At 37-years-old, Nicholas Payton has amassed a great deal of experience in music, but after talking with him it seems, more-so in life. He is a man of fiery passion and concrete ideals. You are just as likely to be inspired by his blog posts as his trumpet wizardry. Yet, for someone of such heated views, he is also extremely soft-spoken and controlled. Read on for a window into how Nicholas Payton sees our society and it’s implications on life as we know it.
How has the jazz scene changed since you started out?
I think there’s a lot less camaraderie amongst the musicians. Things seem a lot more cliquish now than what used to be. There’s camaraderie within certain sects of cats, you know, but everybody has there own little sub-groups that they circulate within. Whereas before, it was just one global community. I think that’s hurt the music and the scene quite a bit actually particularly with the disconnect of the younger cats from the older cats. There was always a checks and balances in place and that would keep cats in line so to speak, but that just really doesn’t happen anymore, or not as much anyways.
Also obviously the record industry is completely different,; the internet has changed the game. The recording industry as it was when I was coming up is virtually nonexistent and it’s pretty much obsolete in the way that it was before. The positive side is that I think it’s empowered the artists now with the social networking scene. Artists can deal directly with fans. The only problem is it’s wide open. When you would make a record before, it was a special thing because everybody didn’t have a recording. Now everybody has a record, so how do you sift through all the material that’s on the internet to figure out who’s actually playing and who’s killing. Everybody can put a video on Youtube; everybody can post a link on Facebook.
Between those two things — the recording industry and the lack of camaraderie — the passing down of the torch from the older cats to the younger cats is something that is just not as prevalent as it once was. And that was also a way of determining who the next up and coming cats were. It would sort of validate, well this cat is playing with your Art Blakey’s or your Horace Silver’s or whoever. You would know that’s someone to keep your eye on. Now that doesn’t really exist, so young cats are coming out here not really having any practical experience. Some people frown on that, but to some degree, what are they supposed to do, just not play? The amount of opportunities that were once in place where a cat could serve an apprenticeship is far less. At the same time, I believe that there is a lack of interest from the younger people to actually want to serve a tutelage under a master. Everyone wants to be stars now and just get their own stuff out there and not really pay any dues. So on both ends, I feel the outreach and also the interest of the younger people to want to learn from the older people has severely diminished.
Do you see a disconnect between jazz musicians and jazz audiences nowadays; the audience has seemingly diminished?
I mean, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Automatically when you say jazz, it just means less and less and less, which is why I’ve developed somewhat of a disdain for the word because there are so many things masquerading as what’s supposed to be jazz anyway. If you say jazz it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be swinging, that it’s going to feel good, that it’s going to be soulful. So what is that really? I think automatically, it just marginalizes the musicians and the artists to say that it’s okay if two people are in the club. It’s okay if you give the musicians substandard conditions. I’m saying I don’t want less, I want more. I think we deserve more. This music was once a popular music that people could dance to. It had a social context. Why do we have to marginalize ourselves and say like, “it’s okay if we don’t have a voice and are not heard.”
You talk a lot about your association of funk and soul to your “blackness.” What’s going on racially in music today?
Well that’s always been an issue, however, I do think at times the Black-American sensibility was more popular. It’s kind of on the fringe to me. The music we listen to, most pop music, and even so-called R&B music is not really soulful. There’s not really a distinction between any type of popular music. They all kind of sound the same. Anything that has a swing rhythm, anything that is heavily laden with a blues sensibility is not really pushed to the forefront. I think that’s a problem. Not that I have anything against anything else, but I think that the black sensibility needs to live on as well, which is a big reason I did the Bitches record which is heavily laden with that soulful type of style. I think that’s how it needs to stay in common parlance.
With Bitches, you play every instrument and sing. Have you been working on the singing and other instruments along with the trumpet for a while?
Well it’s something that’s always been on the backburner for me. I started singing really seriously when I was 12-years-old in the Baptist Church choir. But as I got more involved in the instrumental thing, that took precedence. I would say around the time I was doing the Louis Armstrong album, Dear Louis, it was because his vocals were such an integral part of his musicianship that inspired me to once again reinvestigate singing. And being a trumpeter from New Orleans, all the trumpet players sing. It’s just part of the tradition. So when I was doing that project, that sort of inspired me to rediscover that aspect of my musicianship. It’s something that I’ve been working on and working towards ever since.
You had Esperanza Spalding sing on Bitches as well. How do you think someone of her caliber can win the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and yet get put down so much afterwards?
