Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the club’s headliner for a five-night engagement that week, made the ultimate call to stay put and perform his scheduled shows. “We’re not running” was his response as someone from the crowd shouted, “Thanks for being here!” What followed that week was a set of the group’s most evocative live performances, which serve as a highlight in the 37-year-old trumpeter’s career.
“There was a little bit of anxiety and confusion. . . . I think that all left once we got to the stage,” Elena Pinderhughes, who plays flute in Adjuah’s band, said during a recent phone conversation. “We’ve been together for so long that this band is very much a family, and we’ve all known each other, and each other’s families, for a long time. We talked it over and Christian, of course, said to us, ‘Listen, if anybody doesn’t feel comfortable coming in, that’s absolutely understandable and absolutely your choice.’ But everyone was committed and everyone came up there and played 1,000 percent.”
The live album “Axiom” documents that week of shows at the Blue Note, which turned out to showcase some of the final sounds coming from a stage in New York before a pause for live music that continues to this day. It’s nominated for best contemporary instrumental album at Sunday’s Grammys, while Adjuah is also up in the category of best improvised jazz solo for the “Axiom” track “Guinnevere,” a cover of the David Crosby composition, later reimagined by Miles Davis.
The coronavirus pandemic “definitely affected the audience reaction,” pianist Lawrence Fields said. “You could feel it, because normally, the Blue Note is the kind of place where it’s the maximum energy that you could fit into a room that size. And so, this is the first time that I can recall going to the Blue Note and seeing it kind of half full, and people are there, but they’re a little nervous to let loose. There was a palpable feeling in the room that something really deep was going on — or about to go on — outside.
“I remember feeling if this is going to happen now, and this is going to be the last time that we play, either with each other or music for a while, that I’m really happy that this is happening with these people, because that’s who you want to be around in a situation like that when things are uncertain,” Fields continued. “The most reassuring thing is to be around people that you love and to be there with people that I consider my friends. I think it was probably the best possible way that that situation could have gone down.”
"Axiom" is notable for the circumstances that produced it, but as with every album from Adjuah, it is presented with the loftier goal of reevaluating the execution and expectation of jazz as just one example of keeping the promise of racial equity that this country is making to its Black citizens.
“What we’re actually talking about is decolonizing sound,” Adjuah said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about disco or spasm music. . . . If it’s a musical expression, an artistic expression that comes from the Black community, more often than not, there are other interests that essentially are the dominant interests that exist, in terms of the actual equity in the expression.”
The New Orleans native has been thinking about these issues for most of his life, informed by many different schools of thought and early teachers, perhaps none more influential than alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., his uncle, who rose to prominence as a bandleader, a sideman for the likes of Roy Haynes and Lena Horne, and was also known for rounding out the front line of the Jazz Messengers in the 1980s, alongside trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
One particular document that has had a profound impact on Adjuah’s development was Harrison’s 1992 album “Indian Blues.” Featuring the late Dr. John, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Carl Allen, “Indian Blues” combined Harrison’s signature “Nouveau Swing” with Afro-Indian, second line, and the rhythm-and-blues sounds of the Crescent City. As Harrison dressed in full Black Indian regalia for his album cover, 20 years later Adjuah would do the same for his album “Christian aTunde Adjuah.”
Coupled with the addition to his birth name (Scott), “Christian aTunde Adjuah” marked the beginning of both his reclamation and acknowledgment of his identity within that rich tradition, first introduced to him as a “spy boy” for his grandfather Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., one of few to be a chieftain of four clans of Black Indians in Louisiana: chief of the Cherokee Brave, the Creole Wild West, the White Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Today, Adjuah is a chieftain as well, with his own tribe, Chief Adjuah and the Xodokan Nation, a modern version of the Brave, his grandfather’s first clan.
Even though he’s not even 40, Adjuah considers himself a veteran musician passing the torch to those who will follow him. In keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, his group has become a platform for the next generation of this music’s players and instrumentalists.
“When I look in the mirror, it is clear to me that my appearance says younger man,” Adjuah said. “But when you’re dealing with the musical side of it, for these younger people, I’m like an elder statesman. Like Elena and Braxton, they grew up on my music,” he added, referring to saxophonist Braxton Cook. “And these are all adults that we’re talking about.”
The two Grammy nominations for “Axiom” boost Adjuah’s total to five, and he has now earned three consecutive in the best contemporary instrumental album category, following nods for “The Emancipation Procrastination” and “Ancestral Recall.” He’s still seeking his first win. He also hopes to garner more than just affirmation from the Recording Academy, while at the same time understanding the purpose it serves.
“At the end of the day, this is a nonprofit and an institution that has a very specific mandate they’ve developed and codified a system to be able to do that,” he said. “People express the fact that maybe they may do it differently if they had their own institutions. But I think that condemning them and maligning them as being one thing also, without actually having a profound knowledge of how it actually works, is not helpful or productive,” he continued.
“As a person that has been in some of those cohorts and has been in different spaces, dealing with the nomination process, learning those things and being in those spaces, you realize also that everybody involved is trying their best. . . . The energy and the care for the music in those environments, at least in the rooms that I have been in, is actually inspiring.”
Adjuah received his first nomination in 2006. It would take 12 more years to nab his second. During that span — in which he released 10 studio albums — he was vocal about what he considered flaws in the nomination process.
“I could have an energy about that, but it’s also not lost on me that the next nomination came for a record called ‘The Emancipation Procrastination,’ ” he said. “What I’m saying is if you take the time to really look at it, you’ll see that there’s a lot more there than just the one narrative of how the Grammys does or does not deal with me. And I think it’s unfair to all of those artists that exist in those circles, because, remember, the Grammys is a group of artists. When I’m in the room, the dominant voices are the musicians, from what I have seen.”
Although awards are one way to measure success, Adjuah’s endgame is almost entirely a spiritual one.
“My music is more about being the most effective communicator I can be, musically, because it exists in abstraction and we’re not using words,” he said. “And so I know that there’s work that goes into that process, and I’m just going to wake up every day, continuing to sharpen that. I’m not placing a value distinction on it, wherein the person that is looking from the outside may be placing a value distinction on it. I may place a value distinction and take exception to you propagating music that essentially tells me that my community is not valuable — I will draw a line in the sand about that. But for a trophy? That’s very different. I don’t do what I do for a trophy.”