Jazz existed in Knoxville before Bill Scarlett, but much of the local jazz that’s flourished here over the last five decades owes something to Scarlett’s arrival in 1957.
Scarlett was born in Little Rock, Ark., and earned a master’s degree in music performance from Louisiana State University. He moved to Knoxville to teach clarinet at the University of Tennessee, and a few years later formed the UT Jazz Giants, made up of students, faculty, and local professional players. That group (now made up of students and faculty) still exists today as the UT Jazz Ensemble.
“The vast majority of players in Knoxville today came through that band and were mentored by him,” says Vance Thompson, a UT jazz alumnus and leader of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. “Most of the saxophone players here learned to play under him.”
Scarlett died on Monday, March 28, after a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer. He was 82.
“Bill Scarlett was an icon on the Knoxville jazz scene as long as I can remember,” says Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment and a well-known supporter of jazz in Knoxville. “I remember the little club where I saw him the first time. I was still in high school and just discovering jazz. Bill may have been the first real jazz musician I ever met. He was always such a warm, friendly, knowledgeable guy. And for a certain period he was a real mentor to me. He was certainly one of the great spirits on the local music scene. He will be missed.”
Scarlett was one of a trio of local octogenarian sax players whose contributions to the local jazz community were honored last year on the Tenors and Satin album produced by internationally renowned pianist/composer Donald Brown. Brown wrote the title track in honor of Scarlett, Rocky Wynder, and Lance Owens, and the three played together on the recording.
A memorial service will be held at the Foundry on Sunday, April 10, from 7-9 p.m.