Scotty Wright performs at the Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok.
Story and Photograph by Robert Lorimor
You will find Scotty at the grand piano in the majestic Lobby Lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel. It is a busy lobby and you have to sit close to hear Scotty against the murmur of the rest of the room. When you do, you discover his style of delivery makes everything new again, with his gift for classy improvisation an element that guarantees each and every performance is fresh and new, delivering music you never tire of. Moreover, his voice is uniquely his, and he sings many of his own compositions…truly a “great” jazz singer in the American tradition.
I sat with Scotty for an interview the next day in a quiet room off the hotel’s grand ballroom. There is a piano in this room where Scotty comes to practice. He is the sort of person with whom it is easy to get along and he laughs easily. He appreciates all music and we even exchanged a few words about how Hip Hop is an old form of music expression and how big money has just corrupted it. And as most interviews go, we finally get around to talking about his life. I came away from the interview with the feeling that when Scotty Wright becomes a “famous” jazz singer, and he is “great” enough, the people in Hollywood would make a movie from his life story. This is because his story has some life-defining events that make his music so enduring today.
Born into a U.S. Army family in South Carolina in 1954, the Wrights were always moving and they were in Germany when Scotty turned eight years old. Scotty’s parents hire a music instructor to teach Scotty the piano but Scotty fails to appreciate the gesture and learn the piano. His German piano teacher tells his parents he was “not learning the piano properly,” so Scotty’s parents cancel the piano lessons and Scotty, being musically inclined anyway, takes up the drums instead in defiance of his mother.
By the time Scotty was 13, the Vietnam war was raging and his family is stationed in Taipei, Taiwan. Scotty forms his first band with his sister, Nina. They called themselves The Soul Seekers and Scotty begins writing songs. He remembers one he called “I want to be with you,” and the other he called, “Brown Eyes.” We laugh because both songs have similar names to other songs that have become hits for other artists. Scotty refused to sing either one saying they are just kids songs. Embarrassed or not, he and his sister did perform the songs on Armed Forces Radio, which is as good start to a music career as any when you are only 13 years old.
By 1968, Scotty’s family had moved back to the states and lived in Seaside, California. He joined his high school choir at the urging of a schoolteacher and this decision led him to his “Up With People” experience. Up With People is unusual in American pop history. The group was an international traveling High School for talented young kids. Scotty applied and was accepted in 1970. The group was popular enough to be approached by Sears, an American catalog chain store, to do an advertising jingle to sell bicycles on TV. The group later performs at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, the year of the Olympic hostage crisis. Scotty had just left the group and was watching the Olympic on TV when the crisis began. The Up with People group had just finished performing at the Olympic Village and he was quite distraught until it becomes known his friends had escaped unharmed.
After graduation from Up With People, Scotty returned to Monterey, California where he worked as a church music director. This is significant as he finally has the time to sit down and learn the piano. He is able to teach himself the piano at his own accelerated pace; within a year, he is performing in local clubs, writing songs, working as a jingle singer and arranger, and sitting in with musicians like Art Pepper, Eugene Wright, Blue Mitchell and Jack Sheldon. Peter J. McQuade, a local DJ enters a songwriting partnership with Scotty and they composes over 40 songs together.
Fast forward to 1986, Scotty has moved to San Jose and is performing solo gigs in the San Francisco bay area and making a name for himself. Yet, Scotty feels his career is stalling. Then near tragedy strikes.
After suffering from a sinus infection, Scotty passes out and awakes to find himself in the hospital. The doctors are telling him he is lucky. He had contracted viral meningitis and he has only lost his voice to complications of encephalitis. The meningitis attacks the lining in the brain, but the encephalitis affects everyone differently. Some people lose their eyesight, some the ability to walk. Given the condition in which Scotty had arrived at the hospital, most people die.
For Scotty, the thought of having lost his voice was terrifying. “I would rather have lost my eyesight. But to lose my voice…” His voice trails off as he reflects back. “My voice is everything to me and my career,” he finally says.
To his relief, he slowly retrains himself to use his voice and today you hardly know the difference from his voice before and after, he reckons. Having survived meningitis, he decided to devote his life to singing Jazz music and only play music for himself.
Scotty explains, “Before I used to take requests for Stevie Wonder and other artists and I use to think, who do they really want, Stevie Wonder or Scotty Wright? Now, if a song is not in my song list, I am not going to sing it. I only sing what I want to sing.”
Song after song, grin after grin, drunk after drunk
Someone asked for ‘Feelings’, my head’s reeling
When I just couldn’t take anymore I hit the door
Just as a guy was asking for Theloniouis Monk
— from Scroungin’, Lyrics by Scotty Wright, 2001
Since his recovery, he has released three jazz recordings. The first of the three is “Too Much Fun.” A recording he says lacks focus, but despite his own critique, USA Today hailed the recording as the Best Jazz Recording of the Year in 1990. He has recorded two more CDs with “Rhythm, Reason & Rhyme” in 1995. He also recorded “With Angel Love” with Tei Kobayashi as co-producer in 2000. Both of these last recording have surprisingly missed the spotlight and Scotty believes these are better than his first.
His career is still unfolding with many twists and turns and he has a guest appearance in the film, ‘Bad Jim’. He has recorded a duo session with pianist Cedar Walton in New York and he narrated, directed and starred in Tup Lohse’s revue, “What Is This Thing Called Jazz?” In Bangkok, Scotty, along with Mark Hodgkins, was instrumental in forming the Bangkok International Big Band with whom Scotty performs as a featured vocalist.
Scotty is content with the way his career has gone so far. He continues today singing only for himself…
As a jazz singer, he is uniquely Scotty Wright. You had better get over to hear him.