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The Surprising Scott Robinson
John Robert Brown
Scott Robinson with his contrabass. Photo: Ed Berger
Back in 2001, at a conference of 7,000 jazz educators in Midtown Manhattan, I was chatting to Loren Schoenberg, Executive Director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem. With my wife Wendy we arranged to meet Loren and Dan Morgenstern, the Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University (and one-time editor of DownBeat), during the following weekend. The plan was to drive the few blocks up to Harlem to have Sunday lunch in a restaurant off Lenox Avenue, where live music was featured. Loren said he’d have a surprise for us.
When he called to collect us from the mid-town Sheraton at 7th and 53rd St., Loren’s surprise turned out to be a person sitting in the back of his car. It was saxophonist Scott Robinson, who by then had already created a name for himself.
Scott bought along a cassette tape that his brother had created, being Bix Beiderbecke cornet breaks that he’d dubbed into recordings of the King Oliver band, as a joke. We began by driving around midtown, listening to Bix, with Dan Morgenstern pointing out where Benny Goodman had lived at 200 E 66th and 3rd, and where the clubs had stood on 52nd Street. Dan showed us Columbus Circle where the ODJB had played at the end of the First World-War. In Harlem we drove past the Savoy Ballroom. I’ve never forgotten that Sunday, one of the high spots of my interest in jazz. And that’s how I first came to meet Scott Robinson.
Scott was born in 1959. His mother was an amateur painter and pianist. “I never learned the piano,” says Scott. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” Scott’s father, now retired, was a writer, editor and photographer for National Geographic Magazine. Scott grew up in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Virginia. His grandfather had played the alto saxophone as a boy. He turned his instrument over to Scott when the youngster started to have a hankering to play music. “I still play that alto today,” says Scott. “It’s a Conn from 1927,” he says. Scott’s grandfather played in a little dance band with Scott’s grandmother when they were in high school.
Scott started to play at the age of ten. “I never had lessons except during the time I was at Berklee College of Music,” says Scott. “In my first lessons at Berklee the teacher told me to stop playing double-lip embouchure,” he says. “Also, I was using baritone reeds on the tenor saxophone,“ he says. “He told me to stop all that, and I did. But you know, sometimes I wonder if I ought to go back. In fact, I think I’m going to try baritone reeds again. It’s been many many years, but I seem to recall that I got a very satisfying sound that way.”
And the double-lip embouchure? “Well, that would probably be a tougher transition to make at this point. It’s also been quite a lot of years, but I didn’t have any trouble with it when I played that way."
Scott tells me that he doesn't teach. "I taught briefly, very briefly, at Berklee, and a little bit here and there around the world," he says. "But when I do teach, my basic philosophy is ‘whatever works’. If it works, it doesn’t need to be fixed. I don’t know if my embouchure ever did need to be fixed.” He laughs. "I don’t know if it’s any better, but I muddle through,” he says, modestly. I use the expression 'pouting lip' to describe the way the bottom lip is used as a cushion. "I've never heard the expression 'pouting lip'. Sounds silly to me," he says. "Maybe that's an English expression?" he adds. “I do know that I should try to use more bottom lip on the teeth, because it’s a natural cushion. When you look at pictures of any of these old guys - Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet - they have the fat part of the lip in front of the teeth, and cushioning the reed. I think I fold mine back too far, which makes it more tiring. So you see, it’s never over, you’ve gotta be constantly fiddling. Though - as I say - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I do think that sometimes I could use more endurance. So I am making an effort to push it out a little more. That’s a natural cushion, and it should help you.”
Is Scott a tinkerer? Does he have a cupboard full of old mouthpieces at home?
“I have a small collection of mouthpieces, but they’re mostly things that I find at flea markets, or whatever. Lately I’ve been selling off a lot of them because they just sit around. I don’t use them. On tenor, I’ve basically used three mouthpieces in my life. My first serious mouthpiece was a Berg Larsen. That I used for years. Then I got a Lawton, from England. I used that for many years. Then I switched to a Vandoren mouthpiece, which I’ve used for the last five years. And that’s it; not a lot of fooling around.
“I’m playing the same tenor that I used as a boy,” he says. “I bought it in an antique shop for 77 dollars and 50 cents. This would have been around 1974, an old Conn that matched my grandfather’s alto, a little bit earlier, and I’m still playing that horn today. There have been brief periods when I’ve tried other tenors, but I always end up back on this raggedy old worn-out Conn. It has a very singing sound. I don’t have to plead with it to speak. It’s prepared to speak, and seems to have a lot of stories to tell, so we’re still together after all of these years. Like an old married couple, you know.”
