Christian aTunde Adjuah: Freedom of Expansion

Photographer Geordie Wood
February 26, 2013

A security guard blocks the path to "African Innovations." Christian aTunde Adjuah stares him down with a bottle in his hand. A petite docent with a pink streak in her hair stands between the two of them, nervously shifting her eyes back and forth, from aTunde Adjuah to the toadish guard, from the guard back to aTunde Adjuah. “You can’t bring that in here,” the guard says, pointing at the bottle. The docent stiffens. “What if I take it?” she offers. The guard looks at her, looks at the bottle, looks at her again, surveys the scene—instrument cases, drumsticks, a photographer, white guys with beards, the stage in the distance—looks back at the bottle, then at the docent, then steps aside. “Okay, you can hold it.” And with that, aTunde Adjuah’s spring water is secured, and he is allowed to cross the Great Hall of the Brooklyn Museum. He and his party walk behind the snack bar, past the Innovations exhibit where the 16th century Portrait of a Horn Blower represents the Oba Esigie of Benin, through an office space, get shushed as another museum employee addresses a small, seated crowd of middle-aged women, and finally huddle into the green room, which, by all appearances, is normally a storage closet. All this so one of the greatest young musicians in the world can wet his lips and unpack his horns in peace.

Such is the way of the modern jazz master: fêted and lionized around the world by fans and aficionados, anonymous to everyone else. ATunde Adjuah and his band have just returned home from a successful European club tour and are playing their first New York gig in months. It’s a free show, part of a monthly jazz series at the museum, which, like most other public institutions, must continually grow its patronage by any means reasonable. Tonight it’s aTunde Adjuah’s charge to draw the crowd.

The stage for the concert is set up inside the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Lobby and Pavilion, a tiered, glass-and-steel visor attached to the century-old museum’s Beaux-Arts facade in 2004 during a wave of urban renewal. Unfortunately, the same large panes of unobstructed glass that make for panoramic views also make for less than desirable acoustics. Picture sitting inside a giant skull while its owner hums jazz. It’s worse than that. ATunde Adjuah, however, is unfazed during soundcheck. Trying to get the sound as close to perfect as possible, he shuttles back and forth across the stage blowing his horn into the mics, commenting how the right tone makes a certain vibration in his gut. He then puts each member of his band through the paces with the engineer. Braxton Cook, a lithe alto saxophonist who most recently joined, sort of sounds like he is playing notes. Lucques Curtis, an acoustic bassist from Connecticut-via-Puerto Rico and longtime friend, sounds a little less like he is. And Matthew Stevens, the guitar shredder with whom aTunde Adjuah writes the bulk of his songs, sounds the least like he is playing notes. Their hands and fingers indicate that they are indeed doing complicated things, however. Amidst this session of mumbling drone caused by the room’s sparse mass and ample volume, drummer Joe Dyson has museum staff, loitering schoolkids and me shaking our heads in disbelief. Dyson’s facial expressions are completely incongruous to the locomotion of his limbs. Crop his head from his body and he looks kind of bored, almost sleepy. Meanwhile, his arms and legs churn and stomp out some of the most complex, precise and rigorous movements possible by a human holding sticks. After soundcheck, Dyson drifts over to introduce himself, and I compliment the quality of his warm-up. He laughs, then says, “Ah thanks, I’m just trying to stretch.”

Normally, I would take this in the literal, callisthenic sense, but Dyson could just as well be referring to the term popularly applied to aTunde Adjuah’s brand of music. “Stretch” is what critics call his attempts to do just that with his songs, by merging a variety of heretofore unincorporated sounds—everything from Indian ragas to post-rock to drone, glitch and hip-hop—with jazz and its African foundations as a sort of core. He stretches further by creating new compositional structures and designing new instruments, such as his radical custom-made trumpet Katrina—named after the hurricane—and psychedelic horn mongrels like the siren (flugelhorn-trumpet-coronet hybrid), the sirenette (flugelhorn-coronet hybrid) and the reverse flugelhorn (body of a flugelhorn twisted in the opposite direction that has Shepherd’s crooks like a coronet does but at different angles). The term “stretch” echoes the indefiniteness of the word “jazz,” which at its origins in the early 20th century, described more a spirit behind many types of music than any single genre.

