Although “never assume” is a motto I try to abide by, I would be surprised if anyone who checks out this way-station is unfamiliar with the latest firestorm that Nicholas Payton has combusted with his always thought-provoking blog with the statement that “jazz died in 1959.” I tend to agree with the notion that no art form is dead if best-and-brightest practitioners of the idiom continue to play it. But terminology is personal, and Nicholas stands in a line of world-historic artists — Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Roland Kirk, the Art Ensemble of Chicago — who take issue with the notion that “jazz” signifies the totality of musical production.
I’ve followed Nicholas’ own musical production with interest since he emerged on the international scene in the mid ’90s, and presented four or five interviews with him during my tenure at WKCR, beginning in 1995 (a Musicians Show from that year is posted at the bottom of the page). In 2001 I pitched and was given an opportunity by Jazziz to write a feature about him, which appears immediately below.
Nicholas Payton Article for Jazziz (2001):
On a muggy September Tuesday afternoon in a third-floor rehearsal studio nestled between the two bus terminals of Manhattan’s Port Authority, Nicholas Payton is running down a series of Duke Ellington small band transcriptions with a 10-piece unit culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Diane Reeves. It’s two nights before opening night of a 23-concert tour called Duke in Small Doses, and Payton is guest musical director for the project. He’s dressed for the part, dapper in a well-tailored grey suit that contours his compact, powerful frame. The soft-spoken trumpeter doesn’t need to say much; the ensemble has internalized the music’s groove and flow. while Reeves is fine-tuning her interpretations of songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Azure.”
Payton calls “Poor Bubber,” Rex Stewart’s 1941 paean to Bubber Miley, the King Oliver disciple whose assortment of signifying growls, smears and vocalisms established the tone of Ellington’s ’20s “Jungle music.” With an embouchure that seems to begin at the back of his neck, he projects an immense, thrilling sound, warm and round and enveloping through the full range of the trumpet. Never in a rush, he milks the elemental line, creates melodies, sings his song, telling a story that channels Miley’s animating spirit while sounding fresh and in-the-moment. It’s the kind of performance Payton — now 26 — has been pulling off since he was a teenage phenom in New Orleans, when his ability to infuse Classic Jazz repertoire with idiomatic authority and life force elicited a comment from the late trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham — who played with the seminal masters in the ’20s, and was 91 when he recorded with Payton in 1996 — that Payton, born two years after Louis Armstrong’s death, came as close to the Armstrong essence as anyone he had ever heard.
Not that it preoccupies him, but as his career surges, Payton draws skeptical scrutiny from observers who confuse his virtuosic navigation of older styles with a sensibility drenched in atavistic revivalism. It’s the same critique numerous jazz scribes hurl at the oeuvre of J@LC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, who a decade ago, as a sign of his regard, sent his 15-year-old homie a trumpet.
The charges don’t hold up. Consider Payton’s diverse 1999-2000 activities, which bespeak an ample comfort zone with the full jazz timeline. He’s just finished mixing “Nick@Night,” the fourth album by his highly interactive quintet, which has worked steadily since 1996, and sounds like it. The intricately composed tunes cohere like an extended suite; they explore the polarities of nighttime experience — restfulness and peace versus the spirit of partying. The orientation is optimistic, decidedly Modernist; references include Bebop, the collective improvisation and harmonic alliteration of post-1965 Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, the sophisticated grooves of CTI-period Freddie Hubbard, and a range of R&B tropes. Now Payton’s pondering the next record, a Y2K Armstrong Centennial project featuring a group of Armstrong tunes scored for a 12-piece band, concurrent with a Winter 2000 J@LC commission for an original composition exploring the rhythms and sounds he grew up hearing in New Orleans. Then there’s the still unrecorded 8-9 piece electrified funk group (he adds an effects unit and wah-wah setup to his arsenal) with world-class local musicians that he leads during his increasingly infrequent New Orleans downtime.
