Can it really be 50 years, half a century, since I first heard Bill play? ["Jazz Giant" by Mike Gibson, April 7, 2011] It was at a club near the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville, a club that has undergone so many changes of names that I can't keep them straight. I don't know what it is now called, but I will always think of it as Gordon Sams' place. It would later become one of my haunts, but this was my first time there. It was a spring afternoon and a high school buddy and I had decided to try and hear an hour of Stan Kenton's band before hurrying back to our spring concert with the high school band in Oak Ridge. The Kenton bus was quite late and I'm guessing that word got out quickly and an ad hoc group took the stage to keep the patrons from leaving. A small band appeared on the stage. When they started playing, it was a revelation for me. I had heard a little of this music on the university radio station (WUOT), but had never witnessed it live. The front line consisted of Bill Scarlett, Skip Lane, Willie Gibbs, and Rocky Wynder, all of them an integral part of the Knoxville jazz scene, the existence of which was lost on me until that spring afternoon.
It was not long afterward that I had the extraordinary good fortune of meeting Bill Scarlett.
(Note: As I wrote down the above names, Messrs.. Scarlett, Lane, Gibbs, and Wynder, I couldn't help thinking how some people fit, and even live out, their names. Bill Scarlett, with his style and élan, could only be Bill Scarlett.)
As a student at UT Knoxville, I was a lesser light in Bill's second-year theory class. I recall his sunny presence even in the gloom of the ancient Music Annex. I cannot for the life of me recall our first gig together, but it was the beginning of a long run that included all kinds of music, from classical (with the Knoxville Symphony) to the more esoteric forms of jazz. Regarding the latter, I didn't know much at first and Bill would often have to explain to me my percussive duties. I will forever be grateful for his patience. But it wasn't just technical pointers I was absorbing during our time together. There was something else. I was learning from him the art of survival (through diversity) in the music business. On a typical morning, I would see him hurrying into the Annex, the floorboards groaning underfoot, with a recording of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and some new charts for the Jazz Giants under his arm. He was always the man in motion.
Participating in the Jazz Giants, the 16-piece band Bill assembled, was a highlight. At one point we even did a spot on local TV, with Bill cheerily emceeing. "They're all misfits," he said of us, with that Scarlettian twinkle in his eye.
I remember playing with Bill in churches, concert halls, small smoke-filled clubs, even the Biltmore Mansion. Whatever the situation, Bill was ready to play. We even performed chamber music together. I am thinking of Bill's wonderful clarinet playing in the formidable Stravinsky "Soldier's Tale."
Our friendship continued after I left Knoxville. On visits, I looked forward to hearing Bill play at Lucille's, in Knoxville's Old City area. His enthusiasm for performing never waned. And he was of considerable help to me when I experienced a personal tragedy almost two decades ago.
I mentioned survival before. In order to stay the course, I believe one must have a sense of humor. Of this Bill had plenty. We had a lot of laughs. When you think of Bill's humor, it isn't easy to come up with an example. But one little scene sort of nudges the others out of the way. This has to do with our "Holiday on Ice" epoch.
Every summer, "Holiday on Ice" assembled their show at the Knoxville Coliseum. Musically, it was the show's Aberdeen Proving Grounds. "Holiday" carried a nucleus of musicians (I would later take my place among them) but the arrangements would be played in each city by local musicians. As the music was being written, with the ink still wet on the page, we would read it. I was terrified throughout this experience but Bill cheerfully played anything that was set in front of him.
Cam, then, the year of what was called "The 25th Edition" of the show. They were pulling out all the stops. Now, such shows, if they still exist, are all on tape, but this was a time of live music, two and half hours of (zing-zing-zing) nonstop playing. It was like a Vegas revue on ice. There was skating and clowning and animal acts. (Who can forget Kossmayer's Mules?)
The "25th Edition"... a deadline loomed. How would this ever be ready for opening night? The pressure! The drama! Bill loved it. The choreographer who had been brought in worked the skaters without mercy. At one point he thought it would boost the morale of the skaters to actually hear a band play some of the music they had been rehearsing with piano. Fine, only the parts were still being hand-copied. We were told to go into the auditorium. The skaters were then seated in the house and new music was rushed up from the basement and handed out. The pages were numbered but not yet titled. The conductor gave a downbeat and we began playing. There was no stopping, no calling time-out. What was this music? As we plowed on, it sounded as though it would turn into The Big Roman Number (flashing swords, gladiators), but who knew? It ended in a triumphant burst of sound and the skaters applauded and cheered. Bill said, "And that's just the dog act!"
New York, N.Y.