Here, in its full glory, is my interview with trumpeter Nicholas Payton. In this expanded version, you’ll find him expounding on Charlie Parker, Steve Coleman, Barack Obama and much else that didn’t make it into the version posted on the Mercury News’s website.
With one moaned note, trumpeter Nicholas Payton can telegraph a 100-year tradition. This formidable musician also is a businessman with his own label (BMF Records; you can guess what the acronym stands for) and a pointed essayist, via his Twitter feed (@paynic) and blog (nicholaspayton.wordpress.com). Slyly titled “The Cherub Speaks,” the blog is where he riffs at length, stirring things up, talking about race and the economics of music.
Last week, Payton turned 40 and released his new album, “Sketches of Spain,” a live re-make of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration from 1959-60. He also penned an essay titled “Why Hiphop Isn’t Cool Anymore,” a sequel to 2011’s “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” in which he declared that “Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.” Payton wrote that jazz died half a century ago – and that the word “jazz” is a racist term imposed on black musicians by white marketers. He prefers to call it by another name: #BAM, or Black American Music.
I spent two hours on the phone with Payton, who grew up in New Orleans and still lives there. He spoke of his father (the late bassist Walter Payton) and of Professor Longhair (who used to rehearse in the Payton family’s living room). He discussed his “Black American Symphony,” which he composed and recently recorded with his band and the Sinfonie Orchester Basel. He expanded on various Tweets and essays, on topics ranging from Miley Cyrus (Payton isn’t a fan) to Marvin Gaye (he’s Payton’s hero) to #BAM. As soft-spoken and amicable as he is directly opinionated, he also talked about his own surprise at his increasingly public role as a writer, and how he is viewed by some as a rabble-rouser, by others as a truth-teller.
— foreward and the following questions by Richard Scheinin
Q: When did you get into writing essays, setting down your opinions?
A: I’ve been writing a while, since even before I was blogging or before Facebook existed. I used to do these email blasts similar to what I blog about, but not as long form – short aphorisms or what have you. But, yeah, when blogging became more prevalent, it just seemed like a better format and a way to access more people.
Q: Why do you have the blog? And has it changed the way people perceive you? Do they now see you as a hero, a villain, a militant? Have you lost any gigs because of your writings?
A: I feel it’s important, what I’m doing. It has caused some degree of trouble in certain instances. I have had people not want to give me gigs based on what I’m blogging. But to me that’s really silly. Because to me that should be based on “does the cat show up on time, dress well and show up ready to play?” — and that’s my reputation, for all that. Because I say “mothafucka” on a blog post, is that any reason to not want to hire me?
My reputation is that I’m a gentleman and I treat people with kindness. But if you disrespect me, then I’m going to say something about it.
Q: Do you feel isolated, expressing your opinions publically?
A: Artists don’t stand up for themselves these days. They’ve become more like politicians. And they’re afraid of losing whatever — afraid of not getting a gig. And yet things keep deteriorating. The kind of offers that are acceptable now, they wouldn’t have flown years ago. I’ve found out that I’ve had to say, “No, I will not stay at that hotel.” Certain conditions have become unacceptable.
Q: Musicians have told me they’re earning a lot less in clubs these days.
A: I just can’t do it, man. It becomes a thing where you do become in some instances a troublemaker. But I’d rather have that and have someone respect me than accept any kind of offer. Because I came up under cats like Clark Terry, Ray Brown, Elvin Jones, and these guys didn’t take stuff from people. They were nice guys, but they set the bar. If they were disrespected, they spoke up.
And I find that in many instances I’m the lone soldier, and I’m trying to keep the bar where they set it. I don’t consider myself an old cat, but with the passing of so many of the masters, I am responsible for making sure that stuff doesn’t go haywire and absolutely out of control. And I’ve come into that role a lot sooner than I’d expected. It’s not necessarily something I do to be a rabble-rouser or a provocateur.
But I have to have a voice. My life would be a lot simpler in some instances if I’d just shut the fuck up and play the gig. But being an artist is being a lot more than that, so I’m left with a choice. What do I do? Just shut the fuck up and play the gig, or make a stand for what I was taught was right, and to speak out for the music and its cultural ties in terms of the Black community and things that I think are important?
They should actually be taking some of the falls.
Q: Who should be taking the falls? Other musicians?
