Ben Jaffe Remembers Walter Payton

Preservation Hall Director Ben Jaffe today wrote his recollections of the late bassist Walter Payton, who passed away yesterday:

Walt’s been a part of my as long as I can remember. I started studying music with him at McDonogh 15 when I was in pre-school. I wasn’t supposed to be in band, but Walt knew my dad and he let me hang around. I went on to study upright bass with Walt. He lived on St. Phillip Street at the time in Big Jim Robinson’s old house right off Rampart Street, across from the park. I would carry my bass over to his house every Saturday morning.  I didn’t look forward to those lessons. He was hard on me. Extremely strict. He pushed me harder than any other teacher I’ve ever had. We would sit for hours playing scales up and down, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

His salt and pepper beard. His rock solid build. His stare. His playfulness. Walt was a great athlete. He studied karate for years. He became a black belt. He was proud of karate and applied many of the lessons to life and music. I remember him staying up late at night after our shows, practicing for hours. He made a bet one night that he could kick the sign hanging outside Preservation Hall. The other party eventually backed down. I don’t know if it was because the wage was too high or they actually thought he could do it! There was no doubt in my mind he could.

Walt could be intimidating. One minute ice cold and soft as a kitten the next. He was solid as a brick wall, which could be deceiving since he had the temperament of an artist. He was often misunderstood. He could stop you mid-stride with his glare. In grammar school, I saw him peg a kid once with an eraser from 30 feet away without even looking! I would not want to ever be on Walt’s bad side.

He was an exceptional musician. He took music seriously. Few people know he was the bass player on “Working In A Coal Mine.” He taught me to respect and study the fundamentals of music. He imparted the importance of practice and hard work. Walt taught school in New Orleans for decades. A mighty achievement. Hundreds, thousands, of students passed through his classrooms.

Walt battled his own demons up until his transition. It was difficult to watch, knowing he didn’t have the will to fight anymore. Katrina left an open scar on his soul. It was hard to stay upset at Walt for long. Walt had lots of sides, as we all do. Some good, some regrettable but mostly lovable. He had the gentlest of hearts and at the same time could be hard as nails. He left behind a great legacy. His son Nicholas is one of the finest, most talented musicians I’ve ever known. I don’t know a world without Walt. I miss his chuckle dearly.

  • Barry Wratten

    The night that I heard from Australia that my father had died, I was working in a trio with Leroy Jones & Walter Payton. It was right about this time, November 1984. My then wife, Rebecca, called me from our home on Orleans Avenue with the news. We had been hired to perform for the Orpheum Theatre’s Restoration Guild, or some-such named body. They had just completed the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre. I’d first met Walter Payton many years earlier, when he’d been on tour with The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, in summer of ’72. The NORO were performing an open air lunchtime concert in the main square in Bohn, Germany. The band that I was with at the time were also touring there. I remember speaking with Walter there in Bohn and later, we’d often recall that time. When I arrived in New Orleans to live in summer of 1982, the first “gigging” that I did was in joining Walter and Leroy in Jackson Square, where they often met to jam as a duo, for the tourist tips. They tolerated my presence with patience and kindness as I learnt my first “real” lessons of the city’s music. As with Benjie’s more formal lessons, I also will always remember and treasure the memory of Walter’s kindness to a stranger …… He always had a smile for me and my mother Margaret when she visited New Orleans. I still care for her here, where I live and play New Orleans music, in Melbourne Australia.
    Our thoughts and love to all of Walter’s friends from New Orleans and worldwide, as you wish him farewell on Saturday at Preservation Hall. Especially to Ben and also Resa and her family

    farewell on Saturday

  • Mojorepairshop

    one of the best jazz fest shows i’d seen was in 1996 walter payton and the snapbean band featuring sharon martin.great, moving, flowing,jazz roots, new orleans music at it’s best.one of those discoveries that is what i think makes jazz fest sooo great. i’d seen mr. payton once before this and many times after, in whatever setting.class all the way, he will be missed but his legacy will move us into the future.

  • and when the kids were cuttin up in class and laughing, he would say “that ain’t funny, that’s sad!” and chuckin erasers across the room…

    • thanks Ben, wonderful story, short and to the point.

    • being
      overseas n all.. i just learned this. Walter Payton. Legend on the
      Bass, and more. School music teacher, a well respected mentor. My Father
      drove his
      Taxi at night in the Quarter, when Payton was doing gigs, back when
      there was lot’s of real music on Bourbon street they were acquaintances,
      my pops, a strict religious man, always spoke of him with fond respect.
      Years later, I had the chance to re-connect with Mr. Payton. I got to
      hear his story as an adult and friend. We had a few pow-wows. The kind
      of person whose vibration and wisdom remains forever. I carry great
      pride in having been taught music by The Legendary Walter Payton. I bet
      they had one helluva fiesta for him.

  • Great tribute to a soul friend. ( to Family) Thanks for a well written article, for a change. Change is good, transitioning is a Blessing. ~*~ PeaCe….