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Roundtable: Kamasi Washington & Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

On civil rights and the social role of jazz musicians

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (left) and Kamasi Washington at the North Sea Jazz Festival in July
Concert presenters have attempted to dissuade Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah from performing his composition "K.K.P.D.," which stands for "Ku Klux Police Department"
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (left) and Kamasi Washington at the North Sea Jazz Festival in July
Asked for examples of jazz as protest music, Kamasi Washington chooses Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and John Coltrane's "Alabama"

This past summer the daily news cycle was ablaze with stories of violence and murder and outrage, pushing issues of civil-rights to center stage. In the first week of July alone, reactions to the fatal shootings of two more African-American men-Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota-in what should have been routine, nonlethal police interactions, were burning up the Internet. Then, on July 7, five policemen were killed in Dallas, and for a few days it seemed everyone, everywhere, was holding their breath, wondering if a racial powder keg was about to explode. Everywhere included Europe, where in the midst of the summer jazz festival season many American musicians were on tour-one eye on their show and travel schedules, the other on all that was happening back home.

The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Holland, had months before scheduled a panel discussion on “Jazz & Civil Rights” on July 8, as part of its talking event series, featuring saxophonist Kamasi Washington, 35, trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, 33, and myself as moderator. The two had been asked to participate given the message in their music-an abiding sense of social awareness that many associate with jazz of the 1960s. But that week in July the topic was once again immediate. A packed audience listened intently as the two spoke on the social role of jazz musicians from contemporary and historical perspectives, and on the widening racial divide in America.

-ASHLEY KAHN, Journalist and educator

Ashley Kahn: [Let’s talk about] the role of the musician as a reporter of social realities, or as a commentator speaking of what that reality should be. When you guys signed up to be musicians, did this cross your mind?

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: For me, absolutely. I was born and raised in New Orleans. I grew up in the 9th Ward. Most of the musicians I grew up around-Doc Cheatham, Danny Barker-some of these guys were literally second-generation jazz musicians, and when I was small they would always say they didn’t really like the word “jazz” so much, [and] they would always say that jazz is blues in all forms.

I don’t mean [“blues”] in terms of melancholic woe-is-me, but blues as the most sincere thing that one can excavate from inside, in terms of how they communicate musically. For them, if that is supposed to hold true, then it means you have to report what your experience is. So for me, when I was a little boy I would see these guys that would play this music, and a lot of the songs would be about like really heart-wrenching things that they experienced, things that they saw, things they endured, things that they no longer wanted to exist.

When I was a small child coming up I realized that that was the requisite of what I was doing. If I accepted this as a vocation, [that] was part of it. So in that way I always felt fortunate about coming up in that reality, because you know that you’ve developed a talent to be able to play [at a] high level, that the demand is there and people want to see you, that you actually have the means to communicate things about your community and your experience that most people want to put a muzzle on. This is something that I looked forward to when I was developing.

Kamasi Washington: I started really young; I was like 3 years old. Music just was always present, so I wasn’t really thinking about being a musician. When I first started I was just making music, but as a person I learned more about the world. Growing up [where I did in Los Angeles] it was kind of like … you could be a bit closed off. Like I didn’t really know a white person until I was in junior high school, 13 years old. You’re kind of in the hood and you stay in the hood; you don’t go anywhere. You’re aware of injustice and you’re aware of things, but you don’t really realize how big the world is. I realized how big the world was when my music started to expand, and I understood what I can do with my music. I started to interact with different people, and I started to learn that my music-or music in general-it affected people. As I started playing more and more, I started to realize, “Oh, wow, I can actually change people’s minds with my music. I can do something with this; it’s not just for me.”

AK: That first revelation about what music can do-was that something that you saw through a recording, or someone else performing, or your own performance? Can you pinpoint it?

