Music by any other name

The jazz of Nicholas Payton, who will appear at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, still sounds sweet.

Nicholas Payton (photo credit: Michael Wilson)
Nicholas Payton
(photo credit: Michael Wilson)
Nicholas Payton, by his own admission – nay, demand – is not a jazz musician.
The 39-year-old New Orleansborn trumpeter and keyboard player, who will perform at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat on August 18 and 20, is one of several exponents of what most people call “jazz,” but who object to the four-letter word as being of a denigrating nature. In a blog which he posted in December 2011, Payton wrote: ”’Jazz’ is an oppressive, colonialist slave term and I want no part of it.”
By the way, drummer Max Roach, one of the founders of modern jazz and a musician who pioneered a whole new approach to his instrument, also objected strongly to the use of the term and felt it conveyed a racially discriminatory sense.
While there are many who would contest that semantic posit, Payton has certainly paid his artistic dues during his almosttwo- decade-long career to date, and if he prefers to call the genre Black American Music, that is his well-earned prerogative. The name by which Payton prefers to call jazz is also neatly referenced in the title of his latest album, which goes by the acronymic title of BAM.
Payton has, thus far, put out 11 albums as leader and has played with a wide range of musicians, including quite a few from a generation or two before his own.
He got an early start to his musical education, playing alongside his bass- and sousaphone-playing father Walter Payton, and with the Roots of Jazz Brass Band fronted by the banjo-, ukulele- and guitarplaying Danny Baker who began his own career in the 1920s. In 1997 Payton and trumpeter Doc Cheatham, a contemporary of Baker, won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.
Payton evidently is deeply grounded in the annals the music he purveys on such a high level.
“We talk about music being passed down from master to student. Tutelage and mentorship are a very important aspect of learning how to play this music as communal expression,” he says, stressing that the latter attribute lies at the very core of the art form. “It is not only entertainment.”
New Orleans, has been termed “the cradle of jazz” and “the birthplace of jazz” – Payton’s opposition to the terminology notwithstanding – and hailing from the Louisiana city meant that the trumpeter-keyboardist hit the musical ground running.
“I feel a powerful connection to what resides here, geographically and spiritually,” he states, adding that having musical parents also gave him a significant head start.
“I was very blessed to be in a musical environment, in my home and in general in New Orleans.”
Then again, it’s not enough just to have the right genes or address.
“There continues to be a lot of hard work involved. I wasn’t born playing the way I do today. I sought out the experience of being and working with people like [now-92-year-old trumpeter] Clark Terry and [drummer Elvin Jones, who died in 2004 at the age of 76].”
Mixing it with veterans of the scene, says Payton, helped him further his craft and career.
“Through my association with certain people, other networks opened up for me, but I don’t think anything was necessarily given to me. It requires a lot of hard work.”
The latter, as far as Payton concerns, means not cutting any corners and not being overly achievementoriented.
He says he has always been willing to follow the long and winding road to artistic accomplishment at his own pace, and eschewed the bright lights early on.
“I had a desire to associate with a lot of masters, at a time when most of my peers were signing record deals and embarking on careers as leaders. I put that to the side for quite a number of years, to study and learn, and to be a sideman in other people’s bands before I struck out as a leader.”
Truth be told, Payton had probably put in more hours and years into honing his instrumental skills and all-around musicianship than most people his age. “I started playing the trumpet when I was four, but I started playing music as soon as I was big enough to pick up a drumstick or climb up to the piano and hit some notes. I have been around music since I was born.”
Payton has also never been one to stick to the instrumental straight and narrow. While primarily known as a trumpeter, he also plays piano and keyboards, and has mastered the bass, drums, tuba, trombone, clarinet and saxophone.
That, he feels, gives him advantages when he gets down to the business of writing music, as well as performing on stage.
“I would say that the more information you have, the more you understand about your craft, the more versatile you can be, expressively. That gives you more creative options.
“When I compose, I can compose from a perspective of knowing how something feels on the bass, as opposed to just writing a bass line, or writing for the piano or whatever instrument.
I can write knowing how an instrument feels for that performer, if it’s an instrument I have a familiarity with. The trumpet is my primary instrument, but I can think orchestrally, because at times maybe I don’t want just the trumpet sound. I may want to think like a vocalist, or a violin.
“When we talk about art we are talking about the realm of imagination. The bigger your imagination, the greater your ability to transcend music and to imbue the most humanistic elements of this expression. Ultimately, that is the point.”
In Eilat, Payton will be getting that point across together with his sidemen, bass player Braylon Lacy and drummer Corey Fonville. “You want to connect with other people through your music, and have your music touch as many lives as possible,” stresses Payton. “As a composer and a public performer, you want people to be touched by what you do.”
For more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: (08) 634-0253 and