Nicholas Payton runs the risk of being reduced to that trumpeter who wanted to re-name jazz as Black American Music. While the statement sounds a little harsh, it seems to be the general path that all great artists like Charlie Parker and J Dilla walk on. But a deeper inspection of Jay Dee’s work reveals a man who knew how to take a sample and flip it on its head to come up with something completely new that doesn’t sound cannibalistic or incestuous. A closer look at the full breadth and scope of Bird’s body of work uncovers Charlie Parker for more than just the lines he played in the Omnibook.
Likewise, Nicholas Payton is bigger than his blog, BAM, and whatever else reductionist view that others have placed upon him. To me, he’s that dude who comped himself on the Rhodes while playing trumpet. But even my fanboy view of a trumpeter who can jump on the Rhodes and comp himself is narrow and reductive.
Perhaps the reason why the public tends to reduce great artists to one or two things is because we either haven’t spent the time to check out their entire life’s work or we’re just not ready for their groundbreaking ideas. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was shaking in my space boots when I found out that I had to talk to Mr. Payton. I immediately thought that my name would be plastered on his blog and the next morning I would wake up to read “Open Letter to DanMichael Reyes.”
But that was my reductionist view about the man. I was pleased to find out that Mr. Nicholas Payton is – much like the great artists who have gone before him – bigger than the few things that the general public have reduced him to.
Read the first part of our interview with Nicholas Payton.
Revive: I guess I should congratulate you on the two new records. One hasn’t been released yet, but I had a chance to hear Numbers and it sounded great.
Nicholas Payton: Thanks, man.
R: You mentioned that you were the product of mentors. Let’s talk about a few of your mentors starting with Clark Terry.
NP: I met Clark when I was playing in this brass band led by trumpeter James Andrews, who is the eldest brother of Trombone Shorty. We all lived in Treme and James had heard that I played and he had a neighborhood brass band. So he came over and asked my dad if it was cool that I join their band. I started playing with them and we did everything from playing on the street for tips to playing in the French Quarter. I recently posted a picture on my Instagram of us playing in the mid ‘80s on the street.
One year we went on a cruise– the S.S. Norway had a cruise with a lot of great stars from Sarah Vaughan to Dizzy Gillespie. Clark Terry and Al Grey had a group on the ship. I was already heavy into Clark at that time. One of my favorite albums was an album that he did with an orchestra called Clark After Dark. I was super stoked when I found out that Clark was going to be on this boat. He and my father are friends. Clark used to come through New Orleans a lot and my father often played in Clark’s pickup band.
So I was there on the ship but the caveat was that James said, “This is a big gig. I don’t want two trumpet players on this thing. So if you wanna make this hit, you gotta play the trombone.” I really wanted to go, so I got my trombone chops together and bought a second-hand trombone for fifteen bucks at a pawnshop and made the hit.
We’re playing one of our gigs on the ship and then Clark and Al Grey come and sit right in front of us and started checking me out. I’m like, “Wow! This is great.”
R: How old were you at then?
NP: I was 12. So we’re playing and as soon as we finish I tried to make a beeline to Clark. But before I could get to Clark, Al Grey sort of interceded and started talking to me, “You have a lot of talent.” He picked up my trombone, then he started to move the slide. It was an old second-hand trombone and the slide was rusty and he’s like “You gotta work your slide. Come to my room and I’ll give you a lesson. I’ll show you how to hookup your trombone.” So I never did get a chance to talk to Clark. The funny part of that whole cruise was that Al Grey was hunting me down trying to give me lessons the whole time and I’m trying to talk to Clark, but he kept ignoring me.
About six months later, Clark came to New Orleans and he came to this place where we used to rehearse called The Shop. We’d have a big jam session in the neighborhood and all the cats would come out or whatever. Now I’m playing the trumpet and we finish the session and Clark comes up to me, “Wow, man! I didn’t know you could play like that. All this time I thought you were some sad trombone player whose arms were too short to reach the sixth position.”
After that he just really took a liking to me and put me under his wing and started hiring me for gigs. He started dropping my name in the hat for a lot of the first big sessions I had. A lot of my first big gigs were through Clark. He really, really mentored me from that point on and for that I’m eternally grateful for that association.
R: I’ve also read that you have a special relationship with the great Ray Brown. What did you learn from playing with Brown?
NP: Oh man, he was just a beautiful cat. He was a warm spirit to be around. He would pick up that bass and would telegraph the whole continuum and history of music. It’s just a beautiful feeling to play with him.
