Interviewed by Shannon West
Being a music junkie who could rarely afford therapy, over the
years there have been some female artists who wrote so many songs
I related to that I called them my “secret sisters.” They’re
the ones whose songs hit so close to home that hearing them is
like having a conversation with someone who really knows you. Marilyn
Scott has been one of those artists for me. Her
new release, Innocent of Nothing, took
over the home and car CD players and the iPod I sneak into work.
It can be a bit daunting to talk to someone you’ve never
met who has put chunks of your life in her songs, but in conversation
she is just like her music; warm, wise, authentic, genuinely caring
and just a wellspring of knowledge and insight about music in general
and jazz in particular. I talked to her the week the CD was released,
which was also the first week of hurricane season and as we chatted
the first tropical storm moved across the state. She seemed more
concerned about the possibility of something crashing through the
ceiling than I was. I just wanted to talk about these songs!
SmoothViews (SV): I love this CD. It’s got a lot of common threads
with your previous work but it has a lot of groundbreaking moments
on it too.
Marilyn Scott (MS): A lot of people are having some reserve
about it, but that’s
pretty usual looking back on my life. I have some things that are pretty eclectic.
To me, they all have something that pulls it together though.
SV: I think that as a whole piece
of work it really speaks to people who are in the process
of trying to deal consciously with everyday life and what
is going on in the world right now. We need that encouragement
and insight whether it comes from someone you know personally
or someone you haven't met but you can connect with their
MS: That's true. I think that when it comes
to the standards on the CD, the quirkiness of it is kind of
cool. Like with "Round
Midnight." I think the blues is a difficult kind of approach
and I wanted it like that. I told George [Duke, the producer]
about that and he agreed. I think the songs that are more difficult
to sing sometimes don’t sound like that at all to the listener.
The way it ends up sounding makes it look easier than it is. When
you listen to Ella or Sara sing, they did some really difficult
things but they made it very easy and very palatable to listen
to, and that's the idea if you can do that. I think a lot of
people feel sad in their life and I like to be able to approach
some of that. It can be something like "'Round Midnight" that
reminds us of what we've lost and seeing if you can't get some
of that back in your life, to love again or whatever, and a lot
of people can't. Then there's something like "The Wilderness," where
someone has never been able to experience a part of what they
are really about, the nature of their existence. They're stuck
in a city and they can't get out. Nobody has ever been able to
expose them to nature, to places that aren't man-made. I feel
that that's such a sad scenario.
SV: When I first heard that I thought
it was like a snapshot from a science fiction film of someone
looking voyeuristically at a picture in something like in
a Sierra Club calendar as if it was alien and forbidden to
them. But there are kids growing up in cities right now who
don't even get to play where there are trees and plants and
MS: I feel like that is going to be more and
more of what will happen to everybody. The majority of people
in the years to come will have never seen a forest or touched
things that are ordinary to us. I find that being here and
standing on this earth is quite amazing. I believe that God
made this as a way for us to learn and be a part of something
and appreciate it and find a love of it. If you don't, then
the selfishness, the uneducated part of not taking care of
your inner self will end up hurting the rest of this harmony
that we have in the world. When we don't see that, that's what
we do. Sometimes you have to live a long time so you can start
to see it. By then you've done some damage but hopefully you
learn and do better. That’s what’s
so great about people who retire with some money and then feel
their mortality and start to give to the things that really matter.
Usually it's about nature and I'm so thankful for that.
SV: Listening back over
your body of work, looking at a group of songs that you
and Russell (Ferrante) and Jimmy (Haslip) have written,
I think the three of you could save the world (laughs).
You've written so many significant songs about things that
really are important and none of them are preachy. They
are just wonderful songs that are really thoughtful.
MS: We do and we have a few more that
we never got a chance to do and you kind of pay the price of
that. Right now it's more of an open field and you can do more
of what you want because of the internet. People are buying
songs one by one and you don't have a record company saying
they don't think it's a good idea for you to put that song
on an album. As far as the topics it's not as hard to get songs
like this out there. It took me years to get "No Room
For Hate" on a CD. We had it written for at least ten
SV: I had no idea it took that long, that's such
an important song and people really responded to it.
