- Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is leading the charge into jazz’s next chapter.
- Tommy Pico designed his epic poetry for a thoroughly modern medium.
- Ron Nagle’s hit songs and ceramics are born of dedication to harmony and craft.
- Sidney Hutter’s plate glass creations have pushed the boundaries of his medium.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, growing up in New Orleans, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was steeped in jazz. Now he’s leading his genre into its next chapter.
Christian Scott: We started to think about the principles of what it was that we were developing and essentially we were stretching the rhythmic and melodic and harmonic components of jazz to encompass as many vernacular as possible as a means of trying to figure out a reevaluation of how we communicated with listeners.
Both Ron Nagle’s hit songs and ceramics are born of a dedication to harmony and craft.
Ron Nagle: I don’t have to cut off my ear to make a good piece. No, I don’t believe that. I only feel better when I’m making it.
The world was introduced to Tommy Pico’s epic poetry through a thoroughly modern medium.
Tommy Pico: I only have my relationship to the work, to the thing being made and being put out there. There is work that I do as the writer and then there’s work that you do as the reader.
And for nearly four decades, Sidney Hutter’s plate glass creations have pushed the boundaries of this very cool medium.
Sidney Hutter: Now I’m working with LED lights and trying to change the way that you’re interacting with the glass through the light.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah seemed destined for a life in jazz. He grew up in New Orleans’ ninth ward surrounded by music. The young trumpeter developed artistically under the mentorship of his uncle, Donald Harrison Jr., who was widely considered a master of the saxophone. Adjuah’s philosophy would be forged through observations of his surroundings. He attended William Frantz Elementary School more than 25 years after it had been desegregated by the enrollment of Ruby Bridges in 1960. But racial tensions had far from disappeared.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: To me, when I would see that, even as a small person, it didn’t make any sense to me ’cause essentially they were going through the same things, they were the same people. So I wanted to try and find a way musically to address this.
His solution was stretch music, an approach to jazz that honors what’s come before while embracing influences from a wide swathe of other styles.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: If I asked you to visualize a Western classical musician, then I asked you visualize like a trap musician or hip hop musician, and then I asked you to see a salsalero, you see very different people right. Well, it’s because how music is disseminated to you is sort of fragmented in these little sort of bisects of culture. So in what we do, we try to sort of obliterate this notion, or this idea of genre, in favor of creating musical realities that illuminate the sameness between seemingly disparate cultures of music as opposed to just looking for the topical differences. So as an example, if I can mix n’goni or core music or rhythms like casa zorro or from places like Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and if I can mix those rhythms with a harmonic template that sounds like a Polish folk song with a melodic type that comes from traditional Korean music with an emotional fervor that comes from the Delta blues, then what am I saying about those people? So if I can marry all of those cultures of music, essentially I’m saying that the people belong together as well. So this is like our attempt to sort of create a new reality where we favor the sameness between us as opposed to just looking for the differences because I think we’ve had enough centuries of seeing what it looks like when we’re constantly preoccupied with the differences.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is now a pioneer of this new movement sometimes called second century jazz. But it wasn’t until while on overseas tour that he realized the power of what he was helping to create.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: We didn’t know that what we were doing was so palpable that people had identified it as something different, right, or sort of like second century jazz. That wasn’t something that we thought about but as they kept shouting it at us, we started to think about the principles of what it was that we were developing and the word made sense. Essentially we were stretching the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic components of jazz to encompass as many vernacular as possible as a means of trying to figure out a reevaluation of how we communicated with listeners, and how we interacted with listeners.
