Success returns, but he’s wary of it

Times Staff Writer

The last time jazz singer Jimmy Scott got all decked out to celebrate the Hollywood premiere of a new documentary about his life, the projector broke.

Chalk it up to yet another variation on one of his recurrent life themes.

During a screening of the documentary last July, about midway through Scott’s bittersweet, slip-tempo re-imagining of “Pennies From Heaven,” the screen went black. The Egyptian Theatre’s auditorium was packed. It was the eve of Scott’s 77th birthday. Friends, fans, family had driven and flown miles. But the glory moment was interrupted.


Scott made the best of it. As he always seems to. Someone pulled a piano from a corner. Someone else sat down at the bench. And Scott sank into an impromptu performance -- 20 minutes of signature songs -- for a crowd that could have never dreamed how lucky misfortune could be.

“I was driving him back to his hotel and was feeling sorry that he hadn’t gotten a chance to see it,” recalls Matthew Buzzell, the producer-director of “Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew.” “He looked at me and said, ‘Baby, was that your machine?’ ... I thought, you know, Jimmy did what he’s been doing most of his career. He punted.”

On Tuesday, the projector rolled without a hitch. Scott, decked out in his too-big tuxedo with razor-sharp creases, chatted with friends and fans (including actors James Avery and Robert Guillaume) in the Egyptian lobby before the screening, then went inside and spoke to the audience.

“I thank you. Each and every one of you,” he said in a voice as fragile as expensive stemware. “It was your embrace that helped create a life for me.”

It isn’t just hyperbole.

Just 10 years ago, Scott rose from the depths of obscurity to an odd perch of fame: He acquired a hip cachet; club dates filled with celebrity faces, his unmistakable voice folded into soundtracks and college radio playlists as he transformed creaky standards into complex pieces of modern art.

Only months before, he’d been making do, scratching together a life back in Ohio as a waiter at Bob’s Big Boy, a dishwasher, an elevator operator. Friends who had known him in his near-glory years singing with Lionel Hampton’s troupe and high-tailing it with Charlie Parker, or had romanced to his haunting imprint on standards, would, out of goodwill, plug him into dates in small clubs and after-hour rooms.


A fortuitous appearance in 1991 singing at the funeral of a friend, songwriter Doc Pomus, scored him his first recording contract in decades. And the release of his 1992 Sire Records album, “All the Way,” turned everything around. In the decade since, Scott has been a Grammy nominee, released half a dozen albums, and has been touring Europe and Asia for the first time.

This fall he’s begun celebrating the fruits of that pivotal decade. Along with Buzzell’s documentary arrives a comprehen- sive biography, “Faith in Time” (DaCapo Press) by David Ritz. He can add to the list the reissue of two highly acclaimed but long-unavailable ‘60s recordings, “Falling in Love Is Wonderful” (with Ray Charles) and “The Source,” now snipped free from legal red tape. Right about now, Scott is basking in a second act that has not only resurrected his career, but also helped to carve out his place in jazz history.

But he’s still wary.

All this looking back of late, says Scott, has been educational. “You don’t realize just how much you put into the existence of a career,” explains Scott, relaxing in his black satin do-rag and plaid shirt and khakis, with his “lady,” Jeanie McCarthy. He sits on the bed in his sunny, triangular room on the top floor of the Culver Hotel, not far from the Jazz Bakery, where he’s headlining this week. The hotel served as a dormitory for the actors playing “The Wizard of Oz’s” Munchkins, and it’s decorated with memorabilia from the film, including paintings of Judy Garland, one of Scott’s childhood heroes.

“This activity of ‘show business’ has practically been my life. Then,” he shrugs, “there are disgusting parts to think about. But, I’m glad too. Because you realize that ... there might not be a second chance to recoup anything concerning your career. But fortunately, for me, that’s the joy. Being able to continue the work and still love it. It’s not a showoff thing for me. It’s a life that I have had to live.”

Although Scott is quick to flash his sun-blast of a smile, collapse into a giggle or charm all passersby with a “How ya doin’, baby?,” the dramatic ups and downs of a tumultuous career and chaotic personal life have marked him. He’s frail and cautious after a hard battle to recover what was his.

Scott, who returned to his native Cleveland in the mid-’90s, knows that much of his suspicion is tangled up in years of bad choices and even worse luck. It’s difficult to throw off old habits. For all of his shrug-it-off optimism, there’s a flinty flip side. “He doesn’t trust anybody,” McCarthy says flatly. “That’s how he deals with it.”

Indeed, says Scott, “I’ve put limits on my trust.”

Scott’s struggle in the music industry and beyond was made even more complex by a congenital condition called Kallmann’s Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that stunted his growth, interrupted puberty and thus relegated his voice -- richly textured but soft -- to the higher octaves.

“I never thought I’d be a singer,” Scott recalls. Music was something he fell into. “My art teacher had me sing a song about ‘Ferdinand the Bull,’ that’s how I -- and everyone else -- found out I could sing.”

Then he couldn’t seem to stop. “The older entertainers around Cleveland would sneak me in the clubs and give me a couple of bucks, then send me home, right quick!”

But Scott attributes his skill and fortitude to his mother, Justine, “her spirit, her creativity.” “She had us singing all kinds of ditties. So you learned that, hey, you can take a taste of it all. People look at me strangely when I tell them my choice of singers back there was Paul Robeson. But the man told a story so profoundly. When I was a kid and I said to Ma, ‘If Moses don’t go down there and let them people go, that man’s going to die!’ That’s the emotion I got out of it. He was such a profound storyteller in the song.”

Perhaps it explains why Scott doesn’t fall for just any song -- and why those songs become hard-wired into the listener’s memory. “Honey, let me tell you, the lyric and the story within the song was an important thing for me. I picked songs that meant something or at least made the audience think about their own lives.”

Didn’t matter if it was a ballad or a pop song. “It was the thoughts, the emotions, that come out of you. You’re not interested in the form of the song. But what the song is about.”

The documentary and the book are preservationist acts: a formal way to slip Scott, who had long been omitted or misidentified on liner notes or excised from jazz history books, into his proper place.

But as much as outside circumstances have blocked his way, Ritz has noted something else about Scott’s struggles. “Certain people don’t know how to embrace success because they never had it,” the author says in an interview. “And Jimmy got close four or five times in his life and lost it. Sometimes he’s walked away himself.

“He’s always been behind the beat -- in his singing. In his life. So meeting this new thing called ‘international success’ is like anticipating the beat. And that is something that Jimmy doesn’t do. If you anticipate the beat, you lose your groove.”

A few nights later, working Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” at the Bakery as if doing a high-wire act, Scott manipulates both the tension and emotion in the room -- sometimes simply with a pause. He barely breaks a sweat as he moves about the stage in his forest-green tux and matching slippers.

Here, in this space, where he can control the pace, the pauses, he’s at ease. Free.

“What I’ve learned, just like the title of the book, you have to have faith in time, that things will be rightly handled,” he explains.

“It’s like the lyric in ‘Without a Song’ -- a lot of that, for me, depicts the truth. ‘I got my troubles and woes / But sure as I know the Jordan will roll / I’ll get along as long as my song is strong in my soul.’ ”


Jimmy Scott

Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City.

When: Today and Sunday, 8 and 9:30 p.m.

Price: $30

Contact: (310) 271-9039


Where: Book signing with Scott and David Ritz, Eso Won Books, 3655 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.

When: Today, 2 to 4 p.m.

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 294-0324