The Passing of a Great Man

05/01/2015 10:34 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016
Elena Elisseeva via Getty Images

When I am not writing, I am an amateur pianist and singer. My greatest teacher -- greater than any of the faculty in my undergraduate years at Wellesley College, which is renowned for its teachers -- and a very dear friend, was also a great human being. Readers should look at his home page, and also listen to him on YouTube.

The Passing of Kenneth Kamal Scott

In my lessons with him at the Yamaha upright where he taught his private students, Kamal Scott often sat on an exercise ball -- one of those things you use in gyms to help your strength and balance. Our time together would begin like this: His Jack Russell terrier Pepe would bark enthusiastically, and Kamal would come to the door, tall, always smiling, his eyes alight, while he told the rambunctious little dog to get down. Pepe was always leaping up; I'm 5'3" and in his youth the little muscular dog could leap as high as my chest.

Even in his 60s and early 70s Kamal's lean body, his long, graceful arms and hands, expressed the dancer he'd been in the Alvin Ailey troupe and on Broadway where, for five years, he played the lead role in the original production of The Wiz. He was a handsome man -- not the movie star handsome his father had been (the baritone Leslie Scott sang Porgy for four years in Porgy and Bess opposite Leontyne Price.) His beauty was alight with happiness, kindness, and humor -- sometimes irreverent, bawdy humor. Behind his glasses his eyes were full of welcome and cheerfulness. And that smile! You can see it in videos of his performances, but it was no mere stage smile. It expressed his joy in life.

When there was no other private student coming after me we'd talk for a while and laugh. Sometimes we'd exchange personal confidences. Then we'd begin. At the heart of the Bel Canto method of singing instruction that Kamal began teaching his students some 40 years ago, there's an exercise called the messa di voce (literally, "placement of the voice"). You begin on the F above middle C, that treacherous place where the untutored voice so often breaks. You start softly on the vowel, "Ah," you swell the note, and then you diminish it. This is not easy. With persistence, Kamal used to tell us, we'd master that "Ah," also the other vowels essential in song: the formidable "Ay." The "Ee" (i), the rounded "O," the "Oo." Vocal development was like water dripping on a stone, he said. Eventually the stone is softly molded and your soprano, contralto, tenor or baritone voice emerges.

On the walls above and beside the piano photographs hung: the one of his father. Of his mother Phyllis Ashby, also a singer. Of Leontyne Price whom Kamal revered beyond any other singer. Of the child Kamal smiling at Paul Robeson while that great man smiles (at age six Kamal sang at his 50th birthday celebration. Also a photograph of grown-up Kamal the dancer naked, his body arched, its front hidden behind clusters of balloons.

At some point in 2001 he and Etta Russell -- his roommate when I first met her, a professional cellist with a wonderful soprano voice that would become glorious under his tutelage -- bought an ebullient little Jack Russell puppy. Kamal didn't have the heart to inflict much discipline, so Pepe's enthusiastic high jumps and barking became part of our greeting ritual. "Widdle-Widdle" -- Kamal's endearment-name -- was his papa's special joy.

In October 2014, after nearly 14 years of friendship, Kamal phoned to tell me he had liver cancer. He eased me into it gently, first saying that he and Etta wanted to buy the house on Grindon Avenue where they lived. It lies in a pleasant Baltimore African American neighborhood. They moved there when Morgan State University, one of the country's oldest Black colleges, founded in 1867 to train young men in the ministry, offered Kamal an artistry-in-residence.

By now, they were married. Kamal said he wanted Etta to have the house in case "something happened" to him. Then he told me the bad news. I was one of a tiny handful trusted to tell no one else. I'm a journalist, far removed from the world of theater and opera, and so he confided the awful secret to me. Kamal was a trouper, his life spent in performance and teaching, making his audiences and his students happy. So none of his colleagues knew. None of his students, present or past, knew.

In November I drove from Boston to Baltimore to visit him. As always, we sat talking and laughing. Then he took me to the Morgan State campus. In the studio I listened in amazement to two of his students who seemed destined for spectacular careers. After we returned to the house Kamal and I talked again. Then I left, Pepe making his way down the steps to the sidewalk to bark farewells, Kamal standing at the door smiling, waving as always; and, as always, wishing me a safe journey. I turned to wave back, blowing kisses. Obscurely I sensed this might be the last time I would see him. But then, he was determined to lick this thing, as he had licked past health crises.


