For Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the idea of music as political protest shouldn't be exclusive to the Trump era. "It doesn't matter who is seated in that office," he tells Rolling Stone. "It's still my job to challenge them." Indeed, the jazz-trained trumpeter has used his genre-melding sounds to address issues like police brutality and post-Katrina devastation since the Dubya years.
At just 33, Scott can be considered something of a forebear to jazz's current pop moment, when charismatic, socially conscious players like Kamasi Washington perform at packed rock clubs. Raised in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward, he grew up immersed in his city's music and Black Indian culture. Mentored by his uncle Donald Harrison Jr., an important jazz saxophonist and the Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation, Scott received a full ride to Berklee College of Music in Boston, established himself in New York and became a breakout jazz star with his moody, modern 2006 album, Rewind That.
Over the past decade-plus, he's shown a steadfast determination to connect his jazz technique and New Orleans heritage to styles like alt-rock and hip-hop, and his all-embracing concept, which he calls Stretch Music, has sparked collaborations with everyone from John Coltrane alum McCoy Tyner to Prince and Thom Yorke's Atoms for Peace. His new effort, Ruler Rebel (out Friday on Stretch/Ropeadope), kicks off his Centennial Trilogy, a series of releases that observe the anniversary of the first jazz recordings while tackling themes of social and political peril. Ruler Rebel is striking in its blend of the organic and the electronic, the edgy and the ageless, with Scott's broad, brooding lines spread across the rough-hewn beats of trap music, the dynamic rhythms of 21st-century jazz drumming and the percussive traditions of West Africa. (Scott has a profound understanding of New Orleans' African-descended cultural history, and "de-Westernized" his name in time for his 2012 release, Christian aTunde Adjuah.)
In these highlights from a long and revealing conversation with RS, held the day after he participated in an all-star jam at SXSW, Scott talked further about Ruler Rebel's trap influence, jazz's current crossover renaissance, why saying "Fuck Trump" isn't the answer and more.
How does your new music, which sounds very contemporary, reflect and honor the first commercial jazz recordings, by New Orleans' Original Dixieland Jass Band, from 1917?
I think almost everything you hear that comes out of this culture of music in some way harkens back to what was happening in New Orleans in 1917, right? … Part of what we're attempting to do with our music is to re-acculturate all of these seemingly disparate musical realities that have grown out of jazz, or creative improvised music, back into the music. So the way we look at it isn't so linear. We don't think of it as harkening back to what happened in the beginning of the century, but really [as] a document that celebrates the entire trajectory of 100 years.
How does trap music influence your sound?
If we're getting down to the nuts and bolts of it, I can relate to that sound; I can relate to that music. I grew up listening to bounce music; I grew up listening to trap music, hip-hop that evolved into trap music. … In terms of jazz musicians, and I've spent a lot of time with creative improvisers who also play classical music, you should hear some of the things that come out of these people's mouths about other cultures of music.
When I listen to trap music, when I'm listening to these beats, I can hear [all sorts of West African–rooted rhythms]. ... I'm in love with it all. But I'm also the guy who will spend an entire day listening to traditional polka music, so I don't know if that makes me a good person to ask that to or a bad person to ask that to. But the reason that I love it is because I love people, and they're all valid, and that culture of music is valid to me.
Your music often features your female collaborators, like the flutist Elena Pinderhughes. Are you making a point in doing that, and do you think women are still marginalized in jazz?
There are two answers. I generally employ musicians and artists [in whom] I can hear a clear vision and a determination, who are unyielding in their pursuit of greatness and great storytelling. I don't see the gender thing; I don't see the racial thing.
Yeah, and also walking toward it. You can be terrible and I can hear your potential. … Like [drummer] Ralph Peterson, a great practitioner of this music, he would always say, "You don't cook meat when it's cooked; you cook it when it's raw." … I understand that we have to grow. I was very fortunate in that when I was developing, my uncle Donald allowed me to blow trash on his bandstand, and McCoy Tyner, and Eddie Palmieri, and all these folks allowed me into their environments, when on some level you can make strong arguments that I was completely not ready for that. So how dare I take my platform and say that musicians who are developing are not eligible?
If we're being completely honest, the women in this music, they have always been incredible torchbearers, on the same level as the males; there is no fall-off there. … People have very, very limited views about the women in this music. I can't tell you how many times I've had to entertain conversations where people are basically inferring that some of the greatest female musicians only get what they get because they're girls, which is mind-boggling to me.
"People have very, very limited views about the women in this music."
You've said that concert promoters have asked you not to perform songs like "K.K.P.D." ["Ku Klux Police Department"], which was inspired by a group of New Orleans cops who pulled you over and turned their guns on you. How does that conversation usually go?
These aren't conversations with me, because I'm not going to be a party to that [laughs]. But these are conversations that my agents, my managers, sometimes my publicists have. There are a lot of perspectives in this business and there are also a lot of egos. … If you have a festival, you say, OK, we're doing this jazz festival in Vermont and we have a very specific audience, and they may not be open to a six-foot-tall black man with gold chains talking about police brutality. I will defend to death your right to be able to say that; I'm American, I understand. That doesn't mean that I agree with it. It's your business; you can choose whether to pay me or not pay me. The thing is, you should also know that if you don't pay that your competitor will, and that's OK with me too.
