Artist of the Month interview with David Thorne Scott as told to Charan Devereaux
David Thorne Scott is a singer and songwriter who explores the intersection of Jazz and Americana music. He is Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music, a member of the Vintage Vocal Quartet, and producer of the “Songwriters in the Round” a twice-monthly series at Somerville’s Center for the Arts at the Armory.
David has been a featured soloist with the Boston Pops, the Capital Jazz Orchestra, the New England Wind Symphony, the Melrose Symphony, the Cape Symphony, and the Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra. His most recent album, Thornewood, includes guest performances by Paula Cole, Peter Eldridge, Jason Palmer, Walter Smith III, and Sara Caswell. David has been a Somerville resident since 1999.
Do you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a singer?
I always loved singing and performing. In third grade, I sang in the church choir, and I started playing trumpet in fourth grade. I grew up in Nebraska, a town of 25,000, and did every musical thing I could – barbershop groups and musical theater too. I remember being in the musical Tom Sawyer, and singing a solo in a big auditorium with a spotlight in my eyes. I couldn’t see the audience at all, I could only see the reflection of the spotlight in my eyelashes – I thought that was the best. I wouldn’t say I decided music was going to be my life until I was 20 or 21. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. But when I was 20, I figured it was time to commit. The thing that symbolized this commitment was learning how to play the piano. I realized I wasn’t going to get where I wanted to be unless I understood harmony, and to do that, I felt I needed to learn to play jazz piano specifically.
How did you make your way from Nebraska to Somerville?
I went to a liberal arts college in New Jersey where I was an English major. As I was nearing graduation, I realized I had enough music credits to double major in music. But I felt I didn’t know anything about music, I felt like a fraud. I spent a year as a professional classical singer, doing choral music. I had a cheap apartment and sang in four or five different professional choirs. I spent most of my time reading books and practicing piano. Then I went to a great community college in Iowa that has an amazing jazz program. That is where I met my mentor, Phil Mattson. After studying there, I went down to the University of Miami for a master’s degree, and met and married a New Englander. We moved to Somerville in 1999. All along, I was doing some college teaching. In Boston, there are many colleges so I figured I would get some teaching work.
How did Phil Mattson impact you as an artist?
In so many ways. He was an expert at teaching how to sing jazz harmony, which I felt was the coolest and hardest thing I could do. That is what I learned from him skill-wise. Philosophy-wise, I learned how to be a servant of the music, rather than have the music serve me. He showed me how endlessly rewarding that is. [Mattson] was a deep guy; he did not have patience for people who used music to build themselves up. As he saw it, music is a timeless, eternal, infinite power source, and your job as a musician is to serve it, to do what the music wants you to do, to glorify it. Music teaches you humility. You could live for a thousand years and never master it all.
You are a Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music. How does teaching inform your personal work?
These are two different things, but they are related. The way that teaching helps my own music is because it gives me a chance to work things out on a daily basis. I can hear something and say “that’s good” or “that’s bad,” but then the challenge as a teacher or performer or composer is to say, but why? What exactly is the thing that is making it amazing? Or the thing that makes it a problem? Because that is your job, to say, “that was great, and this is why,” to abstract some generalizations so you or your student can apply this knowledge to other music. I still run into problems where I can hear something is wrong, but I’m not sure why. At those times I say to the students, “Let’s work this out together and figure out how we can fix it.” It’s about continuing that discipline of music and benefitting students while I’m figuring it out for myself too.
Your music has been described as exploring the intersection of jazz and Americana. How did you land there?
For me, jazz is the key into every kind of music. It is a uniquely American and open-ended art form. The way that jazz musicians think about music is sort of omnivorous. They will look for good ideas anywhere they can find them. There are planets of jazz clichés you can learn, and they are all great, but jazz leads you out of the clichés if you follow it. You can say, “Let’s take this Mozart piece and listen to how it swings.” Jazz is the lens through which I look at all music.
