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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Kendrick Scott

Photo by Todd Cooper, courtesy of the artist.

Lockdowns. Quarantines. Social Distancing. In no small part, the stress, exhaustion, and sadness of the COVID-19 pandemic many have felt has come from an at least partial breakdown of community. In an effort to protect themselves from illness, often people have focused inward instead of upon things they still share in common with others.  

With Corridors, Kendrick Scott’s Fellowship Commission for The Jazz Gallery, the drummer emphasizes the commonalities between people. The idea is that while we each live our own separate lives, they are each connected along a shared path. One uniting element, arguably, is the importance of mentorship. With this in mind, we asked Scott about not only the general concept of Corridors but also some of his mentors—his mother, Joe Sample, Terence Blanchard, Charles Lloyd—he has thus far encountered in the hallway of his career.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Corridors? 

Kendrick Scott: With Corridors, I am trying to focus on the joining elements in our lives. I named it Corridors because if you visit my apartment building in New York, all of the apartments are connected by a long corridor. People have their own lives but we also each share some elements which unite us.  

TJG: What sorts of elements? 

KS: Well, I think about culture. I think about faith. Many different things join us from our little rooms that we stay in. The pandemic kept many of us in those rooms for a year and a half and, in many ways, cut off from those common joining elements.  

In essence, I am trying to pull on common feelings. Some of the pieces for the commission use titles like “One Door Closes and Another Opens” or “Welcoming the Unwelcome.” I am trying to focus on the good points of what this pandemic means in terms of what we have learned about ourselves.  

TJG: In some ways that is aligned with the concept behind A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note, 2019) in the sense of turning something negative and divisive into something positive and unifying. 

KS: Yeah, yeah. I am definitely an optimist. As Wayne Shorter once said, “there’s always something good unfolding underneath everything bad.” There’s always something unfolding on the other side. I think as long as we can keep the optimism, we can achieve a certain level of peace.  

Honestly, though, I fight with myself on that all the time. Often, I make music as a somewhat selfish thing, basically using it to talk about things I am dealing with in my personal life. So, in many ways “A Wall Becomes a Bridge” is a mantra I have to keep saying in my life to keep my own sanity [laughing]. When something is going wrong in my life and my anxiety is getting to me, I have to say, “You know what? A wall becomes a bridge.” It’s going to be cool. Things will improve. It is about seeing the other side while you are inside of it. It’s hard to do. With Corridors, I am hoping to create a dialogue about the things that all of us have had to deal with from the pandemic.  

TJG: Taking an optimistic view, do you feel like there is some good that may have come out of the shutdowns in terms of music-making? 

KS: Yes, I think in some ways the pandemic has given people, including musicians, an opportunity to essentially meet their own shadow. A chance to sit down and think.  

I’ve been on the road my whole career. My shadow’s been following me like “come on man, let’s deal with this or deal with that.” But when I’m on the road, I’m so busy working that it sometimes causes me to neglect myself a little bit. I think the good thing that will come out of the pandemic is that we are given time to meet our shadow and actually converse with it. I think those conversations and thoughts will get us to a deeper level of knowing ourselves.  

Hopefully, that deeper understanding of yourself will lead artists to create more art that embodies their true selves and not the self that is running around like a chicken with their head cut off; just doing things to stay active instead of tapping into the true essence of who they are as a human being.  

I’ve found that during the pandemic I’ve been very hesitant about being around people. That’s been crazy to me. Living in a city like New York, you are surrounded by people and it is the people that make New York so beautiful. I am here because it lets me around all of these people. I find that as much as I travel the world and see people from different cultures, I see those same cultures right here in the city. I learn so much about myself and others myself that way. So, to be in New York and made to have a standoffish kind of vibe because of the pandemic has really shown me how much I love being around people and learning about people.

TJG: Speaking of cities and cultures, you’re originally from Houston. Besides yourself, a lot of other really great jazz musicians come from Houston, but sometimes it seems that city’s scene doesn’t get as much attention as some others. Do you have an idea why that might be? 

KS: I really don’t. There are some very influential people from Houston doing some great things. I mean, just look at the most recent Grammys, Meg Thee Stallion, Beyonce, and [Robert] Glasper are all from Houston. But still, I feel like we fly under the radar in some aspects.  

