The Little Jazz Man

Jimmy Scott still lives for the music.

Jimmy loves jazz: Scott plays the Tri-C JazzFest - Thursday.
Jimmy loves jazz: Scott plays the Tri-C JazzFest Thursday.
At 76, Jimmy Scott still cares about the music. Other folks his age worry about getting a good booth at the early-bird buffet; Scott scans lists of songs written by the 20th century's greatest tunesmiths -- Duke Ellington, James Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer -- to record and sing onstage.

Scott, a Cleveland native and resident, is one of jazz's last living treasures. His name may not evoke the same nods of recognition that Ella's, Billie's, and Frank's do, but his voice is every bit as captivating.

Before he was Jimmy Scott, he was Little Jimmy Scott. Kallman's Syndrome, a hereditary hormonal deficiency, stunted his growth, and his voice never deepened. Back in the late '40s, some of the songs he recorded with Lionel Hampton's band were mistakenly credited to a female singer. But for more than five decades, that golden voice (Billie Holiday once said it was her favorite) has enchanted.

"When people begin to listen [more closely], they understand the value of jazz," Scott says, the words rapidly leaving his mouth, in contrast to his deliberate singing style. "Jazz says, 'Create and be creative.' That's where it's coming from. It's always been here, and it's in every culture we know. It's a powerful musical element. [Other music styles] have to fight and make noise to keep alive. Jazz doesn't have to do that."

Scott's last two albums were primarily ballad collections. His new one, But Beautiful, swings; it picks up the pace, as if Scott is racing life itself. "I never had the opportunity to do my versions of these songs," he explains. "I love the stories they tell and wanted to tell them."

There were years, between the mid-'70s and his 1990 comeback (which filmmaker David Lynch was somewhat responsible for), when Scott quit the music industry. He worked as a hotel shipping clerk and cared for his ailing father. But the music never left him. In the past 10 years, he's recorded and released seven albums, including one filled with contemporary songs written by the likes of Prince, Elvis Costello, and Elton John.

"I got paired with new writers who were writing pop tunes," he says. "I'm interested in what they do. It's just a matter of tempo or speed to give you the necessary [tone]."

This fall, a biography is due, written by R&B historian David Ritz. It will detail Scott's relationship with jazz giant Charlie Parker, his battles with alcohol, and the misguided admiration of gay male fans (who wrongly assumed that Scott's high vocal range was indication of homosexuality). Mostly, though, it's about the music. Always the music.

"Great standard ballads will live forever," Scott says. "Coming from the school of entertainment that I came from, it gave me a different outlook. We had a totally different thing. Other [singers] just weren't expressing it. I've always enjoyed the show, and I enjoy playing my part in the show."