“I think music can change the world”

“I think music can change the world”


Born in New Orleans, Christian Scott blends hip hop, rock and funk influences into his innovative music rooted in jazz. Used to being under the spotlight since his early ages, Scott passionately believes in music, what music represents and its potential to change the world. We met before his performance in 27th Akbank Jazz Festival and talked about the environment that he was raised in, asking questions with music, the unpredictable character of life and how we can change the world.

You grew up in a music city, in a family where musicianship is valued. That sounds like a dream to many people. Were there any challenges that came with the setting that you were born into?

The thing is, no matter what you do, if you want to get to a high level you have to work. I’ve come up in an environment in New Orleans where the music has a history. But because it has a history, it means that you have to go through more lines of challenges. It’s not the type of place where you could pick up a trumpet and just because you like to play the trumpet, people admire you for playing trumpet. It’s a type of place that when you’re ten years old, you walk into a band at your school and there’s a hundred trumpet players. And when you get to high school, it’s two hundred trumpet players. It’s probably the most competitive environment for creative improvised music in the world. Because there are thousands of people that play the instruments at a very high level, to gain resources in an environment like that, you have to practice. You have to refine more than just the notes and the scales. You have to learn to be able to tell stories, which means you have to listen, you have to develop taste.

I was very fortunate because I was raised in a musical family. My uncle is a legendary saxophonist, his name is Donald Harrison Jr. My grandfather was a folk singer and a great chieftain in our culture, in the black indian tradition. There were things that they went through that they could impart to me which helped. But ultimately whatever generation you come into, you’re going to run up against problems and things that you have to develop. After leaving New Orleans I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is arguably the most competitive music school in the world. And then after that I signed a deal to Universal Music, which is a very competitive environment as well. I think anyone conjecturing or guessing that simply because one is born into an environment where there is a history of music, that automatically makes the environment sort of dreamy, I caution them not to accept singular or single stories or narratives about people’s lives. If you want to know what someone’s experiencing or you’re guessing about what they’re going through, then think of your life. If your life is only one story, sure, then accept that. But if your life is more than one story, then think of other people’s lives this way too.

Did you ever feel exhausted in those competitive environments?

No, no way. I don’t view myself as being a competitor because what we’re doing is art and there’s a certain degree of subjectivity there. No one is going to be able to express your truth more than you can express your truth about your experiences and the things you’ve seen or endured. But I think in terms of the moment where you are surrounded by people that also do the same thing, that are jockeying for position and fighting for resources, what can become tiring is when you see yourself growing up in a community where people have to fight that hard for resources. Not the fight of it, not the things that you go through to try and get better, those aren’t exhausting. People have to work. You wake up all over the world and people are working. They’re either working in a coal mine or an office building, but people work. That was never a problem. The issue for me was living in an environment where people had so little that they had to fight over the small things that they were eligible for.

You give great importance to the notion of “question”, that is also part of your style of playing. What does asking questions mean to you and how does it serve your music?

What’s beautiful about that is, for you to get the information that you’re looking for, you just asked a question. The tactic that the human being uses as a means of procuring more information are questions. How can I have a strong musical dialogue with an audience or with a band and build a relationship where we’re not asking each other questions, where we’re not probing each other, where I’m not creating moments where you have to question whether or not you like or dislike? Where you have to question texture, where you have to question what is the melody, where you have to question these things. Obviously it goes in waves. It can’t all be questions because if you and I have a conversation that’s all questions, I’m going to get bored and so are you. So, in order to create a more meaningful and more profound relationship between the listener and the artist, I have to figure out ways of interrogating the audience and also the artist. We figured out musical ways to be able to question the improviser that makes him conclude whether or not he really wants to play that. Because if you play it now maybe that doesn’t make sense based on the environment and what we’ve built there harmonically. It makes you take a step back and reevaluate how you’re going to communicate. Which, in terms of the relationship that you’re building with the audience, is a more beautiful type of relationship. It’s not me just telling you everything and concluding that this is my experience. It’s me saying “This is what I’ve been through, this is what I’ve seen. What have you seen? What does this make you think of? Does this remind you of anything?” And then to try and take that reaction and create one.

You express yourself not only through your music but also with your style.

