Above & Beyond
Accomplished jazz saxophonist Scott Petersen, who has CF, performed at
the West Tennessee Chapter’s Breath
of Life Gala — A Night at the Improv
Professional tenor saxophonist Scott Petersen will never forget the first time he performed with jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie.
It was early September in 1984 at Detroit’s Music Hall, and the song was one of Dizzy’s classic tunes, A Night in Tunisia.
“In the rehearsal, I would play one chorus and then give way to Dizzy,” Scott remembers. “During the show, as I finished my chorus, Dizzy came up behind me and said, ‘You’re smoking, man. Keep playing.’”
More than 25 years later at age 54, Scott is still playing — and not even cystic fibrosis and a double-lung transplant can stand in his way.
Following His Passion
As a high school student in Ohio, Scott shined as the first chair clarinet in the school band. But he couldn’t resist the rapid runs and bluesy blasts of artists like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, and he followed his true passion: the tenor sax.
In his 20s, Scott moved to Detroit, where he played and toured with drummer J.C. Heard and his band until the music legend’s death in 1988.
Since then, Scott has played gigs all over the world, including 12 European tours and three tours in Japan. Now residing near San Francisco, Scott is a staple in the local music scene and plays gigs anywhere his music takes him.
“I just absolutely love music and always have — especially the times when the magic really happens,” he says. “Playing music is an indescribable feeling, and it never goes away. I’ve been playing full-time since 1979, and I still get up on stage and get a thrill.”
On the Road with CF
As a successful jazz saxophonist with CF, Scott has had to overcome many challenges.
“When I was born in 1956, a lot of doctors didn’t even know what cystic fibrosis was,” Scott says. “But there have been so many improvements over the years — in enzymes, antibiotics and therapies.”
Determined to follow his dreams, Scott learned how to manage both the disease and his demanding career.
Before heading out on a tour, Scott has to gather what he’ll need for his health and his performances. That means packing several weeks’ worth of inhalers and medications alongside his horn, mouthpieces and reeds. “Playing sax at a professional level with CF is really tough, but I’m a determined cat,” he says. “I’m living my life, and I’ve always just made it work.”
Back in Tune
A couple years ago, Scott’s lungs were so damaged that he was placed on the transplant waiting list. “I was pretty sick, and I couldn’t play anymore,” he remembers.
On Jan. 22, 2009, Scott received a new set of lungs.
About a month later, he started playing clarinet and flute.
By week six, he was back on the tenor sax.
“I played my first gig two months and a day to my double-lung transplant,” Scott says. “When I started playing again with my new lungs, it was just indescribable. My sound improved — playing was great, and it still is.”
Sharing His Story
When Scott was breaking into the music scene in San Francisco, he rarely revealed his CF. “I didn’t want to be perceived as unhireable or unavailable,” he says.
Determined to use his story to support the CF Foundation’s search for a cure, Scott brushed aside his concerns and performed at the West Tennessee Chapter’s annual gala last year. There, he shared these inspirational words with all those affected by CF:
“Press forward and live your life. It’s important to identify yourself by what you do and what your interests are — not by the disease you have.”
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