You might call Payton’s ancient-to-future aesthetic a birthright. His family lived across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square, the 19th century locus of the slave trade, perhaps the only place in the Antebellum South where Africans were allowed to play the drums. Located in the Tremaine district, the neighborhood was home base for numerous seminal New Orleans musicians. During formative years, Nicholas played in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century which specialized in traditional repertoire, and also in the All-Star Brass Band, a group of peers deeply influenced by the rhythmic and harmonic extensions introduced to local vernacular by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He soaked up the feeling of Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian rituals. His mother, Maria, was a former operatic singer and a classically trained pianist who eschewed a career to raise her family; his father Walter, a bassist-tubist and retired educator who is a mainstay of the thriving Crescent City trad scene, would take his young son to Bourbon Street gigs.
After the gigs, Walter Payton would call midnight rehearsals at the house, and from his earliest years Nicholas heard the nocturnal sessions, soaking up music, experimenting on his father’s expensive German bass, the family piano, and drumkits left by drummers like Herlin Riley or James Black, who didn’t care to lug them home in the wee hours.
“He just sat there like a little sponge, observing, absorbing information, not making a lot of noise,” Riley — the nephew of cornetist Melvin Lastie, a pathbreaking figure in the city’s R&B scene, and the grandson of Frank Lastie, a drummer who played in the 1910s with Armstrong in the foundling homes — recalls fondly. “He was very mature, with a whole package that showed his potential to blossom and become a great artist. I think Nicholas is the spirit of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and those kind of people; it lives in him more than any other trumpet player from New Orleans. He was raised into a TRADITION. The sound of New Orleans traditional jazz was part of his upbringing; that’s where his roots are. It wasn’t something he had to reach back for; he took his roots and extended beyond.”
As the youngster entered his teens, he got calls to play in a variety of R&B horn sections, and attended numerous jam sessions at which postbop was the operative lingua franca. During those years, Payton attended the New Orleans Center of the Creative Arts (N.O.C.C.A.), where Clyde Kerr — a fourth-generation musician whose father, also an educator, hosted ’40s workshop rehearsals attended by important New Orleans musicians like Red Tyler and Alvin Batiste — took him under his wing.
After telling me that he and Walter Payton played their first Mardi Gras parade together in 1960, Kerr recalls his amazement at hearing a 10-year-old Nicholas on trombone with a young brass band “playing lines like a trumpet player would play. I used to go to those late night rehearsals when Nick was 8 or 9, and he would sit beside me on the sofa and try to play the music. It might have been over his head, but he approached it from a very serious perspective, the way it should be done. By the time he was at N.O.C.C.A., he had a vast repertoire of traditional music; I asked him where he learned it all, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t know. I just know it.’ It made me think a bit about reincarnation, that he’d been here before. Then also, I did a record called ‘No Compromise’ where I play a solo where I’m stretching, trying to find new sounds, approaching the trumpet like a saxophone — Nicholas was able to sing it verbatim as a young guy. Once he hears something, he never forgets it.”
Payton credits progressive New Orleans elders like Kerr, drummer Alvin Fielder (he appeared on Roscoe Mitchell’s paradigm-shifting 1966 recording Sound) and saxophonist Kidd Jordan (the father of flutist Kent Jordan and a world-class speculative improviser with close ties to Chicago’s AACM) as mentors who imparted to him the notion of a global aesthetic. “When I was at N.O.C.C.A., Clyde Kerr never taught us patterns,” Payton recalls during a lengthy conversation in his hotel room the night after the rehearsal, “When he caught us doing it, he would put us in check, saying, ‘No, the heart is what counts.’ He told us to feel. His manner of teaching and his expression still impresses me.
“New Orleanian musicians have always had a hip thing about the way they play; some of the world’s best musicians live there — you walk up the street and there they are. A lot of attention is focused on the pioneers — Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. But New Orleans produced great, forward-thinking musicians, such as Ed Blackwell or James Black, who were innovators of the drumset. James Black was swinging out in straight-ahead 5/4, not playing 3/4-2/4 patterns; he referred to Elvin Jones and Ed Blackwell and Max Roach, but had his own conception of the drum. He lived right around the corner from us; he’d come to our house like at 3-4 in the morning and play, and I would sit at the piano and he would try to show me these things. I was only 12 or 13 around the time he passed, but I learned a lot about composition from him. He’s one of my heroes.”