MS: You'd think you'd get people’s
attention that way with the song. Then they start to listen
more closely to the lyric. I can't stop doing that. I've come
to that conclusion because I've tried to write about other
things and I do that pretty well but my desire is to say things
about the human condition that are the hardest things for us
to confess to even ourselves. Those are the stories that are
really interesting and to try to do it musically in a way that
can grab a person is a challenge. I love that!
a songwriter steps out and does it, people hear it and they
really relate to it because somebody else is saying something
you've been thinking, but haven't been able to clarify.
MS: Look at India.Arie. She says it so
well and you can tell that even though she doesn't sound like
him she got some of that from Stevie [Wonder]. He had such a
way of bringing music to us that was interesting and catchy,
but it still had this deep message telling the truth about what
is going on.
SV: Writers like you and Jimmy, Russell, and Brenda
Russell do this in a way where the music is so good and the
vocal is so good that you connect with the lyrics, where if
it the perspective was less personal or the musicality of the
song was compromised to fit it around the lyrics it wouldn't
be as effective.
MS: I grew up with too many instrumentalists.
I'm pushed by the melody because you listen to these people
who are playing the melody instrumentally and it's so important.
Russ has been a great person to write with because he's strict
about things in a way. He says we could go here but you should
really go in another direction because it fits melodically.
Every song we write has got a little lesson in it about that.
SV: The opening track, “Round and Round”,
just nails what so many people are going through right now.
That keyboard line just puts across this feeling of running
around in circles and getting more frantic but never getting
to the finish line.
MS:We were trying to keep that feeling that
it's going around and around and the chromatic part of it where
you can feel that movement is really interesting. It's an interesting
thing. You go through days where you have so much to do you
don't know how you're going to do it, but at the end of the
day you go, "I'm very lucky. I wouldn't trade this for
anything because I'm very lucky to have what I have." Then
the next day starts and you do it all again.
SV: You took some real risks on this CD. Not just
in terms of arrangements and song selection but bringing in
some elements that just aren't heard on your average contemporary
jazz vocal CD. Historically there been a strain of spoken word
and poetry in jazz but usually on CDs that are created with
the intent of being edgy and progressive. You've brought it
into a more accessible context. How did you get the idea to
use Steve Connell on "Moods?"
MS: He's a friend and I'm a big fan of poetry.
I write a great deal of poetry and go to a lot of performances,
but I don't have the desire to be a spoken word artist myself.
I felt like I needed to include some things that are happening
musically around me. It made sense for me to invite Steve to
do that piece because I had written this bigger, edgier song
in "Moods" that had one side that was the part I
was singing and I had written the other side of it that was
like a conversation.
SV: Was that an improvisation from him?
MS: I wrote it out and he adlibbed a lot of
things around it, he did his thing to it, which he's terrific
SV: Did you do it live? Was he hearing the music
MS: We cut everything live then we left that
section open and had him come in. Then we backed it all the
way up so I could do that last little verse and we had him
come back in to do his part at the end.
SV: Then the end of "Share It” you do
a spoken word part yourself.
MS: I wasn't sure I should do that (laughs).
SV: That usually means it is exactly what you should
do! It really brings home what the song is about.
MS: It didn't seem to bother anybody and it
had a nice vibe to it. It's about a friend who is having great
success in his life but he doesn't have anybody to share it
with and before you know it the time goes by and you realize
that you're not being able to share some things in your life
that are important. You miss that interaction.
SV: I think that happens to a lot of people as you
get older and are more clear about who you are.
MS: Right, and also when you've come out of
a relationship and you feel like you'll never be able to find
someone again and there's this sense of giving up.
SV: There was this line in the song: "He digs
the way I feel for life, heart to heart, wherever you start." There's
this vision that that person exists somewhere. Then in "Icebox" you
have this very clever imagery about someone who has totally
closed themselves off. Was that fun to write? It puts this
humor around a really difficult, painful thing that people
MS:You just put it away, like in the back
of the freezer. That's what we do. Before I wrote the song
we were calling this CD "Icebox" for a working title
because it just came up in a conversation, kind of like "What
will we call it?" "Let's call it 'Icebox." I
started thinking about people I know who do that and got the
idea to try to write the lyric. Then it got interesting so
I came up with a little melody and Russell and Jimmy and I
got together and just had fun with it. It's really fun to play,
and that bass line actually came from "A Love Supreme."
