The Varnished Culture celebrates the life of obscure but influential Jazz Genius, Elroy “Scratchy” Impasto (15 January 1923 – 3 February 1966)
Born Elroy Raymondo Fillibecker III, son of Myron Elroy Fillibecker II (a veteran’s disability pensioner) and his third wife, Mayvis Jo-Anne Minniver Fillibecker (cleaner) in either Hawaii or Kenya, he was raised in an atmosphere made for Jazz. Plagued with the childhood ailments eczema, asthma, scrofula and tinea, Scratchy grew up in the experimental ‘projects’ of Cleveland, Illinois, surrounded by the hydroponic vertical and roof-top gardens which enlivened the drab apartment buildings of ‘Hypo-land’, as his estate was known. Myron was often absent, due to his traffic-counting obsession and frequent hospitalisation. The young Elroy got ‘the beat’ early: he helped his mother by running up and down the rear concrete stairs of Hypo-land, bringing her armfuls of rhubarb, nettlehop, polk salad, Spanish cabbage and pissweed from the roof gardens. He’d tap his wooden heels together and rasp out a discordant tune. Meanwhile, up on the shoulder of the highway, clicker and clipboard in hand, his father counted the traffic.
Whilst none of his siblings* were musical at all, Elroy displayed an early and astonishing virtuosity on a wide range of instruments, playing away earnestly in his bedroom: banjo, drums, clarinet, theremin, spoons, kettle, jug, melodica, piano, violin, tympani, trombone, flugelhorn, triangle, harmonica, kazoo, cello, and, of course, the recorder. From the first, he would scratch his name into all of his instruments (bought, borrowed or otherwise acquired) with an old paint scraper, which led (or, at least, having regard to his diverse afflictions, contributed) to his jazz name, later formalised by deed poll.
After rustication from the University of Social Music in Detroit, he appeared unannounced at the famous Aquarius Club, where he followed in his mother’s footsteps (as a cleaner). One night, Django Reinhardt approached him as he swept the dance floor, complaining that his bass player had got drunk and hijacked yet another ‘A’ train. Reinhardt wondered if Scratchy knew a bassist who could pinch-hit for that evening’s show. Scratchy mentioned ‘Marbles’ Hauk, but unfortunately, he was busy taking a schoolgirl across state lines for immoral purposes. So Scratchy made an off-the-wall proposal: “Tricky” Filigree. “Tricky” was newly paroled and able to make the set a success that night, despite breaking his curfew. Reinhardt was grateful and from then on, made it a point to tip the youngster whenever he deserved it. Unfortunately, ‘Scratchy’ didn’t get to play at the Aquarius Club till 5 years later.
His big break came when a blizzard in New York in early 1943 kept a bunch of Jazz greats indoors with pleurisy. A small and unappreciative crowd had gathered to drink antifreeze and eat cucumber sandwiches. Scratchy hoisted a banjo and picked out some random chords, simultaneously tinkling the piano keys with the toes of his left foot. A barman (‘Itchy Hands’ Madigan) enthusiastically opened up and then abandoned the bar, joining Scratchy on stage at the drums, and Scratchy delivered a world premiere of his now famous standard “This Brass Monkey Needs a Scotch.” A jazz impresario was born.
Eventually, Columbia Records sent an agent to the Club to check out Scratchy’s unique sound. Jazz, as we all know, is not just ‘pulling notes from the air’, despite the undoubted innovation present in all classic works of the idiom. In Scratchy’s case, a fixed atonality, variable meter, lack of rhythmic tension and taking of liberties with sonority and harmony, led to a break-through in both style and structure, where complex 32-bar improvisation gave us such classics as Cut-and-Paste, with its succession of disparate licks, Tired and Beat, with its total absence of percussion and instrumentation, Arthur or Martha, swinging wildly between strangled brass and tempestuous cello, Fillet of Soul‘s resolution into a hacksaw fiddle, and Rhapsody in Green, where the trumpet is superbly used to connote dry-heaving.
In 1957, Scratchy got his big break, when he was signed to the Tinker’s Cuss label, a division of Industrial Light and Musak, and given a generous five-hour slot to cut his first (and only) disc, Playin’ Craps, containing all of his known songs to date, but which also featured one whole side devoted to his magnum opus, the eternal Stop Me When the Blow is Gone, a wildly organised homage to great brass players such as ‘Dixie’ Cup, ‘Hoover’ Factory and ‘Cheese’ Burger, which ran for some 17 minutes in a deliberate chord sequence that defied analysis, featuring the seminal 10 minute ‘piano-breaking’ device, leading famous critic Lionel Bel to declare it “like being shoved into a washing machine with twelve feral cats.”
Playin’ Craps didn’t ignite the charts, and the following year found Scratchy in New Orleans, where he got into a fight with ‘Fats’ Domino over the ownership of a set of hairbrushes. ‘Fats’ eventually conceded ownership to Scratchy, despite the inscription on the set’s case: “To our dear Antoine, love from your Mom and Dad, the Dominos.” However, the crowd at the Witch Queen Lounge heard of the spat, and set Scratchy on fire.
In his remaining years, he remained further from the limelight. Having moved to the cooler climate of San Francisco, and forced to wear a rubber vest smeared with salve to treat his inflamed skin, Scratchy found his long, sinuous, unhurried standards unbearable (to play) and limited his appearances to a few guest spots on Fillmore Street, where he performed short pieces such as Cut-and-Paste, developing in addition a talent for playing two instruments with his feet, to minimize painful upper body movement. In this last phase of his career, he returned to his first love – cocaine – and was inspired to start work on a new long movement called Freebase ’63, where the syncopation resolves into a series of blue notes leading to intense sadness.
Scratchy Impasto passed in 1966, just before the Summer of Love. He was found on the floor of his kitchen, where a gas leak was adjudged to have caused asphyxiation. He had been listening to “King Biscuit Time” on a ham radio and heating a TV dinner. He left behind an enormous but opaque book of notes for a new free-form jazz symphony, entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, apparently based on some obscure correspondence he’d been having with a hospital porter in Chicago. The work was analysed by the Jazz Institute in Minnesota and declared too formless to play, even by a jazz ensemble.
Scratchy was buried in four places, as his holograph will directed. His head went to Hawaii; his trunk to Kenya, his proficient hands in New Orleans and his nimble, musical feet went to Illinois, where they were bronzed. At the Aquarius Club to this day, a sign near the edge of the stage reads: “Scratchy Swept Through Here.”[*Siblings – from his father’s first marriage (to Ingritte Karlsson) – Myron Grover Fillibecker (retired security officer) and Raymond Gunnar Fillibecker (radio shock jock); From his father’s second marriage (to Vonda Twill) – Grover (“Spag”) Portland Mission Fillibecker (car salesman and stand-up comic), Sussan Vondette Fillibecker (waitress and mother) and Tegan Myrinna Fillibecker (checkout operator and Joyce Carol Oates impersonator); From his mother’s first marriage (to Tripp Toler) – Tomass Vince Toler (retailer of fork-lift trucks) and Hans Mark Toler (an engaging alcoholic junkie); and from his father’s third marriage (to Mayvis Jo-Anne Minniver, his mother) – his younger brother, Hawkins Myron Fillibecker (a high school student – good at mathematics).]