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Stretching Out With Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

June 30, 2020

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is a two-time Edison Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated trumpeter, composer, and producer. The New Orleans native is a third-generation chieftain in the Afro-New Orleanian culture of Louisiana regionally known as the Black Masking (or Mardi Gras) Indians of New Orleans, nephew of jazz innovator/saxophone player Donald Harrison, Jr., Berklee College of Music alumnus, a brass-instrument and app designer, activist, educator, and participant in his family’s charitable foundation, the Guardians Institute. The 2020 recipient of a $75,000 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, he is the creator of “stretch music,” a term seeking to expand — but never replace — jazz. It’s music aimed at “extending the dialogue of the human condition across the lines of cultural and genre based barriers,” as he wrote in an artist’s statement.

“Stretch” is likely the signature feature of Scott. A conversation projected to be limited to 20 minutes extends into a wide-ranging, 60-minute dialogue which touched on a number of musical and cultural issues.

Let’s begin with the fact that we’re speaking on June 19th, Juneteenth, during a pivotal time in civil-rights history for people of color. Will you get us rolling and talk about contemporary culture and your family’s lineage?

My personal background is that I’m born into the household of the legendary chieftains of the Black Tribes in New Orleans. My family has had a relationship to open rebellion with the West from the beginning of their interactions with the First Nation people of the continent. I come from a culture that has some very dense feelings about what has transpired on this continent and what has taken place on the African continent. It’s a culture that’s intentional.

The way that we see these things, the way that we frame what it is to be free, who gets to be American, (it’s) always been language that has been problematic to me. The larger cultural impediments that exist in what was essentially a 500-year history when our cultures interacted ... is beyond complicated.

Most of my friends call me Chief or Adjuah. When I made the decision to take my full name, so many responses to that would fall in line with things you would have heard about Muhammed Ali when he decided to do a similar thing. People would ask me if I officially changed my name. I’d ask what they meant by that. They’d say, “Did you go to city hall, some American government building and request to change your name?” My response would be, “I don’t think they made an official request to the ruling body in Senegal or Namibia or any of these places when they decided to grant me with a Western name.

I think of the absurdity of the way we frame these things, even in this moment. When people speak about Juneteenth, they say that African persons were set free and emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. That’s obviously a dense history, primarily because they also robbed African American people who were already self-liberated who were fighting those challenges and impediments that existed in that war. [Emancipation] wasn’t something that was being handed over to people. This was a fight they’d been engaged in since the beginning of this country.

When you are also framing the notion of how that system became codified, how it exists in the lives of most Americans right now, it’s complicated. African enslavement and the codified caste system based on color — the history will really leave your mind in a knot.

What is freedom within all this context?

I want to put the right frame on [that answer]; I don’t want it to be truncated. When we speak about rebellion, exact history gets left out because of what it actually points to. This was a rebellion that happened involving European-descent Americans who were enslaved, indigent slave persons, and African American enslaved people who decided they would unify to break down the ruling class. The ruling class maintained a stronghold to pass legislation to codify and create a caste system based on color.

Freedom in the American sense is complicated because so many of the attainments exist because of a construct that was created that is not just harmful to me. How you think of a person who’s Armenian, Norwegian, French, Spanish — and within one generation of them being here castigate them into whiteness — then use that same frame to make it OK for them to oppress and subjugate.

My family’s relationship to that culture, being a third-generation chieftain, it’s always a nebulous conversation to speak about freedoms. In the modern moment, more so than just this particular [BLM] moment about people being liberated, it’s not so much about African-descent Americans being freed or liberated, it really has more to do with European-construct Americans who have been coerced into the idea of whiteness as a body politic and a mode of operating. Our ways of interacting with other people are becoming free [largely] because the level of consciousness has been raised and people are starting to understand that they have been fooled and coerced into an idea that has no utility in this moment.

Tell me about the impact of the Herb Alpert Award you’ve just received. Will it allow for new opportunities?

For me, as a person who grew up listening to this music, even to get tapped and nominated — as a fan since I was a child — who wouldn’t be elated about one of their heroes having the foresight to build a foundation that’s trying to help artists subsidize costs so they can navigate this environment with a little less stress? That’s such a beautiful idea and a great example I hope to be in position to continue someday.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s a bigger fan of what he has done musically. I remember being a kid, eating applesauce at the table with my grandfather and listening to The Lonely Bull. It means a lot on that level.

In terms of the money, it’s really beautiful that folks are getting intentional in that they identify people who are working hard in these spaces for such a long time. And people who are trying to build their own foundation and their own floors, so they don’t have to exist in the way artists are traditionally forced to coordinate to just exist. I’ve owned and operated a record label since 2013, owned and operated an app company as well, so my business exists in many different spaces, not to mention the touring companies and all that.

