From the charismatic magnetism of Louis Armstrong’s golden melodies to the dazzling aptitude of Wynton Marsalis’ matchless forays, no other sound has captured the heart and soul of a genre, a city and an art form as the resilient tones of the New Orleans trumpet.
Today, New Orleans-born-and-bred jazz trumpeter Christian Scott stands as its herald—an enigmatic, and insightful player whose mystifying beacon summons the unbridled idealism and indelible spirit of his esteemed forefathers.
On his eighth solo album, Christian aTunde Adjuah, Scott seeks to voyage deeper into the heart of the sound than any of his vaunted predecessors dared dream. En route, he unearths the ghosts of the past, challenges the presumptuous nature of jazz today, and fulfills his birthright.
In this interview, the Grammy-nominated Scott, who now also goes by Christian aTunde Adjuah, gives OffBeat a glimpse into his most personal effort to date.
Tell me the story behind the title of your new album, Christian aTunde Adjuah? What led you to the decision to adopt a new name?
The decision is primarily a byproduct of wanting to be recognized as what my identity politics say to me that I am. I think most Americans know [that it was] through the slavery experience most African Americans got their surname.
I don’t want to erase that facet of my background, my lineage and my history; I want to illuminate another part of my history that I covet. So, I’ve decided to make an addition to my American name.
The album itself is a soul-searching journey. Initially, did you envision releasing a double album?
No, I had absolutely no idea. Five years ago, I could have never predicted putting out an album like this. I think that it turned into a double record because I like a lot of music and my band has the capacity to record a lot in a short timeframe.
When we recorded Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (2010) with Rudy Van Gelder, we learned a lot about ourselves because we made that record without editing anything. So, when we ended up in a musical context where we could focus on the separation between the instruments, we killed it!
On this journey, I’ve just tried to live day-by-day, learn from my experiences, and grow as a person and as a musician along the way. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some experiences that I’ve learned a lot from and to have developed a musical platform through the years which has allowed me to explain and extend the emotions I feel: my anxieties, my fears, and my joys.
From concept to completion, how long did it take for this album to evolve?
When we were recording Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, I was writing music for this album. So, I had been writing the music for maybe a year. Earlier this year, the band took some time to rehearse the music for a week first. Then, went right in the studio after and knocked it out. We cut the whole album in six days.
That is a lot of music to put down in 6 days!
The funny thing is that no one’s heard the deluxe version yet, which has 37 tracks.
Tell me about some of the themes you explore on Christian aTunde Adjuah. On the cover, you’re donning a Mardi Gras Indian Suit, and the song “Spy Boy/Flag Boy” is in direct reference to the tradition.
For me, it all starts by being the grandson of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. He is the only person to have been the Big Chief of four different Black Indian tribes: the Cherokee Braves, the Creole Wild West, the White Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame.
Today, my cousin Brian is the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, and my uncle, (jazz saxophonist) Donald Harrison, Jr. is the Big Chief of the Congo Nation. Last Mardi Gras, my twin brother Kiel and I both went out with Donald and the Congo Nation. Going out has always been a lot of fun for me, and it’s especially rewarding to sew up the suit. So, whenever my schedule affords me enough time to make a suit, I’m there.
I started masking as a Spy Boy when I was four years old. Even though I was a just a little boy, I was hearing and learning these rhythms. It was the first music I heard. You see, what a lot of people don’t realize is how deep Mardi Gras Indian music runs as a form of folk music: The rhythmic catalyst driving those chants are, in reality, the acculturation of the rhythms retained from the diasporic musical traditions of West Africa. The Black Indian tradition has inspired all of the music I’ve made; however, “Spy Boy/Flag Boy” is the first time that I’ve really illuminated where I’m coming from.
When we spoke last year, you told me about how much your brother Kiel was an inspiration to you while you two attended NOCCA.
The main thing about my brother Kiel is that he is, conceptually, the most sound and inspiring artist that I’ve ever been around. He’s always been a guidepost for me.
I’ve never seen anyone learn things as fast and work as hard on his art as he. He won over 30 awards for his [short] film the Roe Effect (2009). Right now, he’s working with Spike Lee on the Broadway play Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, and he’s already scheduled to work on a few features next year. He also has a few shorts that are about to come out, and he’s planning his own feature. I think in the next few years that he’ll be seen as one of the best young directors in the world.
