Christian Scott: A Warm Wind Blowing
By: Jake Krolick
His family includes a plethora of talented artists. His uncle is acclaimed jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., and his mom was a classical musician when she was in high school and college. Scott’s father is a visual artist working in photography, sculpting and drawing, and his grandfather, Donald Harrison Sr., was a legendary New Orleans folk singer and Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Christian Scott has been a legacy marching with the Mardi Grass Indians since he was just three-years-old. To say that his family and New Orleans are close to Scott’s heart is a gross understatement. He may reside in NYC now but the New Orleans native lets out his ruminations on the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina every time he picks up his trumpet.
Both musically and mentally, Scott seems more well lived than his 24 short years might imply. Does it bother him that his age is talked about in conjunction with his gifted playing? “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to say it does because then people will stay away from asking you that question,” says Scott. “The fact is that sometimes it helps when people are conceptualizing what I’m doing musically in the context of my age. So, it’s a yes and a no answer. I don’t feel like you have to be a certain age for there to be a certain type of validity to your art.”
Scott started playing trumpet for a few reasons. He remembers seeing how adored his uncle was when he was at the age where he longed to be popular and really good at something. Now after playing over 10 years, the reasons that keep him playing have changed. Scott has formed a deep appreciation for finding the very thing he was meant to do. He has noticed that younger folks are impressed with his style and it seems to have grown into a means to turn younger musicians onto jazz. “I realize that lots of the decisions that I make musically actually affect people that don’t have a voice right now. So, I kind of see myself as one of those guys that’s trying to usher in this new era without having preconceived notions about certain music being valid and other music not being valid,” says Scott.
Emoting Makes The Listener Feel
At 14, he was learning everyday while on the road playing with his uncle’s band. “One of the first things that my uncle taught me is how to have musical tact,” recalls Scott warmly. “All too often young musicians are plagued with the reality of having the skills to play, whereas I was more or less conditioned from the beginning not to worry about whether people thought I could play. It was all about me emoting and being able to come across on an emotional level that made the listener feel what we played.”
During those years of practice, Scott’s trumpet company was busy making his own CS Signature Model Trumpet that bears a likeness to Dizzy Gillespie‘s iconic instrument. “My bell actually cues much earlier than his did, like 22 degrees. His horn had a bell that went up like 35 degrees. Mine’s a Generation X hybrid trumpet with blades and all this special matte finishing and engraving all over it that says Christian Scott and Katrina,” explains Scott. One trumpet player from New Orleans said that when he played Scott’s horn it was like playing the most high tech trumpet on the planet. Scott’s “Katrina” trumpet has reverse lead pipes, a unique valve system and stems. The tuning is revolutionary because it has a slide tuning system, and the angle of the bell at the last turn is not as sharp as a normal trumpet. This takes a bit of the backpressure off, helping Scott create his unique sound.
Christian Scott is currently in negotiations with his trumpet company and Sam Ash Music to make 10,000 abbreviated models based on his tilted bell horn for students around the country. Scott is a huge proponent of musical education in the classroom. Everyday during his last tour he and his band gave some type of lecture or master class at schools near their stops. “When I was a kid people invested their time in making sure that I was okay, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t do that for others,” says Scott.
As a classically trained jazz musician and student of Boston’s famous Berklee School of Music, Scott has some interesting views on musical education. He finds music academia to be a strange beast. “With jazz education you’re taught that you need to listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and some Charlie Parker,” says Scott. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen to those musicians. They’re great. The problem is that most of the musicians coming out of these schools try to sound a lot like those players. That’s making it hard for them to actually make a living as a musician. I think jazz education and musical education is great and I’m all for it. I just think the main idea should not be to sound like guys that have already done what they needed to do. There’s another strength, not taught, that makes musicians become individuals.”
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Christian Scott isn’t a showy player but that doesn’t mean he plays with any less intensity. He references something his idol, Miles Davis, said, namely that you shouldn’t play to the microphone because mics are more or less like mannequins – they never move, making it boring for the audience to watch. When Scott plays there’s an aim to where his music is trying to go, so you see the sweat and intensity on his face. “When we perform live every night sounds different just because, first and foremost, we’re improvising musicians and the aim for us is to change up the rhythms and the harmony and do different things that you don’t find on the albums,” says Scott. “Our live performance is probably ten times more intense than our studio recordings.”
Scott’s days on the road are busy. He wakes up at six every morning to write, practice and soundcheck. Then, after calls to his management, booking agent and publicist, it’s off to the venue for his performance. “Most of my fondest memories of the road are of getting sleep,” laughs Scott. “It’s cool though. I welcome it. I chose to do this and I don’t want anyone to ever think I’m complaining about it. I appreciate that this is my life, it’s just that I don’t get a chance to have much fun on the road.”