There are a lot of impediments, not just for creative improvisors (but for) musicians from all cultures. With our label we try to create a space where all of our artists maintain ownership of their assets. We build apps and interactive media players and make music on our labels that [allow] artists to monetize their assets in ways traditional record companies don’t allow. Historically, the artist ends up being the record company’s best customer. To build a label around equity and for artists to build their own resources outside of just a download or a stream and actually subsidize their costs has been deeply helpful. What Mr. Alpert is doing is the expansion of that. He is a good template for young musicians trying to figure out how to navigate the recording industry while simultaneously living.

Speaking of young musicians and making a difference, what if every K-12 school was as concerned about students getting a drum set or a trumpet as they are concerned with access to laptops?

I travel year-round internationally getting instruments to children in all sorts of places. We’ve given instruments to children in Uganda, Lebanon. The feeling I have is that we live in an environment where these ideas have to be one or the other. Most schools won’t subsidize the cost of a kid having a laptop and a trumpet, right? Pick-and-choose has an energy in itself, but in an ideal world, people who actually want to do that [have a laptop and a music instrument], the version of the world that would exist within a 15-year period would be a world where people would be intentional in the way they listen to each other. There would be more empathy and compassion. Music is a very communal art. All of the skills required in developing any mastery of music require that you acknowledge and are keenly aware of others in the environment.

The black populace in New Orleans is very intentional in making sure that children have musical instruments. Historically, you can’t tell someone in that environment that they cannot change the world playing music, because we can draw direct links to Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, Kid Ory. The best potential version of the world would have more people proficient in music and really, all the arts.

If the onus put on these school systems is to actually invest in that type of learning, because it forces you to consider other people, that would be amazing. In the meantime, people like me can step in; musicians who are either gifted or grew up with music and instruments handed down by generation after generation.

You grew up in a rich music environment, but many children, especially in low-income areas, don’t have access to mobile devices and Wi-Fi and the Stretch Music Apps you began to release in 2015. What can be done?

You’re absolutely right, and this is one of the challenges we face with the technology we’ve been building. Every year we give away thousands of these apps, but a huge component is that in so many communities that are struggling, they don’t even have the phone to run the app. What we’re talking about stems from marginalization and people being oppressed and not having actual economy to have the tools. It doesn’t hurt us [to] gift the apps, but some kids with a phone, the phone may not be compatible, so it’s challenging.

One of the things we’ve done recently that’s been most successful is working in conjunction with Ronnie Scott’s, a notable jazz club, one of the oldest in London. They have an instrument amnesty. Last year we raised [enough money] to have over 3,300 instruments donated [and repaired]. There are people who, maybe their great grandfather was a violinist, or their aunt was a cellist. They have those instruments and they don’t use them, they’re just [instruments] sitting around collecting dust. They can gift them and there are tax write-offs for that kind of philanthropy. It incentivizes people to have them appraised.

So there are ways. It just becomes about those ways becoming clear to more people. It’s difficult to get municipal government and state legislators to earmark these things. Especially in places where the arts are not as important. I was born in New Orleans, obviously a city where the economy is based on tourism and most people come there for the arts, but it’s still a community that doesn’t subsidize the cost for those endeavors as much as they could. It wouldn’t be necessary for me to have to come into my high school and bring 20 instruments from the Newport Jazz Festival if New Orleans was also making sure these kids had what they needed.

Your song, “K.K.P.D.” (Ku Klux Police Department) has been reviewed as dangerous and divisive. But in interviews you emphasize unity, peace, nation building, and connectivity. How are these positions reconciled in your mind and your music?

It’s never been two voices. That composition was written as a means of nonviolence. I have to say that clearly because what we’re doing can be quite wild in some moments. It’s a moment where a person is trying to artistically express the range of emotions a human being goes through. For that to be reacted to like you’re a sensationalist and that you’re causing trouble by speaking to that — most of the people who are going to conjecture about my heart space and what I’m actually doing have probably not had a police officer shoving a gun in their mouth. And telling their mother they’re going to have to pick them up in the morgue, right? [In a 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Scott spoke about experiencing the terrifying incidents.] Those comments are coming from a space where they lack empathy and don’t have the ability to process that my experience in going through that is probably vastly different than theirs.

When I’m speaking to that moment it’s not me saying someone needs to be hurt or killed. People react to my like, “Oh, how can you say these things?” My response is always, say what? To say a person should not have their progress impeded and their life threatened simply for existing? When someone has a problem with expressing that, it’s deeply illuminating about who they are. It has nothing to do with me. That’s their space.

It’s always curious to me; the reframing of my people’s cultural expression in these moments. When we talk about Colin Kaepernick kneeling at football games: That was automatically given a completely new narrative, that it was him disrespecting the flag when he was actually protesting the fact that police officers can come into our neighborhoods and exterminate our men, women, children without recourse from our community. For that to be molded into disrespecting the flag is outrageous.