A lot of inspiring music and people coming out of that city. We are blessed to have a family atmosphere in Houston where everyone teaches one another.  In my teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, I have students from my high school. It’s one of those things where we are in the continuum of the music. 

But there are also many other great musical cities, like Boston. When I think about my immediate influences, it’s Houston musicians. Sebastian Whitaker, Chris Dave, and Eric Harland because when I was a child, that’s who I grew up watching. But when I think of the next level of cats, those whose sounds I just fall in love with, I think of Boston. I think of Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, and Alan Dawson. And that really touches me too. Every city—I mean, consider Philly and Detroit as two more—has something special. 

TJG:  Staying with some of your early years, your mother was an acclaimed gospel director. How do you feel like her music has shaped yours? 

KS: Oh yeah, sure. Actually, I just got off the church’s livestream just now. The feeling I got today listening to some musicians at church is what I seek every time I play the drums.  

Before I was even playing jazz, I remember playing the drum set during church and having a feeling of hair rising on my arms and feeling something. I feel the presence of God every time I play music. I believe in the power of music to heal, and that’s definitely what we need at this time. It’s that healing message—really, the importance of message through music—that I have taken from my mother’s music.  

She taught me early on that music was to share a message. But, regardless of the specific music played, even just the presence of the drum set sends a message. Max Roach once said, “when you think about the drum set, it is pretty wild. You look at the snare drum and the bass drum and they’re from Europe. You look at the toms and they are African and native drums. If you look at the cymbals, they’re from Asia.” If you really think about it, that joining of cultures is what America is all about, or at least what it is supposed to be about. That ideal is what you are playing. And so, even while you are conveying a message sonically, you are also sitting at a message, which is even scarier. [laughing]. So, yeah, it started off with mom and dad and church family in Houston and continues. 

TJG: To move to another room down the corridor of your career thus far, there is your work with the Crusaders, who were also from Houston.  

KS: Yes sir, yes sir. Not long before I graduated from performing arts high school, Joe Sample had a homecoming party at a venue in Houston. A few students—including myself, Walter Smith III on sax, and Mark Kelley on bass—were sent to go play with him. We all had a good time performing but figured nothing more would come of it.  

But, then about five years later, right after I graduated from Berklee, I received a call telling me that Joe Sample wanted me to audition for the Crusaders. I was surprised he even knew who I was. It turns out Joe called Walter’s dad to see who the drummer was that he had played with at that party years earlier. When Joe found out it was me, I went in and auditioned. It was one of those things where you never really know who is checking you out. [laughing]. I figured he was just having a good time at his party and didn’t really care who some high school kids were.  And now, looking back, it’s funny because everyone in that group is now doing great things. Mark is now playing bass with the Roots. Walter’s killing stuff over at the wind department at Berklee.  

To see Joe Sample and his success and how he found a way to take the Texas sound and infuse it with so many different things was really incredible. He had a huge range and that expansiveness really left an indelible mark on me. 

I have also thought about the brotherhood of the Crusaders. It wasn’t just Joe Sample. It was the brotherhood of the whole Crusaders band who went out to LA, stuck together, and did their thing. And that unity is really cool because, even in my band, you still see the Houston family. I’ve been playing with Mike Moreno forever. [Eric] Harland’s band has Walter Smith. [Robert] Glasper plays with Chris Dave all the time. The Houston crew, we play together and are always crossing over with one another. So, the Crusaders were very influential in terms of seeing how the sound and thought process of acting as a family could carry you.  

TJG: Around the time you were with the Crusaders, you also began performing with Terence Blanchard.  

KS: It was crazy being in both bands at the same time. The Crusaders would give you a clear role and a set part to play. Terence is the exact opposite, telling you to just play whatever you want [laughing]. So, here I am, 23 years old and constantly jumping back and forth between gigs for two very different bands. It took a lot to get used to it.  

TJG: What do you feel like you learned the most from working with Terence? 

KS: Whew, that’s a hard one. When I teach, there are two ideas that I regularly present to my students. Both come from Terence.  

The first is “do you know who you are, versus who you want to be?” When you are starting out in music, you have a vision of what you think you are and this question is intended to get you to challenge those notions. Terence explains that he always wanted to be Wayne Shorter until he met Wayne. Once Terence met him, he realized he wouldn’t be like him. They’re not the same person with the same experiences so they will have different skills and focuses.  

