Scott Ambush is the only Alive @ 5 performer this summer — so far — to have his own Wikipedia page. But he also got his start in music, like so many others, in a garage band at the age of 12.
Also comprised of Tommy Onley and Bryon and Kenny Parker — three of Ambush’s neighbors in Urbana — the band was called Blue Moon in direct reference to a shirt worn by one of its founding members.
“We were trying to think of a name for the band and one of the guys had a T-shirt on that was blue and had a crescent moon on it,” Ambush said. “So, that’s what he called it.”
Ambush wanted to be drummer, but — in true 12-year-old fashion — Tommy had already called dibs on the role.
In hindsight, Ambush’s obligatory move to bassist might have been a stroke of destiny for the young performer. Now in his 50s, he’s best known as the bassist for the jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra, a nearly 30-year career marked by five Grammy nominations and tours in more than 70 countries. His devotion to the instrument is so intense that he now crafts his own guitars; his current bass features an ash body with a maple burl top and carbon fiber neck.
Ambush was not the isolated musician of his family. His mother, before moving to Maryland, toured as a gospel singer in Georgia and later sang at several churches in the Frederick area. His uncle was also an amateur musician around town. But Ambush took it further than his relatives. Even Blue Moon toured locally, including gigs at the Fort Detrick officers’ club.
Ambush played in his high school jazz band and formed a local R&B group, playing along with records to improve his own performance. His tastes also evolved. As a young teenager, he played all rock and roll — Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple. But by the time he was 16, his cousin, Allen, a pianist, had turned him onto jazz.
The first group he remembers listening to is Return to Forever, a jazz fusion band founded in the 1970s. Then Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the highest-selling jazz single of all time, was instrumental in his development. When he was still in high school, jazz and fusion groups would sometimes perform at La Paz — back at its old location on Market Space — and Ambush would mingle with the players. At the time, jazz was something totally different for him — a way of removing the constraints of other genres.
“With a few exceptions, it was the music that was most freeing for a bassist,” Ambush said. “It’s more advanced harmonically and there’s more room for improvisation. In other types of music, the bass was really a support instrument. So, jazz was the best way to express yourself.”
That musical exploration continued into Ambush’s tenure at the University of Maryland, where he studied psychology and frequently escaped to perform with groups in D.C. Soon, he was spending more time playing music than going to class, and he left school when he was around 20 years old.
“I’m sure my parents would have preferred if I had finished my degree,” Ambush said. “But they tried to be as supportive as they could. I think with kids, you realize that if they’re motivated in that way, they’ll do it no matter what.”
Ambush was motivated to make it as a professional musician. One of the first groups he joined in D.C. was called The Rhythm Method (later changed to just The Method, he hastily added), a jazz-pop-fusion band he first saw at La Paz. In 1989, he had his first audition with Spyro Gyra, already a Grammy-nominated band.
He didn’t get in on the first round. At the time, Ambush said, the band had a heavily Latin-inspired sound and went with a bass player from Puerto Rico. But in 1992, he was invited for a second audition and became the full-time bassist for the band, beating out 19 other contenders.
Twenty-six years later, the band still plays 60 to 70 shows a year all over the world. Ambush just recently got back from a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, where the band took a 19-hour flight only to discover that their scheduled appearance at a music festival had been canceled.
“The entire festival was canceled after we got there,” Ambush said. “There were permitting issues, and political issues with getting permits, and the whole thing had been scrapped by the time we touched down.”
It wasn’t the worst setback Ambush ever experienced on tour — he once boarded a flight from JFK to Tokyo that hit a flock of birds shortly after departing and ended up circling the air for hours, dumping fuel. And he certainly has no plans to leave the band.
But it might be nice, Ambush admitted, to eventually ease off travel and spend more time at home. He plays around Frederick a few times a year, but it’s often just outside the city — in D.C. or venues in Virginia. Spyro Gyra has performed at the Weinberg, but 5 p.m. tonight at Carroll Creek Amphitheater is Ambush’s first performance for Alive @ 5.
He’s changing things up a bit for the venue, focusing on original compositions and reimagined hits like “Happy” by Pharrell. But even after all these years as a musician, performing in Frederick still gives him some anxiety.
“I think it does give me just a little bit of angst,” Ambush said. “Sometimes the people who are closest to you are the ones you want to impress the most.”