SV: Have you gotten much resistance
to some of the off the beaten path elements of the CD like
that song, the spoken word parts, and the really dissonant
intro to "'Round
MS: A lot of people wanted me to do that,
but I did that and I think we did an interesting record.
SV: I love Nightcap, but I think it's really important
for people who write and sing the way you do to be writing
and performing new material. Mixing standards in makes them
sound really relevant to today too, instead of sounding like
history or a tribute.
MS: These days, with jazz music, in a way
you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If I try to
do things that I have written and include them around the standards
I'm going to have a harder time being accepted. I will be accepted
and I'll be more introduced and welcomed into the jazz platform
if I do things that are more standard. But that's never been
my big goal. I've always tried to include one or two standards
because that is part of what I am doing, the kind of music
that I love and want to do. But I want to do it because I want
to contribute to it more and write within it. People would
call some of the things I do kind of fusion-ish, sort of this
stepchild to what jazz is. I can take that. If that's how people
feel, I understand that. But there are different upbringings
when it comes to jazz.
SV: I just wonder if it's necessary
to get boxed into such a rigid definition of "jazz." There
is this whole type of music that has gone underground in
the ten years since it quit getting airplay that was kind
of a hybrid of contemporary jazz and a more complex and adult
oriented type of pop music. That's where I've felt like your
music lived and there is an audience for it that loves it,
but they have to really work to find it because it's only
available on the internet so we're going to have to teach
them how to find it in order to keep this type of music alive.
MS: That's really the kind of artist I am.
I'm a contemporary jazz artist. All these record companies
have let go of their jazz departments. They're forced into
having to do it and it's going to make a big hole for a long
SV: How did you come up with the idea to cover
Bob Dylan's "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"?
trying to avoid picking another standard I decided to look
at something more contemporary like a Beatles song, so I started
going through my iTunes library. I had it on a CD but I hadn't
bought it until recently on iTunes and it's a live version.
What he's saying is so pertinent to today and I could hear
the different kinds of transitions he was doing on his guitar.
I thought it might be really interesting with a band. Russell
got it together and we went over what we thought we could do
and it was pretty much straight-ahead. We took the setup going
into the turnaround as the intro and there you have it. It's
kind of quirky. It's not rock and it's not pop. It's what you
SV: Who did the arrangement?
MS: Russell got it together and we went over
what we thought we could do and it was pretty much straightahead.
We took the setup going into the turnaround as the intro and
there you have it. It's kind of quirky. It's not rock and it's
not pop. It's what you make it.
SV: If you had been living in a cave for about 50
years and didn't know the original or the history of the
song you would think it's totally contemporary, that it had
just been written.
MS: I know. It was fun to find the song [and]
then see it come alive in the studio. Everybody had a smile
on their face because it was really fun to do.
SV: In "A Change" you captured what a
lot of us, our families, and friends are going through and
put it in a song. Just about seeing people who are barely getting
by and one layoff or medical crisis away from going under and
not alluding to it or using imagery. The song just comes out
and says it.
MS: Well, that's virtually the truth on my
street. This is what my neighbors and I are talking about.
People are scared that they aren't going to be able to hang on
to their home. They are afraid of getting sick, of losing their
job. There are no guarantees anymore. People are being replaced
and forgotten and that's what we're afraid of. There's nothing
to fall back on anymore, not even any program that can help people
get back on their feet. There are so many homeless people around
my community that don't need to be in that situation. All they
need is a chance.
SV: Then the song expresses hope
at the end, that we could actually turn the tide and change
MS: One thing I've noticed is that people
are talking about these things and they aren't polarized. They
aren't arguing. It doesn't matter what party they are in or
how they label themselves politically. They're expressing deep
concerns. I think people are realizing that we need to see
a conscious change in the world.
