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Clarinetist Tony Scott Dies at 85

Tony Scott, a famed clarinetist and unofficial jazz diplomat, died March 28th in Rome. He was 85.

Born Anthony Joseph Sciacca in Morristown, N.J., on June 17th, 1921, Scott was widely considered one of the greatest clarinetists, an innovator at the forefront of modern jazz. He had such an impressive range on the instrument, reaching eight notes above the highest C so that its sound approached that of a saxophone or a trumpet. Though he has gained most of his recognition for his clarinet playing, Scott also played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, guitar and piano, in addition to being a scat singer.

Renowned jazz critic Nat Hentoff referred to Scott as “our finest contemporary jazz clarinetist” in a 1953 review of the Tony Scott Quartet published in DownBeat magazine. He proclaimed, “no other modern clarinetist has the fire, the drive, and the beat Tony generates.”

Graduating from Juilliard School of Music and NYC Contemporary School of Music, Scott gravitated around the bustling music scene around Greenwich Village, Harlem and 52nd Street during the ’40s. Throughout the ’50s, Scott played amongst the other jazz greats of the time, recording with producer John Hammond in 1950 on a Sarah Vaughn album alongside Miles Davis. Stints at the Metropole Jazz Cafe introduced Scott to Dizzy Gillespie. He developed a friendship with Charlie Parker, yielding many shared performances. Scott accompanied Billie Holiday on her Carnegie Hall live album Lady Sings the Blues, serving as clarinetist, pianist, arranger and orchestra leader.

In 1957, the U.S. Government commended Scott for his contributions to cultural understanding through music. Towards the end of that year, he embarked on a seven-month exploration of Europe. Eventually, his travels led him to South Africa, where he recorded with African RCA and an African women’s vocal group at a time when integrated jazz ran in sharp juxtaposition to apartheid rule.

The clarinetist left America again in 1959, after several quartet recordings reflecting the loss of many of his close musician friends. He taught, recorded and performed music around the world, spending five years drifting through Asia where he became vastly popular. A DownBeat readers poll in Japan in 1960 confirmed Scott as the best clarinetist.

The Newport Jazz Festival drew Scott back to the States in 1965 but only until 1967, when he accepted an invitation to play with the Indonesian All Stars at the 1967 Berlin Jazz Festival. Following the performance, he spent the next two years traveling throughout Africa, recording with local musicians.

The ’70s brought more wandering through Europe, though Scott would eventually make Italy his primary home. His latter years involved festival and club appearances throughout his adopted country, and in 2000, he was asked to speak and play at Bird 200 in Japan, a celebration for Parker’s 80th birthday.

Outside of music, Scott was an avid photographer, capturing many iconic portraits of his jazz colleagues. Later in life, he started painting, and over the years he amassed a number of film credits, both as actor and musician. But, of course, Scott will always be remembered for his accomplishments as a clarinetist in the post-Benny Goodman jazz arena.

Published on the bottom of his Web site, Scott said, “I don’t play the clarinet as an instrument, I play the clarinet as part of my body and spirit. I don’t try to play clarinet, I almost act as if it isn’t there, I never practice, I don’t warm up. I go down a scale toodle-oodle-oodle, make sure the clarinet works, that’s all I do. The clarinet works or it doesn’t work. I don’t give it a second chance.”

Funeral arrangements are still being decided. Information will be posted at Tony’s official website once it becomes available.

Photo by Cinzia Scott

Originally Published