A: Yes. It shouldn’t solely be focused on me. A lot of the things that I’m saying are a lot of things that they believe and they know. There are a lot of conversations that have happened in the back of the dressing room. I can’t tell you how many e-mails and talks I have with cats saying, “You’re right.”
Q: When we first exchanged e-mails, you told me that I’d misunderstood your #BAM posts – that you’ve never set the goal of removing the word “jazz” from common parlance, as I’d written. You explained that you personally object to the word, but that you’re not trying to get others to deep-six the word.
But you’ve put the word “jazz” in the same sentence as the N-word, drawing a connection between them. So to me, it doesn’t feel like a huge leap to think that you’re trying to create a movement where the music moves forward while the word “jazz” is left behind and replaced with your term – #BAM, or Black American Music.
A: First of all, I don’t think it’s realistic or necessary. As much as I talk about racism, do I seek to try and create to live in a world where there’s no prejudice? No, that’s part of the human experience, and I think people should be allowed to feel hate or whatever.
If a musician would like to call what they play “jazz” – okay, and jazz does exist. And most of the music that is called jazz IS jazz. But as far as the real true spirit of music and ancestry, that is not jazz. So if people want to call what they do jazz and whatever comes along with that, I respect that. I’m not trying to change that. Because that deserves to be here, too. I’m not trying to sanitize the world and try to create some kind of utopia where only the good things exist.
Q: Will you lay out your arguments for what you object to in the word “jazz.”
A: Jazz is the white appropriation of Black American music. It’s a caricaturization of the music that Bolden and King Oliver and Armstrong and others created, and the first documented jazz recording was by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. And as for “Dixieland” — we know the connotation that “Dixie” has to the Confederate South and slavery. And “jazz,” the word itself, is of dubious origin at best. The first documented printed use of the word is tied to baseball.
It had to do with some kind of English or pizzazz that you put on the ball. I think it was like 1913, and was published in the San Francisco Chronicle or some place out there.
And a lot of the early musicians refuted the title. They didn’t want the association with the word. And even cats like Louis Armstrong said, “We didn’t call it that.” It was not called that in New Orleans. It would’ve been “blues” or “ragtime.” And the first band that made a record and called it “jazz,” that was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It was minstrelsy. The cats were making animal sounds and a mockery of this beautiful music made by the likes of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
I don’t consider those cats (the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) to be historically significant in terms of the true expression of the music. It’s kind of like Miley Cyrus’s shenanigans today, where Black people appear almost as props. She wants to adopt a Black sound, but all the imagery is stereotypical and what they think is a Negro sound, without really dealing with the people. And the people become objects and you don’t deal with the cultural part.
The most important part to me is the Black part. And that’s not to say who can and cannot play this music. But without addressing the community part and who created the music – that’s wrong. Historically, the music was important to break down barriers and establish whatever liberation we’ve been able to craft – that has come through the music, long before the civil rights era and the March on Washington.
Q: When you say “the music,” what are you referring to?
A: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong. Louis Armstrong was the world’s first pop star. He was the Michael Jackson of his time. There hadn’t been a star that had existed like that before, because his artistic rise sort of happened at the same time as the rise of the phonograph. So here was the new kid with the voice coming along at the same time as this new technology — sort of like what happened with the music video and Michael Jackson.
It exponentially increased the potential of Louis’s voice getting to as many people as possible.
Yet when these cats started going on the road and traveling, they still had to go to the stage through the back of the kitchen. People were still riding in the back of the bus, if they could get on the bus at all. They had to stay on the Black side of town and in boarding houses; couldn’t stay or dine as equals at many of the establishments. And in many cases, they played where Black people otherwise were not allowed, like the Cotton Club.
Black folks were not looked at as human beings, and when this great art was created by masters like Ellington and Armstrong and Count Basie, they ran into this white supremacist system. Yet it was undeniable that these people were far more intelligent than given credit — you had to look at them as intellectuals, which we were not treated as at that time. So the music is largely responsible for breaking down those barriers, long before there was the March on Washington.
It broke down the racial barriers long before the actual civil rights movement. Think about integration: white cats and Black cats working together. That happened in the music long before the March on Washington. It was already happening in the ‘20s and ‘30s: Benny Goodman hiring Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian. So this music has been very important.
