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‘Music is for a message’: Kendrick Scott’s lifelong quest to be of service to others (and himself)

Kendrick Scott
Justin Bettman
Kendrick Scott

Houston-born drummer and composer Kendrick Scott released a new project on March 3 called Corridors that features Walter Smith III on saxophone and Reuben Rogers on bass. An inventive trio album with no chordal instrument like piano or guitar, it’s a concept that’s been used before by artists including Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Lee Konitz and, most recently, J.D. Allen. We talked to Kendrick about his unique approach and how the pandemic deeply influenced the direction of the new record. Watch our conversation and then listen for yourself to Corridors on Blue Note Records.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: Tell us about the original commission, what it was that you were commissioned to do, and how this evolved into this project.

Kendrick Scott:  Originally, Rio [Saikiri] from The Jazz Gallery contacted me and she wanted me to write some new music. The Jazz Gallery has played a huge part in my development as a band leader. The Jazz Gallery was the first place that I played with my own band in New York. Before then, I wasn't even really contemplating having a band. Lezlie [Harrison], Dale [Fitzgerald], Roy [Hargrove] and Rio, they just always pushed me. Rio was like, “You need to be writing some new music…you need to be doing something.” During the pandemic, I was just sitting here in a funk and that gave me some inspiration to write about being here in my place.

That's what it's all about.  For many people during the pandemic, it was a great source of sorrow, but also a great source of inspiration in that we were forced to just be still.

Yeah. I was forced to deal with the shadows that I could run from in my travels, in my touring and all the great things that happen when you’re on the road. But they're always those things that are on your back where you think, I'll deal with that later. Then you have to sit at home and it's sitting right here looking at you and say, “What's up?”

Especially in the life of a working musician, because what you do is to work.  When you work for yourself, you've got to do it all.  There's so much that's involved, the conceiving what you're doing, and then the rehearsing, then the traveling, and then promoting.  There's a lot of work in being a musician.

It really is. It takes a lot of love. Stefon Harris actually said something great, “There's a difference between love and discipline. With discipline, you get up and you do these things all the time. With love, you don't even think about it. You just do it.” That's where I'm at with the music. So I'm blessed to be able to do that for a living.

One of the interesting things about Corridors is the fact that you used really different voicing in your trio. You’ve got saxophone, bass and drums. Why this concept?

Mainly I was thinking about my band Oracle with whom I've done a lot of recordings. While I'm sitting at home, I was thinking about what have we collectively as well as what have I lost or has been taken away? I was thinking about travel. I was thinking about relationships with people, being able to see people. I decided that I have to make that in sonic form with my band.

I was thinking that the things that I love most are chordal instruments. But let me take that out. That was really scary. Because I love chords and that's the beauty of my music.

This is self- deprivation at its best.  

Okay, let's take that out and what do we have left? You have the bass and the saxophone, and what it really does is it provides a whole new sonic space and a lot of moving room for those three elements to happen and to interact with each other. I really enjoyed it actually.

Since most trios are really built around the piano or guitar because those are the ones that do get to play all the chords. What were some of the biggest challenges of making this concept to fill in the space that was left by those instruments?

For me, it's that I write most of my songs on the piano, so I'm hearing those lush elements of harmony the whole time. The challenge for me was to think more about how the lines meet and all those things rather than the harmony in between. Then thinking as a drummer, thinking about what does it sound like for me to play harmony? What is it for me to create those chordal movements and for the listener to hear that something is happening other than the bass note changing? How can I shade sections and make you feel like you're transitioning into something different?

All of those challenges happen in that form. Then I take on the comping role of the pianist, being a drummer. It's actually very beautiful listening to all the greats play trio records.

Four (Live At The Village Vanguard/1957 - Evening Take)

There’s some really interesting things that are happening with the bass and drum part of it too, that really sets a foundation for the whole thing that's happening on the record.

Thank you so much. Reuben [Rogers] has been a good friend of mine since 1998 when I moved up to Boston, and I went to Berklee College of Music and Reuben was still in town. I've been playing with Reuben since then and the relationship just has grown. That's my big brother. He ushered me into the industry and we've gotten to play in so many different situations with Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, and Helen Sung—a lot of great artists. We're always having great musical conversations and conversations off the band stand.

One more thing about the record, then I want to talk a little bit about your background and some of the really cool things that you're doing to keep the music alive.  I have a question about “A Wall Becomes a Bridge” and “Corridors.” Both seem to be about more than the music, right?  Isn't this also about your life philosophy?  Explain how something that seems like an obstacle or something that seems like it takes us away from each other can actually bring us together.

Absolutely. I'm a church boy and was born and raised in the Baptist church. What they tell you is, “See yourself on the other side of the storm while you're in the storm or before you get to the storm.” One of those things that I had to constantly tell myself because I was going crazy in here in my New York apartment [during] the pandemic, “Just think about what good is going to come out of it. Take the bricks from the wall and create the bridge.”

You know what I do now before just walking into the wall and beating on the wall and saying, “This is terrible.” Change your mindset. That's things that I've been dealing with in therapy. Music is cathartic for me. Life can be cyclical in that way where it's just like you think you've dealt with something, but then there's another wall that you have to approach that you have to deal with. I think, for me, the cathartic nature of music helps me in my quest to become just a better person and human being.

That's from my time spent with Herbie Hancock. One of my best lessons was just learning how to be a great human being. And that reflects in your music every time. The more you grow and the more you're challenging yourself, the better the music will become because that's the life that you live.

