Q&A: Christian Scott On Completing His Name, Speaking Through Song Titles, And Turning The Next Generation On To Jazz
Harlem by way of New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged as a great force in jazz, as well as its most frank provocateur of truth since Rashaan Roland Kirk. His wildly incendiary testimonials of political frustrations ("Jenacide (The Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Blood Revolution)"), personal encounters with corrupt government institutions ("K.K.P.D. aka Ku Klux Police Department") and intense social commentary ("When Marissa Stood Her Ground") are equally as striking as his statements is his "stretch music" ideal of fusion, melded a perplexing combination of influences and turning it into an intoxicating presentation of reverb heavy rhythms and arresting melodies.
Scott's eighth albumthe double-CD set Christian aTunde Adjuah, commemorating his new namedisplays "stretch music" at its most realized. It's full of ferocious statements of dissatisfaction and admiration for his family and New Orleans heritage. Although only 29, he's ready to partake in a daunting challenge: bringing jazz back to black youth and dissolving age-old (and, until now, unchallenged) rules of what jazz is and who jazz is for.
What led to your decision to move to Harlem?
Shit, that was a financial decision. I've lived in a lot of neighborhoods in New York. When I first got to New York, I lived in Fort Greene. That was fun. Then a year later, I moved in with my twin brother; we had a place together on 9th Street and 3rd Avenue. So we were right downtown by St. Marks, in the middle of everything. We were there for three years. After that we moved to Jersey City. That was really fun. Then I moved here. I was really about trying to save money, trying to set up for a family. Once I got over here, I fell in love. There's another movement happening in Harlem. Some people are talking about it, some say it's a fluke, but you're going to blink and in 10 years there's going be so much content that came out of here, it's crazy. It's another renaissance out here. Plus it reminds me a lot of New Orleansthe area is inundated with all different types of blacks and on a general level they get along, and they're trying to build something.
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When did you decide to go on this search to change, or as you say, "complete" your name?
I've been having these thoughts and thinking about changing my name since I was about five or six. I was the kid that'd say, "Why am I 'Scott'?" I didn't know the real history. I think had I known about it that early on, I would've asked my mom to do something about it when I was a little boy. If I say Kuriko Fujima, you see a Japanese person. If I say Bill Washington, you see a white guy, you don't see me. Let's just be real. I wanted to make sure that what people called me was something that I felt was in line with what my identity and politics said I was. I also didn't want to give my children that legacy. I will always be Scott; I will never not be Scott. I can change my name a million times but I'll always be Scott because I've navigated the world for damn near 30 years with the name. It's who I am and it's a part of my history, but that's not how my son has to navigate the world. At the end of the day, the people should make choices based on where they are in that place and an informed sense of the dynamic. For me, I didn't wanna be exclusively known as a name that was assigned to my ancestors so their captors could know that they owned them at one point. Fuck that.
Has your music or approach to music changed since the name completion?
The music is the same; it hasn't shifted because I changed my name. The only thing that's shifted since I changed my name is my perception of how people see me and how they want to play me. The tune "Pyrrhic Victory," that's about that. You'd be surprised; I have just as many issues with blacks as I do with whites about me completing my name. There's been some really scary shit coming out of black people's mouth about me changing my name. I've had death threats because of this shit. This shit is wild! I think people could try to imagine what it's like to de-westernize your name in America; you can't know it 'til you do it.
One thing that you did do differently on this album is that you isolated the musicians during the recording process. What made you decide to do that?
I know it sounds strange, but I refer to a record that you can't edit as a crutch, but it's more important for me to be even than anything. When I was growing up, I wanted to play jazz from the guys were the children of the architects of the music. The one underlined theme is no matter what camp they were or what culture of musicians it was, you were constantly working, making sure you got better every day, searching through your music and using the music as a means to find freedom. You can't do that when you allow yourself to get comfortable or complacent in a musical environment. It's not like there's sharks on the bandstand; what the fuck are you comfortable for? You may as well take some real risks. For me, it's important for musicians of this generation to know that they are expected to be great, and in order to be able to do that we have to go through all of the lessons. We can't just pick and choose just because it makes us comfortable. That's part of the reason the record is so long and there's so many different tastes on it. You can't listen to anything musically and say, 'This is what they do,' 'cause we can do everything. That's part of the idea behind "stretch music" too; if you look at jazz when it was created 100 years ago, it was the world's first all-around fusion music: West African harmony and rhythm, and you mix it with the Diaspora and all of these other influences. What we're doing with "stretch music" is essentially the same idea; it's just a separate century update.
You were speaking about risks. One of the more risky aspects of your work is the long titles you give your compositions: "Jenacide [The Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Bloodless Revolution]," "When Marrisa Stood Her Ground." It's almost like writing lyrics without writing lyrics.