You can look at the very existence of the music: Congo Square was one of the only places where the enslaved Africans were allowed to practice their traditions — the drumming, the dancing and so forth. The music has roots in that. Its language is part of the African expression.
Q: The names you’re mentioning are the names of musicians generally described as jazz musicians. So, again, when you talk about “the music,” are you talking about jazz, or so-called jazz, as you would say, or are you talking about all types of Black American music?
A: I’m talking about it all, because I don’t make the distinctions. And I don’t think the musicians make those distinctions. Those were categories placed on the music by promoters and marketers.
First of all, just the idea of recording is not a Black aesthetic — to think about, “Oh, let’s record.” In fact, some of the early musicians – Buddy Bolden was afraid to record, because he thought it might steal his soul. Black people have more of an oral aesthetic, while we live in a world that is so Eurocentric in thought. I’m not necessarily saying that one is better than the other, but they’re certainly different.
But going back to Congo Square and the roots of the music: The moment you say “jazz” and you appropriate it and you minstrelize it – then you enslave the music and the spirit of it. That’s my whole issue with the word.
When you say “jazz,” or, “I’m going to open a jazz school” – it’s a way of dealing with the surface of the music and not having to deal with the people who created it. For instance, look at how Charlie Parker’s music is taught in jazz programs. Institutions have codified bebop and Charlie Parker specifically into a series of licks. They make Bird’s voice one of harmonic importance, first. But the primary thing about Parker is not the harmony or which specific notes he played, it’s where Bird placed those phrases that set him apart from his predecessors. It’s his rhythmic placement, but you can’t codify free rhythmic thought.
Q: In the ‘70s, I wrote a story about a similar discussion: Jimmy Owens, Reggie Workman, Roland Kirk and others were talking about replacing the word “jazz” (along with the word’s early associations with New Orleans bordellos) with the term “Black classical music” or “American classical music.” I always thought that conversation kind of backfired on the musicians, that it led the music in directions they hadn’t intended. You could argue that institutions gradually seized on that “classical” idea and kind of moved in and took over jazz, building programs and codifying the music.
A: The “classical” connotation is already European. It’s like saying that the European aesthetic is the standard. So, yeah.
Q: Still, a lot of musicians describe themselves as “jazz musicians” with pride, because, whatever the word may have meant in the beginning, they feel it means something different today. And they feel it places them in a great tradition: For instance, to have been a member of the Jazz Messengers is almost to have been a high priest of the tradition. So over the last year or so, I’ve been asking various musicians for their thoughts about your essays and blog posts on #BAM.
Can I read you part of what Herbie Hancock said about it? He’s one of the musicians who feel enormous pride in being “jazz” musicians.
A: I’d like to hear it.
Q: Responding to the idea that the word “jazz” is offensive and shouldn’t be used, he said, “I think that it’s just like Obama Care. YOU can make it, you can define it. In other words, we don’t have to change the word. We define it by what we create and by our behavior. So whatever the definition that was with `jazz’ when it first started, it is no longer that. So I think it’s more important to focus on the development of the music, and creating a new definition of the word, than changing the word. If you change the word, you don’t change the music. What have you done? Nothing. If you change the word, that doesn’t help the evolution of the music. I don’t think it does.”
He continued: “That’s not what I’m going to focus on, because I don’t think it’s germane to what we offer to humanity in playing this great music. It’s a great music.”
He also said, “America’s funny, because the music isn’t as popular here as it is in France or Germany. You go outside America and you mention `jazz’ and people are ready to give you the royal treatment. And that’s without changing the word. That’s what it means to them.
Do you want to respond to that?
A: I’ve heard that argument. I don’t see that. I don’t see saying “jazz” in Europe and getting respect. All you have to do is look at the jazz festivals and see what they program. Most of it is not of the tradition. People have the right to call whatever they do whatever they want. When you have a “jazz” anything, it can be a hodgepodge of anything. Take a look at the North Sea Jazz Festival or any of the others. Anything can be on it.
Q: You’re saying that most so-called jazz festivals include a lot of rock and pop and whatnot? That’s true of the New Orleans festival, too, right?
A: Yeah. So what does that word mean? It doesn’t mean anything. You can put anything together and say it’s “jazz,” even if it doesn’t have the overt racial connotation.
Q: You’re saying that the definition of the word, and what it refers to, has been confused.
