Tony Scott, 85; Jazz Clarinetist Explored Eclectic Mix of Music

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Tony Scott, 85, a jazz musician who helped expand the musical limits of the clarinet and who was an early proponent of what is now called world music, died March 28 at his home in Rome, where he had lived for more than 30 years. He had prostate cancer.

A musician of vast and eclectic range, Mr. Scott found fame in the 1940s as one of the first clarinetists to master the difficult new jazz idiom of bebop, with its tricky chords and acrobatic runs. He led his own groups as a clarinetist, played in the saxophone sections of bands led by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich and also performed as a pianist. In the mid-1950s, when he was music director for singer Harry Belafonte, he wrote the arrangement for "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," one of Belafonte's biggest hits.

Mr. Scott recorded with such renowned musicians and singers as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, yet he spoke fondly of times when he'd walk down streets in Bulgaria or Indonesia, piping away on his clarinet. He spent several years in Asia and Africa in the 1950s and '60s and made albums reflecting his interest in the music of other cultures.

"I was searching for something new, emotionally and spiritually," he said in a 1966 interview. "The jazz world here had turned cold for me -- cool jazz, cool people. It was without passion. I found the warmth I sought in Japan."

He had an outgoing personality that made him popular with other musicians. He wrote songs for Holiday, with whom he recorded on clarinet and piano, and also composed music for short films featuring stripper Lili St. Cyr.

At his peak in the 1940s and '50s, Mr. Scott was considered the most advanced clarinetist of his generation, rivaled only by Buddy DeFranco. In 1953, critic Nat Hentoff wrote in Down Beat magazine: "No other modern clarinetist has the fire, the drive, and the beat Tony generates."

"Mr. Scott has stretched the jazz range of his instrument farther than any of his contemporaries," John S. Wilson wrote in the New York Times in 1958. "He is the most exciting jazz musician playing today."

Mr. Scott, whose given name was Anthony Joseph Sciacca, was born June 17, 1921, in Morristown, N.J., the son of Sicilian immigrants. He began playing a metal clarinet at age 12, formed his first band at 14, quickly mastered the piano and was playing in Harlem jazz sessions by the time he was 18.

He studied for three years at the Juilliard School, performing Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" on piano as his audition piece. He played in Army bands during World War II and spent nights in New York jazz clubs.

In 1943, he first heard saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of the progenitors of the new bebop style, and was determined to bring Parker's musical advances to the clarinet. They often performed together, and Mr. Scott would later call Parker the greatest man -- not just the greatest musician -- of the century.

At a concert in Yugoslavia in 1957, two years after Parker's death, Mr. Scott improvised "Blues for Charlie Parker," which became his best-known composition.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," he said. "The audience gave me a five-minute standing ovation. Musically, it was the high point of my life."

In 1970, he settled in Rome and formed a five-year musical association with Romano Mussolini, an acclaimed jazz pianist who was the son of Italy's executed fascist leader. Mr. Scott experimented broadly with musical styles in the 1970s and '80s before returning to more traditional jazz late in his career.

"Without experimenters, jazz would die a lingering death," he said on his Web site. "I believe in being receptive to all music. . . . If you stop learning, you might as well throw your horn away."

Cultivating an air of eccentricity, he grew a chest-length white beard and sometimes took apart his clarinet onstage, pretending to use it as a telephone. Nonetheless, his playing remained strong, and he continued to perform into his 80s.

In addition to his performing career, Mr. Scott had a large collection of photographs of jazz musicians and made jazz-influenced paintings.

Survivors include his third wife, Cinzia Scott of Rome; and two daughters from earlier marriages.

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