Shirley Scott

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The Independent Online

Shirley Scott, organist and pianist: born Philadelphia 14 March 1934; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Philadelphia 10 March 2002.

Many people thought that, even though Count Basie and Fats Waller were the first jazz organ players, Shirley Scott was the best. Basie certainly did. In 1958 Scott played at the opening night of Count Basie's Bar in New York and Basie was asked to follow. He refused, pointing at the diminutive figure. "Not after her!"

Apart from her dexterity at the instrument, Shirley Scott made it roar. Her heavy-shouldered swinging belied her small stature. She weighed eight stone. "I guess if I was about five inches taller and had about 15 more pounds in the right places, it wouldn't hurt. But I prefer people to listen to what I have to offer rather than ask, 'What does she have on? Does she have big boobs? Does she have a big butt?' " Scott moved easily in the harmonies of Bebop and combined them in an unusually rhythmic style that made much use of blues and gospel music.

She began piano lessons at eight and wanted to study piano after high school, "but this was a school loaded with good pianists, so I never got the chance". She took up trumpet as a second instrument and when she left school played piano in her father's club. Jimmy Smith started a fashion for the B3 Hammond organ in the early Fifties and local club owners encouraged Scott to learn. She did, but kept up her piano playing when she could:

Co-ordination is the difference. You use hands and both feet and your head. On the organ, no one knows how many different sounds you can get. It's an infinite number of tones. The only problem is taste. Most people think of electricity as the ability to drown everybody else out. I don't play like that.

In 1955 Scott spent five months with a Philadelphia quartet called the Hi-Tones that included John Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Al Heath on drums. Towards the end of the year Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, a fiery tenor player, was stuck when his organist left his band. Someone recommended Scott:

I don't believe he really went for the idea of a girl but he had no choice really, so I was hired out of desperation. I had one day's rehearsal with the group.

The group soon recorded The Eddie Davis Cookbook and its huge success swept Scott into the public eye. Apart from playing with Davis, she was called on for big bands led by Oliver Nelson and began appearing on many different albums, eventually recording over 50 under her own name.

Davis responded to their success by festooning the organ on stage with lights and praising Scott's beauty and talent whenever they appeared together. Scott was uncomfortable with such patronage and, although she stayed with Davis until 1960, it was one of the reasons for their break-up. Later in the year she formed a trio to play in Panama for five weeks. It included another tenor player, Stanley Turrentine. They soon married and stayed together until the early Seventies, recording several outstanding tenor/organ partnerships for the Prestige label (where most of her work with Davis had appeared). A couple of years later she formed another trio using a sensitive saxophone soloist, Harold Vick.

Other tenor players with whom she played regularly were Jimmy Forrest and Dexter Gordon (Scott was awarded a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to enable her to transcribe Gordon's music).

With the advent of "fusion" jazz and its multitude of electronic keyboards, the popularity of the Hammond B3 diminished. Scott began recording again in the Eighties when there was a resurgence of interest in the instrument. She moved easily in to record with younger musicians and by the Nineties was recording on piano and playing the instrument regularly in Philadelphia jazz clubs. In 1991 she began to teach jazz history and jazz piano at Cheyney University. Two years later she became director of Bill Cosby's quiz show You Bet Your Life and she recorded her last album in 1996.

After taking a now-banned diet drug Scott developed a heart condition that required her to be fed from an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. She sued the drug company in February 2000 and was awarded $8m.

Steve Voce

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