Where’s Nicholas Payton coming from?


Trumpeter, and erstwhile vocalist/one-man-band, raconteur/social commentator (at least based on his latest release Bitches on the IN + OUT label, which would appear to be the latest advance in his Sonic Trance odyssey) Nicholas Payton has been raising a literal firestorm of conjecture and debate with his recent series of blog posts, Twitter and Facebook rejoinders. The initial firestarter was Payton’s bold broadside “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” originally posted on November 27. That was followed by such provocative posts as “White Angst,” “Can a White Person Experience Racism,” “On Why Nicholas Payton is NOT a Racist,” and “On Why I Keep Beating This Racist Horse.” Throughout this series of what to some appear to be pugilistic exchanges, Payton has shown no qualms in rather severely taking to task such younger musicians as saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, each of whom in his own way has criticized Payton’s screeds in cyberspace. Nicholas Payton’s pronouncements and tireless Tweets have spread like wildfire across the ‘net. Frankly I’ve wondered if his tongue isn’t planted firmly in his cheek with some of his declarations.

I can’t tell you how many email forwards-as-chat group postings I’ve received, expressing ye or nay on Payton’s various rants. If nothing more Nicholas Payton has succeeded in ramping up the dialogue on the jazz and black folks question, outright rejecting the term jazz in favor of Black American Music, or BAM for short. Frankly we can go back to the 1920s for variations on the efficacy of the term “jazz.” I for one have grown weary of that bit of nomenclature skirmish. But I do respect Payton’s right to raise these questions, and support his desire to be out front on various issues, in refreshingly abject defiance of any measure of political correctness. Though I cannot say I am in total agreement with Nicholas’ various broadsides, I do see him as serving as a very useful provocateur at best, conversation starter at worst.

I do find something a bit sycophantic about the various Hallelujah Chorus members who’ve served as Nicholas Payton cheerleaders throughout these exchanges. I find myself wondering why the Hallelujah Chorus doesn’t step outside that figurative veil with issues and solutions of their own; and much more of the latter, if you please. Right now the Nicholas Payton cheerleading squad is full-up folks!

My first sighting of Nicholas Payton was as a startling young trumpeter introduced and encouraged onstage by NEA Jazz Master Clark Terry at the last IAJE conference held in New Orleans nearly two decades ago. Clearly this was a budding young trumpet ace to watch. Over the years Payton’s artistry has grown exponentially, and he has shown a healthy eclecticism in his tastes, ranging from his lovely collaboration with the grandfatherly Doc Cheatham, through his Sonic Trance experiments, various trumpet challenges, and now his one-man band Bitches release. Nothing about Nicholas Payton’s demeanor, onstage or off, ever suggested that he’d be the bearer of these current rants, which I suppose makes them all the more startling in their candor.

A dear friend and colleague of mine in music education asked me just the other day in a telephone conversation where I thought Nicholas Payton was coming from, and why all-of-a-seeming-sudden all this righteous internet fire & brimstone. The one thing I know is that Nic comes from the truth, and he’s just speaking the truth as he believes it – whether you’re inclined to swallow it or not. And no, unlike some respondents I don’t believe his truth-telling is self-serving; though I did note with interest the response of another good friend and fellow writer who warned about Payton’s penchant for hard core put-downs of those who disagree, feeling that perhaps Nic is doing himself more harm than good in the long run.

But the one thing I can confirm is that Nicholas Payton is coming from a place of veracity, as he sees it. Nicolas Payton comes from the truth; his daddy, bassist Walter Payton, was one of those hard-working, blue collar jazz musicians who toiled in the vineyards of New Orleans mightily, exhibiting the kind of versatility that is a hallmark of so many musicians from the Crescent City. Payton was raised by musicians of a similar ilk who took no prisoners, people like Ellis Marsalis and the late trumpeter-educator Clyde Kerr, Jr. These are musicians who pull no punches, either on or off the bandstand.

Think about the well-chronicled outspokenness of other New Orleans musicians who arrived a bit before Nicholas. How many times have Wynton or Branford Marsalis gone off and told it like they saw it, only to be taken to task for their bluntness and seeming political incorrectness? Spending a few glorious days in Essaouira, Morocco a few years ago on a spiritual journey with Donald Harrison and his Congo Nation band revealed more than a few truths as well; listening to Harrison pull no punches for instance on those who dismissed his passionate pursuit of the Black Indian legacy he inherited from his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. was quite revealing, particularly when he got around to keeping it real about a certain cowardly trumpeter from his hometown (neither Wynton nor Nicholas, I assure you).

You get the same blunt truths from other New Orleans musicians as well, including some very strong opinions in my various conversations and interviews with friend and flutist Kent Jordan; and if you know his dad Kidd, you know where that comes from. Political correctness is not the nature of musicians from the Crescent City, and I for one have found that refreshing. So agree or disagree, I am in full support of Nicholas Payton telling it like he sees it, and in many cases revealing truths others are afraid to speak.

