The Satchmo SummerFest’s Club Strut (Friday, August 5), Frenchmen Street’s nighttime musical banquet, is always a blast. This year it boasts some of New Orleans’ very finest who, because of their often-busy schedules, are making their first appearances at the festival. Pianist Ellis Marsalis is in town to hold down his regular spot at Snug Harbor, the ReBirth Brass Band funks it up on the balcony above Mona’s and saxophonist Wess Anderson warms up Café Brasil at 9 p.m. Appropriately closing out Café Brasil, trumpeter Nicholas Payton puts on his traditional jazz hat in a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
“My whole thing is that it’s a continuum,” explains Payton, who is usually heard heading his youthful modern jazz quartet and his electrified ensemble Sonic Trance. “All these cats I feel are with me the whole time—Armstrong, Dizzy, Doc Cheatham, Miles, Clifford Brown, Lester Bowie. The guys that aren’t here and the guys that are here like Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Terence, Wynton. So I really want to represent them every time I play.”
Nicholas plans to present a program incorporating the eras of Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven through the latter part of the legendary trumpeter’s career.
You’ve never taken part in any of the Satchmo fest’s activities. Do you have any thoughts about the event itself?
I think it’s a great thing. Armstrong, he’s the father of us all. No Armstrong, no jazz as we know it. I don’t think too much deference can ever be paid to this great legend of music.
Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of Armstrong recently myself again. It’s always something that I revisit. It’s always so thoroughly fresh and modern regardless of what period we’re talking about. He was so ahead. He played such appropriate things in the moment. They were timeless. I’ve never heard Armstrong sound bad ever. I don’t think that’s something I can say about any other musician – to never hear someone not in great form. He had that clear a vision every time he made a musical statement. He spoke of the true heart of the moment. That’s why he is who he is and there’s none other.
You’re doing a very late set—it doesn’t start until 1 a.m.
I’m bringing it on home, I guess. That’s cool.
Is there anything specific about Louis Armstrong that really inspires you or something that you’ve taken with you?
The brilliance of Armstrong is so multi-dimensional. I think that’s one of the great things about him—his ability to appeal to the common folk and also to stimulate people’s intellectual pace. I think that’s the beauty of his music because it reaches everyone. That’s what I strive to achieve in my music, to try to create something that makes everyone feel at ease and comfortable and that can be interpreted and enjoyed on many different levels. I find that to be one his greatest achievements.
Is there any of Armstrong’s material that particularly moves you?
There are always the classic things people talk about—“West End Blues” and “Potato Head Blues.” I think throughout his career, he was constantly in the process of development and refinement of his voice as an improviser both vocally and instrumentally. Stuff he did with the orchestra he had in the ’30s with Luis Russell and those cats. Other things like “Jubilee” and “Swing That Music” when he took these really long solos and played these very cascading lyrical phrases over a beat—things that on the trumpet are very, very technically demanding. That’s why I’m always baffled when I hear people say Armstrong wasn’t a studied musician or that he didn’t have chops. These are some of the hardest things to play on the instrument that he played. Even in the latter part of his career when he was he was in his ’50s and ’60s the types of solos that he would take. The strength and the endurance that it takes to play those at any age is tremendous. That he could sustain a career that long playing that level of trumpet and playing with that sort of bravura that you would associate with a young man is quite a feat.
It’s difficult for those of us who don’t blow trumpet to comprehend those challenges.
Any trumpet player can tell you that it’s very difficult. The trumpet is a difficult instrument, period. I think of all wind instruments it perhaps is the most difficult from a physical perspective. I think all instruments have their inherent challenges but just because of the fact that you’re dealing with a block of metal on one of the softest tissues on the body. To make that piece of metal come alive and to really sing takes quite an artist. To be able to sustain that for as long of a career as Armstrong had is absolutely incredible.
Yep. It works muscles in areas that normally don’t get much usage—not the muscles that you use for speech or sipping a Coke from a straw. Certain muscles can only be developed by doing certain exercises. But even more so than muscular strength there’s also grace and flexibility that has to be involved. Just because you’re a body builder doesn’t mean you can be a ballerina. Breath is what really what sustains it all. As important as breath is to our very lives, it’s that important to trumpet playing. As we get older our lung capacity decreases—it’s just a natural part of life. So you’re constantly having to stay on top of the instrument. You have to keep that instrument up to your lips everyday. Because if you put it down for too long, as good a friend as it might be to you one day, the next day it won’t speak to you.
When you do a tribute to Louis Armstrong, what elements besides the songs themselves do you try to incorporate?
Obviously, there is a certain amount of studying of the history and the tradition—particularly of Armstrong—that I’ve done already. So when I’m doing a gig I never want it to be a repertory type thing—I might like to borrow a phrase or something like that. The main thing that I’m trying to capture is the essence and his perspective and also the feeling that was imbued through his voice. How he had the ability to uplift people’s spirit in a room, to be able to touch souls and move people and to elevate and raise the consciousness of the people listening.
So, what are you up to these days?
These days I’ve been practicing harder than ever—having like a rebirth musically. It’s taken me all these years to try to learn how to play like I was when I was four-years-old again. It’s a funny thing when you first pick up the instrument and there’s just that sheer joy. You’re blowing sounds out of the instrument that sound like someone is having digestive problems but you don’t care because it’s so fun to you. From there you learn certain technical things and how to play songs. And then when you deal with improvisation that’s a whole other issue. Then you start learning and studying all these greats like Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie and you amalgamate all these things and sort of try to figure out, “What do I have to say, what does Nicholas Payton have to say?”
When you’re improvising or composing, which is basically like improvisation slowed down, you get in this zone where there is no longer any distance between you and the music or you and the trumpet. It’s almost like you disappear; the horn disappears and there’s just this energy.
I kind of had an experience a couple of months ago when I was on tour with the SF Jazz Collective. We had a couple of days break so I decided to come home and I got really sick. So when I got back, I was feeling exhausted. I had congestion and the flu and when you’re dealing with a wind instrument that’s the worst thing that can happen. So when we did the gig, I wasn’t thinking about all the normal things you worry about—maybe the repertoire or thinking about constructing your solos—I was just trying to make it through. So you use whatever little energy you have wisely just to get through the gig. I played better than I had played the whole tour. I felt like some of those final games when you watch Michael Jordan and his ankle was sprained and he played better ball than he was playing when he was at 100 percent health. Something happens to you and it’s like mind over matter. You sort of surrender yourself to the music and you’re just like this vessel. And through that experience I was like, “Wow, this music is something deeper than I really expected.” It’s really made me want to be a student of the instrument. I think I was always a student of the music, but I’ve really been interested in studying the history of the trumpet.
So I’m like a baby again, just starting out—really excited about playing again. Really at it like I have not been since I was a young child practicing for the first time. It’s really an exciting period for me right now.