KW: When I was like 11 years old I had a cousin that gave me some Art Blakey music, and I was playing clarinet back then, and when I got into jazz is when I really started to feel like music was my thing. Before that it was just something I did at home. So I started bringing my clarinet to school, so I could play songs from the radio. Everybody is like, “Play that one song,” and I would play it.

AK: What song would that be?

KW: That was some song from like N.W.A, or something like that.

AK: On a clarinet?

KW: Yeah. So then I was like, “Aw, man, listen to this Art Blakey.” They’re like, “Who’s Art Blakey?” I was like, “Man, just listen to it; he’s dope.” So I got all of my friends [to listen], and Art Blakey had this whole effect on all these little kids in this real extra-ghetto school; it wasn’t what people would be expecting us to be into, and I realized how powerful music was and how they started to look up to me because I could play music. … As I grew musically, my understanding of what I could do with my music grew.

AK: Do you still stretch out on any N.W.A themes?

KW: Yeah, every once in a while, you know.

AK: I would love to hear that. Christian, what about yourself? Was there a moment when you realized [the impact music can have]? You’re from New Orleans, so in a way you’ve got a head start on all of us, because their music is such a connective force and built into the culture.

CS: Yeah, I almost immediately realized it could help people. If I’m going to pick a specific moment, when I was a little boy, around 11 years old-these are very formative years-one of my friends, Byron, was shot. [In] the jazz funeral tradition you play dirge music on the way to drop the body or to bring the body to the mausoleum. But when you’re coming back you play celebratory music, as a means of celebrating this person’s life. I’ll never forget because I was close to this kid, I’d see his mother every day, and she was just a really jovial, happy person, but she was completely fractured and shattered by the fact that her son had been taken away from her-to the point where she couldn’t stand. Women were trying to carry her. I know you’ve seen this too, right?

KW: Yeah, yeah.

CS: But, man, when [the Rebirth Brass Band] started playing they were able to cut through all of that and just give this lady a moment where she could escape for a minute. As a kid seeing that, watching that growing up, this was probably the moment for me where I realized that this music actually had the power to help people transcend anything. Any time you can help a lady that’s enduring what this woman was enduring-who is heartbroken, who is literally howling in the street…

KW: What you realize is that the music, it connects you to whoever is listening; just for that moment I’m connected to you. It’s not that I can make you this way or that way; I don’t want people thinking, “Kamasi is hypnotizing me.” But when I’m playing music, and you’re there and you’re hearing me, and then we’re connected so I get to give you empathy, that’s something that’s really important. I think that feeling of someone being there with you, that’s what [Christian] is talking about in the funeral. When you hear musicians come play, it’s like all of a sudden you’re not alone; all of a sudden it’s like not my son died, [it’s] our son died. “OK, we’re going to all together lift up. … OK, now that we’re lifted up, now he’s going to wash it away.”

I grew up playing in church, and every week people would come in there with all types of problems. Lift them up, wash them off. It’s a beautiful thing that you can do that.

AK: Do you hear a lot of music that doesn’t seem to want to connect? How do you feel about music that is more just for the moment’s sake?

CS: I’ll jump on that one. The thing is it always goes in waves, right? And it depends on what you’re being fed from what’s going on outside, right? One of [my songs is] called “Ku Klux Police Department” [“K.K.P.D.”]. When we dropped that, even some of my closest friends were like, “What are you doing?” Musicians [play music] as a means of procuring money so they can eat. We’re being really linear right now. Playing music equals food. The things that you say in that context [of performing music] can make you ineligible for compensation. So I don’t blame anyone that makes a choice, an active choice not to do that, because they have to feed their families. I wouldn’t admonish any person that makes a choice to do something or not to do something when the consequences can be so dire. There’s a lot of layers to that.

When I think about what’s going on musically now, though, I feel like this generation of artists, what we’re doing is more [socially and politically] active than I can remember it ever existing, other than in the ’60s-right?

