Cambrian: Opinion

Cambria jazz pianist hitting all the right notes

Madison Lea Scott will play Friday and Saturday at Harmony Café in Cambria’s West Village.
Madison Lea Scott will play Friday and Saturday at Harmony Café in Cambria’s West Village.

One of the best things about this job is that I get to meet some very interesting people. Being a creative type myself, it’s particularly fun to encounter others who have an artistic bent.

This past weekend, some research for a segment on my next nonfiction book, a history of U.S. Highway 101, took an unexpected turn toward the history of a very creative individual: jazz pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.

At one time, it seems, Morton’s wife owned the first motel built on the Pacific Coast Highway — then known as the U.S. 101-Alternate — in Malibu.

The motel, which is still there (but no longer open for business), was once owned by none other than William Randolph Hearst.

There’s a lot more to the story, but although it’s a fascinating tale, it’s not pertinent here … and I don’t want to give it away.

What’s relevant is that two days later, who should walk into my office here in Cambria but a jazz pianist — and one who is a fascinating story in her own right.

Madison Lea Scott, who will be performing at the Harmony Café this Friday and Saturday night, is just 20 years old, but she’s been studying with famed Cambria vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake for three years and has already recorded three CDs. The first two — collections of Hawaiian music and worship music — were followed by her most recent release, “An Occasion for Jazz.”

At this weekend’s gig at the Harmony Café, she’ll be standing in for Shoemake, who’s doing a concert in San Diego this weekend.

“To reach the big leagues in the world of professional music, you have to possess three things: enormous talent, enormous dedication and some luck,” Shoemake said. “Madison certainly has the talent portion nailed and then some.”

Scott, who was born premature at just 5½ months, has been blind all her life. After being homeschooled and graduating from Leffingwell High School, she formed a band called Cool Notes with three other young musicians, two of whom, like her, have studied under Shoemake.

“Charlie has been a big influence, not only in his playing but in teaching me to learn about jazz,” said Scott, who’s studied the works of jazz pianists such as Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark and Bud Powell.

New CD released

Her latest CD features the band on four tracks, including one she composed herself — “Cool Notes Blues.” The rest are standards she arranged, such as “In the Mood” and “What a Wonderful World.”

Scott describes the project as “a lot of work” but said she was able to complete the recording in three sessions at Steve Crimmel’s Painted Sky Studio here in Cambria.

“I’ve always been a music person,” she said. “It’s just a gift God gave me, and I love it. I’ve always appreciated jazz. I would pick out (George) Gershwin songs on the piano, but I wouldn’t really improvise before.”

That’s where working with Shoemake came in.

“Improvising is fun and that whole style of jazz, the chords and the melodies are really pretty,” she said. “You can be really creative with it.”

Shoemake first got wind of Scott through Cambria voice instructor Ruth Fleming (yes, Scott sings, too — and hinted she may do some of that at the Harmony Café, as well).

“Madison’s mom then called and set up an appointment to come over to my studio,” Shoemake recalled. “When they arrived, after a brief bit of talking, I played a very sophisticated chord on the piano and asked Madison if she had ever heard anything like that. She said no, but then proceeded to sit down at the piano and duplicate it perfectly. This was a startling feat, and I thought WOW this is going to be something … and it has been.

“In all my years of teaching jazz music — about 1,500 students down in my L.A. days — I’ve only had that happen a couple of times, and one of them was Randy Kerber, who is currently the featured pianist on the new award-winning film ‘La La Land.’ ”

Shoemake said Scott will be filling in for him at some other Harmony Café concerts this year, as well, and she said another appearance is planned for the first week in March.

“In the years to come,” Shoemake said, “it’s going to be interesting to follow the rest of the story.”

Jazz concert

Madison Lea Scott at Harmony Café, 824 Main St., Friday and Saturday from 6 to 8:30 p.m. No cover, no minimum.

Details: 805-924-1219.

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