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Preserving Buffalo's rich jazz tradition

As president of the Colored Musicians Club, George Scott promotes the preservation of jazz in Buffalo. As saxophonist and leader of the club's 18-piece band, Scott, 54, performs in the same space frequented by jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

Incorporated in 1917, the downtown club today offers music lessons, jam sessions and live entertainment on Sunday nights. This spring, the Colored Musicians Club will open a museum dedicated to its rich musical past.

>People Talk: Why did you choose the saxophone?

George Scott: Because I wanted to get chicks.

>PT: Did it work?

GS: Yes and no. They were the wrong kind of women. ... Seriously, when I started out as a youngster my grandfather played guitar -- blues and stuff. So my brother and I played guitar, but my older brother was bringing home jazz records with some really interesting sounds. In fact, one almost sounded like a bird -- it was that quick. It was Charlie Parker, and his nickname was Bird. That sound impressed me so much, I put down the guitar and picked up a saxophone.

>PT: Tell me about the magic of a saxophone.

GS: Actually, the saxophone is based on human voice pitch. That's why it's named an alto, soprano, tenor or baritone. That's why it's a lot more emotional when it's played -- not to take anything away from trumpets and trombones.

>PT: What don't people seem to get about this club?

GS: The name -- Colored Musicians Club -- makes some white people a little hesitant. Younger people see it like it's nothing but that old-style music. And then you have a group that really knows what's going on up here.

>PT: What was it like back in the day?

GS: I'm talking the '20s -- we had whites who came up and listened to the musicians. We had whites who played in the band with the black musicians. We had Canadians come down here because it was about the music -- plain and simple. It was more the politics of the day that made it what it was.

>PT: And now the club band is named after you, the George Scott Big Band.

GS: The band actually belonged to James H. White. He had the band, and the band was called the Apollo Big Band. As he got up in years, his health got worse and he wanted the band to keep going even though he was unable to play. I told him I would do it because it was something I always wanted to do.

>PT: You perform at schools?

GS: Yes, elementary schools and high schools -- so you know jazz is the last thing on their minds. But when you can take a song they listen to and jazz it up, that blows their mind. We'll do a song like "Sesame Street" in a very jazzy way. We did "Sesame Street" in a college, and they were singing along.

>PT: You jazzed it up.

GS: Yes. We turned the song around and had fun with it. You throw a vocalist in front of a horn, it's such a full sound that you can't get with an electric guitar and electric keyboard or a synthesized horn. It's actual live, breathing people playing.

>PT: Do you play all genres of music?

GS: We don't play rap. We get some youngsters up here and they do this stuff they call neo-soul, their spin on R&B.

>PT: Why should I like jazz?

GS: Once you feel the passion of the music, you can't help but like it. I love what each one of those musicians is saying musically because each time those horns play and they step into their own improvising world, that's communication. They're telling a story, a musical story. It hits you, and you feel warm.

>PT: Who are some of the jazz legends who played here over the years?

GS: [Count] Basie and Duke Ellington and their bands came through here quite a bit. You see, the club was more of an after-hours spot rather than a destination for a gig. So if they heard some of the local guys jamming, they would just sit in. Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis used to hang together and they were here a lot. Dizzy played a heck of a piano. Miles hung around Dizzy to learn. We had Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Nat "King" Cole.

>PT: How do you know they were really here?

GS: We have documents. All these people had to register downstairs so we have signatures, and the dates they were here, which will be on display in the museum. That's how I found Charlie Parker was here. The club was part of a circuit called the Chitlin' Circuit, because you know back in the day black musicians couldn't stay in a five-star hotel -- or in some cases any hotel.

>PT: What celebrity inspires you?

GS: Duke [Ellington]. He was a fantastic leader because he knew to spread the wealth among his band. Everybody was featured, and everyone was a star in their own right. To keep that talent together for that long was amazing -- not like some of the prima donnas today.