On Jazz, The VRA, the NSA, and Paula Deen . . .

If it wasn’t obvious before why the #BAM movement was necessary, the recent decision by the Supreme Court to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should serve as an example. This is the basis of what I speak about in terms of race relations in this country. The fact that we have a Black President doesn’t show we’ve evolved, but to the contrary, it validates those who wish to believe we have finally overcome racial discrimination.

A Dream Deferred . . .

As much as I respect the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, I feel Malcolm X’s idea for the Black American was/is a better solution. I am convinced that we will never absolve racism, whose roots of White privilege and supremacy lie too deeply embedded in the American psyche. The idealist dream that one day racism will just pass and die off like a fad is a farce. The biggest problem with killing off racism is that there are hardly any racists left, so how to you hit an invisible target?

I bet those 4 White judges that made the decision to strike Section 5, with the help of Uncle Clarence Thomas that put them over the top, don’t fancy themselves anymore racist than Paula Deen. To some degree, they would be right. You see, racism is never the work of an individual. It’s a collective operation that has been perpetuated over generations. Those that argue that the Trayvon Martin slaying was a racist act would be wrong. George Zimmerman is a bigot who acted out of prejudice. What’s racist is that had it not been for Al Sharpton calling it to national attention, Zimmerman most likely would have never been put to trial.

Civil Rice

4 out of the 5 judges are racists. Clarence Thomas is Black and it is not possible for a Black man to be racist, even as a Supreme Court judge, he is still a minority. In order to be racist, one must have dominion over others politically and economically, which, as Black Americans, we are not in a position to use our collective power to discriminate against the White majority.

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Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.

—Malcolm X

No, We Can’t All Just Get Along . . .

At this point, racism is an elusive, philosophical construct that denies its own existence. You cannot disable racism. It is impossible. Many greats have died trying and have ultimately been successful. All they have managed to do, at best, is to make racism harder to identify. It now hides in the corners of society. The privileged refuse to own it and the oppressed have grown numb to it. The privileged and those that have been indoctrinated now believe that the very mention of race is the biggest proponent of its livelihood. This is nothing but a very evolved sense of escapism.

It must be nice to believe that racism can be absolved simply by White ceasing to be White, Black ceasing to be Black, and so forth, when the problem is a lot more complicated than that. The cessation of racial identification is a change in terminology only, not an upheaval from the ideology of centuries worth of programming by means of colorism. So to simply say, “Stop being White or Black,” doesn’t end the race card game anymore than “Just say no,” ended the War on Drugs. Nifty slogans and clichés ain’t gon’ get it, baby.

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Racism is not simply a melanin-based proposition, it’s all that goes along with it. You can stop calling it “White” overnight, but putting an end to the supremacy and privilege that coincides with it is not so simple, especially if you’re not fond of addressing it. The move from Black to African-American was popularized in the late ’80s by Jesse Jackson and others, but we have still not overcome. And to those who believe that White privilege ended with President Obama’s election, you have been grossly mislead. A name change alone can’t erase the colonial imprint. Everything in America is still ruled and run by White wealth—Black President included. The majority is still the majority, regardless of what you wish to call it, which means everyone else falls into the minority category by default.

SCOTUS Blossom

The #BAM discussion and this SCOTUS decision are related. It has to do with Black Americans not being acknowledged and ever truly accepted as citizens in this country. An amendment does little justice for a people who were not written in the Constitution to begin with. Jazz allows people to forget and overlook where this music comes from. Post-race is a large reason why this amendment was repealed and bring Blacks back to pre-Civil Rights status, which is not entirely bad, because—in many ways—the Black American community was better off before integration.

As American As Mom, Baseball and Apple Pie . . .

Black Americanism suffers from the same stigmatism as Jazz: We don’t allow ourselves to evolve past the ancestral flaws. Just the same, we still hold much reverence for a very flawed Constitution. Most of the great Afrocentric thinkers still get caught up in the old model, which leads to the same end as our ancestors. You can’t find a new pathway as long as you keep traveling down the same road. The best of us know to draw strength from ancestry, but not many of us think about how to repair flaws in the lineage.