However, as I’ve told Nicholas in some subsequent communications, one element of his arguments that I find it difficult to support is the contention – veiled or overt – that somehow someone (that royal “someone” I suppose) has stolen jazz – or, ahem, BAM if he prefers – from black folks. Sorry folks but I continue to hold steadfast to the contention that there’s been no theft, black folks have given away the music through dwindling support and abject neglect; abdicated the throne as it were. While African Americans continue to play this music with authority – and yes, there are still young black musicians striving to learn this music in the academy and the corps of 20-something black jazz musicians beginning to make contributions remains significant, the African American audience for jazz is pitiful; that is unless certain circumstances exist: i.e. the music is presented free of charge, or the music is presented somewhere in the African American community. I’m open to suggestions, conjectures, and outright debate on that issue. You game? Look for a series of dialogues on that issue in The Independent Ear in 2012.

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5 Responses to Where’s Nicholas Payton coming from?

  1. Valerie Bishop says:

    Willard, thank you for this excellent article. helped me sort out my own feelings and reactions to Payton’s rants. i definitely see his truths but also agree with your last paragraph. given that i’ve been attending jazz gigs, concerts, festivals, etc. longer than Payton has been alive, i’ve consistently been shocked and disappointed to see the lack of support from the African-American community. and, sadly, i continue to see it even when the events are in the African-American community and are free or of minimal cost. hope i live to see that pattern change!

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you and Nick. The term “jazz” is short for jackass. But, as Gil Scott-Heron said: “the ass refused to be kicked.” I call it American Classical music. Ahmad Jamal frowned and shook his head when I called him a “jazz” musician. “I don’t call what I do jazz,” he said. He called it “Afro-American Classical music.” I have heard other musicians call it black classical music or just good music. The point is they made the decision to call it that. I agree with Nick the term “jazz” is dead. To me, it was dead on arrival. I also know, like you, Willard, that black folks gave this music away, a long time ago. How we are going to remedy that is why article’s like yours are so important and challenges the brain. Please keep on keeping on and include me in any future discussions and movements.

    Larry Reni Thomas
    Writer/Radio Announcer
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

  3. Pingback: OPINION: Where’s Nicholas Payton Coming From? | Jazz Forum

  4. Craig Taylor says:

    Accusing black folks of giving away the music is an extraordinary claim. Carl Sagan said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

  5. Guest says:

    The idea that “jazz” just popped into the collective black consciousness one day, completely devoid of any other influence (guitars, pianos, cymbals, and chords existed in Africa at the time of the slave trade?) is ridiculous. I think that it is a counter-political argument. In other words, African Americans perceive themselves (accurately in many ways) to be socially and economically segregated even if not legally, and therefore they feel that they must have something that is purely THEIR OWN, and any non-black person participating in it is ‘inauthentic’, therefore we must define it in a way that white can’t even ‘accidentally’ participate in it. While at the same time, completely ignoring that 50% of the MUSICAL (not political, or pseudo-racialist) elements of Jazz comes directly from European musical traditions (for better or worse – it was forced on Africans in early America and the Caribbean). The fact that Jazz and African American music is heavily intertwined with European musical traditions is “unfortunate” in the sense that Blacks must acknowledge that their oppressors contributed to their identity. Its tough to deal with. Maybe this is the hard truth that Nic Payton is so bitter over.

    This is why he “beats the racist horse”. He just cannot handle the fact that life is grey and not black/white. He just can’t stand the fact that even though his ancestors were forced to come to America, he would not be who he is unless that had happened.

    My family is Jewish and the US was heavily anti-semitic at the time of the Holocaust. Henry Ford and Walt Disney were among the most well known overt racists in the world and Ford himself circulated the English copy of Mein Kampf. Yet, am I going to not drive a car because of that? Am I going to find some other form of transportation which has no traces of Henry Ford-ness and call it Jewish American Transportation so as to differentiate it from the lineage of American automotive which owe themselves to Henry Ford’s mind – even though they would be not much different, and in fact that transportation system would still be based on traditional automobiles because that is what is mainstream in the country and what I have been exposed to. Maybe it will have some qualities to it that are more common in Jewish culture, maybe every car door will have a Mezuzah, and maybe it won’t operate on the Sabbath or something – it has “jewish” qualities, but it is not fundamentally different in nature from the Henry Ford car.

    This is my point – Yes white people oppressed your ancestors, but your culture and identity and music is still intertwined with the that of Europeans. Its reality. It has nothing to do with whether someone likes it or not, its simply the case from a musicological point of view.

    In fact, Basketball existed before, and would continue to exist, almost identical to its current form, if no black players ever played. Sure, they added dunking, and many black players have excelled at the sport far beyond any white player so far, but the game was invented by white american people in a white american college. Yet Basketball is considered ‘a black thing’.

    Just like Jazz or bam or whatever is considered an exclusively black thing. Well its not, and not because I said so, but because reality doesn’t give a shit about what you believe and how much resentment you have over white people doing something you consider to be exclusively yours. And it still does not make slavery and racial oppression ok.

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