A: It’s like, now we have a Black president, or a president who is Black. And he didn’t even address the racial issues in America until he had to, in the wake of Trayvon Martin, when the whole country was in a war over the trial. He had to say something.
And just the hypocrisy of his speaking at the (August 28 commemoration of the) March on Washington.
Q: He didn’t speak at the first of the two events at the Lincoln Memorial in August – the one Al Sharpton led (on Aug. 24.)
A: Right. If I had to guess, if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would not be pleased with Obama’s politics, particularly the violent bullying that goes on in American politics, and the number of lives of innocent mothers and children that are lost because of America’s policing of the world.
And from what I hear, even Sharpton’s event was lacking something. These events feel – I don’t know, they feel staged. Empty symbolic gestures are not necessarily going to lead us to any growth, any change. Is Obama being of a skin color that is considered Black a milestone achievement if the actual politics don’t speak to helping the Black community at all? The promises that he made before his candidacy, he hasn’t lived up to. And a lot of the rumblings amongst the Black community were, “Let’s just get him to a second term” — and now that we’re into a second term, this is it. And there’s not a lot more time to get things done.
I just think that the definition of who is to be used to keep the forces of supremacy and privilege in place – that definition of whiteness now is being expanded to people of color. You see the same with George Zimmerman, because he’s brown-skinned. So now the name of George Zimmerman is being used as a means of saying that, “Well, this racism that people speak of, it doesn’t exist anymore.”
At one time, Polish or Italians or Jews were not accepted into white privilege. They were viewed as being on the outside. And now it’s been expanded again; certain people of color are being given access, like Clarence Thomas, who was part of the 5-4 decision to strike down the Voting Rights Act. I look at that and think, “Four of these guys are white and one is Black. Well, that Black guy could have been the difference in fighting for something that Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers died for.”
The new face of racism allows that people of color — Black people or Mexican or whatever non-whites — are also able to further supremacy and privilege.
Q: What did your father think of the word “jazz”?
A: He never really discussed it.
And to be honest, for most of the older musicians, that was never a discussion. They never discussed “jazz” or “let’s play jazz” or “this is jazz” or “this is not jazz.” If anything, at a certain point when I was coming up, he was more open-minded than me. I had a more purist view of what jazz is, and I had to ask him, “Why are you playing all this other music on your gigs, stuff that’s not swinging?”
But before that, when I was coming up, I didn’t like jazz. Because I thought it was old music. I wanted to listen to Run-D.M.C. or whatever.
Q: I want to ask you what your mission is as a musician. You recently wrote this blog post. I’ll quote you: “I’m a cultural diplomat who gets out of bed every day, I practice my craft and bear my soul on stage with the mission of imbuing more truth, pathos and beauty in the world. I was born to do this.”
So that’s what it’s about?
A: (Pause.) For me, life is bigger than music. Music is just a conduit, and one way in which I express that artistry. I also express it through my blog and how I speak. It’s a holistic approach.
But I would say that I was placed in an ideal position from the start. I don’t want to say “the spirits chose me.” But my upbringing was very ideal for what I do: Born in New Orleans, where this music came through, to two musical parents in an environment that was just very musical. We had rehearsals at the house. Our house was the place where everyone rehearsed. We had a grand piano and a large living room, and so it was sort of ideal.
The greatest musicians were in my living room. I was three or four years old, and here’s Professor Longhair in my living room. I used to love to sit under the piano and hear the music — Ellis Marsalis, all that force.
I didn’t know I would be a musician. It’s just a thing that I did. I loved being around musicians. I loved being around the music. My parents might go to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’d be up. The cats were rehearsing.
Q: Were you playing, too?
A: I was a kid. I wasn’t really playing. But there is a story of them having a rehearsal one time, and they were listening to some record and they couldn’t figure out one chord. And I had this little toy piano and I went over to it and laid my hands down on the keys, and played the chord. And how do you explain that?
So it was a great environment, but it certainly was not just given to me. I spent and still do spend many hard hours working and practicing. I rest on no laurels. I work hard to cultivate that experience, to develop and discipline myself.
Q: On “#BAM Live at Bohemian Caverns,” your recent album, you play Fender Rhodes, as well as trumpet. I’ve seen you play really great upright bass. You’ve always played a bunch of instruments?