“When we first started doing this, it was really hard, because no one knew what to call it,” aTunde Adjuah says. “I felt like calling the shit jazz just didn’t make sense, because it was an old label. It just didn’t rub me right. But we ended up lucking out, because all these kids made up a name for what we were doing, so I never had to pitch that, I never had to be the guy who was like, Don’t call it jazz.” He says that young fans would come up to him at shows in Japan or across Europe and tell him he was the inventor of stretch, and in other places, other musicians started crediting him with the same, so he embraced it, unofficially declaring a break with the past. The terminology allows him to be the inventor of something new, rather than just be the newest torchbearer of something old. It illustrates jazz’ current position as a century-old art form, seen by many to have lost relevance, yet still producing young musicians, like aTunde Adjuah, capable of using its conventions to break new ground. And it positions him, somewhat awkwardly, as a leader of two factions seemingly at odds.

[caption id="attachment_243112" align="alignright" width="620" caption="ATunde Adjuah and drummer, Joe Dyson, at R.A.W. barber shop in Harlem. "][/caption]While aTunde Adjuah sits well at the throne offered to him by a younger, open-minded constituency, he still bristles at the self-appointed guardians of jazz. He is determined to win over both sides. “I’m a guy here who plays trumpet, born in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, learned to play music from the guys who were literally the sons of the architects of this music. And there were people who were telling me that what I was doing wasn’t jazz music because it didn’t go tang-tang-ta-tang-tang-ta-tang-tang-ta-tang [the swing pattern]. Which to me was fucking absurd, because most of the things they were saying had to be done, that were requisites of playing jazz music, was stuff that started 20, 30 years after the shit had been created in New Orleans. Like you listen to Louis Armstrong’s first recordings, you don’t hear a swing pattern, because swing hadn’t been created. So how can that be a requisite for jazz?”

Just before the museum show, aTunde Adjuah is pulled aside by Rob Crocker, a gray-haired on-air personality from Jersey City’s WGBO Jazz 88.3FM and tonight’s master of ceremonies. Crocker is visibly excited to be among the young bloods, and gives aTunde Adjuah the brief on how he’ll introduce the band. ATunde Adjuah is billed as Christian Scott, his father’s surname and the name he has gone by for the last 29 years. Crocker is aware that aTunde Adjuah still answers to this name, but wants to add a touch of theater to the proceedings. “I’m going to say a word,” he says, “and you’ll know what to do.” ATunde Adjuah is bemused though game. A half-hour later, when the band and the crowd are ready, Crocker takes the mic. After a somewhat circuitous thesis on the preeminence of his employer, he hails aTunde Adjuah as an exceptional talent and the future of jazz, then pauses for effect, and calls out “ATUNDE!” as if announcing royalty. And Christian aTunde Adjuah leads his band on stage.

The names aTunde and Adjuah are taken from an old Mardi Gras Indian fable which tells of twin princes, or Obas, from the ancient Benin kingdom of West Africa. In the fable, the teenage princes are kidnapped and separated. One is taken to Adjuah, on the Gulf of Guinea coast—the other, to Atunde, 250 miles to the northwest, near Lake Volta. Both are sold into slavery and taken to America. The unnamed Obas both end up on plantations near New Orleans, but soon escape and are given refuge by local Native Americans, who allow the Oba to resettle behind Indian lines. This fable is rooted in similar historical accounts of escaped slaves, mostly Senegalese, forming Maroon societies in the bayous with help from the Choctaw, Natchez and other local nations. With his name, aTunde Adjuah has reunited the twin Obas and reconnected his own story to that of his ancestors. Not coincidentally, aTunde Adjuah is himself a twin (his brother Kiel Scott is an accomplished filmmaker), and twins appear commonly throughout the generations of his family. He says he made the “completion” of his name after increasingly feeling like people weren’t talking to him when they said, “Christian Scott,” like the name didn’t describe who he was, like a thoughtlessly titled song.

