Christian Scott - Dispensing advice and blue notes

Christian Scott is enthusing about the young musicians who make up the band he brings to Edinburgh Jazz Festival this weekend when he stops himself. “Listen to me talking,” he says. “I sound like an old man. I’m thirty-one but I do feel kind of like a father figure to my band and I want to pass on the advice I was given because it was good advice. It stopped me from taking a few wrong turnings.”

Scott was nurtured and protected as a young musician and having been travelling in jazz bands since his uncle, former Art Blakey and Miles Davis saxophonist Donald Harrison invited him onstage at the age of fifteen and decided he was ready to play trumpet with his band, he has seen the sort of wrong turnings he could have taken.

“I’ve seen bandleaders who get young players high so that they can keep them on drugs and control them that way. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there and I want to steer my band well away from it,” he says. “Besides, I want to keep them playing at the top of their game because they’re brilliant. They make my music sound good, even if it also means that I have to work like crazy to keep up with them.”

Work rate has hardly been a problem since Scott was given his first trumpet at the age of twelve. It wasn’t his first choice of instrument. He would have liked to become a guitarist and tried to emulate Jimi Hendrix – his twin brother, Kiel, apparently took up that challenge – and for a while he wanted to follow Uncle Donald’s example on saxophone after seeing Harrison playing with Miles Davis on television and thinking his uncle had the coolest job in the world.

Growing up in New Orleans, though, and being made aware of the city’s culture every day through a family that played a prominent part in keeping elements of that culture alive – his grandfather was the Chief of Chiefs who led the Mardi Gras “Indians” on parade – he took to the trumpet and accepted the role his mother had mapped out for him as continuing in the tradition of the late Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong and another player who was very much alive and prominent, Wynton Marsalis.

Scott’s mother is also an influence in the sound he creates with his trumpet, a style known as whispering that bebop legend Clifford Brown perfected but that Scott developed through trying to emulate his mother’s singing voice.

Having been accepted, at fourteen, into the Crescent City’s talent incubator, New Orleans Centre of Creative Arts, where the Marsalis brothers and a whole generation of players including Harrison and trumpeter Terence Blanchard were schooled, and gone on the road with Harrison a year later, Scott won a scholarship to Berklee School of Music in Boston. There, as well as completing a five year course in three years, he studied film music, a genre that has had a significant impact on the music he creates today.

Compositions such as Ku Klux Police Department, which resulted from an incident in which Scott was stopped and threatened with his life by the police in New Orleans, have seen the trumpeter earn a reputation as one of the most politically outspoken musicians in jazz and he has also written pieces about victims of shootings and other crimes.

“I don’t look for things like that to compose music about,” he says. “But if they’re happening then I feel I should speak out. I don’t use words but a wise old musician once told me that ninety per cent of communication is not verbal. So I like to tell a story in music and that’s what film music does. It signals that something’s changing in the narrative and I learned a lot from film music about how to take the listener with you through notes and rhythm. It’s like giving the music body language that people can read, although sometimes they read something else from it entirely, so I suppose it’s open to interpretation!”

Among the advice he dispenses to his young band is not to play too fast and not to be afraid of failing.

“If you’re failing it means you’re living,” he says. “I used to force myself to write three tunes a day at college and they weren’t all the greatest compositions ever, I can tell you. But it helped me to learn how to express what I was feeling. Every musician makes mistakes but if you play with love in your heart, people will feel it.”

From The Herald, July 24, 2014.

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