Rhoda Scott: An American in Paris

The Afro-American church has been a propulsive force in the life and career of organist Rhoda Scott, who is a bonafide star in La Douce France

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Rhoda Scott, from the Movin' Blues session

“I just finished my thesis on Lou Bennett”.

Her voice on the phone is fragile like a wounded butterfly. But her answers are clear-cut. No mistaking, the 80-year old Rhoda Scott isn’t resting on her laurels. Scott, based in Chartres, France, recently released her new album Movin’ Blues and continues to perform with Lady Quartet and Ladies All Stars, cooperations with top-notch female jazz artists from France. Then there’s the incredible story of her thesis, completed 53 years after her master’s in jazz theory at Manhattan School Of Music. Her subject is the illustrious Hammond organist Lou Bennett. “I chose Bennett because he should be better known in the United States. He was not only a superb organist but also an inventor of electronic devices that enabled him to experiment with sound. At his concerts he would regularly be under the organ with his soldering iron, because his wiring came apart. This somehow hurt the advancement of his career. But he was a very popular in France and Spain. He was also a great friend of mine”.

Like Bennett, albeit a couple of years later, Scott built a career in France in the 60s. The pervasive influence of church life is a common thread as well. Scott’s father was a minister in New Jersey. “My father was sent to a church that had a Hammond B3. I was about eight years old. We lived next to it and I could go inside whenever I wanted. I figured out how the organ worked by myself. There were seven children in our family that would play in church by themselves. I would be the organist. Eventually I played organ during all the church services. Only then did my father realise that I had practised so much! This gave me a lot of experience. I picked up a lot from hymn books and became a self-taught sight reader”.

‘My experience in church also includes Johann Sebastian Bach. I fell in love with Bach. His music is essential to my improvisation’

On a musical level, Scott says “The feeling of the church helps me to improvise. My experience in church also includes Johann Sebastian Bach. I fell in love with Bach. His music is essential to my improvisation. What place does the church takes in my personal life? Well, being a pastor’s daughter, I’ve seen a lot of people who went to church at a young age but tired of it when they’d become older. I’m the opposite. I continue to go to church every Sunday. The spiritual side is very important to me”.

Nineteen-year-old Scott honed her jazz skills under the tutelage of Richard “Groove” Holmes. She kept a job as assistant bookkeeper in Manhattan, working jazz on the side. Subsequently, Count Basie saw her perform in North Jersey, liked what he heard and booked her into his club in New York City. Naturally, the support of Basie kickstarted the career of Scott, whose rhythm and blues-drenched soul-jazz playing (and singing) comes across to full effect on the Live At The Key Club record from 1963. “My trio was very popular at Count Basie’s and clubs in Newark, New Jersey. We had a dedicated following. People were lined up in the street. Hey Hey Hey was a big hit”.

Paris, 1968: ‘“It was fascinating. I fell right in the middle of the protests, which were political in nature but inspired creative people from all walks of life. I landed a regular job at Club St. Germain’

Scott nonetheless grew to be disappointed by the American musical climate. A study in Paris with the renowned Nadia Boulanger in 1967 was the impetus for her move to France in 1968. She was enamoured of the rebellious spirit of May 1968 and fell in love with her future husband, Raoul Saint-Yves, who passed away in 2008. “It was fascinating. I fell right in the middle of the protests, which were political in nature but inspired creative people from all walks of life. I landed a regular job at Club St. Germain. My husband was a friend of Eddy Barclay, the label owner of Barclay Records. Raoul became my producer. Barclay more or less gave me carte blanche”. 

Scott recorded for a variety of labels including Verve, but the influence of Barclay on her career is immense. The label released 24 records by Scott including compilations. Which are her favourite albums? “My husband took me to New York to do the record with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. (Rhoda Scott In New York, 1977, ed.) That was very special. I toured and recorded with Kenny Clarke (Rhoda Scott + Kenny Clarke, 1977). Kenny was deeply respected and receptive to different projects. He was very important to the French scene. I was very honoured to have been able to do all these things with him”.

There’s more to Scott than the ability to swing you to the ground Jimmy Smith-style. Her storytelling is original and her variety of sound is striking. There’s a quaintly romantic ring to her playing, perhaps the outcome of her life in the City of Light. Or is her focus on sound a deliberate effort? “I started playing organ at such a young age, experimenting became a natural part of me. However, I don’t think I discover many new sounds. I usually use the same set up. If you hear different sounds, it must be because of the way I play, because of my voicing”.

“My style matured in the early 60s. My saxophone player, Joe Thomas, was a big influence. I had learned Walk On The Wild Side note for note. Joe said ‘You got to stop listening to organists. All you will be doing is play clichés. Listen to saxophone players and singers’. That was very good advice. I particularly got hung up with singers. I like my organ to sing. Singers are my most important influences. Among others, I love Morgana King, Frank Sinatra, Dakota Staton, Aretha Franklin and the classic blues singers”.

Notwithstanding ups and downs, organ jazz has been popular since the late 50s, to the dismay of a considerable number of critics. Has Scott felt the need to defend herself as a serious jazz artist?

The Hammond organ is a powerful force in the world of rock, pop and soul. Either as a hot-tempered kick in the butt or restrained accompaniment, it is the glue between sections of many successful songs. Notwithstanding ups and downs, organ jazz has been popular since the late 50s, to the dismay of a considerable number of critics. Has Scott felt the need to defend herself as a serious jazz artist? “I know that, in general, organists do not mean much to white American critics. The American conservatories have jazz programmes for every instrument except organ. That’s a shame”.

Scott continues “I did a concert for an organ summit at Lincoln Center in New York City. There were Jimmy McGriff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Joey DeFrancesco and myself. The critic from the New York Times started his article saying “Normally organ is for blue collar people who live in the urban area. But this concert was as good as any jazz concert I’ve heard”. That’s ridiculous! Very condescending. He was talking about the chitlin’ circuit of black clubs of the 50s and 60s. But that’s gone. Critics didn’t usually stoop so low. But in the circuit the organist was the star of a well-informed crowd. However, that was of no interest to the mainline critics. Luckily, it has changed a bit because people are looking back to the history of the music and realise that a lot of it started in the chitlin’ circuit.

“In France and Europe it has been a different thing for me. I don’t feel the same prejudice against the organ. The generosity of jazz fans has been overwhelming”.