The songs are about what they're about, but I think it's just because I sort of have to navigate a poem where there's no one really talking. Like the body of this new double album; there's 23 tracks of all instrumental music. I didn't have to do that. We have 10-15 bonus tracks that are just sitting in the cut with all kinds of emcees and vocalists on them, it could be a whole other album. But that's not a Christian Scott album. I need to say the shit that I want to say, but the thing is when you exist in an environment where there are no words, I have to make sure people know on a general level what I'm speaking about. I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't get flack for my titles. Even within the confines of the daily conversations you have with business people or people on your team; the label, agents or publicists, any of those things. It's not a very comfortable job for someone to have to navigate selling someone any album that the first song is called "Ku Klux Police Department." You know how hard that is for a business person? At the end of the day, I'm not budging; that's what the song is called. If you don't want the song to be called that, then stop these motherfuckers from pulling guns on people like me.
Curtis Mayfield once said in Jet, "The music and films of today are the conditions that exist. You change the music by changing the conditions."
That's exactly it! To me, anyone that decides their going to pick [song titles] as a means to gripe about the dynamics, if that's the thing that you wanna pick on in the dynamics of the fact that I called a song "K.K.P.D.," then you're a coward. Go get in those bull-cop's faces and deal with the dynamics that started this shit. Get the fuck out of my face for deciding that I'm going to illuminate to the world that they still treat my people like second, third class citizens. If that's your gripe, then how could be more pussy? That's crazy.
This record has more personal compositions than any other. One of the things that made artists like Marley, Wonder, and Mayfield so great was their abilities to record cohesive records with varying subject matter. How did reconcile the balance between songs about your fiancé and songs about the German AIDS cure?
There's a lot of refinement that goes into the composition process, and I don't just mean that in terms of writing a song. Building an album is an art, too, and there's a lot of work that goes into that. I think part of the reason the people can feel the continuity with what we do so hard is also based on the fact that most of the younger jazz artist don'tI don't want to say they don't know how to make an album; that's not the right thing to saybut you can tell that they haven't gone through the process of really studying what goes into making an album with continuity. It usually just sounds like a sample of this kind of sound, a sample of that kind of sound. For me, when I was at Berkelee, I couldn't go to sleep until I wrote three songs a day. To do that over the course of three years everyday allows you to refine certain things as a composer that most people don't get because their version of practice is only sitting in the practice room with a trumpet for an hour. I can write a song the same way you write a question in English. Most artists don't refine that; they refine other things.
So it's important for the album to be an experience as a whole rather than just a collage of songs and sounds?
Yeah, because most collages are not made very well. It's not really a collage, it's a whole bunch of shit on a canvas together. For me, it is a collage, but it's the minutia that goes with it. If I end one song on this chord, how does that relate to the next song's beginning? Most artists aren't thinking like that.
Every time you perform a song live, you preface it with an explanation of what the meaning of it is.
Well, sometimes. Other times, I don't talk about it. It depends on where it is in the set, or what we're doing in the set. Sometimes I might be a set that has "Danizger," "K.K.P.D."; you don't break up a set by talking about all of those, 'cause they're all really socially charged, too. Sometimes I just wanna talk about being in love. Sometimes I speak about, sometimes I don't. It really just depends on my mood, or what's going on in the set, you know?
When you explain your songs, don't you think that, although they come for a specific place, it takes away the audiences ability to use their imagination?
I think that imagination is gonna do what it does regardless. More often than not, I hear from people, after I tell them the song is about one thing and they say that heard something else in it. That happens more often than not, just because of the nature of the type of music that I make, and that's something I completely comfortable with. I wrote a song on a live record about a friend of mine that was gunned down; a lady told me it made her think of the tumultuousness of her first daughter being born. Who am I to say that's not that for her? It's fine. I just like to explain about the songs because I think the things that the songs are written from are things that people need to know about, but I try to make it a point to as open as possible with it. I'm gonna be like, "This song is about rape, and you better know that!" No, that's ridiculous.
Ever since your 2002 debut, you've been called a rising star. I feel Christian aTunde Adjuah is the record that turns you into a household name. How have you been adjusting with the newfound mainstream exposure, via appearances on Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel?
It's interesting. Guys think [it's just] old people coming to our shows; it's young, all-the-way in vogue, age 17 to 35, who are really into not just jazz music but just music in general and wanna be a part of this scene coming to our shows. It's not blue-haired old ladies who say, "I want to hear something that sounds like Dizzy Gillespie."
There was a Robert Glasper Experiment show and there was mostly black kids my age, 30, and younger in the audience, wearing their street clothes. People like you, Glasper, and Esperanza Spalding, are bringing them out of the woodwork.