In 2017, he released a trilogy of albums celebrating the first 100 years of jazz and ushering in a new century of sound.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: First record, Ruler Rebel, sort of has themes of trap music and also indie rock because these are things that I like to listen to so you’re sort of getting a little bit of my identity politics through a record. The second one, Diaspora, just deals with all of us. So this is sort more wide ranging in terms of what it’s acculturating into in that sonic space so there are things like Nordic pop music, traditional Japanese music, like casa zorro music from Mali and these sort of places and stuff from Senegal and Gambia and so we’re mixing all of these things in that record. And then the Emancipation Procrastination is sort of more of a traditional sort of stretching thing where it harkens more to the jazz idea. And so this one has a lot more improvising, it’s more through composed as opposed to segmented like the first two records. I think the one that means the most to me on the Emancipation Procrastination is a song called “Ashes of Our Forever”. It just talks about relationships and how I think when you’re younger, we sort of accept this idea that when you find love and you find that person that whatever that forever is going to be I think the thing that we think about the least is that the only thing that you can predict in any of those types of amorous environments is that something is going to change. And having the foresight to see that and being able to embrace that and grow together through those things are paramount. As I get a little bit older, I see that more clearly now.
“Ashes of Our Forever” was written in the midst of the break up of his marriage but it’s not a sad song because he’s not one to wallow in the melancholy.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Because of my life’s experiences, losing a lot of friends growing up and just one day people being there and the next minute they’re not, I don’t shy away from those moments. I know that whatever it is that I’m going through, if it’s good or bad, it’ll pass, and I think even as a younger person, I’ve always had the ability to be able to take a step back and realize that sometimes if you have to go through that type of, if it’s mourning, a relationship or any of those things, just like the positive things that happen in a relationship, to feel what you’re feeling and process those things so that if you ever go through it again, you’ll be able to handle it better or do better but not to fight that so hard, it’s a part of it.
Today, jazz is an endangered art form but the uniquely contemporary values that musicians like Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah are bringing to the farm suggests that a renaissance may soon be upon us.
San Francisco: renowned the world over for its progressive values, steep hills, and dollhouse architecture. And though plenty of people adore the “City by the Bay,” lifelong resident and celebrated sculptor and songwriter, Ron Nagle, isn’t one of them.
Ron Nagle: I hate it.
Yet, at almost 80, Nagle has never strayed too far from his hometown. From his hilltop perch, he’s labored for decades to establish his signature style of colorful, small-scale ceramics. When he has left, it’s usually been to visit Los Angeles, where he first encountered the work of Ken Price, a fixture on the LA art scene who would become Nagle’s longtime friend and mentor.
Nagle: Kenny Price was the first to really celebrate the cup and make beautiful things—very poetic, small objects. Scale had a lot to do with it. I’ve always been drawn to small, intimate scale. And so the artists that I like are usually people who work small.
AJC: It’s also where you have the greatest possibility of failure, though.
Nagle: Yeah, you do, because simple is hard.
And throughout his life in art, Nagle has been incredibly hard on himself.
Nagle: I was my own worst critic. I mean, I broke almost everything. We’re going through a thing that we’re gonna have… It’s gonna be a show coming up in the next couple years, which should be sort of a survey. And, “Well where’s the old work?” And I broke it all, ’cause I just beat myself up. I was drinking a lot, and so I was, like, always bummed out. And then, “Well, that’s no good. Oh, that’s not as good as Picasso, so throw it away.” I mean, it was like that.
AJC: Really? That’s a pretty high bar.
Nagle: It’s a high bar, yeah.
AJC: But the guys who were your own contemporaries.
Nagle: Yeah, they accepted me.
AJC: Right. But you were as good, if not better, than any of them.
AJC: But that wasn’t enough?
Lately though, it has been good enough for the art world, which, in the past few years, has developed a fresh reverence for Nagle’s work, exemplified by a Guggenheim Fellowship and inclusion in the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Nagle: It’s all fashion. Things lined up, if you know what I’m saying.
AJC: Your time came.
Nagle: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I could point to specific things. It was all of a sudden a recognition that what was happening in LA in the late ’50s and early ’60s was valid.
AJC: The point is that, isn’t it, they say that the greatest revenge is to live long?
Nagle: Yeah, but it ain’t easy.
And it would seem that it’s never been easy for Nagle. Before becoming an overnight sensation decades in the making, he fought many an uphill battle in the music industry. With better lawyers, he said, he might’ve retired off the songs he wrote for the likes of Barbara Streisand and Sammy Hagar. Instead, he and his songwriting partner Scott Matthews have spent the past 40-plus years making music for self-proclaimed pop purists like themselves.