I just had a conversation with Ben Williams, a bass player who just created a really beautiful song about Post-Traumatic Stress on soldiers. What’s great is you’re getting a multitude of [fresh] perspectives on some of the subject matter that didn’t exist before. But I think that the musicians have finally turned around, are being valiant, and are saying, “You know what? [I’m going to say this] even if I know it means that certain gigs I won’t be eligible for.” I could actually go down the list of promoters and buyers that have written emails to [my booking] agents: “This person can’t play here if he plays K.K.P.D.” That’s in writing.

AK: That has happened?

CS: Oh, yeah, multiple times in my career. But I’m not going to waste the opportunity to say something. Like I said, I came up under Doc Cheatham, Danny Barker and these guys, and this is part of my pedigree, right? I can’t divorce it from the way I’m built, so I’m going to continue to say what I have to say, but I would never admonish any other artist that makes an active choice not to do it. However, the artists that are indifferent, the artists that are out here doing what it is that they’re doing but they could care less about how their actions affect other people, including other artists, this is a scary person to me. Because like [Kamasi] spoke to before, when the musician is playing he’s communicating something-that connectivity is real. When you’re indifferent, what are you actually communicating? As an artist I don’t subscribe to that philosophy. The musicians that project this indifference and have that as a mode of operating, I’m not really interested in sharing with them either.

AK: In setting up this discussion, I asked Kamasi and Christian for an example of protest music, and they both came up with the same tune, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” from 1939. Kamasi, do you want to set it up?

KW: You brought this up: Billie Holliday had a hard time putting this record out. She was on Columbia, and they wouldn’t let her put it out. She had to go to an independent label [Commodore] and Columbia gave her an exemption. And so, like Christian was saying, I like to try to talk beyond just musicians.

I think [certain people] have the sight to see wrong, because everyone doesn’t have it. When I grew up people just didn’t have it; they didn’t really discern how the path of the things they were doing was wrong-like robbing people and just doing stuff. It took people around them who had it to teach them. So we’re not all the same, and we don’t see the same things, and we don’t have the same understanding. The responsibility of those who have those gifts is to understand [and say something]. … [It’d be] like walking down a road and there’s a cliff and you’re the only one that sees it, and you just let people walk off and die. It’s like, “Man, you should have said something.” You can’t assume that the people around you see what you see. [There were] times in my life I didn’t understand; I didn’t know, and so I had to learn. I learned there’s music that is tapped in and I can see that this [musician] is expressing their experience and it’s honest. [But] if you’re not speaking to what you see, you’re fake. Billie Holiday’s music has always been brutally honest. I always loved “Strange Fruit,” but when I found out that they didn’t want her to sing that song … That’s when you gotta stand up as an artist and have integrity and say, “I’m not going to let my people just walk off the cliff. I am going to say something whether you like it or not.”

AK: And this wasn’t during the civil-rights era. She was pretty much out there alone doing this.

KW: Like I said before, it goes in waves, and sometimes an artist or groups of artists can be the impetus for the ideas and the mode of operating change.

[Holiday’s 1939 version of “Strange Fruit” is played]

KW: I wanted to add one thing, and this is something that a lot of musicians don’t always realize: Her record label didn’t want her to do it and it ended up being her biggest hit.

AK: TIME magazine calls it the number-one song of the 20th century.

KW: Or like Marvin Gaye-he had to fight to put “What’s Going On” out, but it ended up being his biggest hit. Sometimes even though you might take a hit at first, when you tell the truth that’s worth everything.

AK: I’m going to throw a hardball here. How does music react to something that is as grim and bloody [as today’s headlines]?

KW: I try not to be too swayed by the boxes with the lights, because otherwise you’re controlled. The reality is this kind of stuff is happening all the time. Not to belittle these things that are happening, but I got friends in the ghetto that were killed by police who didn’t make headlines. So the real thing is how to sustain it, how to not go, “Oh!” when something real bad happens [and] it’s on the cover of the New York Times, [but only] then, “I’ll do something.” It’s not going to always be on the cover of the New York Times. Right now everybody is ready to take action, but the real action is not “I’m going to do something tomorrow,” it’s “I’m going to do something for the rest of my life.”

