Bill Scarlett's nurturing influence—as a man, a musician, and a teacher—touched nearly everyone who played or listened to jazz in Knoxville. But few knew the late jazzman (Scarlett died of cancer on March 28) better than fellow local saxophone player Rocky Wynder.
The story goes that Scarlett, a Louisiana State University music school graduate, had just moved to Knoxville for a teaching post in 1957 when he happened into a club called the Townhouse, at the corner of 17th Street and Cumberland Avenue, one evening. He was impressed by the band on stage, Willie Gibbs and the Illusioneers, and especially by the saxophone player, a fellow named Rocky. The two became fast friends between sets.
"He told me then he was going to try get the Jazz Giants together," Wynder says, referring to the band Scarlett formed and that later became the UT Jazz Ensemble. "And even though I wasn't a graduate, I was there, playing with them. When guys like Woody Herman and Duke Ellington came to town we opened for them. We also had a lot of little small groups, me and Billy, here and there—played parties and wedding receptions."
Maybe they were a classic case of opposites attracting—Scarlett the schooled white reed player and steadfast academician, Wynder the black saxophonist with the wandering spirit and a degree from the School of Hard Knocks.
"He could read music real fast, whereas something might take me a year to read," Wynder says. "So he'd help me out when I had sheet music that was difficult to read, whereas he knew that I had real good ears.
"He was such a beautiful man. You could tell his feelings toward you weren't chickenshit. If I had a problem, I could always go to Billy."
Wynder also notes that his friend was a brilliant musician, his considerable chops being one of several elements that enabled him to influence so many players across so many decades of teaching and performing. "As far as Billy playing his horn, he had a Dexter Gordon thing going on, and we used to talk about that sometimes," Wynder says, referring to the player who first brought the loopy bebop licks of Charlie Parker's alto sax and Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet to the tenor saxophone. "But he was an excellent player on his own right, too, you dig it?"
"For a young player, it was great, because it's hard to get in arm's reach of a guy like that," says University of Tennessee jazz professor Rusty Holloway, who played bass in the Jazz Giants in the early 1970s. "It's like, to be able to play with a guy that played like Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker or the guys on your record player, that was amazing."
Holloway rightly credits Scarlett as "one of the great founders of our modern-day jazz scene in Knoxville." But beyond his estimable stature as a player, Holloway attributes that fact to Scarlett's energy and enthusiasm, and his attitude toward his students.
"Billy was real big about bringing his students into things," Holloway says. "And think about it; just about everyone in the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra was a student of Billy's.... Billy was the kind of guy that made sure everyone had a chance to play. But he was a hard-nose, too. He was, how shall we say it, insistent, that you get it right. And insistent should be italicized, underlined, capitalized, with an asterisk. I miss the days of Billy chomping on a little cigar, and something could sound like shit—I'll put that kindly—and Billy would always let you know where you stood."
Another former student member of the Jazz Giants, current UT jazz professor Mark Boling, says Scarlett also brought to bear an intensity of purpose that was perhaps as instructive as anything he ever taught in the classroom.
"His attitude, he was always going for it," Boling says. "He never said, ‘This is not a very serious gig,' and he was the same way with his teaching. And most of the players in town were his students at one time or another, so his influence was huge.
"Last summer we played a gig with him at the S&W, and he was a little weak because of his illness, you could tell. But you could also tell how important it was to him to play music, how much he loved music."
Local jazz pianist/composer/educator Donald Brown agrees. "I don't think I was ever with Billy when he didn't give 120 percent," Brown says. "He brought it every night. He embodied the essence and spirit of what jazz is about, swinging and giving of yourself to the musicians on the bandstand as well as to the audience. To me he was always one of the heroic figures of the scene, looking down making sure the rest of us are doing okay."
One of Wynder's favorite memories of his adventures with Scarlett involves a gig from decades past in a neighboring county. When the band arrived at the club, the owners became squeamish about allowing a mixed-race group to take the stage at a whites-only bar; as bandleader, Scarlett was chief negotiator.
"They didn't know if they wanted us to go in, so Billy said in so many words, ‘To hell with it,'" Wynder cackles. "So we packed right up and went back to Knoxville. We knew there were some places they wouldn't let blacks go in. But me and him would go in anyway. We were rebels. I am gonna miss a true, and I mean a true friend."