Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines
The issue of Marsalis, Juilliard and the jazz "system" they represent is a hot topic for Scott. Its flaw, in his eyes, lies in the lack of creative dialogue and a prescribed, almost universally accepted set of values which is rarely questioned. The Establishment.
"I feel like the archetype jazz musician now, in the last 25 years, has bought into a type of insincerity for the sake of musical survival: they'll do whatever they have to do to survive musically. The problem with this is that individuality is not paramount anymoreyou have all these people who sound the same making records that sound the same. The fact of the matter, in my opinion, is that when you start a healthy dialogue where people disagree with each other, you force them to actually be creative. It's like having an argument: you know how you might have a stance on something but it's not until someone calls you on your stance that your brain starts working. That's basically all it is. My thing is: it's not about me, I would rather the music is better so the next generation of musicians is better. Because what happened is that there's a 10-year gap where the musicians are sadder than their predecessors. That's backwards. You're supposed to be better than them. I know that sounds fucked up, but you understand what I mean."
"Let's go back to basketball. Magic Johnson was a great player, right? He was a great player 25 years ago. Now, do you know who LeBron James is? If you put LeBron James versus Magic Johnson, LeBron James would kill Magic Johnsonhe's just better. It's just that during that period of time, Magic was the best. You have to judge it against the context, that's the thing. During that time, Magic was the best in the world but today he'd be mediocre. Just because the guys now had the opportunity to see him and study what he did. So what I'm saying is for jazz musicians, it's like you have Magic Johnson, and then 20 years later you have guys that are worse. It doesn't make any sense. I meet these jazz musicians, they're playing, and I'm like: 'What the fuck have you been listening to? It doesn't even make sense. Go get these 20 records and they'll show you how to connect the dots; they already showed you how to do it, you can't ask for any more!'"
Another eloquent sports metaphor, indeed, but this was one stance which definitely needed calling. Isn't jazz sounding healthy at the moment? Why are there so many people who don't seem able to connect musical dots in the most basic way? And how did this sour phenomenon come into existence? Unsurprisingly, the answers were waiting.
"The problem is that jazz has turned into an academic thing. And what people don't realize is that it was done on purpose, because there's a horrible structure in jazz right now. Fuck it, you can write this, I'm going to say it. At the top of the hierarchical structure are people like Wynton Marsalis. Now, on a personal level, I love himI can call him up right now, and we'll talk about basketballbut the fact of the matter is that we disagree on some very fundamental levels.
"He got to this place where he's at the top of the pile, and then he decided he was going to tell everyone else in the country what to listen to and how to play jazz. Let's think about that. Let's say it's kung fu, or whatever. We have the highest master, who is all the way at the top of this pilehe studied all this stuff, everything there is to study. If he then tells everyone else just to study two forms of fighting, when he knows eight, that's going to mean everyone else coming up under him will not be able to take him down because they haven't amassed the knowledge he has. They don't have that wealth of knowledge.
"So the problem with jazz musicians now is they're trying to figure out: 'Why do I still sound like John Coltrane? Or why do I still sound like Charlie Parker?' It's because when you were 10 years old some asshole told you to only listen to Parker and Coltrane and nothing else. So you only studied that, while the asshole who told you to do it was listening to Sonny Stitt, and he was listening to Sonny Rollins, and all this Stanley Turrentine, Gary Bartz and all this shit! And you let him tell you only to listen to these two people. This is why you can't compete with him. You've been bamboozled. He tricked you into buying into his system so you would never be able to take him down."
Scott weaves together threads of thought to construct a strong critique, a net to snare the jazz system, in the same way he creates music. He speaks of being able to freely write notation as if it was text. From the first pulsing guitar riff on "Rewind That," the opening and title track on its namesake album, the atmosphere is enthralling. Throughout the disc, catchy hooks and hypnotic grooves in an R&B or hip-hop vein are developed individually, taken to different levels and mixed aroundwhile elegantly layering up and holding firmly together at the same time. Cutting through it all is the icy, breathy tone of Scott's piercing trumpet. One wants to listen more, rewind and shift the focus of attention.
The release was heralded as a game-changer in critical circles, with Billboard magazine declaring it "arguably the most remarkable premiere the genre has seen in the last decade." Sales were high. An uncharacteristically charismatic debut, Rewind That was a statement of intentthe then 22-year-old Scott had already found a distinctive compositional voice of his own.
It was a notable departure from the quasi-formulaic process expected of freshman jazz players on major labels. Their initiations almost always comprise a fairly predictable standards songbook, with a couple of originals at most. Rewind That was the opposite: the only standard in sight was a jumped-up version of "So What," laid down over a rippling backbeat, with a burning guest solo courtesy of Donald Harrison's snaky alto sax.