A: Yes, I’d take a break and I would jump on the drums or pick this up or that up. My father taught music at the elementary school I went to, and I would often stay after school. And the band room was filled with clarinets and horns, and I would just stay after school and start playing them. And my father saw that I was taking an interest, that I was learning the fingerings on all the instruments and getting a basic sound from them. So after a while it became my job to teach the beginning students.
I didn’t know I was developing the skills to be a multi-instrumentalist. It was very organic.
Also, in the mid-‘80s, I was a big Prince fan, so much so that my parents bought me a piano book, with all the music to “Purple Rain.” And I remember reading that Prince played like 20 instruments. Then there was Stevie Wonder. A lot of my idols were people who made whole albums by themselves being the primary musicians, playing all the instruments.
Q: So what’s your mission? To move the music ahead? To support Black culture? To re-develop a Black audience for the music?
A: All those things you just said. One that’s important is that Black people know they created this music. In most cases, I’d say Black people tend to associate jazz music with white people. That’s who they see in the clubs — Kenny G or whoever.
The other thing to me is that “jazz” is a derogatory term, a nebulous term at best. I don’t think that will ever change. I don’t think you will ever get people to see its roots and acknowledge them. People like Herbie Hancock; he knows what it is. But the average person is not intelligent enough or knowledgeable enough to understand it.
If people play mariachi music, you know you’re dealing with Mexico and you’re going to deal with Mexican culture. Or if you’re going to deal with Cuban music or Haitian music; you’re going to deal with broad cultural aspects. You hear “jazz,” and you don’t have to do that – and it’s actually frowned on. The more the connection to the root and the Black community, the less you’ll be celebrated.
Pick up a copy of Downbeat or any of the magazines and see what’s celebrated. Most of what the critics celebrate is listless, or played in odd meters. I don’t have any problem with playing in odd meters, but most of what gets celebrated is devoid of blues, devoid of groove. These things are looked at as old and not important. And the more your music has a Black sensibility, the less potential it has to be celebrated.
Q: There’s quite a bit of new music that comes at you as a barrage, without a lot of breathing space. It can be incredibly virtuosic; the handling of all the odd meters is amazing. But there also are times when it can feel overly clever and more clinical than grooving. Steve Coleman’s playing isn’t like that, but he’s the guy behind a lot of this odd-meter stuff. His influence is huge.
A: When Steve does it, it’s different. He’s coming out of a tradition, and from what I understand of him, he’s very mathematically minded and he’s developed these formulas and an interesting style of notation. Steve and Greg Osby, they’re one thing. A lot of the cats who come after that, who are protégés or whatever, I think they got the wrong idea. The way they analyze and interpret is a lot different.
When I hear Steve, the African-ness – we have a word, “groid,” short for “Negroid” – that’s there. It’s very palpable. And Osby, I hear the same thing. A lot of the people who came after, not always so much.
Coleman, he was a guy who’d hang out with Von Freeman and Sonny Stitt in Chicago. How he relates to his music is way different from someone who’s analyzing that. Analyzing that is not necessarily what it is; it’s similar to what the schools are doing to Bird.
It’s the same thing with Mark Turner and Chris Potter. They’re rooted in the tradition, played with masters. I remember when Mark Turner was living in New Orleans, studying up on his Joe Henderson. Chris Potter came up playing with Red Rodney. They understand and have roots in the tradition. But a lot of the cats who’ve been influenced by them have no roots; a tree without roots can’t stand.
And what I find now is a lot of music is being created for other musicians. And I can’t listen to a lot of that “musician music” for too long because it leaves me cold — and I’m a musician. So you take an audience member who’s not as theoretically knowledgeable, I can’t even imagine what they think.
You can play a lot of notes, you can play in multiple rhythms – Louis Armstrong was dong a lot of that, too, playing five over four and using rhythmic displacements. But when you start to take the music out of the environment and it becomes an intellectual pursuit, it’s problematic. And that’s why it leaves a lot of people cold. I’m a musician and I don’t want to hear it.
Q: Is your music ever intended as a response to this?
A: To me, my music has always been reverent and irreverent. I don’t feel like I’m playing more “bluesy” just because cats are not dealing with tradition and ancestry. That’s always been the aesthetic.