Not that Payton’s taking his music to the outermost partials, but he shares the iconoclastic sensibility of his mentors. “I loved science, particularly chemistry, when I was in school,” he declares. “I contemplated studying to be a chemist, but by high school I knew I wanted to be a musician, and nothing interested me more. Music is a science. What’s similar is the feeling of exploration from mixing and combining the bits and pieces of different elements towards an infinite number of possible outcomes. I like to think for myself. I’m not the kind of person who can memorize an end result and regurgitate it. I have to understand the source, so I can create my own perspective, and not go by someone else’s interpretation. In school I’d want to know why a particular theorem took its form, what a concept actually meant, and I’d get frustrated when people couldn’t explain those things to me. I spent a lot of time in the library researching the information, and I would challenge the teachers, which got me in trouble sometimes.
“In music I realized early on that I wanted to stay away from the books with patterns and chord changes, from ‘play this on a C7.’ I felt it was too easy, that it wasn’t a way I could get at what I heard on the records at my house. I wanted to find my own notes, to find the feeling. So I went to the records to research what Miles Davis was doing on a particular tune on Four and More, which is the record that made me decide I wanted to play jazz, or to investigate Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or Kenny Dorham, and tried to formulate my own idea about what actually was happening. It’s almost like I started in the ’60s, then worked my way back to New Orleans. When I began to play, I was doing a lot of traditional New Orleans gigs and playing in the brass bands, so I wanted to listen to something different. It took me a couple of years to get back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and study them in depth. I feel very comfortable and liberated playing that music — I grew up doing it, it’s quite natural for me, and I can do so without feeling like I’m not free. I’ve tried to understand their trumpet styles so well that I’d avoid replicating their solos and not play cliches within what they did.
“I love playing in different styles; to me it’s not old or new, just a different means of expression. Whenever I play, regardless of the context, I’m inspired by that moment, and I try to fit in. The music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five won’t sound right if you play some pentatonic tritonal substitution. I’m all for updating arrangements on old tunes, but it works better when you play within that specific style. You can be just as creative and free in that sound as in an Ornette Coleman kind of sound. There’s no harmonic or any other limitations in playing the older music. You’re not going to play anything Louis Armstrong didn’t play, or think differently about rhythm. Things that cats calculate now, he was doing naturally years ago — playing 5-over-4 or 3-over-4, playing flat-IX over a major-IX chord or a major-VII over a dominant VII chord. All we’re doing is an extension of those things, and there’s greatness in all of it.”
Like many musicians of his age group, Payton is fascinated with rhythm and its connective permutations. “It’s interesting how African rhythms blossomed differently according to what region slaves were brought and what culture they were mixed with,” he reflects. “You can hear the clave in all the Caribbean rhythms, and even in New Orleans rhythms; there are so many different transmutations of that same thing. Now, I’m not keen about the term ‘world music'; there’s been a trend to put a big umbrella over a whole range of sounds which are specific to certain cultures and regions, which neglects the depth and nuance and complexity of each entity. But jazz was always a hybrid and mixture of numerous influences. In New Orleans, the African and Indian rhythms were mixed with the European classical influence among Creole families, which you can hear most notably in the contrapuntal improvisation of someone like Sidney Bechet or the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton — and then the Blues and Spirituals.
“I don’t want to clutter up my music, because to me the most important thing is a strong melody. I’m a harmonic freak. Sometimes the guys in the band get on me, because the more I write, I keep sticking in chords, and it’s not that easy to play. I just love a beautiful chord and the way harmony moves, and I love Classical music, particularly the Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel. But I love rhythm, too, because I grew up playing in the brass bands with that bass drum and snare drum. Kenyatta Simon, the percussionist who plays with my funk band and has worked with me on my Louis Armstrong project, has turned me on to the rhythms of Mali and Ghana and shown me a lot about using percussion.”
Asked what he’ll listen to on the road, Payton animatedly pulls out CDs by a pan-diasporic array of ambitious composers, including Brazilian visionary Hermeto Pascual and Pascual’s associate Carlos Malta, as well as Gil Evans, Claire Fischer, the late ’80s orchestral recordings of Wayne Shorter (“his music contains everything”), Ralph Irizarry’s up-to-the-second Salsa, a variety of Afro-Cuban records — and Frank Zappa. “I have all of Zappa’s records — ‘Jazz From Hell,’ ‘Yellow Shark,’ ‘Studio Tan,'” Payton exclaims. “He wrote things for symphony orchestra that are unbelievable, and did amazing things metrically, contrapuntally, harmonically.”