There's finally a real movement happening in jazz. Just to go back your question, I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't in a very precarious position business-wise to be one of the only instrumental groups that does television. That's incredibly difficult, it's hard. No one's opened any doors for that type of stuff. So, the vast majority of times you'll hear stuff that we identify as jazz, in this generation, is if they have a singer on it; it's the only way they allow it on. We've been able to be the group that's been able to cross that boundary without having to say, "Here's a vocalist to make it OK to listen to." That's a really hard thing to do. There's been certain things that we've had to endure business-wise to maintain that. But for me, the main point has been for me to look at the documents that I make musically and be like, "Nobody is making music like this in jazz." There are other bands that are really good at what they do, but the shit that we're doing is at a totally different level.
As far as I'm concerned, you can say to anybody out here that you like in jazz playing music, and I'll tell them to their face, "Yeah, you make cool records, but we broke this shit...more than once." That's part of the reason we've been fortunate enough to be the group that gets on television. People have said we've broken into the mainstream, but really, we haven't. It's not like we're taking steps towards that shit; we're just doing what we're doing. For me, what's important is just to make sure that we continue to prime the canvas and keep pushing the lot so that the next generation of cats don't have no excuses for what they don't do. We haven't been, like, "Let's take a step toward the Rock game or the hip-hop game, and maybe they'll embrace us." Man, fuck that. I think the shit that we do is ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned, anything you do in life, if you do it on the highest level, it's going to get attention. If were just hustling, running around like, "Alright, let's just do some beats that sound like hip-hop and I'll just play trash over that shit," we'd be [successful], 'cause that's a formula. Trust me, a vast majority of the guys that are winning out here right now in this game, musicallyeven in jazzare really blowing trash. I'm just being really with you.
Actually, I think that's the biggest reason that this music you're making has been getting praised, along with Glasper, Spalding, Ben Williams and others, is that you all incorporate hip-hop in an organic fashion. For instance, these young drummers taught themselves to play not by listening to other drummers, but by listening to beats by J Dilla & A Tribe Called Quest...
...as opposed to saying "this is my perspective." I'm from the fucking hood, too. Why is that less hood because it's happening in an environment that includes a saxophone? I think you're right on, bro. I'm in a space where I'm glad that jazz is getting a lot of attention, but a lot of stuff that's getting a ton of attentionI appreciate all types of music, but they're not really going in. As a theoretical person, listening to this stuff just from a musician's standpoint, you don't break nothing. When you talk about what me and Robert [Glasper] are doing with "stretch music" and really listening to that shit, it is a seamless improvisational fusion form that can literally acculturate any musical vernacular that has ever existed. That's not just niggas sitting in a corner playing a beat, like "yeah, it's got hip-hop in it." But a vast majority of the other stuff that's getting a lot of attention, that [critics] say, "Oh, wow! It's a new sensation in jazz," that shit is garbage. I fuck with Robert; I fuck with Jason [Moran]. When you listen to a guy like Ben WilliamsBen can really play. There are other people that get more attention, but that's bullshit to me; that boy can break the bass. He can change the whole environment.
You wardrobesunglasses, gold necklaces, elaborate hairdoseems to play an integral part in your charisma on stage. Is it a conscious decision?
No, I just dress like I dress. I'm sitting at this table right now and I'm wearing short shorts. I don't give a fuck about what anybody thinks about what I wear, but I have to wear it. It's the same with music. If I'm exclaiming that I wear or the things that I do in my music, it's probably not very good. I could have a gold chain on, some jeans and stuff like that. A lot time when we play those environments where they have that chi-chi, foo-foo shit happening, people will look at me, like, what is this thug dude doing in the jazz club? I think it's interesting as hell when that person get's on the bandstand and realize that the mind in the room is the dude that you just thought was just somebody off the street that shouldn't even been there.
I saw Jose James at the Jazz Standard last year. He came out wearing his blue jeans, black leather jacket, white t-shirt and fitted Yankee cap. Some white lady in the audience said, out loud, "Why is he wearing that at a jazz show?"
They think that it's supposed to embody these characteristics that don't have shit to do with what jazz is. It's like when you go to church and someone walks into church wearing their regular clothes and people start judging him? You're looking around like, "Damn, I'm in church!" In an environment where people play jazz, it's the same thing. Jazz is freedom music. Any human being that will go on record and say that jazz is not a music that was born out of oppression and it's not a music that was created as a means for people to be freeMalcolm [X] said the only place the black man could be free in America was playing jazz; think about how deep that isanybody that says some shit like that, I'm smacking. I don't care who it is. Somebody that gets on the record and says that shit, let them know I'll smack them in their fucking face. You can print that. If you walk into a jazz club, you should able to wear whatever the hell you want and not be judged coming to play jazz, 'cause the music was born out of people that don't have shit, trying to free themselves from the idea of people superimposing ideas what is and is not
With this mainstream attention, do you think your music can eventually get played in big venues and stadiums?