Etta's phone call came on Saturday morning January 31 at about 10:30. "Ellen, Kamal is dying. If you can come, please do. But don't feel you must." I shoved some things into a backpack and my husband booked the first flight he could find for me. Etta said that when Kamal finally admitted he couldn't defeat this illness, they decided to have a wake while he was still alive. When she phoned, she was in the midst of calling his Morgan State students and colleagues as well as out-of-towners like me and JoAnna Rhinehart, an actor, one of his private students in New York.

Saturday, 5 PM. A throng jams the studio space on the first floor of the house. Everyone is African-American except for two or three white faces including mine. I edge towards the living room where I glimpse the bed. First I see Pepe. He is stretched out beside Kamal, his eyes sad as only a dog's can be. He's old now, 13, fat and a broken leg has lamed him. Etta has set up a small flight of steps beside the bed so he can reach Kamal. No more will he romp in the park while "papa" runs and throws balls for him to fetch. No more will I ring the bell at the front door and hear Kamal's high voice calling, "It's Ellen, Pepe!" Pepe lies pressed close to Kamal's body. The sight of him makes me cry even more.

Around the bed a circle of young and middle-aged men stands, arms around each other, singing in a dense, rich harmony:

Oh we love the halls of ivy

That surround us here today,

And we will not forget, though

We be far, far, away

In the sacred halls of ivy

Where we've lived and learned to know

That through the years we'll see you

In the sweet afterglow....

Morgan State's choir is renowned and the young men and women gathered here fill the house with sweet lyric power. JoAnna the actor has come. She is beautiful and slender. She stands, tears coursing down her face, her hand on Kamal's arm. Memories flash through my mind -- the countless group classes in Manhattan where we students listened to one another's progress as Kamal stood, his lips always moving silently to our singing. He invited our comments after each of us finished. There were no harsh criticisms, never a cross word, never an impatient gesture. It was always, "Now, why don't you try that phrase again -- like this" (he would illustrate.)

"Seeing him will be a shock," Etta had warned. I make my way to him. He is covered by sheets, tubes extending beneath them to bags that hang from the bed frame; breathing tubes conveying oxygen to his lungs through his nose. His face is gaunt. His eyes, partly open, rest on some middle distance; his mouth is open. His is wearing his white crocheted skullcap. He chest rises and falls with his breathing. His mouth moves slightly. Etta bends, whispering endearments, smoothing his face, kissing his head, moistening his lips with little sponges, syringing tiny quantities of water into his mouth. "Ellen's here, Kamal," she says, and to me: "He can hear you, even though he can't speak." And then he smiles. He smiles! "I'm here, Kamal," I whisper. "I love you!" I hold his hand; I stroke his arm. His skin is cool, damp. I kiss his cheek; I stroke his head. I yield my place to others -- a light-skinned young woman, tears streaming down her face, bends to his. A young man stands on Kamal's left side, his hand resting on his teacher's shoulder. The voices soar around us. An exquisite lyric soprano named Janice, a big woman wearing a turban, sings.

Kamal hears them. His lips and tongue move -- not only in his effort to breathe, but as they always did in lessons and master classes, in silent accompaniment. He is singing, singing with the chorus, with soloists who stand up as they are moved, weaving hymns with spirituals, jazz songs and arias throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Kamal and Etta are surrounded by love so intense -- a constant laying on of hands; the students embracing, embracing one another, embracing me as they see me crying -- that it makes my throat constrict with more tears.

A little after 2:30 in the afternoon of the following day, Sunday, Etta began playing a CD Kamal recorded years earlier. Soon we heard his rendition of Campbell Tipton's "Spirit Flower:"

My heart was frozen even as the earth

That covered ye forever from my sight.

All thoughts of happiness expired at birth,

Within me naught but black and starless night.

Down through the winter sunshine snowflakes came,

All shimmering like to silver butterflies.

They seem to whisper softly thy dear name,

They melted with the teardrops from mine eyes.

But suddenly there bloomed within that hour

In my poor heart so seeming dead, a flower

Whose fragrance in my life shall ever be

The tender, sacred memory of thee.

Etta bent over him. As he heard himself his lips and tongue began to move. We could see them shaping the words of the song. And then, singing, he drew his last breath.

Ellen Cantarow is a journalist and an amateur musician.