He was a warm person but also was also a very astute and shrewd [businessperson]; for as nice as he was, he didn’t take any shit. I learned a lot. I’ve always been a businessperson; I’ve never been the type to give stuff over to management and say, “You guys deal with it.” I need to see every contract and I need to see what’s going down. I essentially manage myself and I have representatives and people who I work with who negotiate on my behalf, but I’m involved in every part of what it is that I do.
With Ray, just watching the way he moved and watching the way he handled things kicked my game up to another level. The way he would put a show together from a band that had never played before. The way he could orchestrate arrangements on the spot and say, “Hey Keez[er]! Play these eight bars, and Karriem give me this on the drums.” And bam! He could create something like that on the spot. He’s a very swift individual but not devoid of passion and warmth. He was balanced in that way.
R: Do you think that your business mind came at an early age or was it something you picked up from Ray?
NP: I think it’s always been a part of my DNA and wanting to know all facets of what it is that I was doing. Before I knew I would be a professional musician it was already my desire to be a multi-instrumentalist even at an early age from 3 or 4. I would crawl up on different instruments. I didn’t know that I would be developing a skill set to understand the inner workings of everything that I would be doing 10 to 15 years later. I just had an intense desire for information and wanting to exhaustively know something.
As much as I pride myself on being on top of my business, it’s not a capitalist mindset. It’s more so one of empowerment, understanding everything, and not being in the dark. I don’t glorify the tortured artist, “I don’t care about making money.” I don’t fit that kind of martyrdom. I don’t want that image. I want to know all aspects and be in control of it as much as possible.
R: Why do you think there is a lot of martyrdom in the music where people take a $50 gig for their whole quartet? Was that always the case?
NP: To a certain degree, that’s always been the case. If you look historically to people who have garnered a certain amount of success like when Ahmad Jamal’s career kicked up to another level after he did Live At The Pershing and had a big hit with “Poinciana,” he got slammed with this whole thing of, “He’s selling out. He’s a cocktail pianist,” and that whole narrative. It’s always been kind of the thing. When someone has a certain amount of financial success and autonomy, the rest of the jazz pack looks on in envy like, “You’re not one of us anymore. How dare you get out of jazz ghetto?” It sort of glorifies being impoverished and that your art is somehow more valid. It’s a common misconception, I think.
A lot of people talk shit on Louis Armstrong when he essentially became the world’s first pop star, like somehow he forgot his roots. It’s crabs in a barrel type mentality.
R: Let’s talk about Louis a little more. Why are there a gazillion and one courses on bebop and how to play like Bird, but there’s not much of a focus on how to play like Louis Armstrong?
NP: There are several reasons. One is that the frame of reference for each generation appears to get shorter and shorter. The younger people, with each successive generation, only go so far back. A lot of cats now in their teens and 20s only check out Robert Glasper or Chris Dave. They don’t go back further to check out what those guys listen to. Who did Mark Turner listen to? Who did Chris Potter check out? Who did Kurt Rosenwinkel listen to coming out of Philly?
The younger guys are fine to listen to, but go back and investigate and see who begot whom. This is a lineage and a continuum that spans back quite a ways. The thing is to connect to that. When I was younger I was really into Clifford Brown and a lot of people said, “Wow, you sound a lot like Fats Navarro.” I didn’t know who Fats Navarro was. I hadn’t heard about him at that point. A younger cat would be like, “Okay,” but my thing was like, “I want to hear this Fats Navarro.” So I started listening to him. It was a process of continually going back and to check out who came from who.
I find that a lot of newer artists on the scene aren’t interested in going that far back. Heaven forbid they start making some money and getting some gigs, they might never do it. Because it’s like, “I’ve arrived. I don’t have to do it, I have my own sound, I have my own thing and I have my own audience. Why do I need to go back and listen to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, James P. Johnson, or Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines?”
It’s real problematic and it’s endemic of the jazz mentality. You’re using something as a springboard for validation and centuries worth of tradition to validate yourself, yet don’t have enough respect for it to understand the totality and responsibility of what you’re getting into. It’s a weird dichotomy.
The other part to your question to why they’re going as far back to Charlie Parker and not Louis Armstrong is because it’s easier to dissect Parker because he played in a harmonic language that he codified in a certain way. He developed a system that went from note to note in a chordal progression where you didn’t have to think anymore. You could build a solo just solely based on his harmonic inflections sort of in a Paint By Numbers thing where you don’t have to think anymore. You could teach, dissect, and round Bird off to about 15 licks and make that a part of your pedagogy — as a lot of schools do.