It depends where you're at. For instance, in New York, the vast majority of performances that we'll do are in halls that hold between 300 to 800 people, whereas we'll play Europe, Royal Albert Hall, and 12,000 will show up, to hear jazz! The music isn't as popular in America because they don't embrace it; they've bought into the shit they were sold, when someone said, "Jazz is for smart people; stop listening to music that's actually designed to get people free. That music is for us, you don't listen to that. You listen to niggas grunting on albums and telling you fuck you moms, don't respect her; that's what you should be checking out." For me, it's always a strange thing, 'cause culturally the people that need to hear jazz the most aren't listening to it because they've been conditioned from listening to radio that's designed to sell soap, advertising, and watching television that literally, seems to me, is designed to superimpose an image that certain people want to propagate who you are onto you and make you accept that as who you are; to say, "Yeah, if I'm from this neighborhood, I gotta act hard, I'm supposed to be a thug." They tried to get you to buy into some shit that's got nothing to do with who you are so they can put your ass in shackles and chains and have a label class. So, the people who really need to listen to jazz in America are not the ones that listen to it because they've been conditioned, but if you got to Europe, they don't have that block, so we'll do shows and there's everybody there. That's why we can pretty much do a show in any venue in Europe that holds thousands of people, it's no problem.
Gary Bartz once stated at an album launch that the United States doesn't care about the arts. After that, I noticed that all these new DVD sets of jazz icons like Coltrane, Blakey, and Kirk, were all shot in Paris. Nothing in America.
They have a real appreciation. Yo, the blacks in Paris? I can't speak for most other guys, but for Robert and I, the reception is crazy. Half the time, you can't understand what they're saying but you can tell that they love you, though. Packed houses out the wazoo; it's like there's no place that we can't play that's not filled with a number of blacks. If can get the same thing in New Orleans or Harlem, it would be really crazy. But we've done stadiums before. We played Nelson Mandela Stadium in South Africa; it was packed out. Double bill with the Jazz Crusaders. So, there's nothing you can't do. It's just about the people who really need to hear it the most being exposed to it and letting go of the idea that somebody decide to superimpose on you to get you away from music that's for you.
As a New York City resident, do you get a vibe playing here that you don't get any other place in the world?
In New York, it's about being in vogue. What I like about it is [people] are always in the know. If talk to somebody after a performance here, they people know everything that I've done in the last six months, which is an interesting thing because half the time, I'm not even thinking about that shit; I'm just living it. But that's the cooler part about performing in New York: They're always in the know. A smart listening public here.
Your band is filled with killers, but if you could assemble an all-star band with anybody you wanted as a one-off or side project, who would you recruit?
You mean build a band outside of the one I have? You're forcing me to build a band? The reason I say that is the group of musicians I've been playing with the last six years, in order for them to do what they do at my concerts, they have to play any type of language and vernacular musically. It's like asking Jordan and Pippen the same question, they'd just say, "Why? Our team can beat everybody." But, if you're forcing me to pick outside of them, I can. What type of music we playing?
Let's make it a funkdafied situation. Some bass and horn heavy American Funk music.
I would start with [organist] Neal Evans from Soulive. Woo! That boy is bad. I love him. To me, that dude is one of baddest to ever play music. They way I've seen him motivate a crowd with two handsit's craziness! Then I'd [add] Thomas Pridgen on the drums, 'cause he can play the whole vocabulary; there's nothing he can't do. His swag is on 500, but there's also a belief. It's a different type of thing when you watch somebody who believes that they can do anything and they actually really do that shit. On bass, I would go with Thundercat [Steven Bruner]. I'm killing you right now, right? But here's what's messed up about that: I'm starting this band already. I talked to Thundercat and Thomas last week about doing it. I haven't talked to Neal yet, though. I talked to them about doing a band that's just come-and-get-it, who's got throne? Come and take it.
So, a Watch the Throne of jazz, if you will?
A Watch the Throne of Jazz, yeah, exactly. I don't though. It depends if we're just doing Americana funk, 'cause I think that shit that [guitarist] Lionel [Loueke] is funky, but it's from a West African context. Can you imagine me, Robert, Lionel, Neal, Thomas Pridgen, and Thundercat on one bandstand? It can happen, you know.
You'd put everybody out of business!
It'll be over! I mean, all these guys got to do their own thing; they're all leaders. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to get into the studio and make a record like that. Is that my next record? It could be. Could be.
Christian Scott plays at the Blue Note tonight through Sunday.
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