As a music teacher, stellar tenor saxophonist for his own group and Fight the Big Bull, and composer, Jason Scott’s thirty-four years contribute to his story and have paved the path — however bumpy — to where he is today.
Nine Lives is a new series designed to give an in-depth look at some of Richmond’s most active jazz musicians. Today, we start with Jason Scott, a saxophonist and clarinetist whose career has taken him all over the world and back. The story will continue tomorrow with part 2. On Sunday evening, he brings his quintet to the “warm, intimate, and dark” (as he aptly describes it) Commercial Taphouse. –Ed.
“I’m glad I didn’t come up in the same generation that [young people now] are coming up in. How are you really going to digest this material? It’s great that you have the world at your fingertips, but what are you going to do with all that?”
Jason Scott readily admits that questions like these show his age (34), but it’s his age that has allowed him to see so much, hit so many hurdles, and learn from and overcome each of them. Now a music teacher, stellar tenor saxophonist for his own group and Fight the Big Bull, and composer, his thirty-four years contribute to his story and paved the path — however bumpy — to where he is today.
An interest in music began early. A Chester, VA, native, Jason grew up listening to the music of his father’s rock and roll band and playing with all the instruments while the band took breaks. He had so much support playing the saxophone and pursuing music in middle school and high school, that after taking lessons, he said, “I was so interested in it that I spent a lot of time practicing on my own. I never needed anyone to tell me to practice.”
A self-proclaimed band nerd with an “alternative life style” as a popular kid and a hippie after school let out, Jason would hang with the band crowd in his several music classes during the day and then go to parties and fraternize with a different crowd after school. “My priorities became very confused and misdirected,” he said. Band brought out his competitive side, but he tells a story of not making states because of drinking warm beer in the hotel room with friends the night before.
With an interest in music education, his teacher suggested he go to East Carolina University, a popular choice for a party kid. He spent more time “getting away” than focusing on academics at first, but straightened up in his second semester there before deciding to return to Richmond. Even though he would not be returning to that college, he values his time at ECU as his “first introduction to being independent and adapting to unfamiliar environments, which I have done a lot of.”
“At the time [around '93 or '94], the jazz school at Richmond had a really good reputation,” Jason said. “[Saxophonist] Mark Shim had just come through VCU, and I knew a lot about him because I had known him in high school, and I knew he was an amazing player.” Jason knew that Shim studied under Skip Gailes and decided that maybe it was time to check this teacher out.
“Within the first couple months, I realized how far behind I was from everybody, so I practiced,” Jason said. He saw his playing seriously improve under the guidance of teacher Gailes and mentor Doug Richards, and toured with the Jazz Orchestra I following an album release. After graduating from VCU with a music education degree, he played with the rock band Schwill at Cary Street Cafe every week as well as on cruise ships, which allowed him to work with people from all over the world, see exotic places, and to learn how to approach performing in a professional organization. His connections formed on cruise ships would later bring him to places in South America and Europe.
In addition to Schwill, Jason’s musical projects while hanging around Richmond included the Scott Trayer Trio with drummer Emre Kartari and bassist Trayer. “Trayer brought a fresh approach to the music scene when he moved into Richmond,” Jason said, “and that really attracted me to playing with him.” The group devoted itself to approaching music in new ways, and the three formed strong musical connections with one another.
Leap of Faith
At the convincing of Trayer and Kartari, Jason moved with them to New York City and attended NYU for graduate school. “I hadn’t even checked out a single teacher at NYU,” he said. “I knew nothing about the school…[but] the rationale for me moving up there was to be with the people I had a close musical bond with, and if I was going to move to New York City, attending college was a way to become acclimated to the city.”
Not only was Jason heading blind into a new city with people who would not last as civil roommates, but within three weeks of moving to New York in August 2001, the city would experience the worst terrorist attack it would ever have to overcome. “When September 11 happened, the activity in New York came to a screeching halt,” Jason said.
Despite that, studies continued with Jason’s new teacher at NYU, Ralph Lalama, a Sonny Rollins-like saxophonist who plays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Jason describes him as brash and overly vulgar, but a man with a big heart once you got past all that. Lalama, however, was only a temporary teacher for Jason before he switched to his first choice, George Garzone.
Garzone taught more of the aesthetic of playing than the theory and was an advocate of the triadic chromatic approach, which continues to influence Jason today. The triadic chromatic approach, Jason explained, is a method of playing outside harmony. “You have to have a framework to play free of outside harmony,” he said, adding, “There’s a pattern to everything.”
Although the financial stress that attending NYU and living in New York was so huge, the opportunities awarded to Jason by living in the city were experiences he could not have gained anywhere else, he said, like playing in world class venues, being surrounded by amazing musicians around the clock, and simply being in an inspirational place.
Soon after graduating, he would be teaching music in a public school in Brooklyn and attempting to revitalize a defunct band program. He explained the unfortunate predicament of the public school system: “If you were a kid that was not in the higher achievement level, you got grouped into a class with other kids at that level. If the majority of those children wanted to take band class, they all had to take band class.” As a result, Jason taught some of the most “trouble-making, undisciplined children you’ve ever seen,” and often had to deal with fights, classroom getting tagged with graffiti, and himself getting robbed.
A fellow teacher named Voyciek Typrowvic helped him through the tough times by giving him advice and talking through his strategy for the day during their morning commute.
He didn’t have to endure the job’s hardships for too long, though. Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts included new priorities for the public school system and meant a loss of Jason’s teaching gig. He soon scored a job teaching around the city for parochial and private schools, driving from borough to borough each day. For other teaching jobs, he worked in some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods in the city and taught every age group and ethnicity as well as a special needs school for two years. He said, “I learned a lot about the people that actually make up the majority of New York City and make it tick, the minority population.”
Meanwhile, Jason was really getting into the scene, playing regularly with musicians like trumpeter Jesse Selengut. A “really inspired and true entrepreneurial spirit,” Selengut is the man behind the Williamsburg Jazz Festival, which Jason helped out with for two years. “During that time, I got to open up for Chris Potter Underground and got to play with Dave Binney,” Jason said. “Things were going well for me. And then things went sour really quickly. Things just didn’t work out, and I had to move out. I was completely broke. I had no other option but to go on a cruise ship for a year.”
Momentarily escaping tough times, he returned to the cruise ship for three contracts in 2006 in order to help his financial situation. “On my last contract,” he said, “I became involved with a girl. When the contract was completed, I went to visit her in Canada.” That relationship, too, quickly turned sour, and Jason found himself shortly thereafter on a Greyhound to Minneapolis, surrounded by other people who were running from something. He hopped on a plane to Richmond to reconnect with the people and the city he had left, attempting to get grounded from the madness of the last couple years.
To be continued in Part 2…
Jason Scott Quintet play at Commercial Taphouse on Sunday, March 7, at 9:30pm. Free, all ages. View event details.