Americana music, the folky singer-songwriter thing, has always appealed to me, going back to being a teenager and listening to Simon & Garfunkel. I’ve applied the lessons from jazz to the folk music I’ve always cared about, the music that hits me emotionally.
Are there other art forms you are drawn to?
I would say fiction, biography, and history. Since I’m a singer, I deal with words all the time, so the more I can understand words and their historical context, the richer the experience. I’m not just reciting the lyrics, I’m exploring them. The words themselves are the tip of the iceberg; there’s also the connotations the words might have from fiction, or the themes they might reference from when the song was written. So whether I’m writing songs or interpreting songs, being a reader is important.
Recently, I decided to write a musical. Every few years I get obsessed with a different historical period, person or event. I started reading a lot about [economist] John Maynard Keynes, so the musical is about him. I’m working on that right now.
Can you talk about starting Songwriters in the Round series at the Armory?
I got tired of hearing about the venues around town that were closing. Sometimes, the reason they fail is a lack of a curatorial vision. A lot of venues say to performers, if you can bring X number of [audience members], then you can play here. The venues don’t really curate events and develop listeners; they just become a place where performers can bring their fans. Curation is about creating communities of performers and audiences.
I reached out to the Armory and said I wanted to curate a songwriter series twice a month, and they were enthusiastic. As of April 5, it will be a year, and I think it’s working. We have repeat customers, and they’re getting to know new artists they haven’t heard before. For many venues, you only go if a band you like is playing, you don’t say, “Let’s go to the venue because they’ll have a great band for us to hear.” That is what I’ve been trying to build, and hope people will think Dave puts together a great night -- and the price is right. You can pay $10 and have a new experience with a new artist. My goal is to fill the place every night and I’m not there yet. The Armory has been really supportive, many thanks to Jess [White] and Stephanie [Scherpf].
You are a member of several vocal groups. What drew you to start the Vintage Vocal Quartet? Can you talk about your other projects?
I started the Vintage Vocal Quartet after I did a tour subbing with the Four Freshmen, a jazz harmony group where each person sings and plays an instrument. When I got home from the tour, I wanted to start something like that.
I have another project, the core of it is myself and Mark Shilansky. I sing lead and play bass and he sings harmonies and plays piano. We’re opening for Bill Frisell at the Armory on May 28th. [Find tickets here.] Frisell invented jazz plus Americana, so we’re big fans and excited to be his opener.
There is another band I’m getting started -- piano with bass, drums, and guitar, sort of a jazz noire vibe. We will do concerts, but also private events. Usually, concerts are the most rewarding, but private events are the most lucrative, so you need to have a balance and do enough of each.
You are a board member of the Union Square Neighborhood Council. Can you talk about the work you’re doing in the community?
I’m passionate about the real-life, flesh and blood community of people who live near you. There is lots of hype about virtual communities, and those can be great. You can find a community of like-minded people online and talk about things you can’t talk about with family or friends. But it important to know the people who live across the street, the people where you can help each other. If I break my leg, who is going to shovel my sidewalk for me?
Doing the Neighborhood Council comes from the same impulse as the Armory series – trying to make connections and build community by doing something important. In the case of the Armory songwriter series, it is important because people like it and their souls need it. In the case of the Neighborhood Council, we’re all so much at the mercy of huge commercial interests, and the only way to stand our ground is to link arms and shape our neighborhood into what we want to be, instead having an entity with deep pockets do it on our behalf. Getting to know the people in your physical community is important and it’s not something you can get online.
What are some of your favorite places in Somerville?
There are so many places -- Prospect Hill Park and the Indo [The Independent]. I have a soft spot for East Somerville Community School because that’s where my kids went to school. Market Basket -- I just ordered a print of Market Basket by a local artist from an Armory art show. I like the Community Path to Davis Square. The Foss Park Pool on a hot day.
David Thorne Scott
Vintage Vocal Quartet