When I say “Ku Klux Police Department,” [it’s] from my perspective and people who have been terrorized at the hands of slave patrols that have evolved into what we call modern day policing. Reacting as if you are sensationalizing something that actually has a documented history — it’s not something we’re conjecturing about; there are comprehensive histories about lynching. Those histories probably dwarf what is actually happening when it relates to blackness.

Unless you go and read Ida B. Wells’s written record about the history of lynching in this country and how it relates to slave patrols and policing, it’s more helpful to take a deep breath and understand what we are articulating is not coming from a space of hate. If that was the heart space and the way blacks interacted with the West, this place would look vastly different. It’s not. The interactions have been full of grace and a lot of patience

That is ending because people are sick of repeating themselves. They’re maligning artists that speak truth of their experiences. Saying it’s being rabble rousing, gaslighting, and all these things is a tactic to silence those voices. “Ku Klux” is a mirror, and lot of people don’t want to deal with it. The projection becomes about what I’m doing to them as opposed to that I’m speaking about a specific instance I experienced that was outrageous, terrible, and traumatizing.

Are you currently active in your family’s Guardians Institute? If not, do you plan to be?

Yes. I’m never not active. My entire family engages daily. We have our own assignments for different things. We don’t take a break from that. I became chief of one of my family’s banners, so it’s important for me to get back to New Orleans. Outside of general cultural expeditions and leading the tribe, general things like instrument giveaways, every year our foundation gives away between 35 and 45 thousand books to area youth. We’re always on the dash.

What music are you listening to, whose stories are inspiring you that will cause your work to grow?

I’ve been listening to a lot of new music: An ex-student of mine, Samora Pinderhughes, he just released Black Spring, an incredible EP. Yesterday I mellowed out and listened to newer music: Derrick Hodge has a new record called Color of Noize, which is really dope; in the bath I listened to John Legend’s “Imagine” [a John Lennon cover].

And there’s some dance hall music I played for about an hour and exercised to that.

Last week, I took a couple hours and dug into Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, a recording of Yo-Yo Ma playing it. I’m working on passages and incorporating elements harmonically into my playing because a lot of the music we build is in a minor reality. Recently, I bought Ernst Reijseger’s [score for the film] Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Some of these compositions, I can’t get them out of my head. They’re hauntingly beautiful, and how they develop and the textural elements in the music are very cool.

Let’s say you’re given the opportunity to reconstruct jazz presenters, opera companies, classical music orchestras, and artists’ tools for distribution after the pandemic is over and civil unrest changes policing for people of color. What does reformation look like?

That’s a great question. For me, there are two imperatives.

The first is we have to be intentional about decolonializing sound. The shortest route to building a space where all perspectives are seen as valid — no matter which cultural space you come from — has to do with how we learn music in the West. As a person who has taught at Berklee and Juilliard, [I think that] the way we teach music builds artists that are [not] rhythmically conditioned. From my cultural environment and background, where before you’re 7 years old you’re expected to understand the difference between the rhythms that come out of the diaspora or are rooted in the West African rim; the way we teach music in the West doesn’t leave room for that. When classical artists try to move into a jazz or creative improvised space, those interactions in the beginning [are difficult] because they’re coming from spaces so rhythmically different.

Important in the short term is to codify new systems that make it a required thing that as you learn music, you also learn the cultural tenets of deeply rhythmic cultures and music. When you put a person like [pianist] Chucho Valdés on the stage with any pianist in the world, he is going to have a lot more tools to apply. This is a person who really understands how rhythm is connected in real time. I would create a structure that balances the energy that we put into harmonic and melodic [aspects] of music with making sure we no longer build young artists that become the practitioners of music that is rhythmically deficient and barren.

The second aspect is making sure there are spaces where ideas, genre blindness, and sharing different cultural experiences is important. It’s very easy to malign a group of people musically as one thing without being able to do the thing that they do. You’re less likely to do that if you have to communicate in their musical language. You see the merit in it because musical languages are not just intuitive. A person outside of Puerto Rico or Cuba listens to Celia Cruz and says salsa music is supposed to be emotional, the rhythms are cool, but that’s easy. It’s very different to sit in the band with salsa musicians and actually play with them. You realize you don’t know how to play and not offend [members of the band]. You can’t have pejorative ideas about entire cultures of music if you have a relationship to them.

You know, I want to say that everything is rhythm. One of the things that made James Brown’s music so powerful and why people have such an affinity for it is because this is a person who understood and said in plain language that every instrument is a drum. There’s a reason you can’t stop moving when you’re listening to that music. In hindsight, you do not have modern music in the popular realm without his contribution. In Stretch music — music rooted in that cultural space of New Orleans — if you’re not speaking in that rhythm, you’re not speaking. We need to tap into that and focus on what you can grab.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.