His life got increasingly busy after his 2006 Grammy nomination. Before the nomination he recalls that, “It was a time when I could actually chill and hang out with my band. I have better memories right after the first record came out because it was my boys and I on the road, having a good time every night.” It’s clear he loves his band and values them as musicians. They have similarities to the ’80s “Young Lions” movement associated with Wynton Marsalis. Scott and company are a new force in jazz leading this decade’s young players. “I love the music that my band makes. I know that can seem incredibly narcissistic, but my band just happens to be the baddest young cats,” Scott says. “It’s our whole camp. Even if I could take my technique out of it, those guys can really play. All of the musicians in our age bracket are more or less looking to them for direction.”
Scott’s first two records, Rewind That (released March 28, 2006 on Concord Records) and Anthem (released August 28, 2007 on Concord), are very different, both stylistically and politically. Yet, both move around the common thread of Scott’s amazing tone. “My sound gets so much attention about it sounding like the human voice but there are so many layers to it,” offers Scott. “I play especially piercing at times and high and very cutting as well. It’s my way of screaming about the things that I don’t like happening today.”
“There has to be a change. Something has to happen for things to be okay,” comments Scott. “I’m not saying we need to go back, but it has to be different from the way it is right now. I go all over the world and I’m always hanging out and meeting people. They each have stories and I see that everyone is vying for a voice. Each voice has a sense of urgency saying that there is something wrong right now that needs to be addressed. It’s like dropping a glass in the room when everyone’s talking about nothing.”
There are clear differences between Rewind That and Anthem. The drumming on Anthem is much more reactionary. Rewind That‘s major voice had typically been played on the guitar but on Anthem it’s the piano. “Conceptually we want to make music that affects our generation and achieves a mark of what was happening during this time that people can revisit,” Scott says. “Even though the songs on Rewind That are from our life experiences, we were younger men and there were certain things that we weren’t really thinking about when we recorded Rewind That that we do now. The compositions on Anthem are much more in-depth because the subject matter is darker and deeper.”
Hurricane Katrina and a less than desirable socio-political climate are obvious recent influences, but his mother’s battle against a rare disease was also on his mind. I asked Scott whether he thought that pain in life produced music with more depth and poignancy.
“I think it does, but I would also argue that certain types of extreme happiness probably have the same affect,” observes Scott. “I think human beings are more susceptible to feeling things and processing or assimilating someone else’s pain because their own painful experiences are more frequent than the happy ones. Most composers that have lived hard lives are typically better at emoting on a certain level, but not all across the board.”
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His passion bubbles over when we talks about music – all music, not just jazz.
“Soulive are the funkiest dudes I’ve ever played with and it’s going to stay like that. 50 Cent, I love his new tracks. I like the way he flows, and he’s a nice rapper, but all the, ‘I’m hard, I’m hard, I’m hard’ shit, enough [already]. I think it’s particularly interesting that a guy like Kanye West – who wasn’t a drug dealer, wasn’t a pusher, wasn’t professing to be this hard, edgy black man – is one of the only one’s saying anything meaningful. So, 50, I like what you do but I’m sick of hearing about you being hard. There’s nothing so hard as standing up to the fucking government, and if you don’t do that something’s wrong. The Roots do something a little different. The thing about The Roots is it’s hard to separate what they’re doing artistically from just the great music. The music, you can’t beat it. It’s the music for this generation. These dudes have been locking it down for that long because they are the best hip-hop band in the world.”
Scott embraces multiple genres and cultures as a jazz ambassador to the world. “I love hanging out with certain MCs because they’re like jazz musicians to me,” offers Scott. “The same holds true for many other artists from indie rockers to 19th century classical musicians, although, it’s hard to collaborate with them because they’re dead. I love hanging, networking and playing with other musicians because I think that what they have to say is just as validating as any jazz musician. One of the main things that I’m trying to do with my music is to mix as many of those things together as possible. It’s not something that we intellectualize, it just sort of happens that way.”
When Christian steps away from the trumpet and music he loves to play basketball and read scripts. His brother Kiel Scott is a graduate film student at NYU, studying to be a director. “If I could pick any human being to be president, I would pick my brother Kiel,” enthuses Scott. “I know that’s kind of strange because no one knows who Kiel is. I would pick him because he is probably the most compassionate, considerate person that I’ve ever met. He thinks everything through and has the type of character that’s very authoritative. When he says something people respect what he is saying. So, I would either pick my brother Kiel or Doctor Cornell West. Maybe I’d pick Doctor West first and then I’ll have my brother be vice president.”
And how would Christian Scott have handled the Katrina situation differently if he were in charge?
“I think the biggest problem is that the government was afraid to be honest about not having the resources to do what was needed. So, hundreds of people died. We were afraid that other countries would think we were weak. The first thing I would have done would have been to ask for help,” offers Scott.
Jazz has seen its share of great trumpeters but Scott is not simply following in their footsteps. He is making some massive tracks of his own as one of the Crescent City’s new breed of horn blowers. Like Scott says, his art is valid because he is valid.
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