Because this is not something that’s going to go away. You’re not going to pass a law or elect an official [to fix this]. It’s something that we are going to struggle with forever. It’s just to what direction is the boat going: Is it going down or is it going up? What we’re seeing now is this boat has been going down for decades, but we’re pretending like it’s going up. Now everyone has their little devices, so it’s harder to close your eyes and pretend like everything is good like you could have 15 years ago. Just pretend, “Oh, it’s not that bad, people are exaggerating.” Now you see it all the time.

We were getting better from 1935 until 1975. It seemed like the world was going toward a better place. What happened? It wasn’t sustained. It was based on individual acts and not about a long, big picture. I’ve always felt like, “What’s the big picture?” It will be another horrible thing that’s going to happen next month until we take the stance of “We’re going to do something and keep doing it and keep moving in the right direction.” Because as soon as you stop you start going back. If you’re not pushing uphill, you’re going to slide downhill.

CS: I agree with a lot of what Kamasi says. I think a big part of this is also like reevaluating the way we think societally. I consider myself a world citizen, not just an American citizen. We travel all over the place, we meet people from different backgrounds. I don’t enjoy waking up in the morning and seeing [the murder of five Dallas police officers on the news]. It hurts; it’s scary. Dallas isn’t that far from where I live. Baton Rouge is right up the river from where I am. I think one of the things that has to happen is people have to get to the point where they are honest about their feelings. I think a lot of the time, what ends up happening is we get in these gatherings socially and everyone sort of projects something that’s not true, projects this idea of us living in a fucking utopia when we don’t.

Just as an example, I’d like to take a minute to do something with the audience. All of the white people in the audience, if you would be happy to be treated the way that blacks get treated socially, culturally, in the United States and countries like [this one] to a certain degree, please stand up now. … OK, so this says something to me. No one rose, not one person. So the first thing that means is that you are aware of the fact that we’re being treated differently. The second thing it makes me say is that even though you are aware of the fact that we are being treated differently, what do you do actively? I’m sure most of the people in this room-and I’m not trying to lambaste anyone, this is not said with hate or derision, this is said with love-if you see that people are enduring these types of experiences and these types of realities, then it’s also up to you to actively do something about it.

KW: And I think there’s a real common misconception that somehow things are going to change from the top down, that we’re going to get someone in the White House that’s going to change the lives of the people in the ghetto. This change happens from the bottom up, not from the top down.

I went to the school in my neighborhood, and every other word was a cuss, we were all going to be successful, we were all going to be that. That’s where our minds were, we were set at 8 years old, and some regular, regular dudes came to my school and started this program. [They] taught a little bit about history, and gave us Malcolm X’s autobiography, and explained to us the images we were seeing on the news and the mental image we had of ourselves. And it really just explained to us that that’s not the right thing. They didn’t start some national program that was huge or costly; it was four dudes: One of them was a janitor, one of them worked at a bank. They went to one school and helped 16 little kids, me being one of them, and that’s just as big as Billie Holiday putting out that record. … [I]t’s like whatever you have, whatever you do, make it count.

AK: This constant vigilance that you’re describing, the idea that it’s a lifetime commitment to a way of life, it really seems to connect with other musical choices that you’ve made, Kamasi. And given that you’re a tenor saxophonist, I’m not surprised that you chose John Coltrane as a point of inspiration when we were talking about music as social consciousness. Do you want to set that up and we’ll play the video?

KW: Like I said, I started off really, really young, and [music] was just something I did. I didn’t really know what the possibilities of it were; I didn’t really know that I would end up traveling around the world.