ATunde Adjuah’s name, its origin and the decision to complete it all stem directly from Donald Harrison Sr., aTunde Adjuah’s grandfather. Harrison Sr. is a New Orleans legend in his own right, the only man to ever hold the position of Big Chief for four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. He passed away in 1998 as the leader of the Guardians of the Flame. The Guardians, and the dozens of tribes around New Orleans, are a vital source of stability and civility in a city not generally known for supporting such things in its black communities. The tribes grew out of the traditions of Congo Square, a plaza in the Tremé neighborhood where slaves were allowed to gather for song and dance during the early 18th century. Documentation of the early Mardi Gras Indian evolution is spare, but over time, they incorporated elaborate Native American ceremonial dress as a tribute to those who helped them survive, although it is aesthetically more inspired by the Plains Indians than regional nations. ATunde Adjuah wears a stunning salmon and amaranth version of the regalia on the cover of his most recent eponymous solo album.

[caption id="attachment_243111" align="alignleft" width="620" caption="ATunde Adjuah with his fiancé, Isadora, and twin brother, Kiel, on the way to practice at Julliard. "][/caption]Harrison Sr. passed this history and heritage on to his children, including aTunde Adjuah’s uncle, saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison Jr., who would go on to be his mentor. Before his father’s death, Harrison Jr. recorded with Harrison Sr. on Indian Blues, an album that stands as a kind of condensed history of New Orleans music. The West African bambula and calinda rhythms of Congo Square blend with jazz and swing underneath Harrison Sr.’s slinky singing in a Creole patois. In Al Kennedy’s biography of Harrison Sr., Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians, Harrison Jr. recalls “masking Indian” with his father on Mardi Gras Day, 1989: “I heard the connection…My father was singing, and I was hearing Art Blakey or Max Roach and these rhythms cross-merging. It happened when we were on the streets, out there doing the rituals. He was singing and it just came together.” ATunde Adjuah would have been around six at the time.

“When you turn six years old, you have to pick an instrument,” says Cara Harrison-Daniels, Harrison Jr.’s sister and aTunde Adjuah’s mother. Harrison-Daniels lives in New Orleans and, in addition to a career as an executive, has run the Guardian’s Institute with her mother, Herreast Harrison, in the Upper Ninth Ward since 2007. Before that, they ran daycare centers out of the family homes for most of aTunde Adjuah’s life. The Institute’s mission is to promote literacy and cultural awareness among the area’s youth. Music is one of their most important instructional tools, and aTunde Adjuah visits frequently from New York to teach. Over the phone, Harrison-Daniels’ speaking voice is warm and breathy but authoritative, and she punctuates stories about her sons with a giggle that sounds like it bubbles from the chambers of her heart. It’s easy to imagine her martialing two mischievous twin boys, chasing after them with an armful of musical instruments through gaggles of daycare toddlers. “Christian chose the trumpet,” she says. “I didn’t understand at the time why, because, my family, we’re reed players.”

“I always hated the trumpet,” aTunde Adjuah says. “I picked it up because it was the only way I could be under my uncle’s tutelage. When I first started playing, he had a brand new band, and he didn’t have a trumpet player. I wanted to play saxophone because I wanted to be like him, because you know, he’s like a young dude—New Orleans, handsome, clean, always in like, I don’t know, like a fucking Botany 500 or Armani suit and Brioni tie, and he drove a Ferrari and all the girls loved him. So I got into this shit for all the wrong reasons. I just wanted to hang out with him.” ATunde Adjuah studied the trumpet under his mother’s watchful eye. When she could no longer answer his increasingly ambitious musical questions, Harrison-Daniels finally turned her son over to her brother’s care. Harrison Jr. became aTunde Adjuah’s mentor, taking the young prodigy on the road at the age of 14 and training him to be a professional jazz player, the same way he had been mentored by Art Blakey and Roy Haynes and the same way aTunde Adjuah now mentors new members of his band. At 16, aTunde Adjuah enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, his uncle’s alma mater, and after finishing, moved to New York City like his uncle had, though to Harlem instead of Brooklyn. But aTunde Adjuah’s stylistic breakthrough, what is known as the “whisper technique,” a unique tone produced by the physically demanding process of compressing warm air in his diaphragm and releasing it slowly through his horn, was not his uncle’s doing. “One day I was in the practice room, and I started to think about my mother’s singing voice,” aTunde Adjuah says. “She has a raspy voice, and just thinking about the mechanics of it, I thought about trying to emulate her sound on my instrument. And it came and it’s never left.”