I think a lot of times people have concluded that, because I write music about social and political issues, I'm an angry black man [laughs]. But people who know me know that I'm a big goofball and a softie.
A lot of times when we were building this music from 2006, 2007 on, for years our group was the only group that was speaking out about a lot of these social/political issues and ills that we deal with. … A lot of my friends, other practitioners of the music, will say, "What are you doing by saying 'Ku Klux Police Department'? What are you doing by de-Westernizing your name?" When you do those things, you automatically become like a persona non grata in a lot of spaces. But when I was a little boy, every day when I left my home there was a picture of Malcolm X that said [jazz was "the only area on the American scene where the black man has been free to create"]. That was a quote, because he saw something.
So I refuse to let folks, because they decide that what I'm saying makes them uncomfortable, stop me from what it is that I came to actually say. … If it makes you uncomfortable for me to talk about it, think about how uncomfortable it was with the gun in the back of my head. You're at a jazz concert, sipping a cosmo, checking us out – that's uncomfortable to you?
In the Trump era, does the function of the jazz musician change?
If I were the president of the United States, I would want to have an environment where people challenge me on the things that need to get done, because ultimately you're a public servant. You're supposed to want to hear disparate perspectives on what it is that you're doing. That's the best way to know if what you're doing is the right thing for the people. So it doesn't matter who is seated in that office; it's still my job to challenge them.
But like Obama said, we can agree without being disagreeable. Obviously I could be on the bandstand with a shirt that says "Fuck Trump" and waving banners around, but at the end of the day that's not my particular style. … You don't build a tribe, you don't build community, you don't build nations with hate. Ultimately it ends up turning in on itself. So, if I can cultivate a usable reality that says love, love, love, then hopefully these types of politicians can see that and maybe that can change their mind.
You currently live in New Orleans?
Yeah, I live in New Orleans. But I'm movin', man; I'm gettin' out [laughs]. I'm going to L.A. I [lived] there for a year. I had a good time. But now my [twin] brother Kiel is there, and he's working on his first film and some television shows. And I'm excited to get a chance to spend some time with him. I got married a few years ago and moved to New Orleans after I got married, and that was fun. That's no longer my reality, so I'm interested in checking different spaces out in a different way, because I was in a relationship for a very long time.
But I will never not be in New Orleans; I'm always in New Orleans. My family has a nonprofit for cultural retention called the Guardians Institute, so I'm always with kids – either giving away horns, we've given away [over] 44,000 books …
With artists like yourself, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington doing so well, do you feel like jazz is in a period where it's crossing over more successfully than it has in a number of years? It seems like the popular attention around this music has just exploded.
I think a big part of it is the characters, man. When you think about someone like Terrace Martin; you think about Rob; you think about what we're doing – these are people who have really strong, really palpable character, and their music reflects that, and I think this generation relates to that. And that's not to say that the generation before lacked characters, but I don't think they were as pointed as ours are, musically. And there are different ways of thinking about that.
What it's really about is a willingness by us to build bridges. You can make arguments that what was going on 25 to 35 years ago in this music wasn't really, as a concept, preoccupied with building bridges between cultures … but that's partly why we are. Every generation, in terms of their artistic contribution, is a byproduct of what preceded them. I remember, as a little boy growing up in New Orleans, if you didn't play what was known as the neoclassical style, you weren't seen as being valid. So, for me, it was important to create a musical environment that sort of obliterated that idea. ... I didn't think it made sense that someone couldn't work because they expressed themselves differently. So I think that willingness to build bridges between those cultures, and ultimately listeners, is partially why people react so openly and beautifully to our music.
Globalism happened. You have a kid in Dubai who can listen to Eric B. and Rakim and then go listen to an Indian raga and then go listen to John Coltrane. … So this person's appetite, what they're listening for, is going to be different than someone who grew up in an era where their listening tastes were more focused because of technology or the lack thereof. So I think we're addressing something that is a byproduct of globalism really. But we're doing it in a way that has love in it, and I think a lot of people can feel that as well.
Do you think the public attention is sustainable? Do you think Kamasi will be playing to these packed rock clubs in five or 10 years?
I hope so. We're talking about American audiences. The audience in Europe, the audience in Asia – they don't fall off. They're always there, man. They appreciate this music; they're gonna be there. So ultimately what we're talking about is the American audience's appetite for this music.
I think what's going on now is, traditionally and historically, Americans didn't like to be led around; they're independent thinkers, critical thinkers, people who challenge everything. But there was a time period where they were being pacified, and I think people are waking up now, and they no longer want to be bullied and be dragged in one direction or another – politically, or by record labels. So the want of that freedom in their lives, societally and personally, the hunger for that freedom – jazz is the American way to express that. It's the first way musically to express all of those things. … So I think that as long as there's a hunger for actual freedom in America, and actual discourse and dialogue about what is really happening in this place, then the music's trajectory will continue to rise. … When the minds of Americans are hungry, they always go to jazz to get fed.