A key player in the New York jazz scene of the 50s, clarinetist Tony Scott made a dramatic, career-changing turn at the end of that decade. In 1959, he pursued a nomadic lifestyle for six years, following an insatiable curiosity for exploring new tonalities, asymmetrical phrasing, and improvisation beyond bebop, the dominant American jazz sensibility of the time. What eventually emerged was three fascinating records that, today, are regarded as the first New Age albums.
Before all that, though, Scott was well known in New York jazz, playing alongside Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, and developing the sound of the clarinet to navigate the new vistas of bebop and post-bop. He was championed for his playing by the jazz magazine DownBeat in its polls in 1955, 1957, and 1959. But as the decade wound to a close, Scott abandoned New York in a state of mourning for many of his colleagues who had passed away, as well as the demise of the once-vibrant 52nd Street scene. Adding to Scott’s disillusionment was the changing role of his instrument. Early on in jazz, the clarinet was a featured instrument in the hands of big band leaders like Benny Goodman. But as bebop became the sound du jour, the clarinet was eclipsed by saxophones and trumpets.
Seeking new inspiration and a more secure financial situation, Scott looked to travel. While playing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, he met Japanese jazz writer Mata Sagawa and asked him about visiting his country. Sagawa arranged for Scott to come, set him up with a house, and got him gigs on television, which paid well. Scott also got to work well-paying gigs in different Japanese cities, earning him enough money to allow him the space and time to explore new styles of music.
While in Japan, Scott also traveled widely in Asia, learning how to assimilate his jazz with music native to countries like the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. He played in a Hindu temple in Hong Kong. He explored the Balinese gamelan tradition and sought out Javanese harp and flute players. He studied the traditional classical music of Japan, and read about Zen monks. His study led him to the idea of doing a record specifically for meditation, because – at the time – there was only religious music and gagaku (Japanese court music) in the temples.
At this point, Scott’s outlook on his instrument shifted radically. In America, jazz musicians were pushing the tempo faster. Scott slowed things down. The shift was met warmly by some Japanese musicians, who were fascinated by Scott’s ability to play a clarinet in a style reminiscent of a shakuhachi flute. Scott proposed recording with two Japanese masters: Hozan Yamamoto on the bamboo shakuhachi flute and Shinichi Yuize on koto, the 13-string plucked instrument. The trio improvised entirely on classical Japanese scales. The music contained no song form or resolution – just a slow wrapping of flute and strings around the subtle lyrical line. Because there is no instrument like the clarinet in Japanese folk music, Scott had to invent a voice for it by closely matching the tonal qualities and breath patterns of Yamamoto’s shakuhachi playing.
Without fanfare, Verve Records released Music for Zen Meditation in 1965. The album faced the challenge of being beyond categorization. Was this jazz? Japanese music? Was it a cousin of the sort of palatable instrumentals the Hollywood Strings made when covering Beatles music? It was, of course, none of those things. And, despite it all, the album created a buzz.
Scott and company drew a lot of attention for the minimalist beauty of songs with cosmic titles like “The Murmuring Sound of the Mountain Stream,” “After the Snow, The Fragrance,” “To Drift Like Clouds,” “Sanzen (Moment of Truth),” and “A Quivering Leaf Ask the Winds.” The music was quiet and soothing – a salve in the midst of a world rife with war and cultural upheavals. The album also resonated, of course, with an audience ready to include music into their meditation practice. It sold over 500,000 copies in the first few years after being issued, with regular royalty checks affording Scott the opportunity to now travel wherever his interests led him.
Music for Zen Meditation proved to be a harbinger of an entirely new movement of music. The record is, today, acknowledged as the first New Age album, a genre that properly took shape more than a decade later. Today, Music for Zen Meditation stands as Tony Scott’s most popular album. And it remains so. In the digital era, songs from that album have been streamed close to 4.5 million times.
Seeing the unexpected success of Zen, Verve gave Scott the green light to record another album of spiritual reflection, Music for Yoga Meditation & Other Joys, a duet with sitar player Collin Walcott. Released in 1968, Scott plays his flowing melodies seasoned by elements of Indian classical music, based on his visits to India and his study of Indian raga clarinetists S.R. Kamble and V. Narasinhalu Wadvati. In 1972, he recorded the final album in the meditation trilogy, Music for Voodoo Meditation, based on his travels to different African countries. He ruminates with various African percussion rhythms throughout. Strangely, Voodoo was released only in Germany, Italy, and Canada. It’s surmised that the album was a German production through Polydor, for which they got permission to use the Verve imprint.
Throughout his career, Scott frequently returned to New York and took up the bebop mantle. He recorded straight-up jazz albums, including 1971’s 52nd Street Scene. A tune called “Blues for Charlie Parker” is among his best-remembered jazz compositions. But his eclecticism and globetrotting made him hard to pin down. As a result, Scott is largely invisible in today’s jazz world. He moved to Italy in the 1970s and died there, in 2007, at age 85. His legacy, however, is one that deserves praise: Scott spent his career shunning ruling styles and using his intuition to follow a nonconformist path.