Interview: Rhoda Scott

Rhoda Scott is easily the finest Hammond B3 organist around today. Name unfamiliar to you? That’s probably because Rhoda moved to Paris in 1968 and has lived there ever since. Over the past 43 years, Rhoda has become a jazz celebrity on the European jazz concert and club circuit. Over here, not so much. Nevertheless, organ buffs revere her albums, many of which were recorded in Paris and have a terrific relaxed feel.
As you probably can tell, Rhoda is my favorite active organist. So when I saw a CD cross my desk several weeks ago by vocalist David Linx—Rock My Boat (Naive)—with Rhoda Scott and drummer Andre Ceccarelli listed, I decided to reach out to her. My timing was perfect. Rhoda had just returned to the U.S. to begin studies in a Rutgers University’s masters program. Though she has a masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music, she wanted to pursue additional jazz education. She loves reading and studying.

Yesterday, we had a wonderful phone conversation. Here, in a rare in-depth interview, Rhoda, 73, talks about growing up in New Jersey, the start of her recording career in the early ’60s, why she moved to Paris, falling in love and marrying there, the European jazz organ scene, and why she has returned to the States to hit the books:

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Rhoda Scott: I was born in Dorothy, N.J. My family lived there for five or six years. My father was a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was sent around the state to different churches. Whenever he got the call to move, we’d pack up. As a result, I attended five different grammar schools and three different high schools.

JW: Tough when you’re a kid.
RS: Yes, but such abrupt change renders you flexible to different environments. But you’re right, it was a challenge losing friends all the time. There were seven children in my family—four girls and three boys. I was the oldest girl, but I had a brother who was older than me. Every time we got to a new town, we liked to see who would get to the top of the social scene first. We knew we didn’t have much time before moving again.

JW: What did your mother do?
RS: She played piano in my father’s church. But she died young—at age 38. I was little when she died. As a result, we all grew up like weeds [laughs]. My dad was a great father. His aim was to keep all seven of us together, a promise he had made to my mother.

JW: How was he able to cover the family’s costs as a minister?
RS: He was a minister on the weekends, which provided us with housing. During the week he had to work. He had a job as a janitor at DuPont in Deepwater, N.J. He loved DuPont. He used to keep us wide-eyed with descriptions of what he had seen and what the company was doing.

JW: Did your father commute?
RS: Depending on where we were stationed, he would either sleep down by his job or come home on the weekends. We didn’t need to be supervised. We were good kids, and the oldest looked out for the youngest. Dad was married briefly, but I think we were all too much for his new wife to handle. My dad played piano and encouraged me to become a musician. He was supportive of me, no matter what I wanted to play.

JW: How did you wind up playing the organ?
RS: I started on the piano tickling the keys at home or in church. When I was very young, my mother would play piano while holding me on her lap. Family legend has it that when we’d come home from church, I’d reach up to the keys and play the same things my mother had played in church.

JW: And the organ?
RS: I discovered the organ around age 7. It was in our church and available to me. I used to walk up and down the organ’s pedalboards to see what those notes sounded like.

JW: Did you have a teacher?
RS: No, I picked up the organ on my own. I was in the church playing the organ day and night, figuring out what all the stops did. Gaining access to the church was easy. We lived in the parsonage next door, and I could play the church organ for as long as I wished.

JW: Did you listen to records?
RS: We didn’t have any records. We had the radio. I’d listen to soap operas and black stations that played R&B, like Ray Charles. When I was a kid, I could play all the soap opera themes. The reason I can’t dance today is that I’d always play the latest radio hits at dances for friends. I never got up from the bench [laughs].

JW: When did you start playing professionally?
RS: Around 1955. A guy in my church choir asked me to fill in for the piano player in his band. I told him that I didn’t know how to play that kind of music. He said it didn’t matter, he just needed someone.

JW: What happened?
RS: I went on the gig. They played blues, a lot of standards and Broadway tunes. It turned out I knew all of the songs in their book from listening to the radio, so I had no problem. I stayed with the band until 1960.

JW: What was the group’s name?
RS: Originally, we were Lee Smith’s Satellites, which he soon changed to Lee Smith’s Hi-Larks. It was quartet. After the name change, he added singer Larry O’Neill.

JW: How did you wind up on the Hammond organ?
RS: On the first night, there was a piano. I told him I played organ. So he bought a small organ with a speaker. He was no fool. Since I played bass with my feet on the pedals, Smith didn’t need to hire a bass player.

JW: How did you wind up fronting your own group?
RS: Lee Smith played gigs only on the weekends. During the week, he worked at Campbell’s Soup in Camden, N.J., which was far. Club owners began suggesting I start my own thing. So I did, with Larry, and we began at the Hat Box Club in Elizabeth, N.J. When I went out on my own, we recorded Hey, Hey, Hey.

JW: How quickly did you catch on in local clubs?
RS: Pretty fast. Two well-known and well-respected musicians joined me: saxophonist and flutist Joe Thomas and drummer Bill Elliott. When we played in Newark, we had huge success. Ozzie Cadena, who was at Tru-Sound Records, asked us to record. We did Hey, Hey, Hey in 1962 and Live at the Key Club in 1963 for him. We thought we were the biggest group going.

JW: What kind of music were you playing?
RS: We were copying a lot of things that were popular then. Also, R&B funk. Every member of the trio had to bring in a tune. Joe Thomas was and is a fantastic arranger. He brought in a lot of big band things. Some he wrote himself. We played almost the entire Basie book then, like Shiny Stockings.

JW: Did Basie ever hear you?
RS: Yes. In Newark we used to play during intermission at dances. At one of them, Count Basie was the headliner, and he heard us.

