Floodlines: A Q&A With New Orleans Musician Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

A conversation with the man behind the music in the podcast about his inspiration, the betrayal of Hurricane Katrina, and the unique history and future of New Orleans.

Man playing a trumpet
Anthony Pidgeon / Redferns / Getty
Editor’s Note: This Q&A is a companion to our podcast Floodlines. You can listen to the full series here.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is a jazz trumpeter, composer, and producer born and raised in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Across 14 albums, including the critically acclaimed Centennial Trilogy and Ancestral Recall, Scott aTunde Adjuah has melded an array of instrumentation, rhythm, and harmony from around the world into a unique style of jazz he calls “stretch music.”

His music is featured throughout Floodlines. I sat down to talk with him about his musical inspiration, his thoughts on how New Orleans responded to Hurricane Katrina, and his views on the past and future of life in the city after the flood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Vann R. Newkirk II: So the first question for me is very basic, and that’s: When did you first start playing music?

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: So I started to play music when I’m 11 years old. I grew up in one of the neighborhoods where this music was born. And so there were a lot of players in my neighborhood. You know, you could pitch a rock and hit a great trumpeter. The mailman was a great trumpeter, you know. So sometimes when I was a kid, I’d be practicing, and he’d show up and he’d say “let me see your horn” and then he’d play “Donna Lee,” which is one of the most sophisticated bebop songs there is. So it was a natural thing for me to want to play the instrument, because this is one of the things that, at least in my city, is one of the spaces that you knew that you were eligible for. You know? You couldn’t tell a kid from my neighborhood that he couldn’t be great or couldn’t be a musician or a trumpeter, because the airport was named after Louis Armstrong. But I started when I was 11. My mother was a classical bassoonist. Most of the people on my maternal line play music. At some point, they have to play music. And my uncle is an alto saxophonist named Donald Harrison Jr. who is a legendary figure in creative improvised music, or jazz music. And so I started to apprentice with him the next year, when I was 12. And then, by the time I was 13, I’d started to tour and play with different bands around New Orleans and then to tour internationally with him.

Newkirk: Wow. Two years from origin story to touring. Wow.

Scott aTunde Adjuah: You know, but to be honest with you, I’d heard the music for … You know, my grandfather was … I think he had the largest collection of jazz memorabilia and records in Louisiana. So I grew up in a household where there was over 7,500 vinyl records to go through. So, when I was really small, most of my formative experiences had jazz as sort of the soundtrack to all of those things. So I had a heads-up in that I heard the music much earlier than my peers.

Newkirk: While we are creating this podcast, while we’re thinking about how to incorporate your music into this story … you’ve talked about the differences and the similarities between musical traditions that are centered on rhythm and those that are built primarily around harmony. We kind of sit in the middle of those two things in a form, podcasts, where the music has not always been totally considered, in my opinion, and where so much of it is fully based in harmonic libraries.

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Yeah.

Newkirk: And now we’re bringing in a library of music that is intensely rhythmic. How do you think about the interplay between those two things and how they might work where they exist to drive a vocal story?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Yeah, well, to be honest with you, I think because of what we’ve built in the last couple records, I think the perception of the music that we make is that it’s overly rhythmic. But really what you’re hearing is all of the tenets of music being prioritized at the same time, which is not normal. In the West, you’re traditionally taught that the melodic tenets of music actually take the priority and that the harmony and rhythm serves the melody. But in the music that we create, I think a lot of times what ends up getting lost is the beauty and the nuance between the dialectic aspects of rhythm. So usually when you turn on the radio and you hear a song, you may hear polyrhythms or you may hear syncopation, but it’s usually as a means to propel what is being said in that moment specifically, right? It’s usually not being presented in a way where it’s actually in dialogue with other rhythmic instruments.

Whereas when you look at, as an example, a congress of Ewe drummers or if you watch a group playing traditional djembe music or if you look at Burundi drumming or any of these African forms of drumming, there’s usually multiple men playing in concert with each other. So each has a part, but there are some drums that are speaking and they’re in full dialogue with each other the entire time. So what we wanted to do was to try and create an air of that in the music that was born out of that way of thinking. Because that’s the root music that creates jazz. And so, I think when you talk about navigating the distance between those spaces, for me, I don’t see it that way. I think a lot of musicians have sort of been conditioned into compartmentalizing the different aspects of music. But the way that I learned music is really coming from a much more rhythmic cultural space, in that the rhythms actually have a dialogue and exchange. But I think because New Orleans’s … the music that comes from the neighborhoods also comes from a space, where like, if you have a bottle and a stick, you are eligible to be in the band.

