PHILADELPHIA — Jill Scott’s former students — creatively awakened to “Macbeth” by her notion of singing Willie the Shake to doo-wop tunes — might not agree.
But the rest of the world owes a big thanks to the grumpy principal at Dobbins High School who so dispirited Scott as an English-teacher trainee, telling her she’d soon “get over” her idealism, that the young woman quit the gig to start working full time at even more creative endeavors.
Clearly, things have turned out well for the singer/poet/actress and community philanthropist from North Philadelphia who’s become an artist of international renown with her poignant, proud and conscientious variations on “neo-soul” music. Hers is a sonic art uniquely shaped to be populist and highfalutin’, demure yet feisty and sometimes even naughty by nature.
In the 11 years since she debuted with “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1,” the artist has sold more than 4 million albums “without much promotion to speak of” for the small independent label Hidden Beach, won three Grammys and risen to the rank of theater headliner and arena co-star with the likes of Maxwell.
Scott also earns fans and praise for acting — in Tyler Perry films, a Lifetime channel movie and, especially, with her starring role in the first-ever-filmed-in-Botswana TV series “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.”
“Not a day passes without someone stopping me and asking me if we’re going to do another season,” Scott said of the show based on a book series and coproduced by HBO and the BBC.
Of late, anticipation has also been running high for Scott’s fourth and most fascinating studio album of fused-up soul, jazz, hip-hop, blues, theatrical pop and poetry called “The Light of the Sun.” The first single, a “perfect for weddings” (she hopes) duet with Anthony Hamilton called “So In Love,” has already soared to the top of the R&B chart. The pair performed it last Friday on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Hamilton will be along for the ride (with fellow album guest Doug E. Fresh, Mint Condition and DJ Jazzy Jeff) on Scott’s first “Summer Block Party” tour as an amphitheater headliner, starting July 28.
Also causing quite the buzz, those boisterous, made-in-Philly music videos her peeps have been posting these past few weeks on YouTube and at www.MissJillScott.com.
And how about Scott’s first cover-girl status on the June issue of Ebony magazine! Slimmed down by 50 pounds, she looks terrific in the spread — even more so in the interactive multimedia version you can download onto an iPad.
Out Tuesday, “Light of the Sun” is the first collection for Scott’s own Blues Babe label, with distribution by Warner Bros. “They made the deal before I’d recorded a note,” she confided in our recent one-on-one at WRTI-FM’s studio, an old stomping ground during Scott’s Temple college student/poetry performing days.
Also on reputation alone, Scott got Live Nation to front the money for her to produce the set with J.R. Hutson, and to build this tour around her, in collaboration with Haymon Enterprises and the Budweiser Superfest team.
Likewise boasting track polishing by Dre and Vidal, Kevin Wooten, Wayne Campbell and her Philly-based bandmates Adam Blackstone, Randy Bowland, George “Spanky” McCurdy and Eric Wortham, “Light of the Sun” glows with confidence and seasoning. And there’s also a big helping of divine providence at work here, suggested Scott, who was raised Jehovah’s Witness.
Like the way she first met her recording engineer Montez “Spon” Roberts “when I was 14. We clicked so fast I called him ‘my son’ and he called me ‘Mom,’ even though he was a year older than me.”
Also consider how a couple of years ago Scott bought a house in Los Angeles “right between an elementary school and a park.” Only later did she find she was pregnant with her now 2-year-old son, Jett, “named after a type of semiprecious black stone that you have to polish,” she shared with a bright smile and wink.
Scott split from Jett’s dad, her former drummer, though he “is sharing the parenting.” A prior five-year marriage ended in divorce. Still, as her most affirmative new songs relate, Scott’s ego remains pretty much intact. “I can stand on my own, I’m magnificent, I’m a queen on the throne, I’m magnificent” she sings in Aretha Franklin-bold style on “Shame.”
And she’s convinced there’s a perfect guy out there, maybe a “Don Cornelius”-type (celebrated in “Some Other Time”) ready to commit for the long reign.
When it came to recording this set, Scott returned to Philly, “thinking I’d be here for a month or two. I stayed for nine.”
There were frustrating nights when the artist and her collaborative bandmates couldn’t get off the dime, but there were other times when all she had to do was open her mouth, heart and brain, and out came complete songs such as the soaring “Le Boom Vent Suite,” amazingly sexy “Rolling Hills,” snappy jazzy kiss-off to Jett’s dad “Quick” and highly theatrical/spiritual “Hear My Call.”
“More than half of the album’s 15 songs were done that way, as spur of the moment, improvised, one-take things,” she said.
There’s lots of old-school flow in this set, far more than she’s ever done before. But Scott never veers away from the plot line, so you don’t hear rhymes at random tossed out just to be cute.
Rappers Eve (another product of Philly) and Paul Wall, “human beat box” master Doug E. Fresh and the A Group also throw down on this project. And Scott posits major position statements in her spoken “Womanifesto,” which the artist performed last month for the Obamas (among others) at an American Poetry Workshop evening at the White House. (She still gets stars in her eyes, thinking about it.)
“I’ve got this reputation as a naturalistic, jazzy singer/poet who wears a flower in her hair, who loves Ella (Fitzgerald) and Sarah (Vaughan), who came out of the Black Lily scene,” said Scott, still very fresh and sweet during our conversation, though she’d just recorded a lengthy NPR interview.
Yes, Scott was an integral part of that amazing Black Lily cultural commune of the 1990s, built around a weekly Philadelphia club (the Five Spot) night and living room get-togethers with other new MC and musician talents such as Jaguar Wright, Bilal, Nou Ra, the Jazzyfatnastees, Floetry and Ahmir? uestlove Thompson, who then first exposed Scott’s skills to the world on a Roots track and tour.
“But I also got into Millie Jackson (the raunchiest, most belligerent of soul sistas) after my mom took me to see her at the Robin Hood Dell. I grew up listening to (legendary rapping DJ) Lady B and Patty Jackson on the radio,” added Scott. “The first time I ever heard hip-hop, I thought, ‘This is my generation’s music.’ “
Clearly, Scott is a complicated woman with a passion for all the arts. She delights in memories of her culture-lovin’ dental hygienist mom Joyce Alice (aka “Jalice”) “putting me in a pretty dress and letting me wear perfume” for their almost every Sunday morning jaunts to gaze at the great works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And how a dentist up on Cheltenham Avenue “gave us tickets to see stage shows like (nonverbal theater group) Mummenschanz and ‘The Wiz.’ “
In her young adult years, after giving up on that secondary-ed career (and the part-time jobs at French Connection, Rite Aid and her “worst gig ever” in telemarketing), Scott became “the oldest intern” at Arden Theatre Company, then a “fellow” at the Walnut Street Theatre. She’d work “14-hour days, six days a week doing everything from building sets and putting up lights to sweeping floors, in return earning free acting lessons and eventually my Actors’ Equity card.”
That opened the door for a role in the Canadian touring company of “Rent.” At 25, she’d gotten her first paid, professional gig. Now she’s 39.
So what’s next for Scott?
“I look to my ‘go-to girls’ — Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler and Diana Ross — for inspiration. Because they were able to swim through genres with grace and ease ... Those are the ones for me. Why not be a renaissance woman, or a renaissance person?”
Catch Jill Scott at midnight EDT Thursday on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and at 9 a.m. June 30 on “Live! With Regis & Kelly,” both on ABC.