SV: I think it was in the liner notes for Handpicked
that you said you often sang songs about things you wanted
MS: I need myself
to change too. I wrote a song called "Give In" because
there are some things I need to let go of and give in to life
so I can be more open to get the things I need, whether it
is love or learning something. I'm the only one that can do
it. Most of the time I'm writing about things I want to have
happen, that I am reaching for, like "The
Wilderness." I'm lucky. I get to see it and
touch it. I make a point of being with nature and it makes me
think about the people who don't. That makes me almost cry. So
I want to write a song that people can use in their life. Music
is so emotional. It doesn't matter what it's about. It can move
you in a way that can change your life. That's love. That's those
things in life that this earth was made about. Harmonic beautiful
things like love and music. There's music in the wind going through
been working with Russell and Jimmy for a long time. How
did you meet them and start collaborating?
MS: I met Russ in San Jose and I moved up
to the bay area after high school because that was where the
music was. I got a job in a band and started playing around
while I was going to college. I met Russ probably around '74
then he moved to LA and I moved back there in about '79 and
did my first record. He helped me with that and he had just
formed the Yellowjackets with Jimmy. We wrote a song for the
first album and that was the beginning of us writing together.
SV: How do you get the ideas for the subjects you
MS: I don't know. Maybe it's just where I've
come from in my head. Maybe I'm just really moved by the human
process and observant about a lot of things. Something happens
when you work with great writers. I used to be a staff writer
at Chappell and that really helped me too. I wrote with a lot
of people and wrote a lot of styles. You learn to be sort of
unselfish about writing with somebody and listening and taking
a good idea and making it survive, all those kinds of things.
You started working with George Duke in the mid 90s on Take Me
With You and really clicked both as songwriters and with him
as your producer. How did you get together?
MS: I played the San Diego Street Scene back
in '94 or around then and his wife came out to see me. He also
had the Perry sisters singing with him and I'm good friends
with them. Lori Perry told me I should meet him. She thought
we would really get along and we did! Since then we've been
very close. He and his wife have kind of taken me under their
wings. I've come through their door many times feeling like
I was going to have to ask them for such a big favor that they
would probably have to turn me down but they never have. Spiritually
they've been one of the brightest moments in my life. However
I was blessed with that relationship I am so thankful because
in so many ways that aren't necessarily musical I've grown
and I'm so happy that I've had their friendship.
SV: A lot of the songs that you and he have written
approach the subjects with a lot of insight and from a
different angle. Especially the songs about love and relationships
that have a maturity and thoughtfulness that most love songs
don't come close to.
MS: He likes love songs. I try to move away
from that and he'll say "Let's investigate that a little
SV: The writers and musicians on your CDs have
been really consistent over the years. It seems like you've
worked with the same core group. The way the music business
changes and people come and go, that's amazing. How have
you maintained that?
MS: Being from Los Angeles is just really
a convenient way of making music because there are so many
great musicians here. Many of them were born and raised here
like myself so we've known each other for years. I go see those
guys play. They come see me. We talk. As we grow older, we
grow wiser and hopefully better and we all go in and out of
good times and bad times so we support each other. So it makes
sense that when you get the opportunity to make music you try
to think of the people that would make that particular song
go to the place you want it to. If I had more money,
I would try to do more songs and bring in more people but the
way budgets are you have to slim down what you are going to
do and how you're going to do it. You've got to set it up so
you can do something, like have two days in the studio and
record five songs on each day so you keep the same people around
and bring in a few others to make the solos happen differently.
And the ones I work with are some of the best. For this record,
we had Patrice Rushen playing. We got some things with George
Duke. I've known John Beasley for a long time and this was
the first opportunity to bring him in.
SV: You have a nonprofit charitable foundation
called the Prana Foundation. How did that happen and what
is the Foundation involved with?
MS: It got started around the song "No
Room For Hate" and we got involved with an after school program
that taught children about diversity, about being kind and
the things you might say that are hurtful and how to handle
that. They are trying to break some of the stereotypes that
kids pick up and teach them to be tolerant. Then we started
getting into other issues, like supporting the Katrina victims
and the Musicians Village in New Orleans that Ellis Marsalis
and Harry Connick are involved with. We want to support issues
we think are important. With every album we take some money
and devote it to supporting a cause.