My fashion is based in a necessity in my life. I think a lot of times people will come and see someone adorned in gold; Akan or Wolof, all of these different tribal things that I grab from different parts of the world. I’ve Indonesian things, I’ve things that come from Peru. And a lot of times when people see this they say “Why are you wearing all these things?” or “Why do you mix them up?” I think there are two sides of it. First thing is that I do not consider myself as just an American person, I’m a human being. I consider myself a world citizen. I’m as much at home here as I am anywhere else. That’s how I deal with people. I don’t think that universe bears me any harm and I try to emit the same thing to people in my everyday relationships. But if I’m being honest, part of my fashion is pointed to create questions. More often than not, if I’m traveling, there’s 25 hours of traveling. Maybe 6 of those hours is between airports and when you’re in those moments in airports, people are looking at you, they’re concluding. When I’m traveling around it’s seven 6 foot black men. To people that are not around us, they may not see guys that are really loving, sweet, funny, beautiful people. A lot of times they accept these single narratives that we talked about, from what they see on television or what people tell you that you should believe about me. So, more often than not, when someone sees me in an airport, they already think they know who I am. They already think they know my story. Sometimes they may think “Oh, he’s a drug dealer”, or a hood or any of these things. Because their diet of what a black person is and isn’t comes from them watching MTV and watching movies about black people in ghettos that black people don’t pay to create. It’s somebody else that pays to create a movie and a narrative and then they project it onto the world and you accept it. Part of the reason my fashion is designed in the way it is, is that when you see me dressed in this way it’s very difficult for you to conclude that you know anything about me because the things that you’re looking at, you’ve never seen before. You can’t just say “I know what this person is about” when you’re looking at things that you can’t identify. It forces you to ask yourself a question. “I’ve never seen that before, it’s interesting” or “Do I know what that is?” or “What does that remind me of?” All these questions help you build a narrative of me that makes me more human. This is why I dress this way. To clear a lot of that energy out by making the viewer have to question what they think they know about me.

You define yourself as a “sonic architect”. How did you come up with the term?

This is a word I’ve heard a lot. You hear it more often in indie rock or alt-rock music. It’s just another word for a different type of production acumen. As opposed to just build an environment with the sounds of acoustic instruments, a lot of the music that we’ve been making recently has been also layered with things that come from Ableton or Logic or Reason and these types of programs where we build environments, and then we play to the environments that we’ve built which is a very different way of approaching creative improvised music because of these textural things that don’t exist on some of these instruments. It’s fun to play with. But it was just me pointing out that what was going on on the records was more than just the trumpet playing. There was a lot of composing going on behind the scenes as well.

What was the most discouraging thing that happened to you as a musician?

I don’t look at things like that. I prefer to think that when there are moments where I am caught off guard by something or something shocks me, maybe someone is reacting in a way that I don’t think they would react, even in musical terms, the moments where I may not have sounded so good or needed to learn a lesson, I always look to those moments and I’m very grateful for them. Because if I exist in my comfort zone all the time, it’s very difficult for me to grow. Even more difficult for me to impart what I’ve learned in that moment where I’ve grown to other people. If it’s an easy route, then it’s hard for me to remember how I got to where I got so I can’t teach someone because I didn’t actually have to go through the process. I love those moments where I’m uncomfortable, when big mistakes happen and you have to figure out how to fix them. To me it’s more like life. It’s when something happens in your life and you have to learn how to cope with what happened and how to move on and how to still create some love out of what happened. To me, that’s life. That’s like the most fun part of music.

Errors are the most human things.

Yes, I completely agree and I love them. You spend all of this time perfecting something and then it blows up, which is awesome. I feel like the time you spend perfecting it is more about developing the ability to react well once it blows up than just to create it. To me that’s the more beautiful thing.

I’m curious about the process behind the brass designs. How did you come up with the idea, did you draw them, was there a try and error phase?

I hate the sound of the trumpet, that’s how I came up with the idea. These are two prototypes. This one is the world’s first reverse flugelhorn. We built this instrument in this way because it has a higher register. The flugelhorn traditionally has a smaller register. It’s the smallest instrument in the tuba family. Because of the way it’s built, I can play in the higher register and the sound doesn’t get closed and shrill. We have five or six different prototypes that I play right now.

Are you still developing these?

Yes, every day.

You played with an array of musicians from different genres. From Atoms For Peace to Prince. What did you learn from these different musicians?