Newkirk: As someone who’s from the city and has long roots there, what do you make of the storm and the flood’s impact?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Well, my feelings on and perceptions about it change over time. I was in Boston at the time. My twin brother and I, we were both together, but the rest of my family—my entire family—was down there when this happened. You know, I think a lot of times people don’t deal with the fact that the overwhelming majority of New Orleanians, at least in my mind's eye, at that point, the vast majority of people in this environment, they live very close [to], if not below the poverty line. So a lot of people couldn’t afford to get out. That was one of the perceptions that sort of angered me the most was when people are like, “Well, why didn’t they leave?” Well, it’s like if you’re rummaging through nickels to try to figure out how to get the bus to work, you don’t have the means to leave the city. And so I think because of that you had a huge number of people that ended up in spaces like the Superdome or a convention center, and a lot of these spaces were overwhelmed … My issue was really with the larger government, and the fact that it took so long for them to even come in and drop water. New Orleans, this is the main port into the southern part of this country.

There is no shortage of entryways to New Orleans. There’s no shortage of military bases and installations near New Orleans and Louisiana. So it’s deeply frustrating when you see your community being projected in a certain way because of lack of resources that should be provided to them, and then essentially be maligned as being criminal. You know, the looting thing: You turn on the television. And they would say, “Look at them. They’re looting, they’re stealing, they’re taking these things” … Maybe they had to wade through the water to get to the Superdome. Maybe they left their house on day three and they have to wade through this water to get to the Superdome. And you get there and you have a person in their 80s and they have trench foot. So they gonna lose that foot. But you’re looking at your grandfather or your grandmother … Yeah, maybe you might go into a Foot Locker to try and get some socks. The perception of what was going on wasn’t based in reality. And it was just like for me, another reason to essentially malign my culture and my people as exhibiting qualities that are actually not their core qualities.

Newkirk: Did you feel like that was like a double betrayal?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Yeah, well, it’s one thing to take an entire city of people and essentially abandon them in a moment where they have the most need. Because you’re also not talking about just abandoning young, strong, able-bodied people. The elderly that were there—Charity Hospital had to be evacuated. This is a place that had hundreds of beds, not to mention people that had other impediments like mental illness. Or infants. You know, a lot of people don’t talk about this. I have a friend who had to bury their baby in a shoebox. And that’s not funny. That’s not a joke. If you’re not gonna put that on the ticker then, you know, maybe leave the “looting of a Walmart” out too. So, yeah, it definitely was a double betrayal.

And the city is still going through a moment where they’re still healing from that. A lot of the troubles and the issues that we have in this community now are directly related to the fact that the younger generation that is coming into adulthood now and that’s in their 20s now, they learned a very hard lesson as children that if things go wrong, things go awry, that they are not valuable enough to be helped. So that’s going to also create a very specific cognitive dissonance as it relates to how you interact with the world. These sort of impediments still need to be addressed. There’s still healing that needs to go on, because of what actually happened in that moment. But yeah, it definitely felt like a double betrayal.

Newkirk: Do you see any other impediments to the healing process when you go back to the city?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Yeah, I think there are a lot, you know. But I think those ones are not really related to the hurricane. Obviously, I think what Mayor Landrieu did to take down the Confederate monuments … To my vision, it seems like it is creating a more positive image of the city from its African-descent populace. So it’s not that it’s a city that doesn’t address these things.

Newkirk: You know, that’s interesting to me, New Orleans being an especially adorned city in terms of Confederate iconography … That whole piece about what history actually is, what it does in the present, what those statues mean in the present, that’s also what we’re trying to excavate with this project about Katrina, about what from the past we could have leaned on to better process Katrina in the moment, to better deal with it.

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Right.

