Tony Scott, 85; jazz musician took the clarinet to fiery new heights in bebop
Tony Scott, a jazz musician who helped expand the musical limits of the clarinet and who was an early proponent of what is now called world music, died Wednesday at his home in Rome, where he had lived for more than 30 years. He was 85 and had prostate cancer.
A musician of vast and eclectic range, Scott found fame in the 1940s as one of the first clarinetists to master the new jazz idiom of bebop. He led his own groups as a clarinetist, played in the saxophone sections of bands led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich and played piano. In the mid-1950s, when he was music director for singer Harry Belafonte, he wrote the arrangement for “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” one of Belafonte’s biggest hits.
Scott recorded with such renowned musicians and singers as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, yet he spoke fondly of times when he’d walk down streets in Bulgaria or Indonesia, playing his clarinet. He spent several years in Asia and Africa in the 1950s and ‘60s and made albums reflecting his interest in the music of other cultures.
“I was searching for something new, emotionally and spiritually,” he said in a 1966 interview. “The jazz world here had turned cold for me -- cool jazz, cool people. It was without passion. I found the warmth I sought in Japan.”
At his peak in the 1940s and ‘50s, Scott was considered the most advanced clarinetist of his generation, rivaled only by Buddy DeFranco. In 1953, critic Nat Hentoff wrote in Downbeat magazine: “No other modern clarinetist has the fire, the drive, and the beat Tony generates.”
Scott, whose given name was Anthony Joseph Sciacca, was born June 17, 1921, in Morristown, N.J., the son of Sicilian immigrants. He began playing a metal clarinet at age 12, formed his first band at 14, quickly mastered the piano and was playing in Harlem jazz sessions by the time he was 18.
He studied for three years at the Juilliard School, performing Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” on piano as his audition piece. He played in Army bands during World War II and spent nights in New York jazz clubs.
In 1943, he first heard saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of the progenitors of the bebop style, and was determined to bring Parker’s musical advances to the clarinet. They often performed together, and Scott would later call Parker the greatest man -- not just the greatest musician -- of the century.
At a concert in Yugoslavia in 1957, two years after Parker’s death, Scott improvised “Blues for Charlie Parker,” which became his best-known composition. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he said. “Musically, it was the high point of my life.”
In 1970, he settled in Rome and formed a five-year musical association with Romano Mussolini, an acclaimed jazz pianist who was the son of Italy’s fascist leader. Scott experimented broadly with musical styles in the 1970s and ‘80s before returning to more traditional jazz late in his career.
“Without experimenters, jazz would die a lingering death,” he said on his website. “I believe in being receptive to all music.... If you stop learning, you might as well throw your horn away.”
Cultivating an air of eccentricity, he grew a chest-length white beard and sometimes took apart his clarinet onstage, pretending to use it as a telephone. Nonetheless, his playing remained strong, and he continued to perform into his 80s.
Survivors include his wife, Cinzia Scott of Rome; and two daughters from earlier marriages.