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Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines

Frederick Bernas By

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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."

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