Christian Scott was early for dinner in downtown Manhattan, killing time at the bar with a lemonade. In his hands was a copy of DownBeat; his image was on the cover. “I was just looking at this,” he said, casually brandishing the magazine when I showed up. His tone conveyed neither abashment nor self-conceit. He was drawing attention to a fact.
Sporting a plaid dress shirt, untucked but crisp, under a light-wool cardigan, Scott gave off the air of a young man who carefully monitors his surroundings—and just as carefully gauges the weight of his presence. He was feeling a bit under the weather, he cautioned, perhaps as a result of the breakneck European tour from which he had just returned. Encroaching illness aside, he was feeling good: The tour, timed to usher in the release of his new Concord album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, had been a knockout.
“I did a BBC show,” he said, “and this guy on the BBC said that the consensus in the office was that the record was the best jazz record in 50 years. And that shit hit the press while we were on the road. So every night we were sold out. Which was good.”
Wait: the best jazz record in 50 years? Now he did look abashed, or nearly so. “For me, that type of stuff, it is what it is,” he said of his own hype. “I was always told by my uncle, ‘You can’t believe the good or the bad. You just have to do your work. That’s it.'”
Scott’s uncle is Donald Harrison Jr., a New Orleans alto saxophonist who seized a mainstream spotlight in the early 1980s, after moving through the crucible of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and on to his own major-label deal, along with a frontline partner, trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Harrison—known back home not only as an accomplished jazzman but also, perhaps more importantly, as Big Chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian Tribe—has been a guiding presence in Scott’s musical life from the start. It was Harrison who imbued the young trumpeter with some of his most formative professional experiences, bringing him on the bandstand in his early teens.
It was in just such a context that I first heard Scott, a decade ago, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Harrison invited him onstage in the middle of a set, and what at first seemed an unwise indulgence—consider, for a moment, the etymology of the word “nepotism”—quickly revealed itself as a sucker punch. Kid could play. He could play, in fact, better than some older figures of prominence: His tone was full, his articulation precise, and his flow of ideas uncluttered and free. I don’t recall the tune or anyone else in the band, but I remember that first impression, because I filed it away for later. I knew it wasn’t a matter of whether we’d hear more from Scott, but rather when, and how.
The payoff wasn’t long in coming. Scott appeared on two of his uncle’s albums before he turned 18, playing more than credibly in a combustible hard-bop vein. (One of these albums featured a tune of his called “Young Blood,” almost a pastiche of an ’80s-vintage Jazz Messengers burner.) By his early 20s, having completed his studies at the Berklee College of Music—and, he says, having rebuffed offers from major labels—Scott was on the Concord roster. His fusionlike debut for the label, Rewind That, was mixed one week shy of his 22nd birthday. Upon its release in 2006, it was touted in Billboard as “arguably the most remarkable premiere the genre has seen in the last decade.”
Perhaps the most levelheaded part of that proclamation was the “arguably,” given that a number of critics, myself included, found the album glib and overcooked. But there was no denying Scott’s seismic arrival, or the fever pitch of his press coverage-or, for that matter, the easy composure with which he handled both. This was someone in touch with his talent and well accustomed to the reactions it provoked. So it was no great surprise when, the following year, he released Anthem, an album sharper than its predecessor, and then dropped a Live at Newport release, with accompanying DVD.
All the while he was refining, calibrating, moving toward a purpose and identity beyond his own strong voice. “I’ve been writing the music for Yesterday You Said Tomorrow since I recorded Rewind That,” he said, gingerly picking at a bowl of gumbo. “All of the other records have really just been testing compatibility of textures. This is the document.”
On the face of it, Scott, now 27, can be considered the latest representative of a tradition that once gave us Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, and more recently yielded Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton. He is acutely aware of this, of course.
“I had damn near been bred to be the next guy in the line of New Orleans’ great trumpet players,” he said. “That was actually in the blood line.” Emerging from a patently musical family in one of the world’s most deeply musical cities, he claimed jazz as a natural birthright. Not that he had no choice in the matter—his twin brother, Kiel, who showed more aptitude in visual arts, is now a promising talent in the graduate film program at New York University—but expectations, once he chose his path, were high.
“As soon as someone gave me a trumpet, they were like, ‘This guy does his work, he’s the next one.’ But all of the choices that I’ve made and everything that I’ve done as a musician have been the result of me going, ‘Fuck that. You’re not giving it to me, I’m going to take it. I’m going to earn this. And it’s going to be different.'”
The rest of this article appears in the May 2010 issue of JazzTimes.