Though Jimmy Scott’s appearance was in honor of his 80th birthday, it’s difficult to connect something as terrestrially mundane as aging to this strange little man and his sad, enchanting voice. As he sat at a table not 20 feet in front of me, shoulders hanging low under his richly embroidered dinner jacket, he seemed less like a real person than a hazy Lynchian dream of a jazz singer.
But before the dream could begin, the audience was obliged to withstand hackneyed instrumentation by the backing band; an unfortunate exhibition of why the argument can reasonably be made that jazz is, in fact, dead.
But it was only one song before the music stopped and Jimmy, led by the piano player, climbed up on stage. Hunched over at the waist, Jimmy kept a thin smile on his deeply-lined face as he gingerly made his way around the piano and took his place behind the mic. As he sat, with only the toes of his feet touching the ground and his upper body bunched forward like an old pillow, he seemed all the more like an apparition. I’d never seen his full body in a picture, and I’d only seen a handful of images of him as a young man. There don’t even seem to be any pictures of him from the years between his exile from the music business in the early 1970s and his return two decades later. But even if his body maintained the illusion, the sound of his voice brought home the fact that Jimmy is real—and getting near the end.
On the lighter, more up-tempo songs at the beginning—“Embraceable You” and “All of Me”—the effects of his age were unflattering and undeniable. His enunciation was slurred, his famed vibrato wobbled awkwardly, and he often crammed too many notes into the end of the bar when he had lapsed behind the beat. While the technical quality of his singing on these early songs was irksomely sobering, the cherubic smile on his face and completely, utterly unique sound of voice kept at least a part of the spirit alive.
Eighty years now separate Scott from the onset of Kallmann’s syndrome, which stunted his growth and kept his voice somewhere in the range of a countertenor, but the effect has never diminished. An old man singing songs of love and heartbreak like a choirboy is not a normal occurrence, and is something to be treasured.
What’s worth treasuring is not the apparent queer dissonance between a virgin voice and wizened subject matter; Scott, never more than a cult figure, has had more struggle and heartache than most over his 60 years in show business, so he’s entitled to a sad song. Scott’s gift is in the complete meshing of music and emotion that emanates from him in his strongest moments. It’s a feat that only a few other jazz singers - Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra—have been able to pull off. But Scott possesses none of Simone’s eroticized anger nor Sinatra’s masculine narcissism, and when he performs a song like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” like he did on this night, there is an almost unbearable intensity and purity to the emotions involved. With his eyes closed and his long bird-like fingers wrapped around the microphone, Scott poured forth a melancholy completely bereft of the heavy psychology that can burden even the greatest singers.
His is the voice and performance of the ingénue at 80. On the deep blue songs, his technical shortcomings only enhanced the underlying sentiment of the music. The wobbles and slurred words seemed to come from feeling, not failure. “It’ll be alright, Jimmy,” you want to say, “you just gotta make it through the song.”
No longer having the stamina to make it through a full performance, Scott was joined on this night by tap dancer Savion Glover of Broadway and Bamboozled fame. Glover is a singular and sensational performer and the only tap dancer that I would even think of paying to see, but his talent was distinctly at odds with Scott’s.
Glover is an energy man; brash and playful. And while Scott may have needed the rest that Glover’s participation afforded him, the fit between the funk and forceful athleticism of tap and the quiet drama of Jimmy Scott’s music was, at best, an awkward one.
Making the best of the situation is old hat to Jimmy Scott. As someone born with a disease that marked him as different from birth, as someone whose greatest album went unreleased for over four decades, and as someone who spent what should have been the prime of his performing life working as a shipping clerk in Cleveland, Jimmy Scott knows hard times. But those hard times never got the best of him, and that’s why his music is so enchanting. Because we know if he can make it through the song, no matter how sad it seems, so can we.