Christian Scott, Pouring Emotion Into Music The jazz trumpeter chats about and performs songs from his album Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. He tells guest host Audie Cornish about how he developed his signature breathy sound, and his education in jazz which came from his family, formal schooling, and the clubs in his hometown of New Orleans.
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Christian Scott, Pouring Emotion Into Music

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Christian Scott, Pouring Emotion Into Music

Christian Scott, Pouring Emotion Into Music

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish, sitting in for Michel Martin.

Though he's only 27, he's been called one of jazz's top innovators. Trumpeter Christian Scott hails from New Orleans and has been turning heads of critics and fans alike since his 2006 Grammy-nominated debut album "Rewind That." He's put out others since then, including his new one titled "Yesterday You Said Tomorrow."

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: Christian Scott and his band joins us here in NPR's Washington studio. Christian Scott, welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRISTIAN SCOTT (Trumpeter): Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, the first thing I want to do, which sometimes people do at the end, I'd love to be introduced to your band.

Mr. SCOTT: Well, we'll start with our pianist. He hails from Seaside, California, and his name is Milton Fletcher. Our bassist, he hails from Baltimore, Maryland, and his name is Kristopher Funn. Our drummer, he's a one of my Southern compatriots in this music. He hails from Houston, Texas. Give it up for Jamire Williams out there. I know you all clapping, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: On the electric guitar from Toronto, Canada, the musical director of the band and my best friend, I love him very much, Matthew Stevens.

CORNISH: All right, now, this is actually your fifth album and I think people are always describing you as the new kid or the up-and-coming. But this is album number five, and do you think you're finally shedding that label?

Mr. SCOTT: I think part of it is 'cause I can't grow any facial hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: And, you know, I see some of my predecessors and sometimes writers and stuff and they look at me and they say, wow, this guy is 17 years old, but they don't realize I'm almost 30. You know, usually people start to trace their path from when you start going on the road. And most guys start going on the road when they're, like, 20, 21, 22. But I started when I was 13 or 14.

CORNISH: And this was traveling with your uncle's band, Donald Harrison.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah. With his band or Kenny Bear's(ph) band when I was younger, like, 17, 18 years old and stuff. Guys I was seeing on the scene, I always the baby baby, you know. So I guess in jazz years I'm actually maybe 12 or 13.

CORNISH: Well, I read you had a really interesting he gave you a really interesting sort of test or exam to get started in music. You had to learn a certain song.

Mr. SCOTT: Oh, yeah, yeah, of course.

CORNISH: And I should be clear, your uncle, Donald Harrison is a well-known musician in New Orleans and saxophonist. And so he's on stage doing his thing and one day you decide you want to, too.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah. Well, what happened was I was in the car with my grandmother and my mother and I heard this record that he made called "Indian Blues." It's about the Afro-Native American music in New Orleans mixed with jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCOTT: My uncle had a quintet with Terence Blanchard for about a decade and on this record, Terence wasn't there. So I could hear that there was no trumpet, and I always wanted to hang out with my uncle because, you know, he wore really, really expensive suits and drove corvettes and stuff, so I was into him, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: And, you know, I asked my mother if I could play the trumpet and she got me a horn. And I called my uncle up and I was like, I want to play jazz. Can you teach me to be a jazz master? And he says, no, can't teach you to be a jazz master. So I said, well, can you teach me to be a jazz musician? He's, like, well, I can try that.

So he came over to my home and he pulled out this pocket real book(ph), this small real book and he pulled out a song called "Donna Lee" by Charlie Parker. And it was in the key of E flat, which the trumpet is in the key of B flat and he was like, we have to transpose this movements and then I'm going to come back in 30 minutes and you need to be able to play it at tempo.

(Soundbite of song, "Donna Lee")

Mr. SCOTT: And, of course, I failed miserably. And, you know, he looked at me and he said, this is a very hard path and you have to take it very, very seriously. You know, this is about refining yourself to be the best that you can be every day. And I never lost that lesson. So, but that's how it started.

CORNISH: So, this album is called "Yesterday You Said Tomorrow" and I'd love to just get into some of the music. Tell us about the first song you're going to play for us.

Mr. SCOTT: Well, the first song that we're going to play is about the 13th Amendment and the Bill of Rights and it's about the concept of permissible slavery in the United States. And...

CORNISH: And the title of this song is, I believe, "Angola, LA & The 13th Amendment."

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, "Angola, Louisiana and the 13th Amendment." And, you know, I think, you know, most people in the nation know about this particular prison, Angola, work farm, 18,000 acres, and it's just a horrible, deplorable place. So I wrote this song about the people that go through that experience.

(Soundbite of song, "Angola LA & The 13th Amendment")

CORNISH: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with jazz trumpeter Christian Scott about his innovative mark on the genre and his new album titled "Yesterday You Said Tomorrow." All right, Christian Scott, tell me a little bit about the style, how you developed the technique.

Mr. CHRISTIAN SCOTT (Jazz trumpeter): The whisper technique?


Mr. SCOTT: Or just the sound of the trumpet?

CORNISH: Well both, because that's an interesting looking trumpet.

Mr. SCOTT: Oh, okay, well cool. Well, I mean, the horn, the shape of the horn and design of the horn is something that I came up with, with my twin brother Kyle. We were trying to figure out a way to keep the bell parallel with the ears of the audience while I pivoted down and I played. And so, if I looked, you know, and played down, I would be able to still see everyone in the audience and be able to watch them and be able to react. So I have sort of a tilted bell.

