Bill Scarlett Memoir


A personal Memoir

Jim Self

April 2011

In 1969 I was hired to teach tuba at the University of Tennessee and play in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. One of my colleagues was Bill Scarlett who was the Clarinet professor, Principal Clarinet of the KSO and a uniquely gifted jazz saxophonist. We became great friends and have remained so ever since. Bill passed away this week and I want to write a few words so I will be reminded of how important he was in my life.

In those days in my twenties I was a bumbling guy trying to find my way as a musician and teacher. Bill became my mentor—the older, wiser professor. He seemed to understand me and he was razor shape in pointing out the things that I needed to grow as a musician. He made me aware of my role as a bass and tuba player in rhythmic precision, how I should lay it down with the drummer and provide the groove for all who I played with. Make things “feel good” was his mantra. That advice paid off in spades later as a studio musician in Los Angeles.

He knew that I wanted to try my luck at the big city and encouraged me to go to LA. His support meant everything.

I have always admired those musicians who were masters of the whole music spectrum—from classical to jazz to writing. I always wanted to be like them. Bill Scarlett was one of the key people that I tried to model my career after. Bill’s job was mainly as the clarinet professor at UT—and he was great. In over 40 years he produced countless wonderful students who are active in orchestras, bands and teaching jobs all over America and beyond. His students adored him! He was a superb classical musician. I fondly remember his beautiful solo sound in the Knoxville Symphony, the UT Faculty Woodwind Quintet and playing the Mozart Concerto. But he also was a super jazz man—to him music was music–there were no boundaries. He started the Jazz Giants at UT and was instrumental in beginning a jazz major and bringing in notable jazz professors—he started it!

I was always a closet jazz musician and wanted to get better at it. Bill was a font of knowledge in that world. He was and has been recognized as the greatest jazz tenor man in the Southeast. I tell my LA friends that he was the white Sonny Rawlins of Dixie.

I was as busy in Knoxville as a bass player as a tuba player. As soon as I got there I started playing dance jobs, parties, jazz and rock gigs on fender bass. Bill was everywhere playing those things too and I got to work often with him. I had been in Washington DC for several years in the US Army Band and free-lancing and was used to a large group of good musicians. Knoxville was a smaller place and, while there were excellent players, the number was smaller. I wondered what it would be like to put together a band of the best guys in town and book gigs as a unit. We were certain to attract a lot of work and be certain to have enjoyable jobs because all the players were top notch. The “horn bands’ of the era, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Earth, Wind and Fire really interested me. They were “jazz rock” bands and allowed a lot of room for jazz soloing. The result was a band we called Chronological Linkage. It was a collective of 5 UT faculty and 4 students. Bill Scarlett was the sax man on the band. We had a great time!

What a great personality! Bill always had great jokes, loved to be sarcastic about southernisms and could really put on the accent. While a southerner himself from Arkansas and schooled at LSU, he loved to lampoon the stereotypical things like bigots, red necks, etc. His jargon was that of a hipster from the ‘50s but he could turn it around into a lecture on Beethoven or Stravinsky. I loved that total musicianship.

Over the years I worked hard at jazz and made several CDs and Bill and I talked about recording a CD together. It finally happened in 2003. I came back to Knoxville and we recorded “Size Matters” with a terrific young trio. It was a straight-ahead jazz CD of standards and originals. While it was an uphill battle to share the stage with him, it was a great honor for me to play with my mentor—and I have a great memento of our time together.

I have played all over the world and played with many great musicians, but none better than Bill Scarlett.

I will really miss him!

Jim Self

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