By Martin Smith
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Standing on the shoulders of jazz giants

This article is over 11 years, 1 months old
New Orleans is often regarded as the birthplace of jazz. Martin Smith spoke to jazz musician Christian Scott about growing up in the city, the devastation after Katrina and making music to move the listener.
Issue 353

A young 27 year old black man found himself driving alone through New Orleans on his way back from the Mardi Gras at around 2am one night. As he looked in his rear view mirror, he saw a car tailing him with its lights off. For eight blocks the blacked out car followed him. His life flashed before him: was it a gang out to rob him, or, even worse, a lynch mob?

All of a sudden the car’s lights flicked on and there was the wail of police sirens. The black man pulled the car over, put the car keys on the dashboard and put his hands above his head in full view of the police officers. He felt a gun pressed against the back of his head. “Put your hands down and turn the car engine off, boy,” the police officer yelled. “The engine’s off and if I lower my hands you will shoot me,” cried the young man.

“Get out of the car and pull your pants down, nigger. If you don’t your mother will be identifying your body in the morgue,” yelled the cop. Racist threat after racist threat was hurled at the black man. Finally, the young man said, “If you are going to kill me do your best – because if you try I will do my best to kill you.” This stand-off lasted a few more minutes. Moving at the pace of a snail, the young man picked up his car keys, little by little turned the ignition key, and slowly drove off. As he looked in his rear view mirror he saw the cops at the side of the road laughing.

Is this a story from the 1960s US? No, it was New Orleans in 2008, and the young black man was the jazz musician Christian Scott.

In an attempt to come to terms with this horrific racist incident, Scott composed a song of righteous rage, titled “KKPD” (Ku Klux Police Department), a song which appears on his recent album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (YYST).

For those who have never heard of him, Scott is one of the young lions of jazz, a hugely gifted and thoughtful trumpet player.

He was born in New Orleans to a musical family in 1983. All his relatives on his mother’s side were musicians and his uncle is the wonderful saxophone player Donald Harrison. Harrison has played with a number of the jazz greats, including Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. A native of New Orleans, he recorded Indian Blues in 1991, an album which perfectly captured the sound and culture of the city’s Congo Square. In 1994 Harrison created the “Nouveau Swing” style of jazz, which fused swing beat with the melting pot of cultures that make up New Orleans – a musical gumbo.

Christian has been inspired by Harrison, “Under the direction of my uncle, I auditioned for New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and won a place,” he recounts. “After that I won a scholarship to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.”

There is no denying that Scott is an incredibly talented musician. On stage he has all the brash self-belief of a young Miles Davis, but at times he can be very unassuming. During the interview he never mentioned the fact that he completed the seven-year college programme in just two years. While he was studying he also found time to tour with Harrison, set up his own record label, launch his own band and write, produce and market his self-titled first album, Christian Scott. He even turned down recording contracts with the legendary Blue Note record label and Warner Bros, because they would not give him complete artistic freedom to record and produce what he wanted. All this and he had only just turned 20.

There are two key features to Scott’s sound that make him unique in jazz today. First he is noted for “un-voicing” his tone. He puts a great deal of emphasis on breath over vibration at the mouthpiece. Scott refers to this as his “whisper technique”. He explains: “My technique allows me to sound like someone whispering. It can sound very dark, almost like a cornet or a flugelhorn.” To get the particular sound, he refused to play his trumpet in the orthodox way. Ignoring his teachers, he spent two years practising and improvising. His breakthrough finally came from something that was familiar but abstract. “It took a very long time, but I guess the biggest break for me was when I decided to not try and focus on changing the sound, but to try to emulate my mother’s singing voice,” he explains.

The other key factor that shapes Scott’s sound is the trumpet he plays. Specifically made for him, it looks like an out of shape, over-extended trumpet. In some ways it is similar to the trumpet Dizzy Gillespie played in the later part of his career. Scott’s horn has a tilted bell and exchangeable lead pipe, and was initially designed so that he would have the ability to see his audience as he played.

Scott has recorded five albums – Christian Scott (2002), Rewind That (2006), Anthem (2007), Live at Newport (2008) and his latest YYST (2010). His music is rooted in the music of the past but at the same time is very much the sound of now.

Scott explains the contradictory/complementary musical ideas that shape the music he records. About YYST, he tells me, “This album is designed to have the sound, the brevity and character of the recordings of the 1960s. The likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Mingus and Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings of the 1960s inspire me. Don’t get me wrong, I love fusion music, but I haven’t heard anything recorded in the last 35 years which brings anything new to the table. I thought it would be interesting to re-engage the music of the 1960s, mix it with the music of the last 40 years and at the same time record like it was made in 1965.

“I am not saying that jazz died in the 1960s. What the band are trying to do is take those textures, palettes and the language of the past and superimpose the concepts of today on top of them. By doing this we hope to take my music down new paths. I don’t think using adjectives like jazz, rock, hip-hop say anything. I just see it as music. I am making music that moves me and I hope in turn that it moves the listener.”