Newkirk: Whether it was previous disasters, whether it was the total history of black folks and poor folks in this country—and what Katrina says for our future. And part of what attracted us to your music is that we’ve heard similar themes, that we feel a genuine concern for the past and for how it lives. Why do you think it is that you’re attracted to history, to ancestral rhythms? Is it just being from the city, or you think it’s something else?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: I think being from the city is a part of it. You know, New Orleans is unique in that there’s a collective cultural memory that exists there that’s different than a lot of other American spaces. Because it’s such a communal culture. If there’s a Second Line every Sunday, you’re going to see a neighbor. You’re going to talk and you might even dance. And in New Orleans, too, you might even share a drink. So it’s a very communal space. And so I think because of that, there’s a very solidified collective cultural memory that exists in that space. When you’re growing up in an environment like that, it’s very difficult not to see certain things, because it’s being reiterated to you from so many different sources.

But I think in terms of the impediments that exist in the moment now, because we lost so many of our elders in the storm … and this is something that people don’t talk about a lot … You know, when I was growing up in New Orleans, it didn’t matter where you went. Like I said, you could pitch a rock and hit a great trumpeter. It didn’t matter what high school or junior high school that you went to; your teacher was probably a fully vetted-out creative improviser, which is a very different level of refinement in terms of really sharpening the tools to understand and to communicate music. So you were dealing with an environment that no matter where you turn, there was a level of respect and reverence and refinement that went into all of the aspects of the culture.

After the storm, that’s very different. Because a lot of our elders, if they survived it, they usually ended up going away. Most people ended up in Houston or Beaumont[, Texas,] or Mobile[, Alabama,] and all of these places.

So because so many people didn’t come back, you ended up in a space where now the ones that were imparting and teaching the next generation were actually the younger generation. So musicians that are my age and maybe a little bit older than I am ended up taking the mantle. Whereas traditionally in New Orleans, you learn from your elders. So that also changed the sound. This is also something that changed a priority and how you actually go about playing music. It doesn’t mean it isn’t as dynamic and is less riveting, but the specific type of refinement worked into our cultural expressions is very different.

You know, a lot of people forget that before the storm happened, this was a city that the overwhelming majority of the populace was essentially African-descent people. The neighborhood that I grew up in, a lot of times, the kids would tease and they would call the neighborhood Senegambia, which is the largest group of Africans that were taken and eventually ended up in New Orleans and Algiers.

Newkirk: What neighborhood is that again?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: This is the Ninth Ward. And so, sometimes in my neighborhood, sometimes you would have black Muslims and folks that were very conscious about certain things. And, you know, they would say to call it Senegal, refer to it as being these spaces in Africa. And so, I think, for young children that are coming up in an environment where you can see on a larger level, even though you inhabit this place, they are a lot of designs in it that make you feel as though it’s not a home for you. And sort of having to bounce back and forth between that. Navigating the world as a black person, an African American navigating America as a black person … A lot of times you have this feeling of homelessness. And we don’t talk about that enough. But that’s a reality for a lot of people.

Newkirk: That’s one of the things we kept coming away with in this story. And the story of the Ninth Ward, the story of the city is this idea of creating home and space and a place where not everybody wants you—

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Right.

Newkirk: —to create a home. Where the elements themselves might be against you in some ways …

We are spending a lot of time transmitting a story about Katrina, about the city, to lots of people who maybe have never even been, maybe don’t even live in the U.S. What is it that people from outside that context can learn from Katrina and from the history of New Orleans?

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Well, I think the thing that they can learn from Katrina, firstly, is to be prepared, if you live in an area where these sort of storms happen. I’m not a person that thinks it’s an ideal thing to buy a house that far below sea level in a city that’s shaped like a bowl, but I also understand the environment well enough to know that the overwhelming majority of the people that live in that space did not have the means to live anywhere else. That’s very important. Because this story goes completely different if there was a legitimate middle class in New Orleans at that time.

We’re talking about a New Orleans that’s maybe five, six years out of crack basically still being a thing. And a New Orleans where, even if you are aspiring to greatness and doing all of these things, these positive things, you still have to navigate an environment that—depending on who you are and where you are, that’s really kind of hunting you. And so in an environment with that much scarcity and that much tension, it’s very difficult for you to take the time to actually make sure that all of your business is in order. because you’re in survival mode. So I think if there’s one thing that outsiders and New Orleanians can take from that dynamic is to try and do everything that they can to make sure that personally—and in terms of what their municipal government is doing—to make sure that the citizenry is protected and has the things that they need, to be serious about those things and to not leave those things waiting. Because everyone knew.