JW: What did he say?
RS: He asked me if we would come and play his lounge in Harlem. It was very impressive. Clark Monroe was the emcee. We’d play six sets a night. I met everyone there. Even Basie would turn up sometimes at the end of the night and listen to us. I also met Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. At one point, they wanted me to record with them.

JW: What did you say?
RS: I know this sounds crazy, but I wanted to finish my studies. So I stopped playing in the group. I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music and played as a single act so I could finance my studies. I don’t know why I turned down Griff and Lockjaw. Maybe there was something about me that didn’t want to succeed [laughs].

JW: Was education always important in your house growing up?
RS: My father was so bent on our schooling. All of my bothers and sisters were accomplished—three have doctorate degrees. Education was really something for us kids, more than succeeding in playing an instrument.

JW: In 1967 you moved to France. Why?
RS: I went to study with Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Quincy Jones, Philip Glass and many other musicians. The head of my department at the Manhattan School of Music suggested it.

JW: What was Boulanger like?
RS: She was a bit rigid and formal. We came from such different backgrounds. To me, she was like from another planet. Boulanger was heavily into classical music and couldn’t understand where I was coming from. But it was wonderful to know her and gain her insights into music. She talked about the artist’s approach to music, that each note should be played with passion, as though it was the opening to a grand symphony. Her approach was very important to me. But I soon realized I couldn’t fit comfortably into her world. Classical music just wasn’t for me.

JW: Did you return to the U.S. after your studies in Paris?
RS: Yes, in September 1967. But I was so impressed with France and the culture there, I told myself that I had to go back. So in February 1968, I returned to Paris. That July I met a Frenchman, actor-singer Raoul Saint-Yves, and we fell in love. We soon married, and he became my manager. The moment was right and the place was right. We adopted two children who were born in Haiti.

JW: You recorded quite a bit for the French Barclay records.
RS: My husband was a big friend of Eddie Barclay, the label’s owner. Eddie let me have total control over my records. I could record when I wanted and what I wanted. I also began playing all over Europe.

JW: How did you wind up recording with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band?
RS: When Mel Lewis came to Paris, he visited the Bilboquet Club, where I was playing. He sat in and loved the experience so much that he said we should make a record together with the band and that Thad would do the arrangements.

JW: What did you think?
RS: I brushed it off. I said, “No way, I’m not going back to New York to do it.” But my husband thought it was a terrific idea and we rolled forward.

JW: Are you still married to your husband today?
RS: Unfortunately, my husband Raoul passed away a little over two years ago. We loved each other very much.

JW: I’m so sorry. Let me ask you, why do you think European audiences love the Hammond organ so much?
RS: They take the organ very seriously there. The organ comes from the church, so they respect it. In the U.S., the organ is most associated with the black church and gospel. So its audience is instantly narrower. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, even black clubs didn’t want an organ combo. It felt too old fashioned. Maybe today it’s more accepted in the States. But when I was coming up, you really were forced into the “Chitlin’ Circuit” box. Everything had to be funky. I think only Lou Bennett and I were able to earn a living as straight jazz Hammond B3 players—without having to switch to the piano and “keyboards,” as many organists in the U.S. had to do to earn a living.

JW: What’s the appeal of the organ?
RS: It replaced the big band, since it could mimic all of the instruments at once. In fact, the musicians’ union said organists had to be paid double because that person was handling the bass player’s role as well.

JW: How are you perceived in Europe today?
RS: It’s hard to say from my perspective. I guess in some countries I’m perceived as a little star. In other countries, like Hungary, I’m a bigger star. I was one of the few jazz musicians who played there when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. I remember after a concert there spending three hours signing records. They were so happy.

JW: How about in France?
RS: I’ve had a really good career there and in Belgium and the Netherlands. In each country there’s a nursery of great organists coming up all the time. The tradition gets passed from generation to generation.

JW: Who are your personal organ heroes?
RS: Jimmy Smith—he’s the man. And Richard “Groove” Holmes. He took me under his wing in the early 60s and showed me the basic things I needed to do. Then he kicked me into clubs to play live. And Wild Bill Davis, who really is the father of the modern jazz organ.

JW: Who are you listening to now?
RS: Fats Waller. I love listening to him play organ. All organists listen to other organists. You have to. As a result, there’s a constant stream of knowledge that’s passed between us. As instrumentalists, we’re more attached to each other.

JW: And now you’re returning to college?
RS: I love education. I love studying. I just started at Rutgers a month ago, I’m working toward a Masters of Arts in Jazz History and Research. It’s the only program of its kind in the world. Now that I’m a widow, I want to go back to school, to interact with people and to study. I’ll be returning to France on breaks to perform there and in Hungary, Russia, the Netherlands and Belgium. I don’t want to gig too much while I’m here in school. My studies are too important.

JW: Will you be performing before returning to Europe in late December?
RS: Yes. An “Organ Jam” in Newark on December 3.

JW: Tell me about appearing on vocalist David Linx’s new album, Rock My Boat.
RS: I met David in Belgium at a jazz festival. We did something together and it worked out. He’s an extraordinary singer. He was so excited about what we did that he insisted we record. David produced the CD and got me to record things that were a little different from what I’m accustomed to. But he kept it so everything worked in harmony with my style. It’s basically David singing with me and Andre Ceccarelli on drums. David also reached out to other great musicians to guest on the CD.

JW: A good fit?
RS: Yes, we all blended together well. It was recorded outside of Paris. The studio had a Hammond B3, but I brought my own to record. I have a vintage B3 that I converted to solid state so I don’t have to worry about the tubes. I also have a string bass stop on it, which is unusual. I play it on the pedalboard with my left foot.

JW: Still playing barefoot?
RS: Always.