As far as Terence’s band, Eric Harland, going back to family, was in the band before me. As Eric was going on to other things, he suggested to Terence that he check me out. I idolized Eric as a kid, so when I got to Terence’s band, I tried to play the same way as Eric. But, my version of Eric’s music was terrible [Laughing]. And the reason it was so bad is that I was focusing on who I wanted to be and not who I am. I remember Terence sitting me down and telling me to play better. I asked him for something tangible—exercises, other music, something—that I should check out or do. He said that the only thing I had to do was try to be myself. And THAT was scary. But Terence reminded me that one of the reasons he hired me was because of my musical intuition. If I trusted that, I would make good music. But, if I didn’t, and instead played what I thought others expected me to, I would fail.  

TJG: What is the second idea from Terence that you share with your students? 

KS: The second one is that “if God ever lays a question on your mind and you look around and don’t see the answer, it is for you to answer.”  

Really, that builds upon his first thought. If you look around to try to find another artist who follows a particular approach or uses a certain idea and can’t find anyone, you should be the one exploring those areas. Again, following who you are instead of who you wish you were.  

These sorts of lessons, along with so many compositional things, are what I learned from him the most. He also has an incredible work ethic.  I mean, he’s done Broadway, opera, film, and his bands. It’s nuts. And he has a big family. He was always the role model for me and I was blessed to be a part of his band for 11 years. He’s definitely my mentor.  

TJG: You’ve also worked with Charles Lloyd. What do you feel like you learned most from him? 

PG: Charles Lloyd is another figure in my life who has been so influential on how I think about everything. How I first performed with him again comes back to the family. Actually, it’s Eric [Harland] again. Eric couldn’t make it to a show so suggested to Charles that he give me a try. I sub for Eric every now and then and have for years now.  

It’s been beautiful to work with Charles. Every time I come to the stage as a sideman, I’m there primarily to support the leader; to support their vision. But Charles always wants me to go beyond that. He wants me to say something myself, not just further his vision. It is kind of crazy because this is Charles Lloyd, such an incredible musician, telling you to not just support him but go your own way. I’ve had the same feeling working with Herbie Hancock, But with Lloyd, it is even more so because he is waiting for you to spur on the conversation so he can take it to the next level. That’s also part of the zen like mindset and sound that he has.  

That approach has opened me up so much to the idea that if you have a feeling, just run with it and don’t half-ass it. Go ahead and go all the way. When Charles goes for something, he goes all out. And in doing so, he opens the door to another level of creativity in which all of your preconceived notions can’t live because, if they lived, the music failed. That’s what I have learned the most from him.  

TJG: Circling back to your new commission, what does it mean to you to be presenting it at The Jazz Gallery? 

KS: The Gallery is a special place. It is a breeding ground for so much great talent. It also pushes us musicians to be our best.  

When I was coming up in Boston, there was Wally’s Café. At Wally’s, often a drunk guy would sit right next to the stage hollering at his friends and talking over the music. It would always be a challenge to make people like him actually listen to the music. But the better we played, the more it quieted people like him down. The circumstances of the club pushed you to be better. You need venues like that to make you play your best self. I feel like, especially in front of my peers, the Gallery is one of those places where I can play my best.  

At the same time, all the things The Gallery does as far as commissioning artists to write music gives a snapshot of where younger artists are. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about The Gallery, how it always has an inviting attitude even as it pushes artists for excellence.  

I also feel indebted to The Gallery because it was the first place I ever played with my band, Oracle. At the time, Terence Blanchard told me to go start my own band while I was playing with him. He wanted me to not just be a sideman but also to lead. Art Blakey trained him and others to be leaders and now Terence does the same thing. The Gallery was the first place that afforded me the opportunity to present my music and it is a blessing that it comes full circle, now they are commissioning me to write some music.  

The Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commissions presents, via livestream, Kendrick Scott’s Corridors on Friday, September 17 and Saturday, September 18, 2021. The group features Mr. Scott on drums, Walter Smith III on tenor sax, and Reuben Rogers on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. The Saturday evening shows will be livestreamed, $20 general admission ($5 for members). Purchase tickets here.