It was very interesting to me because she won the “Best New Artist.” It was like she was a pop star and then instantly right after the acceptance of the award, they had her play with these kids using the music as a backdrop for the voiceover for the PSA about music. That was ironic to me. She went from a pop star to a jazz musician immediately. The moment you say jazz, automatically you are disrespected and I just don’t get that. Like she doesn’t deserve her own performance? I’m glad that the voting members of NARAS recognized her. I mean it’s kind of obvious to me, but we’ve gotten to the point now where we’ve become so dismal about it that we’re shocked when someone who actually deserves a Grammy gets one. So this is one of the times where they got it right. As far as all the hate stuff, I think we’re surprised when we see that kind of negative energy coming out of people, but I don’t think we should be. Look at the state of the world. That is always bubbling underneath the surface, that negative hate energy. Certain circumstances bring that to light. This was just one of those cases where we really saw the worst in people unfortunately. But it’s all good for her because even with all that negative hate energy, a lot more people know who she is. So that’s great for her. The thing is, if she really wasn’t doing anything, if she wasn’t really about anything, there wouldn’t be that hate. Whenever you have a lot of passion and that kind of strong energy surrounding something, there must be something significant about it. She is not to be dismissed. Even a lot of so-called jazz musicians are hating on her. These cats never even checked her out. They don’t know the breadth of stuff she does to place that type of judgment on her. She plays the shit out of the bass. I’ve played with her and I’ve seen her, and I’m very hard on bass players because my father was one. I play bass. I wish her a long career. Every record she’s constantly growing and developing and doing her own thing. She’s only begun to do the things that she has promise to do.
Can you talk about this idea that swing is born out of struggle, and it’s application to music today?
It’s one of those elusive terms. Obviously a lot of these rhythms had root in the African tradition, but it’s very different what went down in Congo Square to all the transmutations of all those things, from the Caribbean to Africa, the motherland. What happened in New Orleans is something very different with that beat. That’s the genesis of funk, hip-hop, pop music, blues, all of that stuff. When I hear someone like J Dilla, he’s still dealing with the swing rhythm. It’s still the same thing. What’s different is how he chose to manifest that rhythm, his instrument. Baby Dodds developed the first drum kit. J Dilla’s instrument of choice was the MPC. Same idea, just different instruments, different time.
How would you describe your personal relationship with your instrument, the trumpet?
I feel I’ve mastered it to the degree one can ever master anything. The more you know, the more you understand about it, you realize you actually don’t know, and for me, the harder I work to try and figure those things out. So there’s no way to say, “I’ve arrived.” It’s constantly discovering new things. It’s very important for me to develop that childlike perspective on the instrument. I look at it as an extension of who I am; that ultimately it’s just that, an instrument. The voice, the sound, the ideas, the creative flow…that’s something that I as a person must be able to do. The instrument is essentially empty; it’s just like a pen. It’s the writer who has the ideas that it must ultimately be channeled through. By the time it gets to the trumpet, that idea has already been born and sent out. The trumpet is just a microphone. But you have to learn how to use that microphone. The more you understand about that, the less that flow is impeded. So that’s what you’re constantly trying to work on.
The late-great Bill Fielder used to say, “The trumpet is but a mirror of the mind.” The thing is though, that the mirror has to be constantly polished. That’s what we practice for. The trumpet is somewhat of an unforgiving instrument. It always makes you work harder than you actually have to in order to produce sound. So the artist, this is very important, the artist tries to figure out a way to get the most out of it with the least amount of effort, and that’s something you’re constantly in the process of refining. Like Bruce Lee, you know, he might not be the strongest cat just in terms of bulk and muscle mass, but he could take on any opponent because he knew how exactly to strike a blow. Just pure brute force will only get you so far on the trumpet. You can’t continue to play like that for a career. You’ll have a very short lifespan. Like anything else, if you live hard, you’ll expire hard. The more graceful you can be, the more longevity that you’ll have.
You’re known not only for your ability to wail on the trumpet, but your absolute control over your sound. How did you develop this control?
It’s something I’m always thinking about, but it’s why I picked the trumpet in the first place. To me, the trumpet was an instrument that you could do that. You could play in such a way to command attention. It’s such a regal instrument. At the same time it has this very sensitive, beautiful side to it, and everything in between. So early on, when I was four-years-old and I told my father I wanted to play the trumpet, that’s what was in my mind. This instrument will allow me, for my personality, the greatest range of expression. Before I even put lips to the trumpet, that was how I was thinking of it.
Who was it that you were listening to that made you think like that?
I was able to see some of the greatest trumpeters that ever lived right here in New Orleans. Clyde Kerr, Jr., Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, and Teddy Riley. Those were my big four, cats that even today I still draw inspiration from. They all had that New Orleans thing, but very different. It wasn’t derivative, very unique voices, very soulful, very pretty sounding, very masculine sounds.
