Ex-Detroit saxophonist Scott Petersen loses battle with cystic fibrosis

A  year and a half ago, MT jazz scribe Charles L. Latimer gave us the story of saxophonist Scott Petersen. The former Detroiter, a veteran of the J.C. Heard Orchestra and other aggregations, had relocated to San Francisco in 1995 as a better environment for coping with his congenital cystic fibrosis. There he worked with the likes of organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and the Kenton alumni band. But his condition continued to deteriorate, leading to a double-lung transplant — and doubts about whether he'd ever play again.

But rally, he did, with courage and dedication, as Charles recounts in his story. Petersen taught himself to play again, resumed his vocation as a musician and even came back to play here in Detroit, where a who's who of musicians had previously put on a fundraiser to help with his medical bills.

An e-mail from bassist Paul Keller, forwarded to us, carried the news that Peterson, after weeks fighting an infection died on Sunday at age 55.

Drummer RJ Spangler, in another e-mail, mourning the loss, wrote:

Scott truly lived his life as though everyday may be his last and thus was truly an inspiration to all around him.  He was an exemplary man and musician.  The true embodiment of a life well lived. We in the Detroit music community truly loved this man.  I imagine it was the same in the SF Bay area.

Update: We just heard from Spangler who's given us permission to repost his entire e-mail. It's a heart-felt, friend-to-friend tribute to Scott "E-Dog" Peterson.

Detroit jazz scribe Jim Gallert was asked to write a piece about Scott for the DJF [Detroit Jazz Festival] as he was to be part of a reunion of the JC Herad Orchestra at this year's festival. Jim asked that I help him out and here is what I wrote:

Scott was a fine tenor man, but he also swung just as hard on the alto sax and even the dreaded bari sax, which was tough on his diminutive frame. He was equally at home playing straight-ahead jazz & gut-bucket blues. He also played clarinet and subbed with Trad bands.

Scott "E-Dog" Petersen was my friend going back to the late 1970's - we were both born in 1956. But Scotty was born with the congenital disease cystic fibrosis, or simply, CF. He told me that he was expected to make it to about 25 years of age. He recently made 55. Along the way he had to undergo a double lung transplant. An amazing man.

Scott truly lived his life as though everyday may be his last and thus was an inspiration to all around him. He was an exemplary man and musician. The true embodiment of a life well lived. We in the Detroit music community loved this man. I imagine it was the same in the SF Bay area.

I believe that Scott came to the Detroit area from Cleveland to study with Doc Holiday at Oakland University.

When I met him he was playing in Sam Sanders' Pioneer Jazz Orchestra along with his lifelong best friend Walter Szymanski, himself a top tier trumpeter and fellow OU alum. They made a fine recording together under Scott's name.

We lived a few short blocks from each other on Detroit's eastside for many years and traveled to gigs together every week. We played together in the Sun Messengers and also the first edition of Johnnie Bassett & the Blues Insurgents. Scott used me on his small group gigs during that same time.

He was part of the two coolest big bands in the Detroit back then: The JC Heard Orchestra and the Paul Keller Orchestra. With JC's band he did many dates backing the great Dizzy Gillespie, a gig he really loved. Keller was to be another dear friend of Scott's for the rest of his life.

Bill Heid was a friend & mentor to Scott & myself back then. He appears on at least three of Bill's CD's and everyone is a gem. Check out Wet Streets with his dear pal Russ Miller. Bill loved the Dog until the very end and rightfully so. He even took Scott with him on a tour of Japan. Because of the time spent with Heid, Scott was able to work with organists like Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Lonnie Smith & Gene Ludwig.

Other important Detroit area gigs for Edog include Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, Burt Bacharach and the Temptations. He did lots of dates with soul singers Howard Tate and Bettye Lavette. Scott and I hung in the Netherlands when he was doing a tour with Howard Tate. Scott did the first tour of Europe with the Johnnie Bassett band in the mid 90's. It was a month long tour & the band included Chris Codish, Dwight Adams, myself & Scott's close friend Keith Kaminski. He did at least one other short tour of Europe with us after that. I cherish those memories. What a joy to hang with him it was. We recorded "I Gave My Life To The Blues" with Johnnie on that first tour. I need to mention Matt's Lee's band, the Suspects, which Scott & Walt were very active with for quite a while. 

