Nicholas Payton on Jazz, Politics and the Courage to be Himself

“If I can’t be myself, what’s the point in saying anything?”

Photo by: Angelika Beener

This is a mantra that trumpeter Nicholas Payton lives by. Outspoken, at times shocking, at times brutally honest, at times perfectly poetic, Payton is as verbally diverse as he is musically.

At just 37 years old, Payton has the depth and breadth of experience and perspective of someone twice his age. A musical prodigy and professional musician for over twenty years, the New Orleans native is the culture, and an authoritative figure in Black music. The GRAMMY® winning musician, with nine albums to boast, is also accomplished on several instruments including piano, bass, and drums; an adeptness he was able to demonstrate on his latest album Bitches, an autobiographical musical memoir of love and heartbreak.

One of jazz music’s most vigorous provocateurs, Payton has unabashedly confronted every elephant in the room when it comes to jazz, particularly as it pertains to race, culture and politics. Payton does not shy away, instead forcing critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike to deal with the uncomfortable yet imperative subjects. If ever there was a figure in jazz today, who voices what others only ponder, it is Nicholas Payton, who has carried on the tradition of some of the most outspoken jazz musicians I can think of: Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. (Must be a trumpeter thing. The trumpet, after all, has always symbolized an awakening, a truth, a call to action.)

“A lot of folks have gotten really upset with me about a lot of stuff I’ve said, and that’s OK,” says Payton. “To me, you wouldn’t be getting upset really, if what I was saying didn’t have any merit, you know, and it’s affirmation to me that I need to continue to speak. I do feel like I have a gift of sorts to provoke thought, and to get people to think and to have a voice out here for what I feel is not really represented in the way that I feel that it should be. To not do that, to me is…I would feel like I’m not being responsible. I would feel a burden of guilt, perhaps, for not doing something about something I feel like I am called to do, so to speak.”

There is arguably no genre of music that reaches more points of contention when it comes to definition than jazz.  Critics, documenters and so-called historians have long used their position and power to inject their theories of what is and isn’t jazz – many times with detrimental consequence to black inventors. Moreover, black jazz musicians have experienced their share of disproportionate exposure, appreciation, and financial support.  Internally, the subject has been strained between musicians, and as the spectrum of jazz musicians broadens, so do the theories of what constitutes as credible. Payton deals with this issue head on, striking a chord with some, and a nerve with others resulting in a divide that is more often than not, a racial one. “To me you’re not furthering the so-called jazz tradition if you don’t address the fundamentals of what that thing is. To me, it has to have to have a blues sensibility… it has to have a groove sensibility. If you obscure both of those and highlight the European elements of it, then to me it ceases to be what’s known as jazz. I mean, it’s fine for what it is, but don’t call it jazz.”

In our ridiculously labeled “post-racial” era, it seems as if when someone brings up the issue of race as a matter of speaking their truth, in turn, they will automatically be looked at as some form of a racist. Currently, it is conveniently almost in poor taste to even bring up race, treated as a cop out to some, others branding one as being angry for acknowledging it. Payton refutes all of these suggestions, and challenges people to deal with what’s on the table. In a generation where an African-American tradition can be almost devoid of African-American participants in various mediums on any given day (read your average jazz blog, magazine or festival or club line-up), we have come face to face with a cultural crisis.  Post young lion era, jazz has become less of itself and more of something else: grunge, rock, country, ambient…

Photo by: Adam Weiss

“I do have a problem in general with just this whole notion that so-called jazz can be whatever you want it to be. Just this whole, like, ‘Oh, you can mix this with Indian music and not have to deal with [the tradition], you can mix it with Eastern European music…’ It’s like, why? Why is that necessary? Those [styles of] music have those traditions.  Most ethnic music… most music [styles] period, have an improvisatory aspect of it. So why is it necessary to take Black music and just kinda make it what you want, and that’s OK?  That’s really what my whole beef is. People have died to play this music. This music is our path to freedom. And now that we are able to enjoy some of the fruits of all the work that our ancestors did, you’re not just gonna take this and make it what you want to make it. Respect our tradition.”