Exactly. You mentioned being a church kid.  Let's go back to some of the beginnings in Houston, which I have to say there must have been something in the water in Houston with all the great artists that have come out of that place.  I see that one of your mentors was someone from Houston who meant the most to me.  Someone whom I got a chance to get to know and just admired so much as an artist and as a man as well. I'm talking about Joe Sample.  But before we talk about Joe, let's talk a little bit about your mom and about the gospel roots and how that has impacted everything that you do today.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Before I even knew how to sit down at the drums and play the drums, it was just about going to church every Sunday. Going to choir rehearsal, going to prayer meeting, and all of those things. For me, seeing the drums. Then listening to the music and saying, “This is amazing.” I remember I was sitting in a service one day when I was young, right before the preacher got up to sing. They were singing a song and I remember the hairs rose up on my body and I got this chill in my body. The lead singer was soaring and the message was so beautiful and I was like, “I want to do that.”

Honestly, I've been chasing that feeling ever since. Every time I play, I say I want somebody to feel that while I'm playing. The greatest thing that I learned coming up in the church is that music is for a message. When you think about drumming, the beginnings of drumming, what was that for? It was to talk tribe to tribe for communication. If we are here to communicate, then that's what our music should be about. What are we communicating with our music? We sometimes we don't realize how powerful it is because sometimes I get a little dark on some music where people aren't really realizing the power of what they're doing.

I just believe that music is for a message. My mom taught me that coming up in the church, playing with her. Also, in my high school days, the band in my church was me and Mark Kelley from The Roots and Robert Glasper.

Hard to mess that up.

But we had a great time playing in the church. That's where I come from.

Talk about Mr. Sample and what his mentorship meant to you.

His mentorship meant everything. He had lived in LA forever after coming from Houston. And he decided to move back to Houston. Me and Walter Smith and Mark Kelley and I think Richard Cruz was the pianist. We were playing at his homecoming party. We were the kids in the corner and everybody's coming in and I'm like, “Oh, there's no way he's listening.” They have this big party and all of a sudden they're like, “Joe, you should go play with the kids. Go play with the kids.”

I'm like, oh, okay, he's going to come play with us. He sat down and played with us and it was cool. I still don't remember what it sounded like. I remember being happy, but I don’t remember what it sounded like. Then I went up to Berklee College of Music. Five years later, Joe calls Walter Smith's dad, Walter Smith, Jr. and says, “Who was that kid that I played with at the party?” They called me to audition for The Crusaders. I tell all of my students, I'm like, “Y'all think people aren't listening? You think people aren't paying attention and you think you don't leave something with people?” That's my main one where I'm just like, whoa. Five years later I auditioned for The Crusaders and I joined The Crusaders. Being under Joe's tutelage was really wild because he really cuts you down to what's the most important thing that you're doing, right? Grooving. It's like the other stuff. He's cool. He's grooving on whatever you play and I get a little fancy and he is like, “Nope, nope, just play me some groove. Gimme that shuffle, gimme that oomph. I want to be moving in my seat.”

That's what I learned from him playing with The Crusaders. It was wild because at the time when I did finally leave Berklee, I was playing with Terence Blanchard and with the Crusaders at the same time. Terence was like, “Play whatever you want.” Joe was like, “Play this…” So that was the best of both worlds really because now I know my place when I'm presented with a choice of either do your thing or do this because this is what the music needs.

[With Joe], I just learned to be of service. He was the main person that taught me to be of service. Because I mean, originally for a young person, you think jazz is freedom. You're like, oh, it's freedom. I do whatever I want. Joe was like, no, it's being of service. So if you're of service and you're playing a strong groove, that's cool. If you're playing a strong groove and being more exploratory, that's cool too. But you have got to know how to do the whole range. He was a person that hit me to get in into the range of what it really means to be a jazz musician.

Fast forward to today and you get a chance to return the favor, working with some great young people at the Manhattan School of Music. What is it that you love most about teaching and what are your students teaching you?

Well, I love passing along the lessons that I've learned. And also seeing them succeed on the little bit of information that I have learned so far. Whenever I teach, I tell people, “Look, I'm just teaching you what I've learned so far because there's so much left for me to learn.” In return, I'm learning so much about what I need to be doing as a teacher and as a player and as an individual. I think it's this symbiosis. I read somewhere, it says, “There's no word for teaching and learning at the same time, and there needs to be one.” It's a circular thing that I can see they're teaching me and I'm teaching them, and we're just here on this journey. We might be in different places in it, but I still feel like I'm getting to witness the beginnings of some great careers.

I think there's something really special about that part of it.  I've taught. You do get a lot back from it.  Sometimes it's a surprise to you as you get into it.

Absolutely, and sometimes you don't even know how big your impact is. Especially with young kids, sometimes they're rolling their eyes and then they come back. I always tell my students, I hate to tell you this, but now that I'm older, I'm going to tell you what my teacher told me. You know what I mean? I'm gonna tell you that. It's always those things that are so simple and poignant. And so beautiful. It takes you back to the simplicity of things.

I always tell my mother - the older I get, the smarter she gets. I want to end on something I saw on your website, and that is a link for drum lessons. I'm sure we have some people who are watching or listening to this conversation right now who are aspiring drummers because there are a lot of them out there. Tell us how people can contact you to find out about the drum lessons.

If you go to my website, it goes to my email. My website is kendrickscott.com. They can email me and contact me about lessons. I love to share because, like I just said, what I learned so far on my journey is to be available for the next generation of talent or whoever would like to take some lessons.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.