Christian Scott

[INTERVIEW] Christian Scott Defies Traditional Boundaries of Jazz

The 29 year-old trumpeter is bold enough—and dope enough—to release a double-album with 23 tracks, Christian aTunde Adjuah. Scott says, "Most artists are scared to make albums that long."

by Darren Sands, August 7, 2012

Christian Scott

Trumpeter Christian Scott: Not your traditional jazz artist

There is so much color, intrigue and purpose to everything Christian Scott does musically, you wonder if it’s something to watch him, say, brush his teeth or put on socks. Scott has again made a mockery of the mundane with his fifth studio record, Christian aTunde Adjuah—a brave effort when no one is making double albums. “I think that really just comes out of the fact that most artists are just scared to take that type of leap because they won’t be able to carry it,” he says confidentially. “We don’t think too much about that.” As he spoke, still fresh on his mind was the free show he and his band played in Harlem to celebrate the release of the record at Marcus Samuelsson’s Ginny’s Supper Club, downstairs from his restaurant, Red Rooster. The venue’s decor is deliciously ostentatious. Glitter alone doesn't make a club legendary, but as Scott’s breathy notes pierced the hazy glow of a kind of blue light illuminating the stage—the space felt sacred.

Shortly after playing at Ginny’s—which is just a couple of blocks away from his apartment—the 29-year-old jazz trumpeter flew to Los Angeles for a series of appearances. It was from there that he talked to about the project, Harlem’s new cool, how getting engaged (he’ll wed Isadora Mendez in New Orleans next spring) has impacted his artistry and the unique effect he hopes his many inspirations has on his fans. You seemed to really enjoy playing that room in Harlem.

Christian Scott: Man I mean, the great thing about playing clubs in Harlem is people have an appreciation not just for the music but for the history of the music. So, you know, the older people especially, they can tell if whether or not you’re into Louis Armstrong or if you’re into Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis—their ears are, like, that deep. As far as the younger audiences, which a vast majority of what we get in Harlem is mostly young people from like eighteen to thirty coming to the club to hang out, sort of more or less to cool out—it’s starting to turn into cool again. Guys playing stretch music in Harlem is different now than what it was ten or twenty years ago. They’re just out there to really have a good time, hang out with their friends and get a chance to listen to great music, but also just to cool.They’re just out there coolin’. It’s one of those things have that’s nice a chance to play for your peers and people that are younger and have an appreciation for the music but they’re not walking into it with historical baggage. They have as a have a good time with the music and love to rock with jazz. So I love playing the rooms in Harlem. Was it too loud for your liking (Scott half-playfully asked people crushed at the bar to shut up)?

CS: It’s one of those things … that whole event was supposed to be a party. We opted to also perform for people just because we wanted to show our appreciation for so many of our friends, so many industry people that were there. It was just a party where we decided to pull out our instruments, set up and played. But it was fun, man. At the end of the day I like situations like that, too. You can get a moment where you can have a good time with the crowd, you can play with them, they yell things back and there’s a little bit of that back and forth … it’s almost like you’re playing an old juke joint or something like that. You know, especially when you’re playing music in black neighborhoods. That type of camaraderie and that back and forth is what’s to be expected. It would be a different situation if we were playing Carnegie Hall, you know what I mean? But for those patrons and listeners, culturally it’s a different environment. We did a concert downstairs basically in a basement, a juke joint type of club in Harlem. It’s supposed to have that vibe. If it didn’t I’d be weirded out. So if I get on the microphone and say, “Shut up!” it’s really just because I want them to also be aware of the fact that there are people that were there exclusively to listen, you know what I mean? So I just want everybody to respect each other as well. But that show was killer. I had fun.

EBONY: What’s it say to you that there’s such a range in the age of people that are following your career and come to see you play?

CS: The audience is mixed for us. There can be 17-year-olds at a concert and there can be 80-year-olds. The older people a lot of times tell me I grew up listening to jazz and I love it, but I haven’t really listened to it in the last 20 or 30 years because there hasn’t been anything to affect me but I really love your music and I feel like it’s breathing new life into the form. For the younger people it’s sort of different. A lot of times they don’t really have the pedigree or know the history of the music, they just know that it feels like something new is happening. So the reception from old to young is pretty much the same. If you’re just talking about the general listeners and folks that come to shows, they’re really just excited to hear what’s new.

EBONY: Isn’t producing a double album supposed to be a thing of the past?

CS: I think most musicians and most artists are scared to make albums that long, because you’re exposed, right? I think a lot of musicians and artists are really one that really only have one trick. So it’s hard to produce something like that over the course of two hours. Eventually people get bored with that, so people don’t even attempt to make double albums anymore. For me, what we’re trying to do with stretch music in any vernacular or context—anything that really scares us on any level because we feel like we can do anything musically. There’s nothing that exists within the canon of Western or Eastern music that I’ve heard that says to me that it’s going to be challenging for me to be able to do all of my instruments, or to be able to create a world or space for my band to be able to create something out of any of those vernaculars or languages. So, you know, like, we could have made a record that lasted three hours. It just came about trying to create a record that had a frame, that people would be able to relate. But, I mean, we recorded over thirty tracks for the record so some of that stuff is either going to come out on the deluxe version of this album or maybe on a greatest hits album that has a lot of bonus content. But there’s stuff that’s as wide-ranging. We have stuff that’s chopped up in like mixtape versions and stuff. You know, other stuff like Jawad, vocalists like Chris Turner, Isadora. We have rock and hip-hop stuff that we recorded to do with Sean Lennon. It’s wide ranging to the point where we’d be singing that Black Indian traditional music. All in all, there’s close to forty different tracks that are associated with this record, you guys are just hearing twenty-three of them. I think that really just comes out of the fact that most artists are just scared to take that type of leap because they won’t be able to carry it. We don’t think too much about that.

