January 24, 2020

MSM Spotlight: Kendrick Scott, MSM Jazz Faculty Member

Downbeat Magazine calls drummer and composer Kendrick Scott a “rising star,” and for The New York Times, “as a drummer, his time is now.” Kendrick is leading MSM students in a performance of his work Mantra during the special concert MSM Icons: Terence Blanchard with the MSM Studio Orchestra on Friday, January 24.

How has it been working with Terence on this concert?

Kendrick: Terence is one of the most amazing people. On a human level, he doesn’t have an ego and encourages everybody to contribute. He has one of the strongest forms of leadership that I’ve ever experienced. One thing I’ve learned from Terence is how to surrender to different musical moments and use everybody’s greatest talents in their own way rather than directing them how to do it your way.

I think his album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) winning a Grammy in 2009, was a real reflection of his leadership and vision. It was incredible that he mustered up the courage and wherewithal to actually make a recording during the tumultuous time for his city, and I’m looking forward to sharing this work with the audience on Friday.

You wrote Mantra for Terence’s album being performed in the concert on Friday—can you tell us about the meaning behind the composition?

Kendrick: I had written Mantra some time before the album was recorded, but this was the first time it had been arranged and recorded for an orchestra. It was actually my first time ever writing anything for an orchestra! Terence loves to put us in situations in which we have no idea what to do and we can only trust in our hearts and in our training to make something happen.

As for the story behind Mantra, I felt that the tone of the piece was apt for what was going on in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The people of New Orleans and the surrounding areas were dealing with so much loss and were trying to rebuild. There was a need for the sentiment of a mantra, something you say over and over again to bring peace and calm. I personally have my own little mantras that I say to get through the day. I think it’s something we all need.

Photos by Toby Winarto (BM '19, MM '21)

How does it feel to have your composition performed by MSM students?

Kendrick: It’s very humbling for me to watch and listen to students play my music because in my heart, I feel like most of them are possibly better composers than me. As I’m listening to the students play I’m just like, “Wow, this is amazing! Maybe I should have written this instead, or changed this note.” My brain is constantly trying to improve upon what I’ve already accomplished. One of my mentors Wayne Shorter says, “once you compose a piece it is never really finished, you just keep working on it.”

It’s humbling to be around young people at this point in their growth because I remember how important this time was like for me. I’m trying to give encouragement and just share what I’ve learned so far in life, which is what Terence has done with me. If you’re open to the truth, you’ll be able to evolve. It’s amazing to witness how the message of Mantra continues to change as it’s received by these students.

What’s your favorite part of teaching at MSM?

Kendrick: My favorite part is seeing the light bulbs go off when my students are making the connection between humanity and music. So many of the students at MSM are great musicians because they understand that music is connected to being human. The more you realize that connection, you start to understand the language of music and how it’s meant to communicate. The whole piece that we’re playing (A Tale of God’s Will) is about how we can communicate an idea, how to embody that idea inside of the music. I’ll often ask student to play a passage with more hope, and they’re like “wait a minute, do you want me to play it forte?” and this or that. I’m asking them to really think, “What does hope feel like? What does anger feel like? How can we interpret that through music?” That’s the type of thing I really enjoy about working with the students at MSM and they are certainly up for the challenge.

I ask my students to really think about what hope feels like, what anger feels like, and how we can interpret these feelings through music.

MSM Jazz Arts Faculty

Tell us about your teaching style.

Kendrick: My teaching mantra is ‘command and surrender’. I think we all need to have command of our instrument in order to be able to execute sound and silence as best we can, but as musicians we always have to surrender to the moment. To me, these are life principles that I’m dealing with every day. Right now you and I have surrendered to this space as we had to come here to do this interview, but we have the command of language to communicate and to go wherever the conversation leads. I just try to take those two things and infuse them with the music. Learning the command of playing a passage correctly with the correct dynamics, but surrendering to the story of that passage without changing the notes or technical aspects. ‘Command and surrender’ are my main principles for teaching students, for my own music, and for my life.

What are you most looking forward to with the performance?

Kendrick: Terence has been such a big mentor for me, I feel like I wouldn’t even be here as a performer, a composer, or a teacher without him. He taught me that music is bigger than jazz, and he brought me into the film world. I remember one of our first recordings together in London with a 90-piece orchestra and me on drums, and I just kept making mistakes and the orchestra would turn around and look at me like “can you get it together?”. That experience changed my life because I started to see myself as more than just a drummer. Terence changed my outlook, opened up so many possibilities for me, and showed me that I could do what he was doing. That was the greatest thing he afforded me and that’s what I’m most excited to see on Friday. I’m looking forward to seeing the graciousness he embodies and how he gives that to the students in the orchestra.