"When I signed the record deal, I told them: 'I get to make the music I want to make, and you don't have anything to say about it,'" Scott recollects. "Now, there are pros and cons to that situation, because of course they want some things, and you have to do stuff like paying an extra dollar for a CDwhich doesn't bother me because I'm getting to make the music I want to make. But that was the stipulation. I make the music, you put the record out and sell it."
The jazz community saw this move as controversial. "The problem was coming from other musicians. I was getting calls from people I knew, like, 'man, I heard you signed a record deal, you'd need to do a standards album because they put the money on you.' Everyone knows that if you make a standards album with a major label like that, you're going to make a lot of money. But that wasn't important to me, I wanted to make the music I felt was relevant at the time. I would even get into arguments with my uncle about ithe'd be like 'yo, man, you need to do this, we've cleared a path for you and you should take that path.' But I'd rather do whatever I want."
Scott's goal was to find out "if you could make your own record the way you wanted to and win." "You don't have to follow a model," he continues. "People make excuses in those types of situationsthey might say 'well, no one's ever done that before...' That sounds like an excuse, and an excuse is just an opportunity in disguise. If no one's done it, then we'll probably succeed, because at least we have one thing on our side: we'll be the first ones to try."
With Rewind That, Scott believes he won"it changed a lot of people." His next CD, Anthem (Concord, 2007), was eagerly anticipated. Recorded and released in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to many it seemed a moving tribute to the devastation of New Orleans. Darker, broodingly meditative moods and minor themes almost invited such a conclusion.
Scott, however, is quick to dispel this reading of his work. "My album wasn't a Katrina album. Not at all. I think that's callous, and, to be honest with you, when I found out the record company was sort of using that to market it, I had a huge argument with the product managerlike swearing at each other, like pushing. Because the thing is that I have friendsgirls I grew up with, who were raped in the Superdomeand people that were murdered, all types of stuff. I didn't live that experience, and that's part of what we do, too; we try to make the music as sincere as possible.
"I wasn't there when the hurricane happened, I was in Bostonso I'm not going to write a song about the hurricane hitting and 'oh, wow, here's me' because I was fuckin' in Boston! You know what I'm saying? I don't think that's OK because I didn't have the negative aspects of that experience so I don't think that's my right to write about it, even though it's about my hometown. I can write a song about losing my home, because that's an experience I had, but the hurricane hitting and the water and being afraidI didn't experience any of that. So it would be callous of me to write that a song like that. I don't think it would be fair."
This stance led to disagreement with another high profile figure, friend and fellow trumpet player. "I had an argument with Terence Blanchard about ithe didn't like the fact I said what I said, but that's how I felt." Blanchard's album A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007) was released around the same time as Anthem. Featuring a full string orchestra, it represented a personal lament on the disaster and won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.
"It was like, 'OK man, alright, I know you weren't in New Orleans when it happened, you know, you're very well paid, everything is alright, your house didn't get touched by an inch of waterI know it 'cause I know where you live, I've been to your home!' When that album came out, everyone kinda jumped on the bandwagon, and sort of made my album synonymous with it. And that pissed me off! I was very angry. Anthem was actually about socio-political concerns all over the world. What I'd seen is that everywhere I went, people were vying for a voice and they wanted to be heard. I like to talk to people, share stories, sit down and converseand I realized there's a lot of pain going on and people wanted to get that out, so I wanted to try and make an album full of small anthems that people from different experiences could relate to. It wasn't about a fuckin' hurricane."
A CD/DVD double set, Live at Newport (Concord, 2008), brought more positive reviews and increased media attentionincluding towards Scott's dress sense. He's been hailed as "jazz's young style god" by JazzTimes magazine. One publicist at a London gig was overheard saying he'd never worked with a jazz musician who had such an eye for style. However, the man himself is rather baffled by such talk, putting the claim down to popular stereotypes. "People were coming to the conclusion that I'm a 'fashion guy,' and it fucked me up because I never think about that shitlike, at all," Scott elucidates.
"On a daily level, the funny thing is that my friends laugh when they come to a concert and say 'you're the same on stage as you are in your daily life.' It doesn't changeI'm still a crazy motherfucker, I dress the same. What I wear to gigs is what you'll see me walking around the hotel in. I don't really think about it much, it's just how I dress. I get a lot of hookups because I have a shopping problem; I get given stuff because they know I'm going to talk about it when people ask me what I wear. But I don't think about it: my shoes are dirty, my pants are probably a little too tight, my socks might be dirty, and this jacket's not ironed. I don't give a fuck. But people see it and they say 'well, I'm used to looking at an African-American guy who's got a T-shirt and a chain on, and this guy dresses more closely to the way a European would dress,' so they automatically say, 'he's more fashionable than the others.' It's true! I can contextualize where people are coming from when they see that but I don't think about it at all."