Here’s to hoping that he’ll have a long line of films that need scoring.
Funny you say that because right now, I’m working on some scoring concepts for a film he’s writing. You see what a lot of people don’t know about Kiel is that he’s done all of the artwork for all of my albums. So, it’s exciting for me to be working for him now; I just hope that I can impress him.
Looking at some of the other themes on Christian aTunde Adjuah, you take a deep look into many social issues from the War on Terror to racism in the United States to police brutality in New Orleans. Take me into your songwriting process.
It really depends on the song. Some start off with the idea; some build into an idea. Others come out of a personal experience that I’m trying to understand, and sometimes I see an issue that’s not directly involved with a personal experience, but I relate to it, and it moves me.
I was trying to piece together the story behind the song that you had initially titled “Trayvon.” I read that before, it came from an untitled piece, and now you’ve changed the title.
The song is officially titled “When Marissa Stands Her Ground,” and the story behind it is that musically, I wanted to write a song that felt like a march and illuminated the spectrum of situations in our society where people take to arms. I was interested in looking into issues involving how violence can spill out into neglected neighborhoods and how that could lead into alterations with the police where innocent people get can shot and killed unsuspectingly, and how in the aftermath, there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.
Personally, I’ve seen situations in the black community where average people get lulled into not being able to stand up for themselves or against the injustices they see happening around their neighborhood. As I was writing this song, the news around the Trayvon Martin incident had just surfaced. The incident was something that the band discussed, and I thought it might be appropriate to name the song “Trayvon.”
Then, about two days after I had settled on the name “Travon,” I began to think more about it. What I realized was that by me trying to shine a light on an incident that already had all these lights shining on it, it [the song] wasn’t actually going to address the problems I wanted to take a look at. In essence, it was only going to have the appearance of being something provocative. That, for me, is not the reason why I make music.
So, in revisiting the dynamics of the situations, I found out about a lady name Marissa Alexander. She was a black woman who lived in Florida whose husband had a huge propensity towards violence and a long history of beating her.
She had placed a restraining order against him, but one day, he broke into her home and began threatening her. Afraid for her safety and hoping to scare him off, she decided to grab a gun and fired a warning shot into her ceiling.
Now, the facts are that she never shot at her husband. Though threatened herself, she didn’t physically harm him. She only shot one warning shot through her ceiling in a home that she owned. Subsequently, she was arrested, and in her preliminary trial, she was deemed ineligible to claim “stand your ground” in her defense. Today she’s serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Ultimately, it’s absurd to me that she wasn’t protected by the same law that permitted someone like George Zimmerman to sleep in his bed the same night that he physically killed another human being.
As an artist, when you change the title to a song, you can expect a lot of criticism. However, it was worth it to me in this case because I’m trying to illuminate the serious side of an issue that affects our society.
Online continuation from OffBeat’s August 2012 “Balk Talk”
As a musician, how important is it to you to address social issues in your art?
For me, the social side of my art is extremely important. You live in New Orleans, man, and you see the types of things that happen in the city every day. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have love for all of the good things in the city, too. But having been born and raised there, and having seen the amount of suffering and hardship and pain people go through, it’s my choice to illuminate these issues—not just within the community, but on different levels and in different places around the world.
As far as I’m concerned as an artist, if there’s something that I know about—like if there’s a component of the population in New Orleans that people don’t realize don’t have enough food to eat everyday, and I see a similar situation happening in the ghettos in Brazil—then it’s my obligation to use my platform to find a way to get people who don’t have food, food. Because if I don’t say anything about it, how will the world know?
To be fair, you’re also someone who’s been willing to address the brighter side of tough social issues in your music as well. On Christian aTunde Adjuah, the song “New New Orleans (King Adjuah Stomp)” comes to mind.
That song is my attempt to show all of the different musical cultures in New Orleans. When you listen to it, you’ll hear layers of the Black Indians in there; you’ll hear layers from Cuba and Haiti; you’ll hear another layer of bounce beats. I wanted to put jazz over the top of all of these different layers of what makes New Orleans beautiful.