When it comes to the passing on the tradition to Black youth, Payton is not so sure that the mark is being met, and with good reason. In fact, I can attest to this myself. When working on a radio broadcast a few years back, which featured the top five or so college jazz bands in the tri-state area, including Julliard, The New School, and SUNY Purchase, there was not one black musician among them – in ANY band. A blaring signal to me that the institutionalization of jazz may not be in the interest of serving black youth.

“When has an institution ever been a good thing?,” Payton blatantly stated to me. “In anything Black, already the connotation to me is not good.  When does that ever mean anything positive?  Prison is an institution. Institutions are funded by people who have money who want to see a certain thing. Which doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called  “people”, and doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called ‘community.’ It serves some kind of interest. It’s become an institution and that’s so not what the spirit of the music is supposed to be. A big reason why you’re not seeing Black kids matriculate into college level programs is because there aren’t high school level programs… jazz bands after school, etc. If you look at… programs… I don’t want to call them out, but a lot of institutions that have high school outreach. Which ones do they go to? They don’t really go to the ones in the ‘hood. Where are those musicians coming from? The Black church used to be a big source. Music in general is just dying in the black community. There used to be a piano is every house, didn’t matter if you was poor or not. People sang in the choir, they had some kind of musical outlet.”

Being from New Orleans, Payton is as close to the social foundation of jazz music as anyone can get, and he consistently draws clear correlation between the culture and the music, which he believes need to co-exist, unquestionably. “Jazz music has a social function, and I think the music has gotten away from that, and the more it’s sort of gotten in other arenas like the concert hall, and the performing arts centers, and the schools, it became something else. It’s life and you have to feel it, and that intuitive part of it, which is the most important part, it’s all but overlooked. You go to colleges, and you know, all these young cats, and they can read fly shit and they can play all these changes and intricate things, and then you call a medium tempo blues, and they can’t hold it together. That’s a part of the problem.”

Photo by: Ingrid Hertfelder

Photo by Ingrid Hertfelder

Payton’s protective stance has been a hot button for many. His one or two sentence observations and proclamations about jazz on Facebook can easily garner upwards of two hundred spirited response comments – a testament to his belief that while all is calm on the surface, just below is a sea of controversy. And everyone wants in. But while he may have a reputation for being a thorn in your side, depending on where you stand on the issues, he is also a staunch supporter of today’s up and coming jazz musicians, often a humbly silent hero behind significant good deeds in the jazz community. For Payton, it’s just simply the right thing to do.

“I’m not just paying lip service. I’m not just trying to be controversial or drum up controversy. I mean these things. And to me, if you gonna talk the talk, then you gotta walk the walk. I want to support that because you know, I can’t say all of this shit about well ‘such and such doesn’t do for the music’ and not contribute myself. And I feel a lot of musicians are selfish, like if someone don’t give them a CD or if they gotta pay to get in a club, they won’t go, and I don’t do that. If I show up, unless the guy [at the door] recognizes me off the bat, I’ll pay the whatever. Because this is how I make my money. How you gonna expect to get all the time and you don’t want to ever give? I feel like I’ve been blessed and given a lot, and for me just to be able to support cats who I feel have a voice, and who have done some interesting things. I’m not a rich man, I’m not Coca-Cola [laughs] but I’ll give my last dollar to someone I feel is trying to do something, because quality has to be supported. And if I don’t do it then who’s gonna do it? I don’t look to wait for somebody else to do things if I feel I have the power to do it. I really feel like we’re fighting a losing battle here and there’s just not enough people who are willing to do shit for one another in this world, and I just don’t wanna be that kind of person, and I don’t care if I don’t see anyone else doing it, then I’ll die trying to do the things I believe. Otherwise what worth is my life if I’m not consistent in not only what I say, but what I do… how I live? On every level, I wanna be the same person, and exude all the things that I believe. Otherwise my life is for naught.”