Anyone you talk to, any of the old people in the Ninth Ward that had survived Betsy [in 1965], they would always say that they couldn’t get out of those neighborhoods. And that it was a trap. And that at some point they were going to drown those neighborhoods and take them. That was the feeling. People don’t remember that New Orleans had the highest rate of African-descent homeownership in the United States at that point. That was what was going on there. So, the feeling there was that it turned into a land grab after the hurricane. You get all of these people out. You start, essentially, leveling their homes. They don’t have the ability to be able to rebuild. You start taking homes, putting tax liens on homes and stuff. That entire neighborhood was carved up. It didn’t even take a full year after that storm. Either the insurance companies were going to say it was an act of God or it was the water. Whatever policy you had, it was going to be the opposite of that. So from the perspective of the people that were living in those neighborhoods, it was like a comprehensive attack on those homeowners.

Newkirk: Wow, I think you just narrated one of our episodes.

[Both laugh.]

Scott aTunde Adjuah: I refer to New Orleans now as New New Orleans. And I love what it is that the city is doing. You know, you have people like Brandan “BMike” Odums, who’s certainly a champion for the city … Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, certainly a champion for the city. You have all these younger artists that are coming in and that are building a reverence and a love and a care and a sort of energy around what New Orleans was, but also what it could be. And so, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all “Woe is me,” and people are here holding their heads low. Like, no, these are resilient people. This is a group of people that are not going to be stopped. They’re gonna get it by any means they can get it. And so it’s not that type of story. If we’re being honest in our appraisal of what has actually happened there and how that is a microcosmic example of what happens a lot of times in the American republic, then we have to be really clear about the fact that African-descent homeownership in America has a nebulous history.

Newkirk: It’s this feeling of long … not just suffering, but like an intentional sort of … when you get to a place, it’s taken away.

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Right. Right. That old adage, you take one step forward and two back. And so that can be a very difficult thing to contend with, coupled with all of the other things that happen in the environment. But to be clear, again, what we’re talking about here is New Orleans’s past. I think New Orleans also, more than a lot of other spaces, has a profound opportunity in front of itself. It actually has the ability to become the city that exists in this sort of utopian space that we always talk about. New Orleans is probably the most multicultural city in this country now, arguably, other than New York and maybe San Francisco. But for its size … You know, you walk around New Orleans now … We talk about it being a melting pot at the turn of the last century.

Well, you look around now and it’s all of these beautiful hues and shades of people, that have red hair to black hair to green eyes to blue eyes. Everyone is there, you know? Everyone is there, and it seems to me that everyone is also intent on becoming a part of a culture in a way that I think is really beautiful. Obviously, the music that I make is based on genre blindness and a perspective that says that all human expression is valid. So I like to see what I’m seeing out of New Orleans. There may be some folks that maybe want their neighborhoods back or want people that are coming into those spaces to have more reverence and respect for certain things.

I have had moments where I’ve been in new establishments in the Ninth Ward, you know, warming up a trumpet, and someone says to me, “You can’t play a trumpet past 9 o’clock in the Ninth Ward.” So you have to deal with those sorts of things as well. But I think on a macrocosmic level, the city is actually changing for the better and becoming more multicultural, and more multicultural in a way where there’s actually reverence for all of these traditions.

Newkirk: This is a really good reframing for us. Because we focused a lot on how New Orleans is like this historical, navel nexus of especially the story of people of African descent in the country. So many of the important cases, so many important things, from Plessy v. Ferguson to the Jena Six, happened in this very small area in Louisiana. And we try to dig into why that is. Something symbolic and central, but also, if that’s the case, then it should also be the case that this place is an emblem of the future.

Scott aTunde Adjuah: Right. The city gets so much love and the economy there is based on tourism, so there are projections at every corner you go into about the city’s past, because this is essentially how the city eats. But, you know, I’m a person that, I can see what this turns into if the thread continues in the same way. And what it grows into is really, really beautiful … All people, no matter what your class, cult, race … or the perception of your race, I think is a better way to put that … sexual preference … gender identification … New Orleans has elements of all of those things. And all of those people are mixing. They’re not staying separate from each other. It’s not a space where you have this self-segregating thing going on. New Orleans is a place where people are gonna get outside and get together. So I think as a template for the type of America that I would prefer to see, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better example than my love and home, New Orleans, Louisiana.