Nicholas Payton, now 39, has been a New Orleans trumpet star almost from the moment he first picked up the horn. The son of revered bassist, composer, and teacher Walter Payton, he was sitting in with local bands by the age of nine and touring at 12. At 20, he released From This Moment (Verve), the first of a string of major-label albums as a leader. There were plenty of side-gigs in between, including an early-’90s stint as a member of Elvin Jones’s band. Through it all, Payton has combined his reverence for the jazz tradition with a desire to forge ahead.
Despite that distinguished list of accomplishments, however, you could say the big bang of Payton’s career happened on November 27, 2011, when he posted an entry on his blog entitled, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” Assembled from a string of Payton’s tweets, the blog began, “Jazz died in 1959.” It went on: “Jazz is only cool if you don’t actually play it for a living.” And, “It’s the colonialist mentality that glorifies being treated like a slave.” And, of course, “Jazz is dead.” The posting exploded online, with more than 100,000 hits in short order and discussion all over the place.
And, oh, yes, that year Payton also released an R&B album on which he played all the instruments, with the provocative title Bitches (In+Out).
All if which would give one pause if Payton weren’t continuing to create some of the most vital examples of what a lot of us would call jazz. Taken together, the “jazz isn’t cool” postings are a familiar jazzman’s rant: don’t box me. Instead, Payton redefined himself as a “postmodern New Orleans musician” whose duty it is to “do better than my predecessors” and “to question, reexamine, and redefine what we do.”
“I couldn’t anticipate that,” Payton tells me on the phone from his home in the upper Garden District, regarding reaction to the November 2011 blog post. He attributes the viral spread of his postings to their being taken out of context. “You start getting opinions after opinions after opinions and not seeing what someone actually said. . . . It’s a big problem in social media in general.” As he also points out, the substance of the blog is “something I’ve been blogging about for a number of years.”
That substance ties in with the phrase Black American Music, an awareness of which he’s trying to spread online with #BAM—an all-inclusive musical umbrella for spirituals, gospel, blues, soul, R&B. It’s also part of the title of his new album, #BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns (BMF), recorded at that club in Washington DC.
“It’s not really a concept,” Payton says of #BAM. “It’s the truth.” He laughs quietly. “It is black music.”
Payton has also created his own label—BMF—to carry Bohemian Caverns. The album features Payton’s lean-and-mean current band, and the one he’ll be bringing to Jazz Fest—himself playing both trumpet and Fender Rhodes, longtime collaborator Vicente Archer on bass, and veteran drummer Lenny White, of Chick Corea’s seminal jazz-fuck fusion outfit Return to Forever.
That line-up gives Payton the kind of mobility he says he’s looking for these days—the ability to move from Armstrong to Earth, Wind & Fire in a flash, and to embody the full #BAM aesthetic. And with a smaller band, Payton is able to take more risks, as evident on Bohemian Caverns, where he and his crew create spontaneous jazz-funk workouts like “The African Tinge” or step, unprepared, into a beautiful trumpet-and-bass rendition of the Thelonious Monk ballad “Panonica.”
“That was the first time I’d ever played ‘Panonica’ in my life,” Payton says. “I’d heard it a number of times, but never actually played it.”
“The African Tinge,” meanwhile, is all jazz-rock fury, White’s ferocious patterns a counterpoint to Payton’s distorted Fender Rhodes free flights before settling down to a simmering electric-Miles groove. Payton’s ability to “comp” for his trumpet playing with one hand on the keyboard is so adept that you might forget there’s no fourth player.
When I ask Payton about his keyboard style, he says at first that “it’s a culmination of my musical experience.” Then he adds, “musical and otherwise.” And before long we’re drifting back to the holistic attitude of his blog posts.
“Music, to me, doesn’t beget music. It’s never really a musical idea that inspires me to arrive at a musical conclusion. It’s a life situation. An experience of life. And the music is: you’re telling that story. So I’m not really seeking to play music. Ever. It’s always about communicating something personal. Without a life lived, you don’t have anything to say. Music is inherently empty. It takes a life lived to imbue a note or a set of chords or a rhythm with a feeling. ’Cause that’s what people feel. Most people, if you’re not a musician, the theory of music doesn’t really register to you. What does register is the human emotion in the human experience. And that to me is where I draw the wealth of my inspiration.”