Scott is not your average jazz musician. He has performed with hip-hop legend Mos Def, nu soul singer Jill Scott and Prince. This interplay with other musical styles keeps Scott’s work contemporary and fresh.

There is one other aspect of Scott’s work that makes him stand out from his contemporaries and many of the jazz greats of the past. Scott wears his political heart on his sleeve. He is not afraid to tackle head-on big political subjects like police racism, the US prison complex and social injustice.

“Coltrane, Miles and Blakey tell the ‘quiet truth’ – they were a product of their time and circumstance,” he says. “I grew up in a culture where the men in my family are literally seen as ‘kings’ of their neighbourhood. They are chiefs of their tribes.”

The “tribes” in New Orleans are African American carnival revellers who dress up for Mardi Gras in loud and colourful outfits which are influenced by Native American ceremonial robes. The leaders of these “tribes”, the chiefs, are proud individuals and very much respected in their communities. This tradition is said to have originated as an African American tribute to Native Americans who helped runaway slaves 200 years ago. If you have seen The Wire-creator David Simon’s new TV series, Treme, the big chief in the programme is based on Scott’s grandfather, who is the chief of chiefs.

Scott is proud of his heritage – for him it is a source of strength. “These guys stand up to the police, go to city hall and tell them to fix the shit that is ruining people’s lives,” he says. “These chiefs are not afraid of anyone. I’ve seen these guys stand up to racists with guns. When you are a five year old kid and you see this kind of thing it gives you confidence and it makes you a stronger person.”

Hurricane Katrina may have ravaged New Orleans and the surrounding area, but it was the administration of George W Bush that wrecked the city. The anger in Scott is never far from the surface. He rages, “Five years on and the city is still fucked up. The saddest thing about Katrina is that the people who made New Orleans what it is no longer live there any more. The community has been destroyed.

“There is nowhere in America like New Orleans – when I was growing up in the city it was 80 percent black. It was a different type of African American community that grew up in New Orleans. Its roots go back over 300 years. It has created a distinct culture, language and tradition and even during slavery it found ways of maintaining its identity. Our history may not be written down but we have an oral history, one that is passed down from generation to generation. The black population of the city know their history. They both hate America and love it. Out of that melting pot something really beautiful was created. I think the cultural life is coming back to the city, but it will be different. Bush made sure of that.”

Scott’s previous studio album Anthem was written in the wake of Katrina. It is a powerful musical statement that slams into the US authorities’ lack of action to save the city. It is a dark and brooding record that complements perfectly Spike Lee’s brilliant documentary, When the Levees Broke. Anthem’s sleeve notes contain a poem by Saul Williams. It ends with the following lines: “When the storm is forgotten/ The struggle ends/ May the storm never be forgotten.”

But it is his latest album, YYST, which confirms his status as one of the most exciting and original jazz musicians of the last 20 years. YYST is a protest album of the highest quality. It has no lyrics but the titles of the songs – “KKPD”, “Jenacide” and “The American’t” speak for themselves. Scott tackles all aspects of US foreign and domestic policies.

My discussion with Scott soon brings me on to one of the most powerful tracks on the album, “Angola LA and the 13th Amendment”. Scott explains the sentiments behind the track: “I live in a country where slavery is still legal. Most of the prisons in America are privatised. At any time more than 2 million people are in prison and over the space of a year almost 9 million more people pass through the prison system. It is a fact that the vast majority of inmates are poor and it is also a fact that although black people make up just 14 percent of the population in the US they make up over 44 percent of the prison population.

“That’s a lot of human beings doing a lot of work and they are doing a lot of work and are not being paid. Slavery hasn’t really stopped; they have just changed the way people are being exploited. Angola Prison is built on the site of one of Louisiana’s biggest slave plantations. Today prisoners in Angola farm 18,000 acres of land. I wanted to make a record in Angola but the authorities won’t let me – they will let me in Angola one way but they certainly won’t let me the other!”

Make no mistake: YYST is not all about rage and anger. There are gorgeous ballads like “Isadora” and “The Last Broken Heart”. “Isadora” is a tender and exquisite love song about his girlfriend. On the surface, “The Last Broken Heart” is another stunning ballad utilising to the maximum Scott’s “whisper” technique. The sound he creates is human and vulnerable. However, even this beautiful piece of music has a political subtext – it is inspired by the fight of lesbians and gay men for the right to marry.

Just as our interview ends, Scott burst out in indignant rage. He tells me that he despises the Tea Party and is worried by their sudden rise. He believes the US is now more divided along racial lines than at any point in his life. He fumes at the Republican Party. He just doesn’t understand why so many in the US oppose Obama’s healthcare proposals. “It’s absurd that a man who earns $600,000 a year won’t hand over pennies to help a poor sick person – I say shame on you.”

What makes Scott such an exciting musician? He is one of those rare musicians who understands the past but stands on the shoulders of musical giants in order to see further. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Christian Scott is putting out many demands – let his voice be heard.

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