When asked what makes her most proud of her son, Harrison-Daniels says, “The fact that he has a conscience, and a political conscience, and a sociopolitical conscience. My father, even when he was masking Indian, he wanted his suit to say something. It had to have a narrative, it had to have meaning. So art is supposed to, in our view, reflect life in reality, whether it’s pleasant or not, and to help us move a conversation forward in order to effect change.”

The tracklisting on aTunde Adjuah’s self-titled 2012 solo album, his fifth, indicates the realities he intends to reflect. Some titles are simple and straightforward, such as “Isadora,” a delicate meditation named for his new fiancé. Others aren’t as pleasant: “Danziger,” about the cover-up of a post-Katrina police shooting of six unarmed men on Danziger Bridge in New Orleans; “Angola, LA & The 13th Amendment,” about the notorious state penitentiary built on the ruins of a former slave plantation; “Fatima Aisha Rokero 400,” about the rape of 400 women by Janjaweed militiamen in Sudan; “Away (Anuradha & the Maiti Nepal),” about Anuradha Koirala’s fight against the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Nepal; “Jenacide (The Inevitable Rise and Fall of the Bloodless Revolution),” about the Jena Six, a racially charged trial of six black Jena High School students accused of assaulting a white fellow student; and so on. Profoundly troubling topics, provocative titles, but just primers if not backed by substantial, equally provocative compositions.

I learned as a little boy that when you want to know how someone feels about something, ask them a question,” aTunde Adjuah says. “So if I’m having someone improvise over something that I want to hear their particular perspective on the shit, the easiest way to get them to do that is force them into a situation where they’re a little uncomfortable and musically ask them a question.” He does this with what he calls forecasting cells, essentially chords that provoke responses from improvisers, telling them what they’re supposed to play next, forcing them to ask themselves why they’re going to play it. They tend not to like that. “Jazz musicians have big egos,” aTunde Adjuah says. “The vast majority are going to try to force you out of forcing them, which creates a better dialogue. The fact that you just asked them a question, and not only do they have to clarify what they’re saying, their ego’s going to stop them from just going there, you just created 20 new worlds where you could take the composition.”

Onstage at the museum, after warming up the crowd with a couple songs, aTunde Adjuah introduces his band in the most comedic fashion possible, clowning Cook for his way with elderly women, Curtis for karate kicking him down the stairs on the first day of class at Berklee, Dyson for his “Frederick Douglass” hair, Matthews for looking like a Details centerfold and offstage piano player Lawrence Fields for once responding to aTunde Adjuah’s request for a reparations tax credit with, “You don’t want no 80 dollars, man.” Every joke is followed by an expression of love and a round of applause. ATunde Adjuah then dedicates “Isadora” to its namesake, who is sitting up front.

“Before the final two songs of the night, aTunde Adjuah starts to talk about a time he was pulled over by the New Orleans Police Department. Yanked from his car by gunpoint after a traffic stop, the cops asked him to strip naked from the waist down and lay on the ground, a tactic he says is used to prevent flight, which people apparently attempt frequently, because, “in places like New Orleans they have a very prolific history of just shooting people.” ATunde Adjuah refused, the situation escalated, pejoratives and the N-word were traded. Eventually, the officer in charge had had enough, aTunde Adjuah says. “He told me that if I didn’t comply with what it was he was telling me to do, that my mother was going to have to pick me up from the morgue. So, you know, I wasn’t going for that. I let him know that if he felt he needed to kill me for what I perceived as a routine traffic stop, then it was his job to do so. But while he was doing that, I was going to be doing my best job to kill him back. At that point, I guess I was saved because a lieutenant showed up, and he realized something was awry, because you have three squad cars and a man at gunpoint at three o’clock in the morning, and they never called it in. So the lieutenant told me I was allowed to go back home. And I remember getting back to my mother’s house and not being able to sleep and being restless and pacing back and forth…And you know, New Orleans is the type of place where people have a lot of guns. Like my mother, she has a .45, a .22, a 10mm, a Derringer and a Winchester rifle, so it was hard for me to sleep in the house that night. But I realized that rather than go back there and do something dumb, that it would be a smarter thing to write a song about the dynamic as a means of illuminating, or I should say, re-illuminating to people that these things still happen in America, and that it’s time for that old way of thinking and that shit to get out of here. So we’re going to do two more songs. The first one’s called ‘New New Orleans,’ and the last one is that song, and it’s called ‘Ku Klux Police Department.’”