My idea, even when I did believe in such a thing as “jazz,” it was never devoid of blues and it was never about this kind of super-heady over-intellectualizing. That’s not to me where it springs forth. I want to reach the people and I attribute that to my upbringing in New Orleans, playing in Second Line bands and playing for people who danced. And the biggest difference between musicians now and musicians back in the day is that they played for people who danced.
To me, even if it’s free form or out of time, that dance sensibility should be implied. Even if there’s going to be a meter change in every bar, that feeling and passion should be there. There’s a lot of things that a lot of young cats haven’t figured out. But most of them don’t know what it feels like to swing and to have the audience respond to it. Once you’ve felt that swing and you can connect in that way, it would be pretty hard to leave that. You’re always going to want to connect in that way, because it feels good.
But for them it’s boring, because they haven’t learned how to do it.
How do you learn how to swing? That’s really elusive. Can’t put it in a book. How to establish a really good “two” feel or play a walking ballad in four? A lot of cats don’t understand that — can’t comprehend the art in it that sometimes takes years to develop it, and you never really stop developing it. It’s that feel that makes people want to dance.
Q: I read that Marvin Gaye and Miles Davis are your two favorite musicians. Why Marvin Gaye?
A: He’s a true artist. Like Billie Holiday, he wore his heart on his sleeve. Whatever he was going through, he put that into his music, fearlessly. A very vulnerable artist, perhaps so much so that it contributed to his demise in many ways. We know about him historically that he tended to the self-destructive. But there’s such an honesty in what he did, which to me is the hallmark of any great artist. It’s about their lives. When they sing a song, that’s what they’re giving you; it’s bigger than the music. It’s about his wife, or someone who was leaving him, or his stressed relationship with his father.
He did a whole record about meeting Anna Gordy – Berry Gordy’s sister, who became his wife — and their marriage, and then their divorce. It’s the whole record “Here, My Dear.”
Q: I was looking through your Twitter feed. The other day, you tweeted something about preferring Miley Cyrus to Janis Joplin.
A: I don’t like either one. But I can at least sit through a Miley Cyrus song. I can’t sit through a Janis Joplin song for a minute. It just disturbs me. The voice – I just don’t hear it. I just hear an unseasoned, untrained voice.
Q: In the same string of Tweets, you say you really like Amy Winehouse.
A: Yeah. To me, and this is just my opinion, she is what those other artists are trying to get to. It’s not contrived when she does it. I really feel it when she does it. She is a really great blues singer, without trying to be that. She was one of the great phrasers and interpreters of our time, and I don’t think she’s been totally given credit for doing that.
I dismissed her initially, just because she was so hyped up that, when I heard her, it made it hard for me to hear her musically. It took a couple of years for that hype to get out of mind and for me to hear it for what it is. If you’re going to talk about white singers who are able to sing the blues, Amy Winehouse is a good example. I can’t say that Janis Joplin is.
Q: You’ve also had a bunch of critical tweets and blog essays about hip-hop and sampling. You wrote that “Hiphop is a predatory art form… a bastion of cannibalism. … If they’d had sampling back in the day (in Africa), mothafuckas woulda never learned how to play the drums.”
Was this in response to all the discussions about “Blurred Lines” and Robin Thicke ripping off Marvin Gaye?
A: I had written about it before, but the current news certainly sparked more conversation. I’ve talked about the flatness of beat-making – this idea now that we have these “beat makers” who are not musicians; they haven’t been musically trained. This is not me looking down at them. I do think some incredible people who have not been trained have done some wonderful things. But after a certain point it becomes limited or limiting. If everybody’s a sampler, then who is creating?
Yes, there is an art to that. J Dilla – Jay Dee — represents the best of those who are able to do that, like Andy Warhol with collages, or Romare Bearden. But everybody is not him; everybody is not a Jay Dee. Everybody does not have the ears that he had.
But even Jay Dee: If those earlier artists had not created the music that he then sampled — what would anyone have to sample? We’re kind of putting the cart before the horse when we glorify the sampling over the actual performers. It’s become backwards.
And then there’s a certain sense of entitlement that you see in the samplers, where not only do they have the right to do what they do, but the artists being sampled should be grateful for being sampled.
