Alumni Profile: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah Breaks Convention

The Berklee alumnus encouraged budding musicians to think for themselves.

September 2, 2008

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's music doesn't fit neatly into any category. While it's admittedly jazz, some have said his sextet's tunes—infused with and informed by funk, hip-hop, and rock, among others—don't jibe with the genre. But that's fine for the 2005 alumnus who shuns conventions and labels.

"I like indie rock music. I like neo-soul music. I like polka...," the Grammy-nominated trumpeter and composer told a crowd of students attending a public rehearsal on August 7 at the David Friend Recital Hall—one of several rehearsals on campus in preparation for his group's performance that weekend at the Newport Jazz Festival. "All that influences what I do. But the minute you say, 'This is x... you're putting something in a box." Instead, Scott aTunde Adjuah and his band are all about creating music with "no boundaries, no borders."

Indeed, dressed in parachute drop-crotch jeans, white dress shirt, gray v-neck sweater, a super-short tie, and dark vintage shades, he is anything but conventional. Even his custom-model trumpet eschews conformity.

It all adds up when you hear Scott aTunde Adjuah bemoan the state of jazz today. As the genre regained popularity in the '80s after waning for years, jazz musicians espoused "neoclassicism" to a certain degree, harkening back to the days of bebop, Scott aTunde Adjuah said. From that sprouted a prescribed method of teaching jazz that includes required listening to greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, he added, noting that Berklee goes far beyond this strict approach. While he doesn't deny the value of those masters' music—he counts Davis among his favorites—he dismisses the notion that you have to listen or emulate anyone in particular.

"The biggest problem with jazz music today is that the focus is not on being an individual anymore," he said. "I think you should find out what you like... I love Miles Davis to death but I don't think anyone would say that I sound like Miles. But I listen to him because he touched me, not because someone told me to."

Scott aTunde Adjuah hopes his group's music will have the same effect on audiences. "I'm going to do whatever I need to do to touch you when I play music, because that's what I think I'm here for," he said. "I want you to walk away and think, 'Man, that really touched me. It made me feel something. It made me think about something.'"

In between rehearsing numbers for the Newport festival—at which the sextet planned a tribute to Davis in honor of the 50th anniversary of the late trumpeter's appearance at the event—Scott aTunde Adjuah took time to answer students' questions and, in doing so, shed light on his secrets to success, philosophy of making music, and his Berklee experience.

Evolution of a Musician

The visit to his alma mater was a sweet homecoming for Scott aTunde Adjuah, who often played in the recital hall while at Berklee, where he majored in professional music with a concentration in film scoring; was twice a member of the Berklee Monterey Quartet; and recorded as part of the Art:21 student cooperative quintet with Pat Metheny and Gary Burton producing. he not only learned from his teachers here, but his classmates as well. Two of them are in the band: longtime guitarist and frontline foil Matt Stevens '03, and ace saxophonist Walter Smith III '02. "I learned so much just from being around other musicians," he said.

In addition, he appreciated that there wasn't a one-size-fits-all approach to music education. "Teachers are open enough to see what you're doing and help you get where you need to be. I didn't have any teachers here who said, 'That's wrong. Let's not do it this way. Let's shave it down and start from the beginning,'" he said. "I came in here with some bad habits from playing in the streets in New Orleans but no one told me that was the wrong way to play. I never heard that while I was at Berklee. Wrong didn't happen when I was here."

Scott aTunde Adjuah, now 25, got his start young, as a teenager with his uncle, New Orleans saxophone great and Berklee alumnus Donald Harrison Jr. He always wanted to be just like Harrison and play saxophone, but when trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Harrison stopped playing together, Scott aTunde Adjuah saw the trumpet as a way to gig with his uncle. Then he set off on his own, heading to Berklee, and produced a self-titled album on his own label. During a record store promotional performance, while playing for a standing-room only crowd, he got noticed by a distributor.

That led to his Concord Jazz debut Rewind That—nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category—and his latest album, Anthem. These days, when he's not performing with his sextet, Scott aTunde Adjuah, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, often tours with McCoy Tyner. In fact, he performed with Tyner and the Berklee Concert Jazz Orchestra in a sold-out show at this year's Montreal Jazz Festival. The recent Berklee rehearsals were audio-recorded by Berklee students and video-recorded in HD for a Concord DVD due out in November.

Scott aTunde Adjuah is not afraid to get personal with his music; most of it relates to his experiences—from Hurricane Katrina's myriad effects on his native New Orleans to relationships to friends lost to violence. And no matter what they're playing, the sextet feels free to explore and experiment. "When you're out there doing this, you're exposed," Scott aTunde Adjuah said. "We trust each other, so I don't mind being exposed when they're there, because I know they've got my back. That's the type of band you want—one you can trust."

And what's with the breathy, airy sound that Scott aTunde Adjuah produces? That's thanks to a warm air technique he's perfected after more than two years of practice. When he takes a breath, he lets it warm up in his diaphragm before exhaling, he explained. "It didn't come until I tried to emulate my mother's voice when she was singing," he said. "I had to think about something outside of playing the trumpet in order to get it." And if you look closely when Scott aTunde Adjuah plays into the light, you can actually see what looks like smoke coming from his trumpet. Now that's unconventional.