American Masters


Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: The New Chief

Filmmakers Amitabh Joshi and Erik Spink spotlight Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the Grammy-nominated, modern jazz musician from New Orleans who defies the expectations of jazz music while challenging how music is taught in universities nationwide.

AIRED: October 05, 2020 | 0:11:20

(trumpet playing)

- Boom.

(upbeat music)

- I grew up in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans,

as it was called at the time,

two blocks away from William Frantz Elementary School,

which is the first desegregated school in this country.

It was desegregated by Ruby Bridges

when she was a little girl.

And eventually, as more Blacks came into the neighborhood,

for the folks that could leave, you had white flight,

and for the folks that couldn't, they had to stay there,

and for some reason, this topical stuff,

they view each other as nemeses.

(upbeat music)

I started to see that the only moments

where they could let that go a little bit

was when the music was around.

The second line bands, brass bands.

Sound seems to have some power here.

If I could create a space musically

that showed that all of the cultures

could essentially occupy the same spaces,

then maybe I could heal that sort of rift.

(saxophone playing)

Thank you guys for coming out.

I'm gonna play this last composition for you.

It's written for my grandfather.

It's called The Last Chieftain, and it's about love.

(audience clapping and cheering)

(slow piano music)

(upbeat instrumental music)

(trumpet playing)

When people think about jazz and New Orleans

and these sort of things,

one of the things they don't think about

is the fact that this music is originally a fusion.

People all the time, they ask me, what is my music,

what do you call it, how do you think about it,

and to me, it's blues.

Jazz and blues are synonyms for each other,

and that jazz was just blues

that learned to speak all languages.


Historically, when we speak about music

that has a higher melodic and harmonic content,

we speak of those forms of music as being sophisticated

and nuanced and regal and beautiful.

Usually, when you speak to cultures of music

that are more rhythmic, the adjectives that we use

to describe that music is usually a little harder,

when someone says tribal or street or ghetto

and these sort of things.

For someone that cannot hear the harmony and rhythm,

they may just listen to that and say,

it's just someone beating on drums.


(bass thumping)

I love that though.

- It's so mellow.

(bass thumping and clapping)

- Okay, when you write this as a MP3,

can you write one with the claps and one without?

(tribal music)

I think what most people know about my family background

starts with my grandfather.

My grandfather's a guy named Donald Harrison Sr.,

or Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr.

He is the only man to be a chieftain

of four different tribes or clans

of Black Indians in Louisiana.

My grandfather was a frighteningly intelligent person.

He was also a person that was concerned

with creating environments

where people felt love and welcome.

(tribal music)

- I miss old boy. - Mhmm, me too.

- [Cara] I remember the first thing I beaded for you.

A card.

- Right.

- A spade. - A spade or--

- A heart. - A heart.

- Mhmm.

- [Cara] Those were the first two things.

- I remember the little boy, though, sitting down--

- Yeah, that was second. - And a smoke signal.

- Yeah, that was-- - (laughs) I used to love it.


These Adidas Y-3s and all this stuff is really cool,

but when I put the ceremonial regalia on,

these are my clothes.

My mother made that, I made that,

my grandmother made that, my aunts made that,

my uncle built this.

- The reclaiming and recalling is one thing,

but there's also a concept called knowing

and it's probably best described as a feeling.

When you go to a second line parade,

it's automatic. - Right, yes ma'am.

Mother is the word for God on Earth

and I'm valid, I'm very grateful for you.

I love you. - Thank you.

I love you too, honey.

- [Man] You can take a picture right here, man.

- Yeah, man.

Me and my little brother.

That's cool.

That's really cool.

(slow music)


If you think about how music is disseminated

to you historically, the music is actually hyper-racialized,

and that causes a lot of tension.

It's like if I asked everybody in the room

to visualize a Western classical musician

and then I asked you to visualize a trap musician

or a salsalero, you see completely different people, right?

And so, do you?

If I say a Western classical musician, do you see me?

- No. - Right.

This music is really centered around trying to find,

to try and find a way to de-colonialize music.

And when I say that, can anyone guess what I mean

when I say that, to de-colonialize music?

- You know how we was colonized?

- [Christian] Mhmm.

- Take all that away and have us all together.

- [Christian] Mhmm, perfect.

Thank you.

- [Boy] Alright ready, one, two, three.

(trumpet playing)

- What we're talking about here is as American as it gets.

We're talking about things

that deal with the African-American experience

and the First Nation experience in this country.

It's really hard to have this place

if those folks didn't exist, so it's really American, too,

it's just the way that it's being broadcast is different.

It's showing a different narrative to the American tapestry

as opposed to the one

with apple pie and crossing the Delaware.

Those are different.

(trumpet playing)

Thank you all so much.

We'll see you all later.

(audience clapping)

- [Announcer] Let's have another warm round of applause

(audience clapping and cheering)

for Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.

(audience clapping)


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