Blowing again

Feb 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

Tenor saxophonist Scott "E-Dog" Petersen is a glass half-full, not-half-empty, kind of guy, but the optimist's outlook was hard to maintain last year. A double-lung transplant may have saved his life — after cystic fibrosis had devastated the lungs he was born with — but he was unsure whether he'd ever blow a note again.

"During my early years, the cystic fibrosis didn't have much effect on me. I was a young guy living hard, and I was pretty much ignoring it," Petersen, now 54, said by phone the other day from his home in San Francisco.  "In the '80s into the '90s, as I aged, it started to kick in."

Playing here in Detroit — particularly with the J.C. Heard Orchestra — and on the West Coast since 1995, Petersen made a mark with a volcanic tenor sound coming out of the work of sax giants like Ben Webster and Gene Ammons. Returning to top form has been an uphill battle.

Petersen was born in Cleveland and developed and ear for jazz in high school there. He carried a fake ID to get into a neighborhood dive that had live jazz. There he saw big name jazz musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.   Then came college.

"I did what most middle class white guys do," he said.  "I went to college as a business major for two years, and I did pretty well, but I was living a lie. In my spare time, I was practicing and finding cats to play with. It so happened that my dad got a job in Detroit. I never regretted moving there. It was 1976 when I got to Detroit and it was like New York City to me. There were so many great musicians and places to play."

As a music major at Oakland University, he studied with the likes of the great Motown session trumpeter Herbie Williams. And during a Mackinac Island gig, he came to the attention of drummer J.C. Heard, a Detroit music legend who had traveled the world and worked in New York with such artists as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker before moving home in the 1960s. Petersen played with and toured with the big band that became Heard's vehicle in the final stretch of his life.

"The best situation I had was working with J.C.  It was a wonderful thing," he said. "He died in 1988, and I can honestly say I've thought about him everyday since then. I learned so much from him musically and how to conduct myself professionally."

In the early '90s, Petersen worked around Detroit with such musicians including bassist Paul Keller, trumpeter Walt Szymanski and vocalist Sheila Landis. The saxophonist recorded an outstanding post-bop album, E-Dog Oriko, and co-led the Motor City Jazz Quintet with Szymanski, another Heard band alum and now based in New York.

"Scotty is like my brother. What's incredible about him is he has cystic fibrosis, but he never let it effect his life. He was never like ‘poor me.' He was always right there with us. We played all kinds of gigs and we traveled all over. He had limitless energy," said Szymanski.

In 1995, Petersen moved to San Francisco where the climate was better for his lung condition. His career really took off. Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and drummer Donald Bailey hired him. He toured with a Stan Kenton alumni band. He managed to keep a full schedule although the cystic fibrosis started to wreak havoc with his lungs. Sometimes on the road he'd hook the IV up to the coat hanger in the car.  Eventually, he cutback on touring, and he started writing arrangements for some Bay area R&B and salsa bands. 

In the winter of 2009, the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, where he was receiving care, informed him they had a donor match. Hours later, Petersen had surgery. It was successful, although there was concern a few months later: His body's attempt to reject the new tissue landed him back in the hospital for a week.

From the beginning, his doctor encouraged him to resume playing, which meant virtually starting from scratch. At one point, he says he sent a panicked e-mail to some of his musician friends in Detroit, telling them he couldn't even get a sound out the instrument. After months of constant practicing, his playing improved. And musicians gave more than advice and moral support. Szymanski organized a benefit held here with "a who's who of Detroit musicians that came out to support Scotty."

Petersen isn't out the woods yet. He takes 13 different meds daily; he's susceptible to infections; he needs weekly follow up visit to the medical center. However, he estimates his chops are about 80 percent: Strong enough to work in San Francisco with a jazz band called the Eight Leg Monster, and he tours periodically. Strong enough to come home to play too.

"I'm a determined man. The music keeps me going. It's the power of the music. It just pulls me along," he said.

Scott Petersen plays Feb.17-20 (Wednesday-Saturday) at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, 97 Kercheval, Grosse Pointe Farms, 313-882-5299. See for show times and details.