I won’t go so far as to say this is a month filled with tragedy, but it’s definitely a month full of goodbyes. Last week I had to bid farewell to my friend Erik Landwehr, who died at age 37 on March 14, 2018. At that time I was already processing another loss in my family, my uncle, Noel Scott, who passed away a week earlier, on March 7, 2018. So here is another goodbye I wished I didn’t have to write.
The life of “Scotty,” as we called him, was defined by music. I was surprised to learn–perhaps I shouldn’t have been–that he played many instruments, but most of us knew him primarily as a saxophone player. Scotty’s music was the kind of cool, laid-back, lackadaisical jazz that you hear spilling from the doorway of a club into the darkened streets of New Orleans at 2:00 in the morning, or softly playing on a stereo as you sit and have a glass of wine in a quiet apartment, with a loved one or just relaxing by yourself. Indeed Scotty’s whole vibe was mellow. He was a nice guy, dependable, good friend, usually cheerful, and with even a few notes on the horn could lower your blood pressure or your stress level almost instantly. Many years ago I came into the possession of a CD that his band, the Noel Scott Quartet, recorded at a live performance in Kansas City on the 4th of July, 2000. I’m a heavy metal guy, but I loved the cool, simple jazz on this album so much that I played this album quite often, especially in later years as I was working through my Ph.D. program. It was the perfect way to mellow out at home after a long day.
Here’s the first track on the NSQ’s self-titled album, recorded live on 4th of July, 2000. “Watermelon Man” is pretty typical of their style.
Noel Scott was born in Kirkville, Missouri at the dawn of that halcyon postwar era that defined, and was defined by, visions of Middle America, however inaccurate they may have been in real life. I read that even in grade school teachers were sure he’d become a professional musician someday. Coming of age in the 1960s, a wonderful time to come to know music, he began playing guitar and turned to folk music, which was a hallmark of that era. He met my aunt, Charlene, my father’s sister, at that time. Both of them were involved in coaching a musical youth group, the New Life Singers, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He continually played in a number of ad-hoc and more permanent bands in the Midwest.
In the 1970s, Scotty became a radio personality, first in Joplin, Missouri, then Topeka, Kansas, and finally the Kansas City area. He was not the kind of guy to wear a cowboy hat, but I do remember seeing a picture of him in such a get-up while he was on the airwaves, and catering to a certain audience. I know he had a lot of fun doing radio, but in some sense it also didn’t seem to fit his personality that well. Although he was my uncle I didn’t really know him very well until our family moved to the Omaha area in 1983, not far from Kansas City where Scotty and my aunt lived in an apartment on the Plaza. In that era I remember a lot of jazz records, and Scotty was the first in our family to be computer savvy, working on a TI-99 that was backed up on cassette tapes.
Another treat from the Noel Scott Quartet, “So Danco Samba.”
In 1984 Scotty and Charlene moved to the small community of Liberty, Missouri. The bands that Scotty played in during that time and the musicians he played with were numerous: the Ragin’ Cajuns, Fooleries, Tony DiPardo, Dr. Chuck Eddy and many more. After working in the cable TV business he was able to turn to music full-time in 1996, fulfilled that grade school prediction that he would be a professional musician. The Water Street Trio, Noel Scott Quartet and the Noel Scott Jazz Duo–with longtime friend Don Warner–were some of the bands he founded and played in. The music embedded on this page is exemplary of his style: mellow, accessible, enjoyable, familiar.
I always thought of Scotty as a man of quiet simplicity. What you saw is what you got with him. He was a good uncle, a great musician, and a fun guy to be around. Even if I didn’t interact with him that often, there was something comforting in him always being there, and the capacity of him and especially his music to put me in a relaxed and de-stressed state was something of a superpower–and one that, sadly, I’m not sure I gave the recognition it deserved until now, when he isn’t around anymore. The soundtrack to my life has primarily been heavy metal, with a few notable exceptions (like this one, and these). But that doesn’t mean that I don’t mourn that Noel Scott’s saxophone has fallen silent, and the man who played it for us so beautifully is gone.