Christian Scott interview

This feature was originally published in the July 2017 edition of Jazzwise magazine

New Orleans-born trumpeter Christian Scott has emerged over the last decade as a leading figure in the vanguard of younger musicians bringing jazz to a wider audience. Drawing on his black Indian American heritage, Scott now delivers his latest long-player, Ruler Rebel, the first in a trilogy, which fizzes with jazz’s ‘new vernacular’ of piercing melodies, electronica and complex beats. Stuart Nicholson discovers the deeply emotional roots of Scott’s highly politicised music and why he’s fighting for personal and artistic freedom.

Christian Scott brings a bit of bling to jazz. At a fraction over six feet tall, he cuts a striking figure on the bandstand – impressively outlandish gold rings on his fingers, gold necklace, wow-factor sunglasses and with one of his eye-catching Adams trumpets that are revolutionising brass instrument design, he has star quality written all over him. Backed-up by his assured and impressive playing against his band’s avowedly polyrhythmic backdrop that mixes live drumming and drum machines, he’s among a select band of young musicians that include Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington whose appeal is extending beyond the normal jazz constituency. Even that bastion of the popular music press, Rolling Stone magazine, was moved to observe that thanks to these musicians, “popular attention around jazz has just exploded,” to which Scott responded, “I think a big part of it is the characters, and that’s not to say the generation before lacked characters, but I don’t think they were as pointed as ours are, musically. What it’s really about is a willingness by us to build bridges. You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges, so that’s partly why we are, and why people react so openly and beautifully to our music.”

To get a sense of where Christian Scott’s music is heading, it’s important to understand where he’s come from. Born into a musical family in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 1983, he was steeped in the black Indian tradition of New Orleans. The black Indian heritage involves marching in full, feathered regalia on certain high days and holidays while performing a distinct brand of marching songs. His grandfather was uniquely a chief of four tribes, while his uncle, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. (a former Art Blakey Jazz Messenger who recorded for Columbia and Impulse!) is a ‘big chief’ of the Congo Nation black Indian group and played an important role in mentoring the young trumpeter. And earlier this year, as Scott points out: “I became chief and it was great because it was in New York and we did it as a part of my Stretch Music Festival here in New York, that was a ton of fun.”

“You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn’t really building bridges”

As gifted academically as he is musically, he graduated top of his high school class at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and armed with a full scholarship, entered Berklee College of Music where he earned two degrees in two years before launching into his career in jazz. Since his Grammy nominated, Edison Award-winning album Rewind That from 2006, he has consistently worked towards creating a personal voice in the music that connects the techniques of jazz to his New Orleans heritage and contemporary elements drawn from popular urban American black culture into an inclusive mix he calls ‘Stretch Music’.

His latest project is Ruler Rebel, the first of a trilogy of albums that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recordings from a contemporary perspective. As Scott puts it: “It’s commemorating them in a way where it’s referencing that whole history, but also looks to try and create a new vernacular, new landscapes, a new mode of operating for the next generation of musicians and practitioners of this music. So, its taking a lot of the spaces that had existed before but really going about the business of trying to re-acculturate all of these vernacular elements that had grown out of jazz in the last 100 years back into that context.”

Ruler Rebel places Scott’s trumpet centre-stage, addressing the changing sound of jazz as the ‘swing feeling’ and harmonic complexity of traditional bebop gives way to rhythmically complex groove-based music. “This record deals more with my identity politics, the types of things in music that I enjoy in my leisure time – I like trap music a lot, I enjoy indie rock a lot, so I also wanted to make sure there were points on this record where you could hear the types of things that I gravitate to musically and couple those with traditional elements that have happened in creative improvised music in the last 100 years, but done in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being brow beaten with all these concepts.” Described as the ‘new vernacular’ of jazz, this inclusive yet rhythmically complex groove-based music that owes as a much to black urban culture as it does jazz rhythms – elements that also surface in the music of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington – could well become the sound of black American jazz of the future.

“Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom”

Over the past year, Scott has offered education programmes reaching roughly 500 grade school students and is also planning visits to New York-area colleges where he will deliver lectures and master classes on his Stretch Music approach to improvisation. In 2015 he released a smartphone app for educational purposes in conjunction with the album Stretch Music that allows listeners, musicians and jazz students to get closer to his innovations. “It gives the listener or the practitioner or the student musician the ability to customise their playing experience, their practice, their listening experience through a manipulation of the stem of the recording,” he explains. “As an example: let’s say you play trumpet and you want to play my part and do a solo and do all of these things, well, you can just mute my instrument and take me out and learn my part and learn my solo and just do whatever you want to do over that space… The reception for it has been through the roof, Stretch Music was a number one record in a lot of countries – it did incredibly well as a record – but the app outsold the album maybe five or six times. It’s a very, very good educational tool for young, developing artists.” As soon as the Ruler Rebel trilogy has been released later in the year, apps will be available for each of the three albums, an inspired move to prevent jazz becoming isolated by the onrush of technology as well as redefining the student/teacher relationship for the 21st century.

A consistent theme of Scott’s music is its refusal to be separated from the socio-political context in which it was created. All enduring music has to come from somewhere and have a reason to exist, thus Scott’s music reflects a commitment to confronting social issues through music, something that has fallen out of vogue in most jazz circles. Ruler Rebel is no exception, with its willingness to take on such issues, though this is not immediately clear from the record sleeve. “On Ruler Rebel none of the compositions, in terms of their titles, are pointing towards their political-ness,” he explains. “But that particular record is a more political document, affirming my identity politics and what that means within the context of my life. What’s interesting about my job is that I very rarely tell people what position to take on an issue, right? I feel it’s my job to create a question and for them to re-evaluate how they feel about that issue.”