Scott made international news some years ago when he tracked down and purchased a rare contrabass saxophone. For his trouble he won himself a generous segment on CNN news, where he appeared with the saxophone together with a pet rabbit, the rabbit filmed running up and down inside the bore of the contrabass. "CNN brought a rabbit for the filming that day, and then gave it to me. I had made the frame of the crate that the horn came over in, into a rabbit house, but I didn't yet have the rabbit. They really wanted to show the rabbit angle, so they brought their own. That's why the gal says, 'we provided the test bunny', on the segment." You can see Scott with the contrabass, and the rabbit (the rabbit was Scott’s constant companion for 13 years), on YouTube.(1)
Does the contrabass saxophone provide mouthpiece challenges?
“Yes, and reed challenges - even spinal challenges. That instrument is not to be trifled with. I play quite a lot of bass saxophone. I’m very comfortable on that. I just think of it as a big fuzzy tenor, I play it all the time, and I get around it pretty well, and all of that. But the contrabass, that’s another dimension. When you put them side by side, that thing almost makes the bass saxophone disappear. It’s astonishing how much larger it is.
“The contrabass is very hard to play. It’s a vintage horn, not one of these new-fangled contrabasses with a very narrow bore and an easy mechanism. It’s a big, yawning, cavernous beast, like blowing into a canoe, very tiring and very out of tune. But you know what? It has an amazing sound. The original large-bore vintage contrabass saxophones are very rare. Supposedly there are fewer than twenty in existence. The ones that are being made today, in Germany and elsewhere in the world, are much easier to play, and much easier to transport. They are fantastic instruments. If I had one, I’m sure that I would use it, but not all the time, because it has a different sound. The contra that I have has an eighteen-and-a-quarter inch diameter bell. It makes a resonant, cavernous sound. You can’t get that from these narrow sarrusophone configurations of contrabass saxophones. I have great respect for those newer instruments. They are wonderful. It’s just that they are a different animal. Ideally, one would have both.” He laughs: “Use the smaller one to play Giant Steps, the large one to play Rapture of the Deep.”
“I had a soft bag made for the contrabass, and it’s quite wonderful. I can actually stand in it, and zip myself inside it!
"I've used a golf cart for transport, for wheeling the thing around. I bought a pair of antique airplane wheels at a flea market, and I’m going to make a nice rolling stand with the aeroplane wheels, but haven’t done it yet. I’ve travelled with the contrabass exactly one time. Roscoe Mitchell [icon of avant garde jazz] called me. He’d heard that I’d got the thing. He called to invite me to Madison Wisconsin, where he was living, to play in a concert. The problem was how do we get the instrument, 6 feet 8 inches tall, out there. To take it on a plane would be impossible. He thought that I could take a sleeping compartment on the train, but it wouldn’t even fit into the compartment. Finally I bought a bunch of wood, made a big crate, and put it on a truck. I made the parts for the crate out in the back yard, then I had to bring the parts through the apartment and down the stairs and assemble it out in the street, because the completed box wouldn't have made it through the stairwell. It was the size of a refrigerator. I had handles on each end. I screwed the top down; I couldn’t lift the thing - it weighed 222 pounds. A Yellow Freight truck came, picked it up with a hydraulic lift. Off it went, it arrived safe and sound, I played the concert, shipped it back to New York, it arrived safe and sound, and ever since then that big case with the hinged lid has been functioning as a closet in my music studio. I don’t know that it will ever be used again, but there it is.”
Scott left his teaching post at Berklee College of Music to go straight to Manhattan. “Some of my friends preceded me. They said: ‘You gotta come to New York’. One of the guys who I’d played with a lot said: “Scott, it’s great in New York. If you don’t come to New York, I’ll never play with you again.” He threatened me! I had many friends in New York who were urging me to come, so finally I did. I'd been teaching at Berklee for about a year and a half. I did my first European tour in the summer of 1984. My first LP came out at the same time. Those experiences convinced me that I shouldn’t allow myself to become comfortable as a teacher at Berklee. So I left, pretty much as soon as I returned. I packed my belongings into my 1949 Plymouth, and drove to New York.
"At the time I was teaching at Berklee I was the youngest faculty member. I was 22. I can’t say that that was a comfortable existence. I was barely getting by, only teaching part time. I was teaching the History of Tenor Saxophone Styles, Ensembles and Musical Instrument Repair. So I wasn’t giving up any great career. At the same time I was offered a position with The Airmen of Note, which is the best known of the military jazz bands. There you can have a comfortable existence, with health benefits, and everything. I turned that down, to take a chance.”
John Robert Brown