What they don’t get about Charlie Parker was what was most unique about him was not so much harmonically. If you look at what he was doing, the notes weren’t that much evolved or different from Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, or Art Tatum. In many ways, they might have played more outside notes. But where Bird placed those notes rhythmically is what set him apart from his predecessors. But the thing is you can’t codify free rhythmic thought. There’s no way to put that in a book and teach a course in it and make a syllabus.
That’s where Armstrong becomes more difficult because he didn’t have a codified harmonic system. Everything he played was pure melodic and harmonic invention. You can’t really disseminate that. You have to be tied to something larger. You have to be tied to the culture to really begin to grasp what that is. It’s the same way for Bird, it’s only from a Western school of thought that he’s able to be dissected and makes it easier to be intellectualized in a way that you can’t do with Lester Young or Louis Armstrong.
R: Do you think the codification of Charlie Parker cheapens him? You mentioned that schools have reduced him to 15 licks and I think the same schools have narrowed him down to about the same number of songs and people don’t get the chance to see the full breadth and scope of his music.
NP: I don’t think it cheapens Charlie Parker, but it’s reductive. They’ve reduced him to some idea that isn’t representative of the full breadth of who he is. Much in the same way he was reduced in that film to being a junkie. That’s the only film you see about Bird and the only thing you walk away with is here’s this guy who is always looking for his next fix. You don’t come away with the idea of one of the most intelligent geniuses that walked the Earth, changed music, and broadened the scope of virtuosity.
I think the problem is that his virtuosity is the focal point of what he did and not the cultural. They don’t look at the fact that this was the world’s first underground grunge pop star. It was a guy who said, “I’m going to go to a gig in a suit I slept in all night that’s wrinkly and not comb my hair and roll up to the bandstand.” This was years before rockers or hippies were doing it; especially in a time where black men were only seen as entertainers and they had to wear tuxedos and be presented as maids and butlers. Charlie Parker was the first underground cult hero who was saying, “Fuck all of that. I do what I want to do. I look how I want to look. I play how I want to play. I don’t give a fuck if you can dance to my music or not.”
But his music was encoded with all of the same things, even from the slow blues to the fast stuff. It still had that tribal rhythmic DNA that goes back to Africa.
R: There was this post on your blog where you made the comment that electronic music allows non-musicians to play music. One of the big things now is the electronic music scene and the dance parties that go along with it. Even though it’s not traditional instruments, there are still people gathering around music. Is this a different type of tribal and music ritual from what you’re explaining?
NP: To me, there’s perhaps a difference between tribal and group thinking. Group thinking is more programmatic. It’s a top-down phenomenon that’s laced with consumerism and capitalism. It makes products that are stripped down from certain ancestral elements and puts people in a space where they don’t have to think. While a lot of the programmatic music and EDM music that people are listening to have been informed of certain tribal elements, they are not the full picture. They’re only a virtual scope of something that has a deeper meaning and that’s connected. That’s how I would differentiate that.
I’m not going to say that anyone who does electronic dance music subscribe to this always. There are always exceptions, but I don’t know if the thing is actually about community. A lot of these thin– people are tuning out. They’re not necessarily connecting. I hear people are going to these dances and everybody has headphones on. What the fuck is that? [Laughs] I don’t get that.
When I speak of the tribal element, I speak of a certain code of rhythms that has existed from Africa and has transmuted over to the New World of what we call America. These codes exist in Black music; even to this day. From Congo Square, through New Orleans, up the river with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Kansas City. These rhythmic elements exist in Charlie Parker. It’s the same rhythmic DNA that’s in “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong that are the cells for bebop, which spawned Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. It’s been a continuum so it’s not really that different.
The same thing exists in Busta Rhymes and Biggie Smalls. A lot of the hip-hop of today is not connected to the tribal DNA. Those African codes do not exist in the music and it’s been stripped of that. The rhythmic code is not present as it was in the golden era where you had Tribe, De La Soul, and all these other groups. When you listen to hip-hop, it’s been completely stripped of the basic tribal elements and it’s become a product of the mainstream. Black people don’t own hip-hop anymore. It’s been a long time since that’s been the case. It’s not music for the people of the community. It’s a top-down phenomenon now; it’s now controlled by the powers-that-be.
NP: I found that interesting because he kind of snubbed me when I wrote about the same things. I’ve been writing about this for years and it’s interesting that Questlove would call me out for sonning hip-hop, but now can be seen writing all the same shit. And without giving me the credit.