As far as the whisper technique is concerned, that's harder. What that is is basically I'm playing with warm air in certain passages or phrases. And it wasnt something that I learned from anyone. I heard that Clifford Brown had a technique like that that he played with but the recording quality at the time was that where you couldnt hear it. And I talked to my uncle a lot about it and I talked to Clark Terry about it and he told me that he did it with warm air.

So I took about three years practicing to be able to turn it on and off when I wanted. And it finally came one day. I was in the practice room practicing and I remember being really frustrated and almost wanting to give up on it. And I thought about trying to emulate my mother's singing voice, and that's how it came. I was trying to play like my mom sang, so that's how that happened.

CORNISH: You are a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and youre also -went to a really well known arts high school in New Orleans.

Mr. SCOTT: Sure.

CORNISH: And that's a lot of very traditional training. So what has it been like to break out of that with jazz? Because it sounds like you're trying to push things a little further compared to maybe what someone of your age is sort of expected to put out at this point in their career.

Mr. SCOTT: You know, I think thats one of the big things that plagues musicians of this era is that people expect them to do something. I did go to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. I did go to the Berkeley College of Music but - in context of them being more like traditional reservoirs for young musicians, I think it's sort of a very modern thing for a musician to go to school to learn how to do this.

Like Louis Armstrong didnt go to Berklee, he just felt. You know what I mean? And what it is that I try to do is to use that experience to make sure that no one could de-validate my contribution musically. But ultimately when I'm playing music, I'm just expressing how I feel. And that's not something you can learn in a classroom.

CORNISH: One of the really interesting songs on the album is a cover of "The Eraser" by Thom Yorke...

Mr. SCOTT: Sure.

CORNISH: ...who is from the band Radiohead. I was hoping you might be able to play it because I think you...

Mr. SCOTT: I can play whatever you want, Id be happy.

CORNISH: It sort of gets at some of this genre-bending stuff...

Mr. SCOTT: Blending...

CORNISH: ...that people like to talk about.

Mr. SCOTT: Yes, for sure.

CORNISH: So if you guys could do that one...

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah.

CORNISH: ..."The Eraser," Thom Yorke.

Mr. SCOTT: Let me go grab a mute, we're going to need that.

(Soundbite of "The Eraser")

CORNISH: That was "The Eraser" by Thom Yorke, a cover on the album. You're going to be in New Orleans soon.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah.

CORNISH: And, you know, the really interesting thing I found about New Orleans when I was covering it as a reporter is the sort of steady stream of musicians who come up through basically a system...

Mr. SCOTT: Sure.

CORNISH: ...of bands like Rebirth Brass Band...

Mr. SCOTT: Sure.

CORNISH: ...and everyone sort of - there's sort of a JV - a freshman, a JV and a varsity.

Mr. SCOTT: Right. That's true. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that makes a lot of - you're actually the first person to put it like that, but yeah, you're very observant because thats what it's like.

CORNISH: Okay, but when is that is a help and when does that hurt?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, I think it depends on the person. I grew up with a lot of musicians who went through that system. And, you know, some people opt to stay. You know, they never leave. But, you know, I think a big part of that is also, you know, New Orleans is the type where there's lots of social issues that sort of motivate why people do things.

You know, if a guy grew up in the 6th Ward and by the time he was 14 years old, all of his friends were dead, he might not think he's going to be 30 years old doing anything, make it that long. So, you know, you get to be 17, 18 years old and you're playing and making money doing gigs, he's saying, you know, thats it, this is the life for me.

But the system does work if you're driven. If you - I mean, at least for me. I knew I needed to leave because I wanted to be the best, you know. But, you know, not everybody gets - you know, I was nurtured when I was kid. People were saying, well you can do whatever you want to do and thats not everybody's experience and that's unfortunate.

CORNISH: Some of the issues that you were talking about in New Orleans in particular were compounded by the hurricane. And this is the fifth anniversary this year...

Mr. SCOTT: Sure.

CORNISH: ...of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast and levees breaking and floods wreaking havoc in New Orleans itself. Can you talk about how the music scene has survived this? I mean, five years out, what is it like there now?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, I mean, I think almost immediately after, you know, the musicians were some of the first people to come back because I think they - you know, New Orleans is one of those places where, like, its music and that culture of musicians is sort of like, you know, as far as the city goes, the musicians are like a mother with a baby in her womb. The baby is going to be her avenger. And the musicians are like that.

So everyone knows that it's paramountly(ph) important for the music to be there because the music is the future, you know. So in order for us to get to where we need to go, you got to go back, even if you dont want to be back. And I try to get back as much as possible. It's hard with my touring schedule and everything.

CORNISH: All right, so I think I want to end with a song.

Mr. SCOTT: Okay.

CORNISH: But it's going to be the song of your choice. So tell us...

Mr. SCOTT: Oh yeah?

CORNISH: ...what do you want to take us out on?

Mr. SCOTT: You mentioned something earlier that I thought was good. You said you liked "Isadora."


Mr. SCOTT: And we've been playing some hard stuff and I dont know if these guys are in the mood to play a ballad, but I kind of feel like that might be nice to play a ballad, end with a ballad.

CORNISH: I would be very, very happy to hear that.

Mr. SCOTT: Okay, cool.

(Soundbite of "Isadora")

CORNISH: To hear the full studio versions of the songs performed by Christian Scott and his band, please go to the program page of and select TELL ME MORE.

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