Inspired in part by the way jazz musicians are still treated and regarded in our society, Payton believes things need to change on a lot of levels. “That’s why I’ve come to have disdain for the word jazz. Because it automatically just means that you’re gonna be disrespected. It’s OK to treat you any kinda way. It’s OK that there are only two people in the club, it’s OK for them to tell you, ‘There’s a whole menu, but ya’ll can only eat this off the menu.’ It’s OK to not have a dressing room, or a dressing room with no ventilation. At a certain point you have to learn to say no.”

Payton has said “no” to much of what’s going on in the world of jazz today, but never without profound insight.  Whether you agree or doggedly reject where he’s coming from, you will walk away different. He will leave an impression on your brain, and a desire in your heart to at least think about what he’s saying.  his is the most intriguing aspect of Nicholas Payton off of his horn. At the end of the most heated debate, the one sentiment that everyone can agree on is that they respect Nicholas Payton for being who he is.

“But on a broader level there’s room for it all to exist. I’m not gonna hate on anybody’s right to express themselves the way they want to, but I’m certainly gonna say what I have to say about it and because I feel like what I represent is not really talked about, I find myself having to be vocal because no one is really saying it. And I’ve kinda had to accept somewhat being the fall guy for what is actually right. So I’m like, well, cool, if that’s what it has to be… fine. But I know what I can’t do. I can’t just be the kind of person to sit there and let it happen, because to me then I’m part of the problem…that’s not me.”

16 responses to “Nicholas Payton on Jazz, Politics and the Courage to be Himself

  1. This is one confused dude. Check his Twitter. One tweet he’s a street thug. Next tweet he’s a preacher. It’s cool to be “outspoken”, but when what you “outspeaking” is the randomness of a mind in confusion, there’s an old saying that works better–“Talkin loud, and sayin nothin”

    • Hi Count Busy —

      Thanks for checking out the piece, and for your feedback.

      Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with you. I understand that there is shock value to some of what Mr. Payton says at times, for sure. Artists provoke thought in one way or another. I personally think that jazz has gotten a little too P.C. and think we could use a little edge at times. Monk, Miles, Wynton…all those cats said things that may set you a few steps back, but it made for interesting conversation, and at the end of the day, it was simply who they were, you know?

      Do you take any issue with anything that was said here? Because loud or not, I believe there is tremendous insight to be gained by thinking about what he has said on these issues. Just my feeling.


  2. Art is art. Music is music. Musicians aint talking about ANY real shit. Its all what they think about their little microcosm scene and how people should play and think like them pretty much. Let’s talk about some real issues like how everything you have been taught about race, history, war, peace has been complete bullshit. Every race has been suppressed by the same masters FOREVER! They keep us separated so we can’t take them over. Let’s see what musicians will have the balls to dig deep and talk about the real shit. Art, unfortunately to some, will always be in the eye of the beholder.

  3. Seen Nicholas Payton in NYC a few years back. Class act, tremendous player. Big ups for not being afraid to speak.

  4. I hear what he’s saying.. it’s pretty much spot on especially regarding the institutionalizing of jazz.
    I read his blog from time to time and it’s definitely got some uncomfortable truths.

    you see, we can discuss all this and have all these lengthy debates- all the while ignoring the real elephant in the room- music in general, not just jazz, is pretty much dead. it is a thing to be studied in a classroom- an archaic language that bears no relevance to today. The only people who listen are themselves musicians, so why waste time trying to convince people what makes jazz and what doesn’t? You’re just preaching to the choir- the sermon might be right- but turn around and look to the congregation – the church is empty.