This approach to layering is also something that’s evolved alongside your compositions. The way you’ve used concepts of melodic improvisation to create new harmonic layers seems similar to the way John Coltrane used concepts of harmonic improvisation to create new melodic layers.
What my quintet has been up to the last few years is trying to cultivate what we view as the next step in jazz music: stretch music. What we’re looking to do is to assimilate different musical languages, vernaculars, and codified elements from other musical forms into a jazz-based improvisational context.
That’s where that searching and struggling feeling that you get from the modern jazz music of the ’60s such as Coltrane and Mingus comes in to context. Trane is definitely a huge influence of mine, and on a corporeal level my quintet’s music is very similar to that style. The only difference, I think, is that my music takes time to try to assimilate other newer, more modern forms—as opposed to primarily just stretching out the jazz vernacular.
Reshaping these notions of what jazz is supposed to sound like is also something that has drawn a lot of criticism from the jazz camps who feel like your approach to improvisation denatures a sacred tradition.
To be completely honest with you, I think that the direction we’ve chosen to go into with stretch music probably has more to do with the way traditional jazz originated 100 years ago than a lot of the stuff that the guys who are playing “traditional jazz” are doing musically now.
Conceptually, it’s the same; just context-wise, it sounds different. What’s actually happening in jazz music now is that audiences and musicians alike are finally starting realize that some of the shit people have been saying about the music being inaccessible and too hard to listen to was really just a foyer many jazz heads used to justify that [jazz] should be held in higher regard than all other forms of music expression. But, in my opinion, no form of musical expression is more valid any other. I think people should take music for what it is.
I feel that audiences in general today have been so far away from jazz for so long that a lot of them missed that whole era where people were saying that you had to be a brainiac to listen to jazz.
Do you find this contingency more difficult to overcome in America as opposed to other countries?
No, I think Americans are just not being exposed to jazz. Look, music in America is about status and selling advertisements. When you think about the radio, the songs that get put in rotation are designed to keep your attention just long enough so that their advertisers can sell you toilet paper at the top and bottom of the hour.
These corporations test all these songs out on certain markets and certain demographics to figure out which ones you would listen to twice. That’s why today, when you turn on the R&B station, the hip-hop station, the rock station, you’ll hear the same 10 songs playing on repeat in different orders.
In Europe and Japan and certain parts of Africa and South America, not all the big radio stations are designed just to sell you something. So, at the end of the day, those people are actually more exposed to the music. But I don’t think their appreciation for jazz is any better [than Americans’].
Say for instance, you go to a museum, and you see a huge red canvas with one little white dot in it. Then you go to the next painting, which is a Jackson Pollock painting with a lot of splashes on top of each other. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one of those paintings is harder to digest than the other.
Right now, I feel that things are turning around, and it’s becoming really important to make sure that people know that this music is something that was born out of a situation where musicians are trying to express ideas and experiences that they couldn’t otherwise do so on a certain level in their daily lives.
Going back to the ideas of identity politics that inspired you to complete your name and applying the same concept to your music, do you feel that you’re contextualizing jazz as a world culture as opposed to a culture derived solely from the African-American experience?
I never really thought about Christian aTunde Adjuah in terms of a statement on jazz as music form. For me, it was more about making sure that when someone calls me, it makes sense to me based on who I think am.
An interesting point on that topic, though, is that I think a lot of musicians and people really abhor the term “jazz,” and they don’t want it used wrong when combined with their personal-meaning systems. But with my name, I’m not saying, “not Scott.”
That’s also the same way I think about jazz. If someone is using “jazz” as a way to categorize my music, and they’re using it as a description, then, it’s fine, but I have a problem when they use the word “jazz” to solely define my music.
What’s speaks even more profoundly on this subject is that, even if by sheer coincidence alone, you’ve marked your first decade as a solo artist with two eponymous albums: Christian Scott, your 2002 debut, and Christian aTunde Adjuah in 2012.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about that until the first time I saw the cover for Christian aTunde Adjuah. It’s really cool for me because there’s a sense of fulfillment I feel when I’m embraced by people who support the idea of me complete my name. By the same token, there are other people who have some very ugly views about it. But in the end, that just crystallizes the idea that as an artist, I should never feel the need not to be who I am solely to satisfy someone else’s need for who they want me to be.