Nagle: ♫ That man, he just don’t love you ♫ Half as much as I do
Nagle: But I’m singing better than ever, ’cause I don’t have any range anymore, so I had to develop a new style. It’s very sad. It’s very venerable.
AJC: All joking aside, though, you have in the past admitted that you have, if not a love, but then definitely a tendency to wallow in the melancholy.
Ron Nagle: Absolutely. There’s no question about that, and I want that quality to be in my artwork.
AJC: All of it, music and ceramics.
Nagle: I’ve always loved sad. I don’t want to be sad. I’m prone to depression. Anybody that knows me’ll tell you that. I think most… I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. Most comics are usually depressed people, very depressed. I don’t know where that mix comes in. You know, you’ve got that smiley face and the one that goes like this. And they’re interchangeable and intertwined, in some funny way.
AJC: So the truth is that good art comes from great depression?
Nagle: I wouldn’t want to say that either. I mean, I don’t have to cut off my ear to make a good piece. No, I don’t believe that. I only feel better when I’m making it. It’s to get rid of the depression. It’s to say, “Okay man, outside this door, I’ve got a lot that I have to deal with. But when I get in here…”
It may be that Nagle’s creative processes are so engrossing because they’re so deeply intuitive.
Nagle: I just go, “Boink! Okay, what’s the next one gonna be? Nah, that’s too lame, sounds too much like the blues. Ahh, that’s too cheesy. Ah! Those two, bam, bam, bam.” And then, from there… So, one thing leads to another, and it evolves. We’ve got parts all over here, we’ll stick ’em together, “Nah, nah.” It’s all by feel. Kenny Price, he had a lot of great sayings, but he said, “A craftsman knows what he or she’s gotta do, an artist doesn’t.”
True and integral to his practice as it is, this artist admits that lately he hasn’t been able to stop himself from thinking ahead.
Nagle: I would say in the last, maybe the last year or two, all of a sudden, I started to—if I may be so profound—facing my mortality. Isn’t that a mouthful?
Nagle: Well, I don’t like how it ends.
AJC: How does it end?
Nagle: You’re dead.
AJC: Sure, but do you not think about…
Nagle: What I’m leaving behind? No, I don’t.
AJC: You really don’t?
Nagle: No, I don’t care, ’cause I’ll be dead. I won’t know the difference. I’m sure this is a great debate we could have about this. Who’s it for? I mean, is my kid gonna care, is my wife gonna care? If I can make somebody else happy, or set a standard—I guess this is important to me—set a standard where some other kid that was, like, 20 comes in, and she says, “Oh my God, my mind was just blown. I saw this guy, Ron Nagle.” And I’m dead at this point. “And it just made me so excited, I must do this now forever.” That’d be good. What is making it? I don’t know, man, making it’s being happy. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I am happy periodically, and I’ve surrounded myself—or they surround themselves with me, or something—of people who have good senses of humor. That’s, like, the most important thing. You’ll hear me gripe about a lot of stuff, but for all that I curmudgeonly think about, there’s probably just as much, if not more, stuff, that I could go on for hours about how much I love.
But regardless of what Ron Nagle’s legacy will be, he says that, from where he’s sitting now, things are pretty close to perfect. By almost any standard, he’s finally made it.
The poet Tommy Pico started life on the Viejas Indian Reservation in California. He now plies his trade in Brooklyn, where he’s applying distinctly modern language to an archaic literary form, the epic poem. The first book in his evolving trilogy, IRL, did make a splash in print, but was designed for the web. Pico’s goal was to create a post so long that it would dominate the feed on a social media site so thoroughly that viewers would eventually be forced to become readers.
Tommy Pico: This isn’t just poetry. This is an epic poem. You know what I mean? Nobody has that kind of attention span.
Tommy Pico’s focus is on making a powerful personal statement, rather than on attempting to control or predict how a reader might react.