NP: It’s in the same way priests are protected by the Vatican when they’re juggling around child sex offenders. Don’t protect those who are doing a disservice to our music and our ancestors. He needs to be called out. The music is being cannibalized into a stripped-down, commodified version of itself and it’s problematic.
I’m of the school of thought that those who rob and rape our culture should not be protected. They should be called out for doing so. It’s not okay. If we start saying that it’s okay, then 10 years from now somebody will rob us of our music. By us, I mean the Pharrells, and they’re going to feel some kind of way about it. They’re not going to appreciate that. It’s karma; you can’t say you revere Marvin Gaye and you respect his work, you love him, and he’s the king of kings, and turn around and sue his family.
R: He was the first one to sue right?
NP: It was a pre-emptive suit. They sued to keep from getting sued. How do you knowingly steal somebody’s song and then turn around and sue his family? That’s unconscionable! It’s pretty low.
R: I know you have this reverence for J Dilla. What sets him apart from someone like Pharrell? What makes Dilla sampling a Bobby Caldwell track not an incestuous or a cannibalistic thing?
NP: I feel that it’s in how it’s done. I don’t know the business part of if those samples were cleared and if people paid their propers financially. But I will speak to this: there’s Dilla and there is Jay Dee. I’m more of a Jay Dee fan, because Jay Dee to me is who I rocked with when I first heard Slum Village. I can remember where I was when I first heard “Fantastic Vol. 2” I was like, “What is this? Who is this guy?” It’s no secret at this point that I’m not a fan of hip-hop as a construct; I’m a fan and supporter of certain individuals.
James Dewitt Yancey is one of those individuals who I’m a supporter and a lover of. I respect his work because he embodies that tribal DNA. The way he uses samples and the MPC is like an instrument. He’s not relying on the machine to create and generate something; he’s using it as instruments should be used, as a tool to convey a certain message or idea. To me, the classic boom-bap feel that he brought to Beats, Rhymes, & Life, Love Movement, or the early stuff… personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the Donuts era as much as some of the earlier things.
And after his passing… how many people really love his music? Or are they into it because it’s just hip to be into? I question the authenticity and why wasn’t the man given his props or given this amount of respect when he was here. A lot of these people were sleeping on him and he wasn’t given the credit and his due for the role he had on a lot of albums. For instance, Voodoo. Basically what I hear is an instrumental version of Dilla’s concept of feel and rhythm.
That’s what I’m a fan of in terms of his work. My issue with a lot of the post-Dilla stuff is that they’re picking a certain idea of who he was, much in the way that they’ve done with Charlie Parker. They’ve reduced him to these ideas of rhythmic displacement. The problem is that when you start there, the frame of reference keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Jay Dee grew up in Detroit and was connected to a history from Motown and funk music– deep funk music. Then these younger cats coming up and flamming all over the place and they’re mimicking Chris Dave with five snare drums and everything is off the beat. They haven’t even begun to learn how to play a basic funk groove that feels good. But they’re playing everything off the one. That’s problematic.
Dilla earned the right to abstract time because he had a good time feel as a foundation. It means something different when he displaces rhythm. But if you don’t have a solid foundation to start with and you’re already trying to displace and super-impose rhythms on top of stuff, then you’re missing something.
We get back to the dance element. A lot of these folks want to be funky and play hip-hop or whatever, but they’ve never played for anybody [who] dances. They don’t know what it is to play a rhythm and to swing a rhythm to the point where you make somebody want to nod their head and dance. Just an intellectual understanding of something is not a complete picture. There’s a historical and cultural connotation to what all this is. Without understanding that, then you’re missing a big point of it.
A lot of these younger people are getting the wrong idea from James Dewitt Yancey much in the same that schools and students got the wrong idea from Charlie Parker. Just like a lot of people got the wrong idea from Trane. They’ve been reduced to certain abstract elements and intellectual elements that can be easily dispersed and taught, but the cultural part is completely overlooked. That’s what the meat and potatoes actually are; that’s actually the thing that makes it special.
So they go to a gig and they see Chris Dave playing his rhythmic abstraction. What they forget is that when Chris Dave is on the gig with D’Angelo or Maxwell, he doesn’t play all that stuff! He plays straight down the pocket. He plays rhythm that makes people want to dance. They’re not as familiar with the Chris Dave of Mint Condition. That’s an important part of the history. They’re not as familiar with the Chris Dave who can swing his ass off. He can do that first so when he plays a rhythmic abstraction, it means something because he lives one. That’s different from not learning how to firmly establish a quarter note and you’re trying to play off the quarter note.