Exploring jazz as sacred music

Dave Scott leads a quartet on Sunday evenings during the summer.

FIRST PERSON | Dave Scott

My dad had all these books on the shelves in the basement. They were these grand philosophy books from his seminary days with fantastic titles like “The Politics of God,” “Man, Myth, Meaning” and “Truth and Ethics.” He became a psychologist. He was good at mediating, and bringing people together, and helping people work out their differences.

I think I am like my dad was, but through music instead of psychology.

Jazz musicians are philosophers. And they can choose to be like psychologists. Music can bring people together. It can connect, heal, affirm. I think that is my tendency, to try to build community through music. It’s no fluke that I have taught at Community Music Center on Capp Street in San Francisco since 1997 on top of all the gigging I’ve done.

I love jazz musicians. They say outrageous things. They don’t hold back. They’ll go ahead and say what everyone else is thinking but is afraid to say. I love hanging out with jazz musicians because usually the banter is on a high level of observation, wit and style. I might be playing Mustang Sally for the 500th time at a wedding, but on the break we are usually laughing about something both exceedingly intellectual and crass at the same time. And I’ll think, “Yeah, these are my people.”

I loved playing lead trumpet in the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra at Pearl’s jazz club before it closed. When I first started with the big band in the mid 1990s, lead alto player Alex Budman and I would walk around North Beach on the breaks. There was live jazz everywhere! The Butterfly, Enricos, San Francisco Brewing, the Highball, 435 Broadway and several more spots up to the Washington Square Bar and Grill, which we called the Washbag. Sonny Buxton would make a big pot of chili for the band down in the basement at Pearl’s. We didn’t mind the cockroaches.

All the good players were willing to come down on a Monday night, and we’d all catch up on the week’s gossip: so-and-so is off the wagon again, so-and-so came to town and sounded terrible, so-and-so punched out the groom on a casual, be careful about so-and-so ’cause his checks bounce.

One night the power went out at Pearl’s and I played solo piano in the dark until they ran an extension cord from Tosca so the band could see the music. Good times. I love San Francisco. It’s too bad there is less money floating around these days to support the compensation of live musicians.

I had a good run playing with Boz Scaggs for four summers, but he downsized his band. Cut the trumpet and the backup singer. I love Boz. I learned a lot from him — like figure out what you do well and don’t try to do stuff you aren’t good at. And be cool with that.

Nowadays I teach jazz history at Berkeley City College to big classes of 50 kids or more. I love it. I feel like I’m preaching, but not to the choir. Most of the kids that sign up for jazz history know nothing about jazz, but I think I show them that jazz has something to offer them. I have put in a lot of thought about how to present the music: what jazz is all about, what jazz means to people and why and how that has changed over the span of the music’s history. I have a 1940s textbook. It was the standard text used in music appreciation courses at universities around the country back then. I’ll bring it to my jazz history class and have them read from page 7: “Jazz is peculiarly of an inbred, feeble-stock race, incapable of development…”

To study the meaning of jazz is to study the psyche of America, and a big part of that is racial tension and identity. Can we all get along? I think jazz music offers hope. Jazz isn’t perfect, and neither are jazz musicians. But I love it.

This summer I’ve been leading a Sunday evening jazz series at Calvary Presbyterian Church designed to explore the spiritual side of jazz.

This fall I’ll be teaching a course at the JazzSchool Institute in Berkeley called “Philosophy of Jazz.” My dad would be proud.

AUDIO: “Poinciana,” with Dave Scott on trumpet and piano