What impresses you when listening to other musicians?
Artists being true to who they are will set someone apart to me from another cat who may have a pile of chops and can get around the piano or has a lot of facility. That is just a tool. I’m not interested in people who have amassed the most tools. I would take someone with less tools who has more common sense and who’s more fearless. I do respect someone who has facility because that means a person is disciplined which is very important too. So I wouldn’t say soul at the expense of facility, but a balance of both is something that I look for. You can have all the soul in the world, but if you’re struggling to get it out, you’re very limited. Vice-versa, you can have all the facility in the world but if your music is not connected to a larger meaning or something deeper than just impressing your peer group or an audience, then there’s no depth.
Your website reads, “I have no agenda in terms of a specific genre or style, only to be true to who I am.” Who is Nicholas Payton?
That thing is changing all the time. That quote kind of says it. Who I am at any given moment can be very different. That’s all I can do, be true to that, whatever it is. Sometimes that’s bombastic, sometimes that’s somber, sometimes it’s very virtuosic, sometimes it’s raw. The best way I can express it is through the creative outlets I’ve been given. Through music, through words, through lyrics, through compositions, through improvisation, on the bass, on the drums.
Do you think there is a way to bring jazz back as a popular art form again?
I think something in our priorities would have to change as a society. It’s an issue that’s bigger than music that is plaguing us. I think people have a problem appreciating things with quality because that is not a priority so much anymore. We live in an era where people eat Hot Pockets and all kinds of other gross things that you throw in the microwave. Quality doesn’t matter. We’re into volume and expedience. As long as that’s where our priorities are, there will be a smaller and smaller number of people that actually appreciate something that is real, true beauty, because that sensibility is dying. So I think once our priorities shift, we get music programs back in the schools again, I mean, I’ve gone into schools where kids see bass and they don’t know what it is. They don’t even know if it’s a musical instrument. That’s pretty sad. We’ve lost touch with something in terms of our culture.
It’s better in places like Europe and Japan, but they’re following American trends so it’s only a matter of time before we start to see that diminish elsewhere as well. But I think once our priorities shift and we get to the point where we start to appreciate things that have true depth and meaning, then we’ll start to see people wanting to listen to music that is more representative of that sensibility. I think the best way to bring that about is to be a light yourself. Things of quality will ultimately prevail. If there are more people who are willing to take a risk and refuse to compromise, I mean, I think it’s attractive for artists to dumb what they’re doing down for the sake of the almighty dollar. More people just have to take stand and say no, I will not capitulate to the industries devaluing art for the sake of mass appeal. The more artists that take that stance and choose art first, then the people will be forced to have to reckon with that. People are always going to go for the easiest, the lowest common denominator. Musicians are going to undercut one another to play cheaper or get in there quicker. That mentality is what ultimately has to change. That’s why people seek the music that they do. It’s bigger than the music. Life is bigger than music. So until we get our priorities together as people, we’re not going to see a significant change in what they choose to listen to.
Do you think the integration of jazz and hip-hop is something that can help the process with the younger generations?
To me integration connotes somehow that these things are two different things. At their best they’re not. That’s why I don’t get off into all these labels. Great artists are essentially trying to do the same thing. If it wasn’t for so-called jazz, there wouldn’t be so-called hip-hop. What Charlie Parker was doing in the ‘40’s or what Jelly Roll Morton was doing in the ‘20’s, if you listen to the syncopation of that, it’s the same rhythmic code. You look at somebody like Biggie and just deal with it from a rhythmic perspective, he’s riffing off of a rhythmic vibe just like cats have been doing within so-called jazz music since it’s inception. That’s something I was trying to illustrate on my piece “Cannabis Leaf Rag.” These ragtime rhythms and these hip-hop rhythms are essentially the same. Different instruments, same aesthetic.
What aside from music inspires you in life?
I would say that music hardly ever inspires me. It’s always life. Even when I’m listening to music, the thing that inspires me is listening to the journey of that artist. The music is just a conduit. I’m moved by music that has nothing to do with music. I’m not moved by music that sounds like music and feels like it came from a musical idea. We are saturated with products instead of actual art. People are losing touch with what real music sounds like; they don’t know. We’re developing a generation of children that might not hear real music ever until some group decides to play at their school or something. You don’t hear it on the videogames or on TV, it’s not on the movie soundtracks. It’s just not a part of their lives. We’re grooming generation after generation of people who know less and less about what that is. So if we want to reverse the effects of that, it’s the duty of those who actually do know to try and teach that. You don’t have to beat people over the head with it, people will ultimately come to it. The issue is ignorance. People simply don’t know because they’re not exposed to it. That’s pretty sad to me.