstract by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay


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