EBONY: Your twin brother, the writer and director Kiel Adrian Scott, was the inspiration for "Spy Boy/Flag Boy", and you two have an interesting bond. What’s it mean and how has he inspired you?

CS: For "Spy Boy", that was just a role I had in my grandfather’s tribe. There are different roles that you come up in in the Black Indian tradition. My grandfather was the only one to be a Chief of the tribe. I learned a lot from being around him. A spy boy is a scout. At Mardi Gras the different tribes will basically play war games, and so my brother is what you call a Flag Boy, which is more of less like a tribe’s diplomat. He carries the game’s standard and is really the line of where the game starts. We grew up in those roles in the tribe and it’s something that’s definitely affected us and the way that we navigate the world even to this day, you know? A lot of people equated the role that I’ve had in jazz music in the last decade to the way the role is as a spy boy. More or less, you’re kind of out there by yourself on Mardi Gras Day or St. Joseph’s Night, scouting out other tribes. But you’re checking out territory that’s not your own. You’re going into situations where you’re at a disadvantage trying to see if things ideas or moves are safe. And I think to a certain degree that’s also how I navigate the musical landscape. I kind of prefer to be sort of ahead of the pack checking things out, priming the canvas if you will for the younger guys that are going to come up and try to make their own statements about what they feel and what they have to contribute. But as far as my role in concerned, I see myself as the guy that goes ahead of the pack to check out all of the different ideas, conduits and textures and vernaculars musically and try to frame them in a way that makes it safer for the younger to be able to come through and build their own realities.

My brother is actually the greatest artist I’ve ever been around. I’ve never met a guy that has such a wealth of encyclopedia knowledge of just art in general. He went to the Cooper Union for visual art and was class speaker when he graduated. He’s an amazing visual artist. But now he’s a film director and he’s applied everything that he learned in art to film. He’s been working hand-in-hand with Spike Lee and all the stuff that he’s been doing this summer, including the "Mike Tyson Undisputed Truth" play on Broadway. He’s worked with Spike on When the Levees Broke, got his own short film called The Roe Effect that won pretty much every major American film festival for short films and he’s working on his feature film that he’s probably going to be making in the next year or two. So Kiel is amazing, man. I’m never short on inspiration when he’s around because there literally isn’t anything that he can’t do in his field. That’s the inspiration for me to get better everyday as well.

EBONY: You’re relationship also with your fiancé, Isadora, has served as musical inspiration but how’s it changed you?

CS: It’s just a life thing, I guess. I think human beings in anything that we do, the experiences that you have and the transitions you go through. I don’t think it’s affected anything as far as my artistry, but it’s an experience where you can build with someone and you know that person loves you unconditionally—or you try to get as close to unconditional as possible. But to grow with somebody that’s a very important thing, something that I’ve always coveted. As a man to be able to have someone that always has your back, is always looking out for you and is cognizant about the things that you’re going through and tries to compensate and make sure that you have the things that you need in order to navigate the world. It’s going to affect everything that you do.
I think artistically, it’s one of those things is that it’s helped me even out my music. I think before I was engaged, I had a few different relationships and when you’re young and going through stuff you experience somethings. But a lot of times when you’re young you don’t know how to navigate relationships in a way where you’re starting to relate to each other, and learning to deal with it as a unit. And because of that the way you cope with those thing is a little bit different when you have someone that’s making a concerted effort to learn you and understand you. So when I was younger, I might be mad at something artistically and all that you might be able to get from my playing is that I was angry. Whereas now, the situation that I have with Isadora with so many layers and so many contexts combined with all of the issues that I try to speak about musically, even music serves as a form of catharsis and being with her has allowed me to see the light in all of those experiences. It’s given me more layers instead of being upset about certain things. It’s given me a more broad and well-rounded view of things I’ve gone through and issues I want to speak on. I’ve tried to put all that stuff into words, but I can’t really put her contribution to my life into words because she's going to be my wife.

EBONY: What’s your level of satisfaction with the project?

CS: I’m never really satisfied. Playing music is a daily process. So I might make a good record or a great record and then something comes up that I didn’t expect or something gives me a little bit of trouble so I’ve got to go back to work. It never really stops. I always learned that the moment you think you’ve arrived and got it all together then you might as well pack it up. So for me, I just try and keep moving. The goals are constantly evolving, they’re constantly changing. Whether you pass one up or you reach one, you just keep moving onto the next one, even if you don’t know what it is.

EBONY: Is reaching and impacting a new audience important to you?

CS: I think for any artist they want to reach and touch as many people as possible. I think anyone who says that’s not important to them, I would ask them why do they play music. Is it just for them or is it for other people to try and change their lives. Part of what I enjoy about making music is about being in the position to turn people on to social issues going on in the world they might not know about. I also really enjoy the opportunity to help people navigate their lives and cope with some of the things they’re going through that are hard and difficult. The more people that get the chance to affect with this music, the better. It’s interesting that you frame it that way; I think a lot of times when people are addressing that question on a general level I think they mean it’s important to try and garner an audience of people that wouldn’t typically listen to jazz, right? For me I don’t view music in terms those lines. I could name twenty different types of jazz that have different types audiences. I just look at it like, I want to help people get through the things that they’re going through—and the more people I can help the better.

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