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“Baseball was a bastion of whiteness, infused with new life by its Africanization. It still separates African Latin & Anglo players by category. Africans in the US contested baseball like no other sport. The Negro Leagues were our largest Black business. Integration destroyed it.”

—Dr. Greg Carr, chair of Howard University’s Department of African American Studies

Our House Is A Berry, Berry, Berry Fine House

Say what you will about Berry Gordy’s treatment of artists, but what he did with Motown was epic: Black music, by Black artists, on a highly successful label owned by a Black man. We have supposedly evolved as a people, but nothing like it exists today. Even the top-selling Black artists who have their own imprints are just subsidiaries of major labels controlled by The Establishment. Dare I say it, but Black Americans were better off in 1964 than we are now. Not only have we not grown, but we’ve regressed. We had better schools, safer neighborhoods and more control over our economic base—primarily because we were forced to spend within our own communities.

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The Gap Band

With the wealth gap widening between Black and White over the past several years, it’s unlikely that there’s an end in sight. Wealth, unlike income, is more likely to be perpetuated from generation to generation. Those from more well-to-do families, which are disproportionally White, are in a better position to help their kids through college and give them a head start into adulthood. The average Black family, which is struggling just to make bills every month, has very little to offer in the long run. Add to that the fact that Blacks are exploited far more by predatory loans than Whites and are subject to racially discriminatory lending practices, it’s no mystery why the Black community can’t get ahead.

The White wealth that runs this capitalist country could not have been established were it not for the Black Americans who were brought over here for free labor, just like all the White record labels, clubs and festivals that fuel the music industry would not have the success that it has without the contributions of Black Americans.

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“The growth in the wealth divide is going to be very hard to close. I don’t have a positive feeling about racial wealth inequality resolving itself…”

-Dedrick Muhammad, Senior Director of the economic department at the NAACP

Technological Evolution = Social Devolution

Just like there are those who believe the word Jazz has evolved, those Republican SCOTUS judges believe that America has evolved, by virtue of a Black President. These issues are fundamentally the same and indicative of the racist attitudes that are still pervasive within the Jazz community and this country at large. It’s the illusion that somehow we’ve moved past the historic connotations of oppression that leads us into this very dangerous terrain. It’s not just about a terminology or a written law, it’s about the ethos and attitudes that lie underneath.

Most Blacks that play what I call Black American Music, say they play jazz, and most of them are unconsciously complicit in their slavery. Uncle Clarence Thomas is a bigot, but it is not possible for him to be racist. Collaborating with racists is entirely different than being a racist. White supremacy and privilege is what feeds racism, at the moment. It is not possible for Thomas to assert White supremacy or privilege, no matter how racially self-hating he may be. Clarence Thomas is not a racist, he is a House Negro. Big distinction between the two. What got Clarence Thomas into Yale is affirmative action, not White privilege.

Muscle Memory

No, you cannot dismantle racism, but you can liberate those whose mindsets fall prey to oppressive thought patterns. You can’t break bad habits. You can only foster creativity and reinforce good form. Homogeneity is not the answer. We don’t all have to be the same to get along. How boring would the world be without color? Why is being colorblind optimal? Art, music, economics and politics all have a color and the world is more interesting because of it. Cultural diversity should be celebrated without fear of domination from others. Mutual respect is what’s needed. There’s enough room in the world for everyone’s heritage to thrive without risk of extinction of one’s own aesthetic landscape.

Stand Up And Get Down!

If Black Americans don’t start making a stand in this country for who they are and recognize and celebrate their culture, we can expect to see more of a decline within our community. To be clear, I never said we should rebrand Jazz to Black music. They are not the same. Jazz is racist. It was from the beginning and still is. It was stolen from Black music, but Blacks don’t control the economics of the business. We don’t run the majority of the festivals nor the clubs. It’s not just marketing, Jazz marginalizes the music from its culture just as the SCOTUS decision marginalizes Blacks from participating in the so-called democratic process in a country we built.  That is the crux of why #BAM is necessary.

