Monday, May 19, 2014

Body and Soul: How a Masterful Instrument Repairman Had Me Swooning

“Just listen to these 16 bars,” Mr. Scott said to the unassuming black man, who I later learned could play like Chester Washington from “Earth Wind & Fire.”  

In all of its beauty, the stereophonic sax solo rang out, transforming Mr. Scott’s cluttered front room into the moodiest of jazz clubs.  I had just walked in through the screened-in front door, but now stood equally transfixed by the many colors of the sultry saxophone that caressed our faces, causing our eyebrows to curl upward and our eyelids to squeeze tight. 

The sax solo was from the 1939 jazz standard “Body and Soul,” first recorded by Louis Armstrong and now with hundreds of versions, including this one by Westchester musician Joe Stelutti.  It brought me to my happy place.

“Mmmm,” I swayed and swooned. 

A hidden gem down a suburban side street in Yonkers, NY, Scott Music Instrument Rental & Repair is a home-based workshop that preserves the art of musical instrument repair – all due to its namesake, master technician and gifted musician, Virgil Scott. 

The longer you are allowed to stay, the more you learn about Mr. Scott who worked with Tony Bennett, played the flute for the Paul Winter Consort and still gigs with his own group, The Virgil Scott Orchestra.  I happily head to see him when my son Jake’s alto sax needs fixing and try to stay as long as possible.  His approach is old school and his workshop takes me back to the days when mom-and-pop shops were more the norm.  And, the big band orchestra music he plays makes me long for the music of the 40’s, decades before I was even born.  I come away moved, inspired, and reminded of how I much I miss my stint as a wannabe singer and musician.

Mr. Scott turns his attention to me. 

“I’m not sure you remember me,” I say.  “I was here about a year and a half ago. In exchange for your incomparable services, I sent you a CD.  Lady Gaga I think?”

“Oh!” he smiled.  “You are the singer.  Let’s go.” And we headed downstairs to the basement workshop. 

This is where the magic happens.  Lying in piles on wooden shelves and stacked on the floor are the bones of wind, brass, keyboard and string instruments.  There are boxes and boxes of mouthpieces, necks and instrument bodies.

On his scarred worktable, there are tools of every kind scattered about in disarray and small plastic drawers stuffed with the tinier parts.  This is where Mr. Scott repairs the thousands of instruments that are delivered to his shop.

Running his expert hands down the keys of Jake’s saxophone, Mr. Scott instantly diagnosed that the pad on the D key needed replacing. In no time, it was pitch perfect.  I know this because he treated me to a rhythmic rendition of “Mack the Knife” and a sweet study of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  To say I was fahklempt is putting it mildly. 

So how did I find Virgil Scott?

In my school days, the band teacher would repair my saxophone’s minor glitches, and the local music store took care of the trickier fixes. But today, musical instrument repair shops are getting harder and harder to find, and a truly gifted technician is a rarity in any neighborhood.  But, a few years ago, I found myself in a predicament – a broken saxophone and nowhere to go for repair.

The saga wasn’t my own.  It all came about when our nearby music store and repair shop sold out, went bust and tried to compensate by opening a small shop 30 miles north, which was really just smoke and mirrors.  I, along with many others, was left with a broken rental and no reimbursement.  Not to be deterred, I headed north and was directed by the distracted clerk to a barn next door that was filled with broken instruments. 

“If you can find one that works, you can have it,” he said.

What do you call a barn filled with broken musical instruments instead of livestock?  That’s a riddle I’m still working out, but it sure was a smelly adventure – and not the earthy manure smell of horses and cows, but the musty and moldy odor of decaying metal flutes, trumpets, tubas and saxophones. 

So there I found myself, alone and surrounded by cases of instruments stacked to the rafters. I easily located the saxophone “stall” and opened case after case, extracting the saxophone from the molded velvet, fingering the keys and running C scales.  Some of the keys just fell off in my hands, and some were glued shut.  But, one sax sounded great and only had one broken key. I recognized the pre-eminent Yamaha brand – the same brand as the beloved sax I played as a kid, (which I regrettably sold in exchange for a trip to Florida…what a mistake and what I wouldn’t give to have it back!).  I decided to take this one home and make some calls.

Ultimately, it was my mom who told me to call our hometown music store. Although it turned out that they no longer did repairs, they highly recommend Mr. Virgil Scott.   And, after my first visit to his one-of-a-kind workshop, I was sold.

Back at the shop, Mr. Scott did one final improvisational run on Jake’s sax and then declared it to be a quality instrument.  “Whatever sound and effort you put into this instrument, you will get out,” he told me.  “Now let’s sing.”

“Oh, I haven’t sung in 20 years!” I purred, eagerly following him to his keyboards, like a cat to her catnip. Mr. Scott pulled out a book of Noel Coward standards. He played a couple of tunes and then he looked up at me. 

“Now you are a woman, so I need to change the key.  Most women sing in the key of F or G.”

Yes, I am in fact, a woman, and I guess I was gonna sing. 

“Do you know any Cole Porter?”  I asked, and with that his fingers dug into Night and Day, the song I performed at 17 with my friend Elliott at a summer stock theatre in Maine. I remembered most of the lyrics, including the romantic phrasing of, “Whether near to me or far, it doesn’t matter darling where you are I think of you…”

“Do you know That’s All,” Mr. Scott asked?

“Yes!” I yelped.  Were the music gods here in this workshop with me? How out of a zillion possible songs did he pick Night and Day and That’s All, two songs that had so much sentimental value? 

“I recorded That’s All for my mom on her 60th birthday,” I said.  “She loves Nat King Cole and it was her and my dad’s song.”

And so he played, and I sang.  Not very well mind you, and without many of the right lyrics…but with a big smile on my face.

And then with Jake’s saxophone fixed, and my musical-self newly inspired, my visit was over. 

We headed back upstairs and I turned the conversation to the proper payment for his incredible services.  He waved me away, more interested in choosing just the right CDs for me to take home – his Still Swinging by The Virgil Scott Orchestra, and New York’s Rainbow Room Classics, with him on the tenor sax and Greg Wilder crooning away to one of my favorites, The Way You Look Tonight.  And, of course, the heart-rendering Body and Soul.

So, once again, I guess I have no other choice but to attempt to return the favor, and send him a CD or two from my own collection.  And, I think I know just the right ones…

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