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Great Scott: Hailing Philadelphia's down-home Queen of the Organ

Hammond B-3 organist Shirley Scott at the New York Jazz Festival in 1968.
Raymond Ross
Hammond B-3 organist Shirley Scott at the New York Jazz Festival in 1968.

While there’s no denying that she is worthy of the crown, the oft-repeated epithet “Queen of the Organ” has always felt a bit too regal for Shirley Scott. The Philadelphia jazz legend, who died just over 20 years ago, exhibited no trace of majestic severity in her playing, nor the diva-like bearing that suited Aretha Franklin to her title “Queen of Soul.”

“We called her Aunt Shirley,” recalls trumpeter Terell Stafford, who recorded and toured with Scott in her final years. “She was so sweet and gentle, and she loved to laugh. Harmonically she was really advanced, but most of all, whenever she played it always felt good.”

Scott would have celebrated her 89th birthday on March 14. She combined ebullient soulfulness with a graceful, pianistic touch laced with an edge of Philly grit — a balance spotlighted in several new releases spanning her career. Craft Recordings’ Cookin’ with Jaws and the Queen: The Legendary Prestige Cookbook Albums, a 4-CD/4-LP set that arrived last month, compiles four albums Scott recorded with tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in 1958. At the end of this month, Candid will reissue 1992’s A Walkin’ Thing, Scott’s final studio recording. And for Record Store Day on April 22, Reel To Real will offer Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank, a previously unreleased trio concert from 1972 featuring George Coleman on tenor saxophone and Bobby Durham on drums.

Shirley Scott at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1975.
David Redfern
Redferns/Getty Images
Shirley Scott at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1975.

The latter is especially thrilling for the rare opportunity to hear Scott in a trio setting, sans bass. Her left hand provides a robust low end throughout, parrying with Durham’s raucous, untrammeled surges on a blistering rendition of John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” and laying down a tender, insinuating groove on Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” On the Jimmy Van Heusen classic “Like Someone in Love,” her bass lines beam with the giddiness of budding romance, while her solo bursts forth with gleeful enthusiasm, settling briefly into a groove but unable to refrain from gushing.

Saxophonist Tim Warfield always knew that a solo met with Scott’s approval by the sound of laughter. Their first encounter came when Warfield was called for a gig at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, where Scott was a fixture. “There on the stage was Shirley with Arthur Harper and Mickey Roker, which messed with my mind, as you can imagine,” he recalls. “I heard lots of laughing when I was playing, and only once it was over did I realize that it was good laughter, and not because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Born in 1934, Scott became one of the pillars of a scene that made Philly the center of the jazz organ universe, alongside the likes of Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Bill Doggett and Trudy Pitts. She was a key member of the generation that embraced the Hammond B-3 and built the foundations of soul jazz.

Scott’s father ran a speakeasy jazz club out of the basement of the family home, and she played trumpet while a student at Philadelphia High School for Girls before focusing on piano and organ. Her pioneering partnership with Lockjaw Davis began in 1955, when she was just 21. Cookin’ with Jaws and the Queen elevates Scott to richly deserved co-headline status for the three volumes of what had originally been titled The Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Cookbook, along with the related album Smokin. The bright, shimmering chords that open “Skillet,” from Cookbook Vol. 2, are Scott at her gossamer best, before a sudden swell sets her off on a tear — gutsy and greasy, in keeping with the slinky groove laid down by bassist George Duvivier and drummer Arthur Edgehill.

Vol. 1 opener “Have Horn, Will Blow,” meanwhile, centers on the scintillating chemistry shared by Scott and Davis, as sparks fly from the collisions between the two during his gruff, honking solo. Vol. 2 finds the two engaging in a call and response on “The Rev” that is equal parts Saturday night and Sunday morning, while “High Fry” from Smokin’ is sheer, buoyant joy.

In 1960, Scott married tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, kicking off a personal and professional relationship that would span the decade. The couple’s take on “God Bless the Child,” from 1963’s Never Let Me Go, is slow-burning, sinuous soul at its closing-hours best, while 1968’s Common Touch digs into funk on “Buster Brown” and rollicking swing for their cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Scott embraced pop music throughout her career, in line with her embracing attitude towards audiences. Her 1969 saxophone summit Shirley Scott & The Soul Saxes features almost exclusively pop and soul covers from the decade, including a hard-charging take on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” and a boisterous version of The Beatles’ “Get Back.” The highlight is a seriously grooving romp through Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” fueled by bassist Jerry Jemmott and drummer Bernard Purdie.

Changing tastes led to less frequent opportunities in the ensuing decades, though Scott’s playing remained strong — as evidenced by such vigorously funky ‘70s outings as Lean on Me and Superstition, as well as the live date captured on Queen Talk. In the ‘90s she took on the mantle of musical director for Bill Cosby’s revival of the game show You Bet Your Life, and began teaching at her alma mater, Cheyney University. She also became a mainstay at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus, along with fellow greats like Sid Simmons, Mickey Roker, Arthur Harper, Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna — a position at least as educational for a younger generation of musicians as her official one.

“I learned the power of music at Ortlieb’s,” says Stafford, who was early in his transition from classical studies to jazz when he began frequenting the club’s famed Tuesday night jam sessions. “Shirley would reach such an intensity that people would completely lose their minds. They would be screaming for so long after her solo that you couldn’t play. You’d just have to stand there and wait for them to stop. She had a way of telling a story and of uplifting the music that was unbelievable.”

“Nine times out of ten, Pete Souders had to turn the lights off and tell everyone to get out,” Warfield adds, referring to Ortlieb’s owner at the time. “Shirley was very much a nurturer, able to dismantle all of the insecurities and hangups that go along with being human for her audience. By the end of the night it always felt like everyone had shared an experience.”

Scott’s generous heart is well evidenced on A Walkin’ Thing, recorded in 1992 with Stafford and Warfield. Benny Carter’s title tune offers her the platform for a determined excursion into the blues, while her own “What Makes Harold Sing?” delights in her percussive touch in communion with Warfield’s breathy, eloquent tenor.

That album would be Scott’s final studio recording before her death in 2002 from heart disease caused by the diet drug fen-phen, for which she was awarded an $8 million settlement from the drug company (American Home Products, later Wyeth) and prescribing doctor. Her legacy lives on through the now-thriving players that honed their skills under her demanding but supportive watch.

“When you get an opportunity like that to bask in the music of the masters,” Warfield says, “it helps by giving you something to work towards. Then you can go back and try to figure out a way to get to that feeling. Which is very difficult — but you can work on it.”

Cookin’ with Jaws and the Queen: The Legendary Prestige Cookbook Albums, is available now on Craft Recordings. A Walkin’ Thing will be released on Candid on March 31; preorder here. Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank will initially be available for Record Store Day on April 22; preorder here.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.