Outside of inspiring thought, movements will never work. This has been tried time and again and they have all been infiltrated with the leaders either killed or vilified. And in today’s voyeuristic society, you won’t be able to make any moves without someone watching. My suggestion is to live a life in which you have nothing to hide.

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“Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who makes its laws.”

—Anselm Meyer Rothschild

Let me say it here for all who need the point driven home: It is not possible to end racism. There is no way to end White supremacy and privilege. The only end to oppression for the Black American is autonomy, by way of owning their own businesses and supporting them.

#BAM

- Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

Nicholas Payton Speaks On Yeezus . . .

You mothafuckas are making the same mistake with Yeezus as you did with 808s. If you’re looking for it to be a Hiphop album, you’ve already missed the point. Kanye stopped making Hiphop albums a long time ago. Get over it. He’s beyond that, at this point. Doesn’t mean he’s better, he’s just not a Hiphop artist anymore.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. I mean, let’s face it, at some point, as an artist, you’re going to outgrow Hiphop if you’re constantly evolving. Is Yeezus music? No, it isn’t. Is Kanye a musician? No, he is not, but it doesn’t matter. Music ain’t shit. Music is intrinsically empty. It takes a life lived to give a series of notes, chords and rhythms some meaning.

Contrary to what he may believe, Kanye is no activist. He’s just active—big difference. He’s very creative, but creativity isn’t everything. I can get a 5-year-old kid a box of crayons and watch him be creative. But is it mastery? Miles Davis is a master, but not because you think he is or because he has nice things, but because he endlessly dismembered and embodied his craft.

Kanye’s genius, and there is genius there, is that he has an uncanny understanding of how shallow the mainstream is at this moment. Now, that is not to say he is shallow, but that I think his art has grown to be reflective of a very shallow aesthetic. Anytime you can both validate yourself by aligning your work with the great ancestors, yet reduce the lineage to suit your personal gain, you represent nothing more than what is in front of you. To me, it comes down to this: Are you extending the tradition or exploiting it?

You see, there is a time for everything. There is a time to kill, there is a time to be still and there is a time to build. It is not up to the artist to decide what her work means to you. It is up to you to figure out what it means—if you care to invest the time—and that is always subject to your frame of mind while digesting it. The beauty of albums is that you’re constantly given another opportunity to figure out just what purpose it serves in your life.

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The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.

#BAM

- Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

Live in Anguilla: The Mulgrew Miller Trio with Kenny Garrett & Nicholas Payton

While tweeting today with my good friend, pianist Taylor Eigsti, I was reminded of a gig Kenny Garrett and I did about 8 years ago with my dear brother, Mulgrew Miller, and his trio of bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green. I found the MP3 and thought I would share with you all.

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If you aren’t familiar with Mulgrew’s music, I implore you to make yourself so. I would suggest starting with his classic album Hand In Hand.

We love you, Mulgrew!

#BAM

- Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

Grew Stepped Out Of A Dream: A Few Words on Mulgrew Miller

I would like to say a few things about my big brother, Mulgrew. We all called him “Grew” for short, which is apropos because you couldn’t help but to grow being around this cat. I spent a lot of time with Grew over the years and you get to know someone on a lot of different levels when you interact with them often. As an artist, he is absolutely astounding. And though he has passed, I will refer to him in the present throughout this piece because that which has lived can never truly die . . .