Pico: I don’t have any relationship to another person’s relationship to the work. I only have my relationship to the work, to the thing being made and being put out there. So if that’s out, I’m good.
AJC: So who’s it for, then, you or the reader?
Pico: Well, it’s both. A book is a handshake, kind of, or an embrace or something. You have to come together. There’s work that I do as the writer, and then there’s work that you do as the reader.
After high school, Tommy Pico left the reservation to study poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. But feeling alienated by the backgrounds of his more privileged peers, he changed his major. When he returned to writing poetry after graduation, it was with an uncompromisingly authentic voice.
Pico: Accessibility is very important to me. I oftentimes hear poets read, and I’m like, “I think this is for other poets, I don’t think this for people.” Not that poets aren’t people… I mean they’re maniacal, but they’re still people. But, I mean, I wanted my mother to be able to read this. I wanted my brother and my people where I come from, I wanted them to be able to read it, too. And also, I didn’t want to write anything that didn’t feel right coming out of my mouth.
IRL was followed by Nature Poem in May 2017. The trilogy will conclude with Junk, a work still in progress. All three books center on the same protagonist, an enigmatic alter ego with whom Pico has a fraught relationship.
Pico: His name is Teebs. And I can bring Teebs out on stage but it’s not me, necessarily. It’s an approximation, I think.
AJC: Who am I talking to now, him or you?
Pico: I don’t know how to disentangle the two of them anymore. Ever since I started writing, Teebs has started coming out more, I’ve noticed.
AJC: Are you becoming your own stage version of yourself, and if so, is that okay?
Pico: Honestly, that’s what a lot of the third book is contending with. Having found a character in the first book, having brought him out, Teebs is the person who gets the call back after the first date. Teebs is the person on stage that everyone wants to be friends with. Teebs is the person who doesn’t overthink anything. But the thing that Teebs lacks is vulnerability, I think. And what I’ve started to understand is that I cannot—writing requires that vulnerability, and it requires second guessing, and it requires a ton of self-loathing.
Leave me alone, Muse.
Muse is finally giving me what I want.
What I mean is, my hard-won sense of self surrenders through the sieve of your attention every time.
What I mean is, for 15 years, I give all of myself to every man I meet, mostly because I have nothing worth holding.
I want to get lost, to merge, to be somebody else.
I look into the water, a rolling, exact me, and I promise to find or make something worth holding onto.
Most glass art is made with molten materials. But Sidney Hutter is not most glass artists. He’s one of perhaps a dozen living artists who excel in the cooler approach. Hutter works in cold glass—sheets of the same materials skyscrapers and store fronts are made from. Cut, colored, and fused, plate glass is transformed into extraordinary art. But though they may look functional, don’t be fooled. Hutter’s vases are completely solid.
Sidney Hutter: Most vessels that are blown, it’s a cavity. Mine start as planes, and they can be altered in a bunch of different ways. But what it contains is light, structure. And it contains form, but it doesn’t contain water for flowers.
What they do contain is radiance. Hutter says that all his works are, at their core, vehicles for light: both natural and artificial.
Hutter: And now I’m working with LED lights, and trying to change the way that you’re interacting with the glass through the light.
And if Hutter’s style seems at times psychedelic, it’s with good reason.
Hutter: I have always been a real lover of the Grateful Dead. And I made this piece—and it was when I was using the dyes, and I was using more than a couple of colors—and it looked sort of like one of the light shows from a Grateful Dead concert. And so I said, “Wow, this is like Jerry vision, or something.” And so I had this whole series of Jerry Vision pieces.
Now a long established and highly respected artist in his field, Hutter has focused on finding the right balance between commercial speed and artisanal quality, in the hope of sharing his creations more widely than ever.
Hutter: The quality of the work that I make, it’s as high as I can make it. And to make it in a much more commercial environment means that I’m gonna have to give up some of those controls. But I would like for more people to have my work, because I’d like more people to enjoy it.
And if Sidney Hutter’s past is any indication, there’s a very good chance they will.