    • Hi Rick —

      There are some elements of what you’re saying that I agree with. But check out Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Marcus Strickland, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and on and on and on…then tell me jazz is dead. A jazz album just beat out Drake and Justin Bieber for Album of the Year at the Grammys this year. I can hardly agree with you that jazz is dead. If anything, I can say that the ray of hope is a lot brighter than it has been in a while. Now, I will say that overwhelmingly so, the quality of what constitutes as music — in any genre — has become more questionable than ever. But to say that a conversation on this level is unnecessary because no one cares…well, I think your taking the time to write your insights proves that theory as not quite true, right?

      • ok, true, there’s some rays of hope out there.

        But by and large I think music has less and less of an impact on society- it might have a niche here and there, but it’ll never be as vital as it once was. The record industry is all but gone (who really buys albums these days), people don’t go out to see live music nearly as much as they used to- clubs and venues are disappearing. What songs will we sing in the future when we’re gathered in someone’s home? What melodies ? I hate to sound like a prophet of doom, but you see I’m a musician myself for several years- I look out and I see one or two oases among the otherwise bleak, barren wasteland.

  5. Pingback: WBGO Blog: Post view

  6. Great Article. I applaud Nicholas Payton for speaking about issues that never get talked about. We have to tell our own stories. There is a lot of laziness in our community from the so-called people that are in the “limelight”, and those in the underground. It is so disheartening to see no willingness among Black Musicians to work together, unless money is involved. I remember reading stories about Eric Dolphy, Coltrane, Mingus, and many others who would travel for miles just to play/jam with a fellow musicians. I remember growing up it was normal to see a piano in so many of our Brothers and Sisters homes.
    This is a topic that needs to be discussed, and thank you Alternate Takes for shedding light on topics that have been in the dark too long. If we are going to talk about it, then lets be honest. The sad truth is many artist with the exception of Musicians like Nicholas Payton, do not open their mouth for fear of losing the little acclaim they have. This is no mystery. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that 98.9% of Black People in any form of mainstream anything do not and will not speak about their people in a way that is constructive to the betterment of our Brothers and Sisters. Lets keep these conversations going. Again great article.


  7. Thank you Nick, and thanks for bringing things to light that some of us have held in for a while. This article has inspired me not only to stop biting my tongue so much, but to practice even harder and dig into my roots…

  8. hey all. a sincere thank-you to both n.p. and a.b. for a nice, strong dose of perspective here. and i’m not just c.o.y.n. either!

    i do want to ask n.p. (in case he is still reading this) why he feels that the merging of heritages/traditions is inherently disrespectful to black music. it’s something that many great african-american artists have done – john coltrane, alice coltrane, don cherry, steve coleman, and henry threadgill, to name a few.

    of course i realize and fully agree that it matters who’s doing the merging. and there are plenty of fusions and fusioneers that i don’t care for in the slightest. but i personally feel that it’s possible to continue the specific practice of hybridization (and i’m speaking not of mere “styles,” but of different systems of information) while honoring the music’s african american heritage as well. the two are not mutually exclusive, in my opinion.

    peace & respect- v.i.

  9. Hey, Vijay:

    I agree that one can honor the Black tradition as well as incorporate elements from other nationalities, but there becomes a point where it may dilute the music so much that the Black aesthetic is lost. One can mix and match to their heart’s content, but what has ultimately happened is that Black music has ceased to become soulful as a result.

    In the quest for finding “something new”, hybridization has become a growing trend within Black music. One in which, quite honestly, I’m not particularly fond of. Why? Because, for the most part, the shit doesn’t groove and ain’t soulful. You can’t dance or fuck to it and is no longer sexy, which to me is a big problem and is one reasons the audience has dwindled considerably.

    Creatively, I have a problem with none of it. I only have a gripe when it’s marketed as Jazz, R&B, or any other derivation of Black music.

    Love and respect backatcha,


  10. Pingback: Nice Work If We Can Get It: Women & Writing | ALTERNATE TAKES

  11. Pingback: Celebrating One Year of ‘Alternate Takes’ | ALTERNATE TAKES

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s