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Along with Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew is the Quintessential Pianist. What I mean by that is his repertoire and range of versatility allows him to play in any context with virtually anybody and he possesses the uncanny instinct to know just the right shit to play at any given moment. And even though he had established a level of mastery and developed a distinctive style very early in his career, he never snubbed others and, at a certain point in his journey, was willing to play with just about anyone — free of judgment. I remember years ago at a jam session we were all playing some tunes and this cat from a well-known alternative Black rock band approached the stage to sit in. Most of the guys split the stage posthaste, myself included, because our elitist, jazz attitudes wanted no parts of this dude. So ol’ boy got on the mic and said, “I guess it’s time for a little acapella,” which is to perform without accompaniment. Not so. Mulgrew not only stayed on stage, but proceeded to play with this dude while he did an abstract poem that at one point resolved with him chanting “Love,” while flashing the peace sign, followed by “Hate,” while he flashed half of a peace sign. Though the spoken word performance was highly questionable — behind it — Mulgrew was comping his ass off! He taught us all a big lesson that night about how you can elevate your surroundings through simplicity and sincerity of expression.

He has a full command of his instrument and an even tone and touch from top to bottom on the piano. His span of knowledge of the history of the Black American music aesthetic reaches back as far as the Delta Blues — he’s from Greenwood, Mississippi — to gospel, as he has roots in the church. He also came up playing Soul music, but had a life-changing moment in his youth when he witnessed the brilliance of Oscar Peterson during a television performance.

He then moved from Mississippi to attend Memphis State University where he would make acquaintance with two individuals who would also become highly influential pianists, James Williams and Donald Brown. He was later recommended by another friend from Memphis, reedman Bill Easley, to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of his son, Mercer Ellington. From there, he moved to New York where he quickly became a first-call pianist for some of the top names in Black music like Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Woody Shaw, Art Blakey and Tony Williams, just to name a few.

For as beloved as he was by musicians, the critical establishment and the recording industry often miss the mark on Grew. He is constantly referred to as being conservative or a traditionalist, which are critical code words for labeling someone as old hat or not being forward thinking. What’s so backwards about that is pretty much all the pianists whom critics tout as being the most modern, site Mulgrew as a top influence. What is deceptive about Grew is that for all the virtuosity he has at his disposal, he isn’t a flashy player. He has the skill and the technique to make very difficult things appear to be a lot easier than what they are. That’s the sign of true genius. Couple that with the fact that he always swings and gets such a beautiful sound out of the piano, his angularity and edginess take on a palatable form and goes over the heads of those looking to be wowed by contrived, hyperbolic displays of narcissism.

He is loved and revered equally by his protégés, peers and predecessors — a remarkable feat of accomplishment to be adorned by a span of multigenerational musicians. Young cats love Mulgrew. Old cats love Mulgrew. Shit, Barry Harris loves Mulgrew and he don’t dig nobody but Bird, Bud and Monk!

But as impressive as Mulgrew is as an artist, he’s just as impressive — if not more — as a man. In all the years I’ve been around Mulgrew, I never once heard him speak an unkind word of anyone. And when you’ve been on the road with a cat for weeks and doing a lot of 4 a.m. departures, you’re bound to say, “Fuck, so-and-so…” about someone at some point. Not Grew — authentically a class act, all the way.

Talk to any young pianist across the world, and they’ll invariably share a Mulgrew story about how gracious he was with his time. I was blessed to have him on my first record. He has been on a lot of cats’ first records. He also played my first weeklong engagement as a leader in New York City at The Village Vanguard. At the time I called him, he was the most in-demand pianist on the scene. He was there for me and so supportive of my vision, even though I had little experience as a leader at that point. He’s obviously played a lot of piano in his life, but I’m proud that one of his most classic recorded solos appears on my debut album.

In this solo on a tried and true American standard song, he beautifully illustrates that soulfulness, intellect and refinement are not mutually exclusive ideals. From the outhouse to the penthouse, it’s all there.

Grew, thank you for all you have given us. The last 30 years of music would not be what they have had it not been for you. Though I am deeply saddened by the loss of your physical presence here on Earth, in the true spirit of the African aesthetic of ancestry, I know we have not lost you at all. We have gained a loved one in another dimension. You are now a part of the ancestral lineage of masters — in whom those who know — seek your guidance into a better future.

Sending love and light to his wife Tanya, his children Darnell and Leilani, and family.

#BAM

- Nicholas Payton