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Throwing the Door to Soul Wide Open

Lynell George is a Times staff writer

In a former life, not so long ago, Jill Scott piped up with a radical notion. Briefly stumped by a high school student-teaching assignment in North Philadelphia, she sketched a plan in broad strokes to colleagues and friends.

“I wanted to put color on the walls and floors. It was ugly and gray in there.” Who, asked Scott, feels like learning in that kind of place?

They told her she was young and idealistic.

After a while that thinking felt old and defeatist.

So she took her plan elsewhere.

Nowadays, anyone already familiar with Jill Scott knows this: She is still teaching. This time her classroom is the business of pop music--from the nightclub stage to the college airwaves--and, quite shortly, well beyond. She wants to paint its monochromatic landscape with warmth and color. She wants to get close.

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It’s a big plan. But she’s about halfway there. Scott, a singer whose debut CD, “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1" on Hidden Beach Recordings, is nearing the half-million sales mark in the States, has been taking her lesson on the road to sold-out houses coast-to-coast and beyond.

“We had church up there last night!” beams Scott, 28, taking the first pause in her day. In the middle of a three-night, sold-out stand at the House of Blues, this “day off” isn’t really. Semi-casual, in denim midi skirt, black poncho, her hair patted down in a neat Afro, she studies the menu for a very late lunch in her hotel’s abandoned lounge and fiddles with last night’s dressy rhinestone hoops still sunk in her ears. “Now I didn’t grow up in the church,” she admits, “but we had church up in there.”

Indeed, her shows do have a bit of the frenzied tent revival about them--testifying and swaying arms upraised. These crowds--a cross-section of folks varying in age, race and sexual orientation--know exactly who Jill Scott is. And whether they were weaned on Smokey or Stevie, the Dazz Band or Arrested Development, they think that she is speaking directly and entirely to them. That’s because she knows the route inside.

*

The flap over pop music’s soul--more specifically, black music in the post-R&B; years--has splintered music critics, fans and artists alike.

What is one person’s innovation is another’s abomination. The advent of rap, sampling, beat boxes and other assorted fancy electronics has not only reconfigured the way music is performed, but also the way it is ultimately experienced.

Jill Scott takes a big step backward before she steps forward. Her nod to her influences doesn’t come in loops of famous bass lines or echoes of hooks, or reverb-ed riffs. Instead it blooms in her approach--the expansive, jazzy, funk-tinged arrangements, the playful interplay of lyrics and motifs. She doesn’t travel light. She has a great, big voice and a little, slinky sexy one. She backs it with the warmth of brass--trombones and trumpets. She gives it some sass and urgency with a big thumping bass, and underscores all with twined voices raised.

This more inspired nod to the antecedents has made her the diva of the alt set. From college radio and the Internet to the alternative press, Scott, 28, has pushed emotional buttons by scratching a long-ignored itch.

“You have a generation of people who have no idea what real performing . . . singing is--who hear caterwauling and are calling it emotion,” says Ernest Hardy, a music and pop-culture critic for the LA Weekly. “A lot of kids without knowing it are starved for something. And Jill Scott is feeding that.”

Even still, the deep connection has surprised and overwhelmed her. Clubs full of women and men who know every single lyric, from every single song, with every single inflection, not just singing back to, but performing along with her.

“I’m used to being invisible,” says Scott, settling onto the bar stool after she’s ordered a steak sandwich with a side of potato salad. “I’m so used to watching.”

Even on first listen, that is clear. Her songs present a set of life scenarios. Grocery lists, cat fights, the sleepwalk of the morning routine.

They aren’t dewy-eyed love songs or soft-center pop-candy: Scott’s vignettes examine the before-and-after possibilities of relationships. They are lovelorn songs. They are dust-yourself-off songs. They are celebrations of unions, to be sure, but they are declarations of independence as well. She whispers in your ear, or shouts from the rooftop in a voice that is both let-her-guard-down vulnerable and I-will-survive streetwise.

Though she is yet another distinctive piece of the mosaic of the neo-soul movement, she is singular--however, people will be quick to make comparisons. Not an Erykah Badu. Not a Macy Gray. Nor a Lauryn Hill. She is pure Jill.

Scott says grace before she starts in on her meat and potatoes. She has lots to be thankful for and so, she says, she tries to keep it all in perspective.

The year has brought immeasurable joy--a successful record, NAACP Image Award nominations for outstanding new artist and outstanding song, “Getting in the Way.” It has also dealt an unimaginable scare. A bout with sensorineural hearing loss left her without 85% of her hearing in one ear, a condition, doctors said, brought on by stress and flying. The repair has been complete but, as if she needed a reminder, Scott used that timeout to count her blessings.

She’s the first to say she didn’t plan any of this. She was happily on her way to teaching. If it hadn’t been for that life-changing moment at school and the roadblocks thrown up in front of her.

And the music?

“I honestly don’t know when I didn’t think about music, about things musical,” she says. “I’m not like other people who remember the exact moment it hit them. I always sang songs. Made up my own songs.”

Scott was raised in North Philadelphia by her mother, Joyce, and her grandmother (nicknamed “Blue Babe,” she was the singer of the family and Scott’s initial vocal inspiration). Though her parents are estranged, she emphasizes that she remains close to her father.

At first, Scott hid her voice, singing quietly in her room with the door closed before bed when she thought no one was listening. “For me that was the beginning.”

