Thursday, February 23, 2012


Be Bop, Be Bop
There must be thousands of Internet users who have experienced the fleeting memory of an old friend and gone to the Net to search for news of that long-forgotten person. Yesterday, I saw the word “scarlet” on my screen and remembered Billy Scarlett, a musician friend with whose wife I worked at Agricultural Extension Service, Louisiana State University, during the mid fifties. I was shocked to find Billy had died of cancer but pleased to read that he had gained fame as “a jazz legend in Tennessee” (according to the many tributes on the Net) during the past fifty years.

I met Billy, this handsome, black-haired man who resembled a melancholy Italian, when Katy, his first wife, and I were candidates for our Ph.T’s (Putting Husband Through). At the time of our meeting, Billy was working toward his Master’s in Music Theory and playing jazz gigs at night. My husband was working on his first degree in Geology. Sometimes in the evenings, I’d visit the Scarletts in their garage apartment near the campus where we’d play Scrabble and listen to progressive jazz or “bop,” as it’s now called. I knew nothing about bop at the time, but I grew familiar with the sounds of Charlie (Bird) Parker’s alto sax and the trumpets of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and became hooked on progressive jazz, enjoying the many stories Billy told about the improvisations of Bird Parker, who was regarded as the music symbol of the Beat Generation. Billy’s favorite story was about hearing the recording featuring some of Bird’s flubs during recordings of “Be Bop” when he actually shook the sax to get the right note out of the horn. “Minnie,” (Billy’s name for me, and I still don’t know why he called me by this name) he’d say, “you don’t know zilch about music,” and I’d try to defend myself, declaring that I had played a clarinet in a high school band five years. “Kindergarten,” he’d say, putting on another record and tuning me out. It was the day of “hi-fi’s,” and although the Scarletts struggled to make ends meet, Billy owned expensive hi-fi equipment, including speakers on several walls in the small apartment. The overpowering sounds of jazz frequently incited comments from the neighbors and sometimes caused the floppy ears of the Scarlett’s blonde cocker spaniel, Sandy, to stand up.

Within a year after I met the Scarletts, Billy and Katy moved to Knoxville where Billy became a professor of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee and played in jazz groups on the week-ends. I flew to Knoxville three consecutive years to spend Thanksgiving with them. I had no idea that I’d one day move to Sewanee, Tennessee, only three and one-half hours from Knoxville, or that I’d one day read Billy’s obituary announcing that he was a jazz legend in Tennessee. In the late 1950’s, during those visits to Knoxville, we roamed around to gigs and jam sessions, one particular gig being near Gatlinburg, Tennessee somewhere in the boonies. En route to this gig, we drove in a blinding rain through the mountains, stopping in Asheville to stand on the porch of “Dixieland,” one-time home of the writer Thomas Wolfe, peering through the front windows at the parlor furniture because the house wasn’t open to the public that day. Katy and I were disappointed because we were fans of Wolfe’s work and once in awhile, we got in a few words about literature in the “mostly-music” conversations. We spent all day getting to our destination, and Billy played his sax with an obscure group whose name I can’t remember, then traveled the rest of the night to arrive back in Knoxville during the early morning hours of the following day. My flight to New Orleans was scheduled for 11 that morning!

On several visits, I attended concerts of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra as Billy, classically trained, played clarinet with this group. In the articles I read on the Internet, I discovered that he was acknowledged as the “principal clarinetist” in this symphony for forty years and that he became renowned as a teacher of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee, teaching there for fifty years. However, his forte’ was the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

In an Internet article, Rocky Wynder, a black jazz musician who became one of the cornerstones of Knoxville jazz, paid tribute to Billy for being courageous enough to schedule gigs in places that barred black musicians.   After the jazz group arrived at the club and unpacked their equipment, Billy would talk to the owner of the club, then tell the musicians to repack the equipment and head home because the black member of his group – Rocky – was told he couldn’t come in. Billy worked for civil rights before the days of marches for integration.

Billy knew the value of daily practice, and I observed his drivenness when he and Katy stayed with me for six weeks one summer while my husband was at Geology camp in Colorado. Although Billy had received his Master’s, he spent every day at LSU, studying clarinet privately with a professor and playing his sax in the evenings. When the Scarletts left Baton Rouge, Billy flew to New York City, alone, to take private clarinet lessons, living in an apartment on Bleecker Street and playing his sax at night in the Village.

Billy was intense about music and intolerant of poor performance, especially when he performed badly. The first night of the six weeks Billy and Katy visited me, he packed up his sax and went off to jam for a few hours. At midnight, he returned with a broken sax in his hands. “What happened?” Katy asked, thinking the sax had been run over by a vehicle of some kind. Billy hung his head, admitting to having done the damage himself. “I wasn’t playing well. Haven’t practiced enough. I couldn’t get the right sounds out, so I got mad and smashed it.” That evening I had to leave the “hut” (G.I. housing in which we lived) while Katy and Billy argued about his behavior and whether he deserved to own another sax. The following day, they went downtown and bought a new sax, and Billy resumed his jam sessions, playing gigs around Baton Rouge wherever he could find them. At the time, I thought he was a spoiled brat, but I knew nothing about his ideas of perfection and how much he abhorred sloppy performance – or that he’d become a jazz legend.

I lost touch with the Scarletts during the 60’s and talked with Katy via telephone when my second book, Their Adventurous Will, was published in 1984. During the 90’s, I discovered that she had died of heart disease from her daughter Holly when I tried to reach Katy by telephone. Every time I’ve passed through Knoxville since 2006 when I moved to Sewanee to live part of each year, I’ve thought about contacting Billy but have been rushing toward some vacation destination in North Carolina and have whizzed on through the city. Although I lost touch with Billy, my music collection includes significant reminders of him – the music of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck…and I could claim status as one of Billy’s “lay musicians” who doesn’t play music but appreciates the sounds of progressive jazz because of him.

Billy Scarlett was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008, launched the University of Tennessee’s Jazz Giants Band, and has been touted as the mentor of every student now playing in the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. He played with greats like Woody Herman and Duke Ellington, often opening for them when they came to the UT campus. In 1994 he made the recordings “Jazz from the University of Tennessee” and “Tenors and Satin.”

I wish that I had contacted Billy Scarlett before he died, but I’m proud to have enjoyed his friendship back when “bop” was coming into its own.
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