Do we really think a bunch of 13 year-old girls listening to “Blurred Lines” are now going to be Marvin Gaye fans? I don’t see that happening. It would be great. More realistically, what that cultivates is another generation that becomes parasitic. It doesn’t create more Marvin Gayes, it creates more Robin Thickes. It’s almost like you keep copying a tape from a tape, and by the time you get to the 20th generation, it becomes a reflection of an illusion and then a reflection of a reflection of an illusion.
Q: You’re an eloquent guy, Nicholas. Were you a good writer as a kid?
A: Hated it. Hated creative writing. That’s kind of the irony to me, that I’ve become such a writer, because I did not like creative writing at all.
Q: I was re-reading “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool,” your manifesto from a couple of years ago. How long did it take you to write that? It’s filled with memorable lines.
A: Under an hour.
Q: Come on.
A: Actually it was not a piece, or was not intended as one. I was tweeting one afternoon before a gig. And it was a stream of consciousness, and that stream became the blog.
While I was tweeting, some people responded. Some people were getting excited and some people were getting upset. And when I finished tweeting, I just put it together line by line, in sequence.
Q: What do you think about the plight of women instrumentalists?
A: Before we talk about the music, we would have to talk about the lack of respect with which women are treated in this patriarchal system that we have. And how they’re treated in the music is a reflection of that. They’re not viewed as human beings, really; they’re viewed as “less than,” and it’s problematic.
Q: You’ve hired quite a few women instrumentalists, especially in your big band. Are you conscious of creating more of a gender balance?
A: I hire who I feel will work best and who I like to play with. Just by virtue of me doing that, sometimes it’s going to be women; just by averages. It’s certainly not “lemme get some women in my band.” I’m hiring who I feel will work best in this concept, and a percentage of them is going to be women.
Q: Your recent projects are ambitious. You’ve got your own record label. You’ve been recording albums with a symphony orchestra. How are you pulling this off? I mean, how can you even afford to do it?
A: Good question. I believe when you set forth a goal — when I say, “I want to do something” — I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to happen or how I’m going to do it, but you draw that energy to you by sheer will. And failure is not an option. Everything I’ve set out to do, I’ve done.
Q: Tell me about recording your “Black American Symphony.”
A: After I performed the symphony the first time, I said, “Well, I want to record it,” and it just so happened that my label was in place, so I could release it. I’m just a strong believer in – it’s the power of energy and thought, and what you conjure in terms of just sheer will is amazing if you put your mind to it and if you focus intensely on bringing that to life. I just don’t worry about things too much. Like, failing is not an option. It will happen when it’s time.
Q: Will you describe the piece?
A: The “Black American Symphony” basically is one that I wrote in the wake of the #BAM movement. It was my symphonic interpretation of creating a work that would use a construct largely associated with the European aesthetic, but without relying on the European language. Instead, I used what Dvorak called “Negro melodies.”
I wanted to use an orchestra, but to have all the language and the aesthetic be of one that’s African and Black in nature. And it’s been interesting doing it, because I’ve come away with a much deeper understanding of the Black American aesthetic. Because these are not pops orchestras that I was dealing with. These were musicians trained in playing the European classical repertoire.
If I didn’t know the differences before, I definitely know them now.
Q: Between Black and European aesthetics?
A: They’re different languages. Just because you use Arabic letters and the word looks the same, they’re not necessarily the same word and it doesn’t mean the same thing. For instance, you use a dominant seventh chord: That is the foundation of the blues right there, that one chord. “Jungle Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton: That’s one of the first modal tunes, 30 years before Miles Davis. Those are the roots right there. Same thing, McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance”… There’s an endless possibility to what you can do with that chord. But in European classical music, that chord doesn’t work the same way.
I was modifying the harp part for my symphony, and the harpist told me, “Yeah, you know I’m not used to playing” – she said the word – “jazz harmonies.” And that struck me, because here’s someone who plays Debussy and Ravel — same kind of sharp-nine sounds that they say Duke Ellington took from Debussy. Yet this harpist says, “I’m not used to these chords.”
That interaction really illustrated that European harmony is not the same as Black harmony. Same notes in some cases, but a different language, a different function.
Q: Well, how did it turn out?
A: I’m happy with the result, but it took some work.
And I was very conscious not to write out any swing rhythms, because I didn’t want the orchestra to have to interpret that kind of feel. Which was very challenging for me, to write the whole 50 minutes and not have anything that was swinging.
Q: But a “Black American Symphony” has got to have some swing in it. Who’s swinging? Does your band play with the orchestra?