Some have argued that issues such as police brutality on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, the post-Katrina devastation of New Orleans on the album Anthem and broader socio-political concerns on Christian a Tunde Adjuah is walking where angels fear to tread. But Scott’s response is unequivocal: “I refuse to let folks stop me from saying what it is I came to say, just because they decide that what I am saying makes them uncomfortable,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. In terms of his music, it brings a powerful emotional edge to his playing, none perhaps more so than ‘K.K.P.D.’ or ‘Ku Klux Police Department’. This stems from an incident in 2008 at 3am while driving home from a gig in his home city of New Orleans. “I live in America, I was born in America, I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” Scott begins. “This is not to say that as a space it’s worse than anywhere else in the country, but I grew up in an environment where black bodies can be taken away or exterminated and there is no recourse for the community, historically, to stop that from happening. In America, traditionally, when blacks try and apply the same type of self-determination that other groups are allowed, then it’s sort of presented as a nemesis or an antagonising force in the American experiment.

“So in terms of the ways police officers and the citizenry in this specific community actually relate to each other, it’s a very tumultuous and sort of charged dynamic because you think of the modern context and you say, ‘Well, don’t you live in modern America, isn’t that a free society and don’t you have freedoms and can’t you navigate the world the way that other people can?’ And if I’m being honest about that as a reality, this is inaccurate. Not everyone in America enjoys the same type of freedom.

“And so a composition like ‘K.K.P.D.’ sort of underscores part of the problem with that For me that’s a very specific dynamic, because I was driving home, I was going home that night after doing a gig and a cop car followed my vehicle for several blocks, and eventually turned the sirens on and I moved over, pulled the car to the side. Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off and lay on the ground and all these things. I told them I hadn’t done anything wrong and maybe he could explain to me why he was making such a pointed request, and these officers essentially replied by telling me that I was a nigger and that I was supposed to do what I was told, and that they were my bosses.

“Before I know it there’s a gun drawn to the back of my head and the guy’s telling me to get out of the car and take all of my clothes off”

“I don’t come from a pedigree that’s going to acquiesce to that based on my grandfather’s history and my culture [as an Afro-Indian] and my uncle being chief and me being chief now, we don’t really yield to that type of behaviour. Those type of requests, we obey the law and if I obey the law, the officer needs to obey the law as well. So when they told me that they were my boss and that I was a nigger and all of this stuff I made it very clear to them that the way society works is that I pay my taxes and they are public servants and it means their jobs are subsidised by my tax money and that if I ask them a question that relates to why they were stopping me, then they were going to have to answer said question or I was going to have something to say or do about it.

“Obviously, police officers don’t like being dealt with like that, when they tell you they’re your boss and you turn around and show them that actually you’re their boss, they’re going to have a very pointed reaction to that. But I don’t really have patience for these types of encounters with people where they’re superimposing all these things that I have seen my entire life. Of course, we went tit-for-tat but it was also after a myriad of racial slurs were levelled by them, and their telling me I was an uppity nigger and all of these sort of things. Of course, I had a very pointed reaction to that, and my thing was, ‘If you guys are on a trip where you feel you’re on some good old boy shit from the past and maybe you decide you’re just going to pick a negro and you’re going to have a fun day with him and try and emasculate him then you’ve picked the wrong guy on the wrong day, because none of that is going to happen like that, and whatever this is that you guys are willing to go through to get your point across then I am equally prepared to go that distance and be proud to show you you’re not dealing with a boy, you’re actually dealing with a man’. It was a very pointed moment.

“That’s not an uncommon exchange in America, especially in black America, I don’t know any black males in America that haven’t had their lives threatened by police officers. So when people listen to a composition like ‘Ku Klux Police Department’ then a lot of people are saying, you know, the reaction to that is, a lot of times, ‘Why are you so angry? Why do you make such politically charged music?’ And the interesting thing to me is that it always says a lot to me about the perspective of the person that’s listening to the music when their reaction to hearing that is that we’re angry, or I’m angry – I’m not mad, I just don’t want to be treated that way. I tried to create a composition that accurately depicts the range of emotional states that one goes through when enduring an experience like that, which has nothing to do with me being like ‘an angry black man’.

“This is like something that is really palpable, it’s pervasive it’s something that inundates their culture, the culture of police officers, that essentially can turn them into pack rats that go about the business of doing really terrible things to people because they know that some people don’t have any resources. With a platform like I’ve built, it makes the most of being clear what those realities are actually like for black people in America. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m angry, for me there’s so many layers to the moment that led up to it, there’s such a history and a collective cultural memory that’s associated in a composition like that and enduring a moment like that so obviously for your young musicians and developing people, who are reading this if they don’t come from that reality obviously… I think part of why we have the issue that we have in America today, and why we’re grappling with some of the issues we’re dealing with as a global community, is because people don’t stand up for one another. Everyone is concerned with a problem that relates to their life, but they don’t actually do anything to try and jump into fixing the issues that others from a different walk of life or a different path endure. So you have all of these tribes, all of these groups, trying to get their agenda taken care of, but they’re not looking after the perspectives of their neighbours. It’s so hard to get anything done when the world is fractured in this way.” ■

To see Christian Scott at Turner Sims book here

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