Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines
Christian Scott is lounging on a black leather couch, easy and relaxed before taking to the stage at a Moscow jazz club. The cold, gloomy Russian capital hosted the New Orleans trumpeter's quintet for a trio of gigs in February 2009including a show at the US ambassador's cushy residence, in front of an elite audience of officials and dignitaries.
Diplomatic functions do not represent a major part of the group's touring schedule. Maybe Scott was a slightly surprising choice for such an event: on the same evening, it was Russian saxophonist Igor Butman's tight big band which produced a sound more reminiscent of what might, on foreign shores, be expected from the stock phrase "American jazz."
Puzzled faces were certainly in evidence, but it is a tribute to the music's chameleonic quality that, by the end of a short set, appreciation was unanimous. "We've been lucky enough not to have a demographic," Scott explains. "We've played concerts where they'll have 70-year-old blue-haired ladies, or young teenagers. We've played for audiences of kids with Mohawks and black nails, right through to people who are just into hip-hop and gold teeth and all that type of stuff. It ties into the concept: the music is for everyone."
Scott has enjoyed a privileged rite of passage into the jazz world. "I started playing trumpet when I was 11. I'd been around music my entire life; my mother was a classical bassoonist, and my uncle is saxophonist Donald Harrison. So I decided I wanted to play jazz, and I asked Donald if he would teach me, if I could be his protégé. He took me under his wing and let me live with him for a year-and-a-half, and after that, I guess he thought I was good enough to go on the road and start playing. So when I was 13 or 14 I started to tour internationally."
This is clearly the source for a deep well of self-belief. Asked if it was tough to compete with the vast number of musicians coming out of New Orleans and the wider USA, Scott's answer displays unflinching confidence: "No. I know this sounds strange but I think part of it is that I was very fortunate to have my uncle at a young age. Most of the things kids were trying to figure out, I had already learned from being on the bandstand.
"It's like basketball. If you're 12 and you play basketball with 12-year-olds, you're going to play on a 12-13-year-old level. But if you play with 25-year-old men, you're going to understand different things that kids don't know. Kids play basketball and they're just playing the sport, but 25-year-old men know that basketball is really trigonometryit's angles. You have to know the triangle offense, the zone defense, you know there are angles in the way your body pivots; there are all these different things, but a kid doesn't know the science of it. So when I was growing up, I was always sort of ahead of the curve: my friends would be learning their scales, but I'd be trying to figure out how to interpret, like, Satie! It was different. I never fell into that kind of trap thing by having to compete with my peers. I was always competing with people who were much older than me."
Despite this whirlwind initiation, Scott's feet stayed firmly on the ground. Rather than taking off headfirst into a full-time musical career in his teens, it was parental advice which guided him along a more cautious path. "I started traveling early," he says, "but there was always this thing of my mother saying she wanted us to finish school, as she didn't have a chance to do that because of having us. So, instead of going on the road, I decided I would go to Berklee."
A fundamental philosophical difference influenced this college choice: "I had a full scholarship to go to Juilliard, but the ideology doesn't work for me. I don't have this notion that jazz is more important or valid than any other type of music. That's the sort of doctrine you're given: this is the hardest music in the world, played by the most intelligent musicians, which is bullshit to me. I think that no matter what you do, if you feel you're an artist and you want to create, then your art is just as valid as minebecause I'm no more valid than you are."
The trumpeter isn't afraid of disagreement. At times, it seems he even enjoys itbut not simply as argument for argument's sake. Scott says what he thinks, but he also thinks carefully about what he's saying, presenting refined and logical views in an articulate manner. And this makes his flair for unorthodoxy all the more compelling.
Take Wynton Marsalis, for example. Everyone in jazz has an opinion, and Scott, a personal friend, is no exception. His debut album, Rewind That (Concord, 2006), received a Grammy nomination and significant critical acclaimbut Marsalis was less complimentary. "I had Wynton tell me my music wasn't jazz because the main rhythm wasn't swing," Scott recalls. "He was like: 'If it's not swing, it's not jazz.' So I said to him: 'Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Papa Joe Oliverall these guys aren't jazz musicians. All of those early New Orleans guys are not jazz musicians.' He was like, 'no, they're jazz...' And I'm like 'no, they're not, based on what you just said, because swing was invented in Kansas City in the '20s! And jazz predates swing. That rhythm is a perversion of jazz, so how can you say this denotes what the music is when it's a perversion? It's an offset.' That was the first time I ever saw a Negro turn red. He was done."