A: Yes. That’s going to be the rhythmic basis. Obviously, the rhythm is going to be important if we’re talking about Black music, but I didn’t want to deal with the orchestra having to swing. Maybe they COULD swing; I don’t know. But I wanted the score to be universally adaptable.
You know, there’s this forward motion in Black music; that’s the other thing that I’ve found. There were instances where there were time issues with the orchestra, because the way we play time and the way European musicians play time is different. Classical music is more languid and it kind of breathes and it stops. That kind of forward motion that you hear with Elvin and Coltrane and McCoy and Jimmy Garrison on “Chasin’ the Trane” – that doesn’t exist in European music. I always thought that if you wrote it down and handed it to European classical musicians, they’d play it. But it doesn’t work that way.
Q: How much time did you have to put the performance together? And who was in your band?
A: Three rehearsals. Marcus Gilmore is on drums, Daniel Sadownick on percussion, Vicente Archer on bass. I play keyboards and trumpet, and I sing.
Q: And you hope to release the recording later this year?
A: That’s the plan. It’s being mixed now.
“Sketches of Spain,” the other one, is out this month.
Q: “Sketches of Spain” also is with a symphony orchestra? Or is it with a big band playing Gil Evans’ arrangements?
A: We did Gil’s arrangements exactly, same instrumentation that Gil used, so I didn’t rearrange the material. We just reinterpreted the grooves, and the improvisations are different. I first did this at the Hollywood Bowl in ’09.
Q: Do you consider Gil Evans to be part of Black American Music?
A: I can’t say what Gil would say, but I do, personally — particularly with his work with Miles, and I would even say on his own. To me he’s cut from the same sonic cloth as Ellington. And I believe he even said that’s what he was trying to do, but with different instrumentation.
A lot of what he did with Miles – those basically are orchestrations of Ahmad Jamal. Some of them are direct lifts from Ahmad Jamal trio records. How he would use French horns, how he would punctuate, syncopate – that was Ahmad Jamal’s left hand. And there’s a lot of blues in what Gil did.
Q: I used to see Gil’s big band a lot in the ‘70s. That band had some great soloists – Howard Johnson, Billy Harper and Hannibal Peterson, the trumpeter. All great blues players. Have you seen Hannibal play? He’s amazing, but has kind of vanished from the scene.
A: My uncle, who’s a sculptor – he and Hannibal are great friends. We just had lunch the other day. That was my first time meeting him.
Q: What other projects are in your head?
A: I’m going to Virginia to see these young cats who I’ve taken an interest in — a guy who plays drums with me, Corey Fonville. He has a band called Butcher Brown. In an era where a lot of younger cats are playing Hiphop and are kind of obscuring this whole Dilla concept of kind of flamming the beat or pulling back — they’re just funky and they’re just playing in the pocket and it feels good. They’re one of my favorite young bands today, if not my favorite. We’re going into the studio and we’ll see what develops. Devonne Harris (DJ Harrison) also is in that band.
Q: What else?
A: Man, I have like five albums of stuff that I really haven’t finished working on. And now that I have my own label, I just want to release more of my own product. I don’t have to stick to that model of releasing one album a year.
Q: How is the label doing? Are you making any money?
A: Greater than I imagined. In a couple of months, I’m already in the profit zone. That would never happen on a major label.
Q: Your label’s logo is the Sankofa bird. Will you explain what that is?
A: Sankofa is a Ghanaian concept of going back to get the best things of the past, to bring things to the now, to lead a better way to the future. And the symbol is a bird reaching back and getting an egg, and this is really the essence of everything I’m doing.
Everything that I say and play is with extreme respect of the past and the masters and the lineage and the ancestry. And the idea is to get the best things, maybe even learning what some of the things are that we SHOULDN’T do. The idea is to take the best of what works and give them voice now without being so reverent that we don’t stay current — where we become so deferential that we don’t allow for time and change and movement. The idea is to use these things to leave the world in a better state for our children and those who come after us. It’s essentially why I blog, too. It’s for my child. The end result is not necessarily for right now. It’s for now, and it’s for the past; for me this concept of time is a continuum.
For Africans, that separation of time doesn’t really exist. You’re always connected to ancestry.
— answers by The Savior of Archaic Pop (Nicholas Payton)