I remember when I first heard this song, I always knew that singers and rappers, they could convey a message to you. I read about this event [the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.] and then I heard this song, and it was a revelation to me that on a horn I could speak to you without a lyric, because with a lyric you can reject it. If you heard this song you’re going to feel it. … And what that is is empathy. So whenever you read about this event, you’re going to go, “Damn, that’s what John Coltrane was playing about.” You won’t be able to be cold, and this song is the first time I really experienced that.

It’s not that you’re going to hear this and all of a sudden you’ll know about the bombing of a church; it’s that you’ll know how a person feels, how we feel.

[Coltrane’s 1963 recording “Alabama” is played]

AK: John Coltrane’s reaction to what was a bloody act-the bombing of a church in 1963-was a very calm and meditative and timeless musical moment.

KW: It’s not the hysteria you hear in that song … it’s the aftermath. Because he wasn’t there when it happened; I wasn’t there when these things were happening, so I don’t have the hysteria, what I have is the fight. … When it’s not you, I can understand how it can be hard to understand. Like when I see people on TV like, “Oh, let’s be calm, let the justice system…” It’s like, “Man, you’re saying that because you don’t understand what this feels like. If you understood what this feels like to see someone that looks like you killed for the sole reason that they looked like you… [Black people get] killed and none of those murderers receive justice and everyone says, “Let’s just let the justice system take care of it.” You see yourself: That could have been me on the ground shot in the chest, life over. Just because I look like this?

AK: I don’t think anyone in this room is going to listen to “Alabama” the same way again. To bring things to a close, Christian, you chose a tune by Saul Williams, bringing us up to date as far as music as social consciousness. Tell us why you chose this piece of music.

CS: Saul is like a big brother of mine. Most people know him [as] one of the greatest slam poets and one of the architects of this style, and he’s never had a problem fully expressing himself and doing so in a way where it’s absolutely clear what it is that he’s speaking to. I chose this particular song because I had a conversation about it with him, and really the song is just about challenging people to think. The song is called “Penny for a Thought,” and one of the things that he says in the song is “How much is it going to cost to buy you out of buying into a reality that originally bought you.” He’s talking to black men in this space. Even with everything that’s going on, everything that we talked about, everything that we’ve seen, a lot of this for me is about reevaluating your way of being.

Obviously we’re at a juncture right now where we need to start coming up with solutions as a means of continuing to move this thing up the hill. … I have these conversations daily with people in my neighborhood in New Orleans, or if I’m running around Harlem, this is the stuff that comes up all the time. And just a small aside, one of the things that came up recently, I was at this place called Bono [Trattoria] in Harlem, talking to a group of friends, and they were saying there will never be gun legislation in the country. And one of the [points] I raised is that in every urban community in America, if they decided that they were going to organize 10,000 young black males, between the ages of 18 and 31 years old, and get all their paperwork together and walk them into all of the gun stores in the city and register them to get guns, then we’d probably have gun legislation overnight. I’m just being honest. So it’s always about a reevaluation. This is a scary idea to a lot of people, and I’m not saying that’s the answer. As an artist, sometimes it’s my job to just throw things out there and let you deal with it, think about what to do with one thing or another.

What I love about when you see [Saul] live, and it comes through in a lot of his recordings as well, is his way of being able to create these little digestible nuggets in a novel’s worth of brilliance that make you question. For me and my music, this is something that’s really important. A lot of people say, “You’re political.” As I understand the word I’m not, because I really deal with social issues; this is more about the dissemination of power between people. But what I dig about this guy is something I try to apply to my music-the ability to create these questions. Like I never conclude in a song title. I may raise an issue but I don’t tell people how they should think or feel about the issue.

AK: Let’s listen to Saul Williams’ “Penny for a Thought,” off the 2001 album Amethyst Rock Star. That’s a doorway for all of us.


For more on Scott’s latest album/app, check out Bill Beuttler’s recent profile.

Read Brad Farberman’s interview with Kamasi Washington.

For more on Washington’s ascent, read this JT column by David Fricke.

Read Brad Farberman’s interview with Kamasi Washington.

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