Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines

Frederick Bernas By

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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 2009—including 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."

Chapter Index

  1. Musical Origins
  2. A Broken System
  3. On Record
  4. Moving Forward
  5. The Future

Musical Origins

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 trigonometry—it'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 mine—because I'm no more valid than you are."

The trumpeter isn't afraid of disagreement. At times, it seems he even enjoys it—but 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 acclaim—but 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 Oliver—all 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."

A Broken System

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 anymore—you 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 Johnson—he'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 him—I can call him up right now, and we'll talk about basketball—but 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 pile—he 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."

About Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
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