And the band rips them apart, especially the latter. ATunde Adjuah strains to force air through twisted pipes as he plays, then steps back during others’ solos. He stands almost like a gunfighter at the rear of the stage, feet spread slightly, shoulders relaxed and hunched so that his hands hang ready. His chin tilts down, his upper lip snarls a little bit, and his eyes furrow and fix on whoever’s playing. He’ll do this for a solid half-minute, then snap out of it and begin talking to the player next to him. These asides may be simple instructions—to get closer to the mic or speed up the tempo—or they might be mood conductions, a joke or critique to put that player in the zone for his solo. While composing “K.K.P.D.,” aTunde Adjuah even asked Matthews to research folk music from Pulaski, Kentucky from the late-19th century, where and when the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veterans, to put him in character. So when Matthews plays his guitar, and Dyson licks rapid fire shots off the snare, it sounds like the two are fighting each other for survival. Visible behind them out on Eastern Parkway, through the sound-muffling glass that they’re now overpowering, ambulances pass intermittently, their lights seemingly synchronized with the music.

After the show, there are two 17-year-old dudes back in the green room, and they’re looking at aTunde Adjuah like some kind of hero. It’s unclear how they got back here (security is clearly on break), but no one is kicking them out and they’ve managed to maneuver aTunde Adjuah away from his beautiful fiancé in her bodycon, neon fractal minidress. The untroubled look on her face says this isn’t a first. ATunde Adjuah answers the two teens’ hyperventilated questions while packing up his horns, which they then offer to carry out to the lobby. He lets them. When the whole party gets to the street outside, where one might expect aTunde Adjuah to tell his young admirers to run along, he instead takes the luggage and loads it into a waiting car so that everyone, teens included, can hit the after party.

We end up around the corner at this little unmarked bar on Washington Ave called Tooker Alley, 20 or so of us. It’s in the now-common Brooklyn style of early 20th century speakeasy, but they’re playing jazz, which is not common at all. Everybody but the teens is having a drink and relaxing. Then a song comes on, and aTunde Adjuah and his band perk up. ATunde Adjuah starts yelling across the room, trying to pinpoint what song it is, what version of that song it is, and who exactly is playing on it, clearly a common game they play. The teenagers are piping in. They’re all stumped. Who’s on drums? It’s Freddie Hubbard’s “Nostrand and Fulton,” an actual intersection not far from here, and Philly Joe Jones is on drums. Now they remember and start talking about how bad Hubbard was on trumpet. The teenagers can’t even deal with how cool this is.

[caption id="attachment_243108" align="alignright" width="620" caption="ATunde Adjuah with his reverse flugelhorn, Michele, at his apartment in Harlem. "][/caption]A few days later, I talk to saxophonist Alton Cook about his time with aTunde Adjuah since joining up, and how they met. He tells me a friend from New Orleans invited him to see aTunde Adjuah play with Harrison Jr. in New York in the spring of 2012—Cook is still a student at Juilliard. “Before he even played, I was just like, Whoa, there’s already a whole ’nother feeling,” he says. “The way he’s dressed, the way he presents himself, in general, was free. It let me know that I can just be myself and it’ll be okay.” Cook was able to get backstage to meet aTunde Adjuah, his uncle and the band. They shook hands, and when the band started packing up, Cook naturally helped carry their instruments outside. ATunde Adjuah noticed this, came up to Cook again, asked him where he was from, where he went to school. Cook was surprised by this, a guy like aTunde Adjuah talking to some kid he’d never seen or heard play before. According to Cook, that’s all it took for aTunde Adjuah to say, “I can tell you can play already.”

Christian aTunde Adjuah plays tonight at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. Buy tickets here.

Live at Grand St. Bakery: Christian aTunde Adjuah (2013)
Slideshow: Christian aTunde Adjuah (2013)

Christian aTunde Adjuah: Freedom of Expansion