Her audiences know her as Rhoda Scott, the organist famous for rocking such legendary venues as Count Basie’s Jazz Club and the Village Vanguard with soulful rendition of classics like “Summertime” and “In the Mood.”
But to her teachers and fellow students at Rutgers-Newark Graduate School, she’s Rhoda Scott Sampognaro, the studious 75-year-old who will walk away with a master of arts degree in jazz history and research in May, proving that – like the musical classics she venerates – the thirst for learning never goes out of style.
“It was a challenge,” acknowledges Sampognaro, who last saw the inside of a classroom when she earned a master’s degree in music theory in 1967 from the Manhattan School of Music, generations before the advent of the Internet Era.
“It was so interesting to see the change in university studies,” the East Orange resident says. “I went from one discovery to the next. Everything now is about computers. When I got my first master’s, there were no computers, no word processors. Everything was by hand. I still take notes in long hand – it helps me retain the information better.”
Following in the footsteps of Fats Waller, Bill Doggett and her own personal hero, Lou Bennett, Sampognaro has carved out a niche for herself since pounding out her first few tentative notes on the organ at the age of 7.The minister’s daughter, profoundly familiar from infancy with the cadences of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, went on to become what many aficionados consider one of the top female jazz organists of the day. Marc Myers, writing for the blog JazzWax, calls her “easily the finest Hammond B3 organist around today.”
“Making music is a great joy,” Sampognaro says of a career that has included worldwide appearances and more than 30 recordings. “I try to communicate that joy when I play. Someone once told me that I play every note like it’s a matter of life or death, and I guess that’s true. I just find it so exalting.”
Not long after appearing at Count Basie’s club in Harlem in the early 1960s – where the great man himself frequently wandered in for a listen – Sampognaro made her way to France to study under Nadia Boulanger, teacher of such luminaries as Quincy Jones.
In Paris, she met Raoul Saint-Yves, the musician-turned-actor who would become her manager, and her husband. So she stayed and built her reputation there, often appearing with noted American musicians such as George Benson when they were booked in Paris and thereabouts.
The bulk of her career thus far has been in France and other European countries, Sampognaro says.
“When a musician goes to Europe and stays there, he or she falls off the radar here,” she says. She points to Lou Bennett, the African-American jazz organist who moved to Paris in 1960, returning only once to the States to perform at the 1964 Newport Jazz Festival.
Despite numerous tours throughout France and Spain, Bennett remains largely unknown to U.S. audiences – a phenomenon Sampognaro hopes to reverse. “I’m writing my thesis on him,” she says of the artist who “was opening the way for other organists when I went over to France in 1968. I thought I owed him that – I thought he deserved to be recognized as one of the first in his field.”
Except for one concert she gave at Newark Symphony Hall her first year at Rutgers, Sampognaro jettisoned performing on stage in favor of performing in the classroom during the duration of her studies.
“I decided to cool it, to just be a student,” she says of the three years she worked toward her degree. But at that one performance, she managed to give a shout out to her professors and other grad students in the audience: Among her repertoire that night was one tune they’d begged her to play – “Ebb Tide,” made famous by the Righteous Brothers in the mid-1960s.
So why, after so many successful gigs in the world of music, would Sampognaro decide to go back to school – and in her eighth decade, no less?
Credit her father, the itinerant preacher who instilled in his seven children not only a reverence for God, but also a devotion to learning. “We were all motivated to do more, to learn more,” she recalls of her childhood in Dorothy, a small community near Atlantic City. “Two of my brothers and one sister have their doctorates, and the rest are also very well educated.”
Now a widow, Sampognaro did more than pick up a second advanced degree during her time at Rutgers-Newark; she also became a grandmother. The two boys, Cesar Derouineau and Liam Sampognaro, live in France, and Sampognaro is hoping they’ll be at the Prudential Center on Wednesday, May 21, when she accepts that hard-won piece of paper.
After that, she has plans for a concert to benefit her church, St. Mark AME Church in East Orange, where she’s been a longtime choir member and – yes – organist. The performance will be a jazz brunch on May 24, three days after graduation, and the play list is still unfinished. That’s by design.
“I never make a program beforehand. I play with musicians who can join me in most anything I want to play,” Sampognaro says. “I love being spontaneous, because you can feel people’s vibrations and just go with it.”