About the time many girls become more introverted--at war with themselves and their bodies--Scott shed her self-consciousness. At 14, she performed for the first time in front of people. For Sophomore Day, she sang “The Theme From ‘Mahogany.’ ” “It was,” she says, “my first standing ovation.”

Talent shows followed. At Philadelphia High School for Girls, she sang and cut up with girlfriends but at the same time found herself infatuated with reading--folklore, poetry, drama. She liked Zora Neale Hurston for her use of black vernacular; Nikki Giovanni, who expanded the definition of poetry; and Gil Scott-Heron, whose poems set to music dared to merge two worlds. It was in that subset that Scott saw possibility. “He had so much to say in a straight-up way.”

Scott took a year off between high school and college to let it all percolate. “I worked at the ice cream parlor and partied with my friends.” Her Philly wasn’t the somber ice-blues and deep-sea greens now made famous in M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. It was a wild style mix of tropical noise. Congas and bass. Keyboards and voice. Hip-hop and R&B; married nicely and honeymooned here. She got swept up in the spoken-word scene, and scratched out poetry in the nooks and crannies of her spare time.

At Temple University, she got on the teaching track. “I got to my third year. I was ready to go. I was loving Shakespeare and Dickinson. I was ready to sing them.” That was, says Scott, until “I got dissed for making suggestions . . . and I just quit. . . . " Everything. The same day--school, her part-time job.

*

Scott, at 25, without work or a plan, was despairing. But she considered what the old folks said--that as one door closes, another opens. Those many months hanging out in local theaters and coffeehouses was like money in the bank. Those open-mike nights not only got her face and name out there and earned her some spending change. “I knew, that’s how you get your weight up. So that you know your worth.”

On those tiny stages is where Jill Scott was born. “That’s where I learned how to connect with folks. Very often there was nothing but a stage and people. I was just reading poetry from my book. Not every word had the same voice. In that space I had to feel every ounce of hurt, every ounce of love.”

With a tougher skin, Scott again began circulating on the poetry scene, this time inviting friend-of-a-friend DJ Jazzy Jeff Townes (of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince fame) to various readings and performances. “I left phone message after phone message,” she recalls. Instead, she happened upon him in the street. She stuck her hand out and announced herself. “ ‘Oh, you’re Jill Scott?’ he said to me.”

Next stop was Jeff’s nearby Touch of Jazz studio, and ultimately a series of collaborations that would throw many doors open wide at once. Lyrics she wrote became a Grammy-winning single for the Roots and Erykah Badu, “You Got Me.” An audition based on a “slapped together” rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” scored her a place in the Canadian touring company of “Rent.” And with that fire at her back, she and Jazzy Jeff recorded a demo that showcased Scott’s voice of many moods. The single, “A Long Walk,” was the first. “From there,” says Scott, “we banged it out.

“He sent it out while I was touring on ‘Rent.’ But I made this stipulation,” she says. “No photo and no bio. If they asked for it that we’d say, ‘No thank you.’ Every major label we sent it to. And we said, ‘No thank you.’ Jeff got me. He understood.”

Scott was determined to have the music--not herself--showcased. “People say, this is supposed to be the music business. But what do the size of my hips or how my legs look have to do with the songs? I’ll sing songs, but I’m not going to sell myself.”

She found an artistic complement in Steve McKeever, who was just launching his Santa Monica-based Hidden Beach label, which is affiliated with Sony’s Epic Records. Based on the demo, he flew to Philadelphia to hear Scott perform. Just her luck, the gig was canceled. So instead, they made do with an impromptu set at the studio. When it was over, McKeever dismissed everyone, turned the lights out and listened to the tapes again and again.

“My whole thing from the beginning,” says McKeever, “was that we would do this right. My word is ‘organic.’ Her word is ‘entice.’ I just felt, after hearing her, that this has got to feel organic. She’s so real. To come up with a phony campaign would be all wrong. We had to try things on, case by case. Our goal was to capture that honest emotion.”

From online communities such as https://www.okayplayer.com to small clubs, intimate public and college radio outlets, and piped over record-store sound systems, the idea was to get Jill Scott whispering in people’s ears--getting her name on their lips.

And it worked, says Garth Trinidad, host of KCRW-FM’s (89.9) “Chocolate City” and the first DJ in the nation to play Scott over the air. “The phone didn’t stop ringing--even a year and a half later.” In that voice, “I heard talent. I heard potential and I heard warmth,” remembers Trinidad. “But I reacted to the warmth. But with her it was almost familial. I think there is a big lack of sincerity in art these days. Half the reason our generation is messed up is that we didn’t get enough hugs. And with her, it’s ‘Oh, Mom, I’m feeling you.’ ”

Trinidad had no doubts that the public would embrace her. Rather, his worry was the business side, which has little patience for anything that can’t be pitched in a three-word sentence--It’s like Mariah or it’s like Puffy. . . .

Scott knows the teaching starts right here. Swinging open the door. “You trust the feeling,” says Scott. Walking out on a club stage in a swingy rayon skirt that hugs full hips, her hair a wild nimbus, Jill Scott demands the second look. “Acknowledge me.” She is trying to heal the hurt between black women and men. Teach girls how to love themselves. Teach people to see and move beyond the surface.

“Like in the classroom where she’s turned ‘bad little kids’ into children,” says Steve McKeever, “I think that’s what she does with adults.” She does what the best teachers do in a classroom. “She gives people hope.”


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