A-J Entertainment Editor
French horn player Jeff Scott, 43 and a native of Queens, N.Y. has contributed to the success of major Broadway musicals, toured with musical headliners and performed with the best dance ensembles.
Yet he was happy when given an opportunity to climb out of the orchestra pit and soar as the horn player for multi-cultural woodwind quintet Imani Winds.
A-J: You began studying music as a teenager. Were there musicians in your family? What drew you to music?
Scott: I always was surrounded by music. My mother sang constantly in the house and played music on the record player. But no one was an amateur or professional musician in my family.
A-J: Did you begin by playing piano or other instruments before French horn?
Scott: Kind of a funny story. My elementary school teacher, Mr. James Orefice, gave me a mellophone and told me it was the French horn. He knew the French horn was difficult to start on without private lessons. So I played the mellophone for one year, thinking it was the French horn. When I finally started private lessons, I was awarded a real French horn. Much to my dismay, it was 10 times harder to play a note! At least for me!
A-J: For some time, you played in orchestras for major Broadway musicals. What were the positives and negatives of doing that?
Scott: I was a freelancer. Even when I had “Lion King” (which still runs), I considered myself a freelancer — because I would take any job to get OUT of the pit. After a few years of “Hakuna Matata,” anyone would go crazy.
The positive of the life I had was stability. A steady paycheck and a network of contractors that would call me for occasional orchestral work as a section player, and sometimes as a principle horn section leader. The big negative was the lack of a musical statement I was making in my life. Who could care less if the second hornist in the pit missed a note at “The Lion King?” The mics were turned down so low on all of us that I made no impact on the musical outcome.
My other freelance work was more of a social thing. The pay was usually low.
A-J: How did you become involved in playing for film scores:
Scott: Eventually, everyone in the business meets contractors who get accounts for film, jingle or record dates. If you impress these contractors enough over the years, they put you on a short list of players to call when they get these accounts. I was fortunate to know a few and one hired me to do a film date for the famous Terrance Blanchard/Spike Lee collaborators. I performed on the soundtrack for “Clockers.”
A-J: Jeff, you worked on tours by Barbra Streisand and Luther Vandross. You played for dance and Broadway. With all the variety in your work, what was the appeal of Imani Winds?
Scott: In all honesty, Imani Winds was a diversion from the ho hum work in the Broadway pit. The fun freelance work — like film and record dates, and ballet work with Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the tours — was rare and short-stinted. It all sounds impressive, but, the majority of the time, I was just lucky to have a job every day.
Also, initially Imani concentrated on standard works of wind quintet literature. We were building a foundation of technique, sound and character. So honestly, it was some time before we started doing all the fun collaborations and jazz/world music-influenced music. I actually remember saying in a meeting that, if we were just going to play standard literature, I would not be long for the group.Not that no one wanted to play music outside the normal canon, but it just didn’t exist for our ensemble. We set out to change that, and live by that mantra to this day.
A-J: What were you told that made you believe Imani Winds could succeed as a recording/touring ensemble?
Scott: No one actually told us anything. We just had faith in our abilities and trusted that out persistence toward excellence was all that mattered.
A-J: Was it a long time before Imami Winds decided to take the leap into recording and touring?
Scott: Yes, but in the grand scheme, no. We shuffled around for about three years before truly committing to “going for it.” But once we all got on the same page, things really took off.
A-J: How long was it before you devoted your career to Imani Winds, giving up those prior jobs?
Scott: Around 2000-2001, we started getting short tours and substantial concert offers. This meant taking time away from the “Lion King” pit, irregardless of what the pay was. Usually, I was taking a huge financial hit. But it was and still is about the gratification of the pursuit of musical excellence.
The biggest decision was in 2005. By this point, we were under management and touring extensively. It was mid-April and I’d earned only $1,100 at “The Lion King.” We had been on the road that much. “Lion King” music director Karl Jurman called me into his office. I had asked for a leave of absence for two weeks in may to tour with Imani. He basically said I was under the minimum attendance and, if I took the tour, I would lose the chair at “Lion King.” I took the tour and never looked back.
In fact, I vowed never to play another Broadway show again. Thank God, to this date, I never had to break that promise.
A-J: Do you enjoy film and Broadway?
Scott: Oh, certainly. I just couldn’t stand playing the same show every night.
A-J: How do your multi-cultural backgrounds play into the music you seek, play and record?
Scott: It is everything. We have such a broad spectrum of musical flavors in our discography. It is for this reason that so many composers from the jazz, world music and contemporary music genres want to work with us.
A-J: You mentioned that Imani Winds starts with a “blank palette.” Is that because of the lack of music for wind quintet by more well known orchestral masters (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc.)?
Scott: Exactly. There simply is no legacy left for us by the great European composers. And our country is beholden to these masters. It is why most chamber music societies have string quartets and piano trios as the bulk of their programming season. It is what you hear mostly at orchestra concerts, and certainly on most classical music radio stations.
So when a concert-goer comes to an Imani Winds concert, they have to throw out preconceptions of what they will experience. If you were given a free ticket to hear a string quartet concert and did not know the program, you would assume that you would recognize at least one or two composer offerings. That can’t be guaranteed at an Imani Winds concert!But you will enjoy yourself, and you will probably leave knowing about a style of music or composer you had not been familiar with.
A-J: Who decided which musical route will be taken for each Imani Winds CD?
Scott: We do. It is democratically talked through with management, record label, etc. But we have the first and final say. What a blessing, huh?
A-J: How are you and (fellow composer) Valerie Coleman alike and different as composers?
Scott: I tend to write in a lighter style. Less actual notes and lighter subject matter in general. Valerie tackles the big works, social issues, dark chord and favors acrobatic virtuoso lines. We have influenced each other over the years, however, and I am beginning to take on bigger projects. That makes my music more challenging. In turn, Valerie has started to use a few less 16th notes.
A-J: Can you compose on the road?
Scott: Absolutely. Sometimes, it is the best way: a quiet hotel room with no distractions.
A-J: Do you have a favorite, place, room or city for composing?
Scott: I did some of my best writing in Maine during some of our tours. Something about the coast and the air there is perfect for clarity of thought.
A-J: When you commission a work, how closely do you work with the actual composer?
Scott: Usually very closely. With most, we schedule a workshop period. Because for the most part, writing for wind quintet is a first-time experience for the composer. Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Wayne Shorter, Simon Shaheen and Danilo Perez never had written for woodwind quintet.
A-J: Do you ever prefer just being given the music?
Scott: That happened with Roberto Sierra and Alvin Singleton. I would not say it is preference or non-preference. But it certainly can leave you with a “Box of Chocolates” feeling! Fortunately, both works came out wonderfully.
A-J: Do you play Paquito’s “Kites” without the extra instrumentation from the recording?
Scott: Valerie did the transcription for just the quintet, so we can tour the work. It works fantastically well for just the five of us.
A-J: I have read that some composers are afraid of writing for a wind quintet. Where does this fear come from?
Scott: The fear, if there really is one, is more out of lack of opportunity. There simply is not a history of full-time, professional, concertizing wind quintets (other than Imani Winds). So yeah, if I am a composer, I’m thinking, “Why bother? Just to have the work performed once?”