Thom Yorke is a very important composer in my life. Obviously I come from a jazz background, I grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and Count Basie. But to me Thom Yorke, his approach to composition, the interplay between the relationship of major to minor, the palindromic things that he creates rhythmically, his understanding of rhythmic counterpoint, the layers of drums, what the tenor drums should be doing, how they answer the bass drum, how they answer what’s going on in the bell patterns… you can hear this is a person that pays close attention to those things. I think compositionally his mind is a very beautiful mind. Because you can listen and hear that this is a person that has synthesized and processed the rhythms that have come out of all different cultures. Rhythms that come out of indies, out of West Africa, the Latin diaspora, you can hear those things in addition to the harmonic acumen. Being around him and watching his process was really good for me. Because he is in his space and it seems to me like if he’s decided that he’s going in a direction, he’s going to fully go in that direction. He doesn’t just stop 10% of the way. I appreciate how valued he is as a musician and an artist. I learned a lot from that band.

Also I was with Mos Def for a little while and got to play with that band. I learned a bit from that, checking out his cavalierities and the way that he is able to channel the people’s energy, what he emits when he jumps on the stage, what he’s broadcasting in those moments. There is a certain amount of machismo and gravitas that exist there. It was a similar thing when I worked with Prince, when I was around him. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of different bands but there are also bands that I’ve played with and musicians that I’ve made art with that I haven’t learned shit from. There are a lot of artists that are out here that don’t really put in any work. They’re just popular. What they’re doing is not really about communicating anything to anyone. What they’re doing is about selling something to people. Those are different. When you listen to Thom Yorke or you listen to Saul Williams, their music is about communicating something. Yeah, they may make a lot of money doing that maybe. Yes or no, who knows. But ultimately when they leave, you’re a different person. You’ve had to challenge yourself, you’ve had to reevaluate what you think about yourself, what you think about them -the stage is kind of a mirror- and whether or not you’re going to walk around outside the same way you were yesterday. Other artists, they’re just trying to sell you shit. It’s like food. I think the core of food is that people are nurturing you. It’s a very nurturing thing to feed someone. But some people cook food and they don’t give a shit about that. It’s like they’re cooking but they’re not thinking about nurturing you, they just say “Eat that and shut up”. There are artists like that in the music arena as well.

What do you think music can do for a community and how does it affect the present and the future of a community, a country and ultimately the world?

I think music has one of the most pointed effects on the community than all of the arts because of exposure. If you want your child to understand analytic cubism and Picasso, there’s a lot of decoding that has to happen before they get that. All of these objects are disassembled and depicted from multiple vantage points, then reassembled to create a more global viewing of the object. Explaining that to a 6 year old can be difficult. You can just show it to him and maybe he likes it or he doesn’t like it. I think the exposure thing does a lot to art. With music, once children enter into adolescence and their sexual maturity and they are starting to emote based on what they’re hearing, there isn’t shit you have to tell them. They either gravitate to it or they don’t, but there’s always something they like. I’ve never heard a human being say they don’t like music. Everything is vibrating, everything is sound. You are calibrated to accept sound. Person means being of sound. You’re designed to accept that to a certain degree. If the focal point of the music is to try to heal the community, then it can do that. If the focal point of it is to try to destroy the community, it can do that. It is very powerful. It gives you a guttural reaction that’s based in your physiology, you’re going to have a reaction to music. Which is why it’s so dangerous when people make music that doesn’t have a nutritional value. When people are making music saying shoot motherfuckers and fuck women and who cares about this person and rape this person and do all of that, if you think that you’re not acculturating that into your system, you’re definitely in the wrong. When you go to a concert and you listen to some music, maybe it’s rock n roll music, maybe it’s rap, your body is doing this (he nods his head). They say “hey fuck you I got all the money, I don’t care about your mother and I disrespect women” and all of that, you’re sitting there going “Yes. Yes. Yes.” This motion is an affirmative. Your physiology, your body, your physical reaction to that is saying “Yes. Yes. Yes.” If you think that hasn’t been breaking down some things, creating these little cognitive walls and dissonances in your space, you’re wrong. It does. This is part of the reason why we make the type of music that we make, because we want you to also have an affirmative and have that type of reaction, but to being hit with something as filled with welcome and love. Filled with the idea that we’re all stronger together than we’re apart and that we need to look for the sameness between us as opposed to always looking for differences. I think music can change the world.

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