He was a fine arranger – writing for Jonnie Bassett to works by Bach and Debussy for the Bishop St. Saxophone Quartet. He was also a college lecturer of jazz history and instructor of jazz saxophone. He led a band at Macomb College for many years.

Around Detroit he worked and recorded with folks like Sheila Landis, Bess Bonior, the late Eddie Nuccilli and the late Chuck Robinette. He treasured all of those gigs & had lots of great stories. Those Robinette stories should have been written down! I recall many great nights watching him with David Swain's 2-5-1 Band at the now defunct Soup Kitchen Saloon.

Scott moved to the Bay Area from the Midwest for health reasons - the winters were tough on him and California had better health care for a person with CF. He hooked up with fellow midwest ex-pat Steve Lucky & his band the Rhumba Bums, whom he recorded with, as well as Little Charlie & the Nightcats & Mighty Mike Schermer. Bay area Big Band gigs included Dan Buegeleisen, Peter Welker, Jeff Oster & Mike Vax and the Stan Kenton Alumni Orchestra. Scott played with Contemporary Jazz Orchestra at Jazz at Pearls with fellow ex-Detroiters Danny Spencer and Mike Bacile & led by Chris Pitts, his colleague from the JC Heard days. He also played sometimes with the very fine Eight Legged Monster band. Toward the end he was often seen with Lavay Smith & the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, a gig he really enjoyed.

Actually, Scott seemed to enjoy it all. The man rarely complained. He really knew what it was to enjoy life.

He certainly made my life better.

As my uncle Bud said in an email yesterday "I learned that Scott passed last night around 10:00. He was a great gift to so many of us and to the world. I am really glad that I have Pat’s CD. It may be the only thing he recorded after the transplant. I hope not."  Rustbelt is indeed a very fine CD released by Pat Prouty and featuring Scott, Bill Heid & Bill Higgins.

RJ Spangler

Update: We also received words in Petersen's memory from singer Sheila Landis:

Not sure how to begin, but we are all reeling from the word, via drummer R. J. Spangler, of saxman/arranger Scott Petersen's passing, finally succumbing to his lifelong battle with the inherited disorder cystic fibrosis and its complications.. Scott was an integral part of my musical crew for years, in my 1980's wedding band "Top Drawer" along with pianist Phil Kelly, my ex-husband drummer Jon Knust and many others. Scott, was such a wickedly funny, engaging and generous guy. I loved Scotty Dog as a brother. I still marvel in awe and humility recalling a wedding gig I played in the 1980s with Gary Schunk on piano and Scott Petersen on sax, the two of them sight-reading the pants off the convoluted theme from "St. Elmo's Fire." I had been seriously sweating this tune, but the two of them aced it! At Scott's gig (two winters ago?) at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, Scott actually stopped the band when I walked into the club to announce my presence to the crowd and launched into "Sophisticated Lady", dedicated to me. He may have had terminally damaged lungs from his cystic fibrosis, but "E-Dog", as he was known to his close friends, had a gigantic heart! I was alarmed to see the degree of puffiness his small frame had accumulated due to the regimen of steroids and anti-rejection drugs he was having to take to prevent his body from rejecting his recent double-lung transplant. But, as always, Scott was upbeat and in high spirits and making that tenor sax sing. And, heavens, could he arrange! He told me he still preferred writing music out long-hand despite the computer programs available for arranging and charting. And we had marveled together that horns and instruments had "spirits" inside them from being lovingly played and that stages where we'd played were sacred grounds. Scott's handiwork is stamped on many of my signature recordings; his Afro-Cuban arrangement of "Summertime" on "Colors of Brazil" (SheLan Records 2001) and the funky multi-horn Tower of Power-styled romp on "That Ain't No Cadillac" kicking off "Blues in the Night" (SheLan 2006) immediately come to mind. Not to mention Scott's quirky, soulful solos, whether on tenor sax or soprano sax. They say sometimes angels walk among us mortals here on earth. In his 55 brief years with us on the planet, I think Scotty just may have been one of them.

Sheila Landis






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