Impeccably performed like his three previous quintet recordings, “Nick@Night” lays a tantalizing beat behind Payton’s learning curve; like the others, it’s a remarkably candid document of his personal work-in-progress. “In a way I was searching to tailor the music more for the personalities of the guys I work with, and let them speak, in the tradition of Ellington,” he noted last December in a follow-up phoner. The virtuoso band — suave early-30s saxophonist Tim Warfield, who offers breathe-as-one precision in the ensembles and passionate tone and convincing narrative in his solos; 28-year-old pianist Anthony Wonsey, an immaculate comper and spot-on soloist with pristine touch who studied with ’30s Armstrong arranger Zilner Randolph as a Chicago youngster; Reuben Rogers, a fluent big-sound bassist with Swiss watch-precise time; and energetic drummer Adonis Rose, Payton’s N.O.C.C.A. classmate — rises to the occasion.
“My career actually has been a slow process, which is what I think allowed me to grow and survive and keep a band out there,” Payton remarks. “All the major labels approached me about signing from when I was 15 or 16, and I put it off for four years. I didn’t want to jump on that whole young lions bandwagon. I wanted to take the time to learn what I needed to learn and develop a foundation so that I would have something to rely on. When I started touring with my band, we had maybe two weeks worth of gigs the whole year. My second record was received pretty well, didn’t sell that great, but there was a lot of buzz. When I performed and played, we tried to give people something personal, and they didn’t forget it; the next time they brought somebody, and the next time they told someone else — and then I was working 9 months out of the year. It wasn’t some big media blitz. It was just from me trying to play good, honest music.
“I want to maintain that throughout my career. No matter how far we stretch out, which we like to do, I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t alienate people. We can play something that grooves, something that totally burns out, even something totally free; people can see the history, how everything is tied together, and they dig it. The audience is and always has been very important to me, maybe because of my roots in New Orleans, which is very people oriented. For me there’s not even such a thing as playing for myself, because if it doesn’t move anyone else it does nothing for me. Nobody wants to be alone in this world. Nobody wants to be not appreciated. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise yourself or your artistic vision. This music is vast, and I don’t like to box myself into any particular style. I like to present how I’m feeling and what is real to me at that moment, and I always want to do that. It’s worked for me thus far.”
It’s certainly working at an exuberant second-night concert at Alice Tully Hall; Payton — part and parcel with his holistic conception — pays strict attention to the function. “To me Duke Ellington’s music is as modern as it gets,” he declares. “Here we’re playing arrangements on tunes that probably weren’t played live, because the small band recordings were primarily studio projects; the voicings that sound as fresh and hip as if somebody wrote it yesterday!” By the tour’s 23rd and final concert a few weeks later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the band is crisp, playing with spontaneous heat and joyous beat, caught up in the ebullient spirit of the music; “Poor Bubber,” set up as a down-home blues feature for Payton and Lovano, brings down the house.
A few months later, Lovano — who spent about 30 days on the road with Payton in 1999 in encounters including a winter 10-concert Japanese tour with the Ray Brown Trio on which the two were co-equal guest soloists as well as the subsequent “Duke In Small Doses” junket — is happy to offer a considered, cut-to-the-chase encomium. “Nicholas is a total musician who draws from a rich vocabulary,’ the tenorman begins, “Though he loves all kinds of music and is up on everything happening today, he embraces the whole history, not just the way certain people played at his time. You can hear that he grew up studying the personalities that emerged in jazz, how they played as well as what they played. There’s a deep-rooted concept of feeling in his sound, not brash and edgy, but filled with warmth and beauty, no matter what tempo or what kind of tune it is. You feel his sound at the mention of his name. Nicholas plays from a beautiful place, and beauty is a rare thing — it either happens or it doesn’t.
* * *
Nicholas Payton Musician Show (3-15-95) — (WKCR):
TP: What’s impressed me and a lot of other people since I first heard you is the quality of your sound, your ability to project a real volume from the instrument while keeping a capacious burnished tone. It’s the type of sound you’d associate with brass players from New Orleans historically, where you’re from. I think I could tell without knowing you’re from there. You’ve been playing the trumpet almost from birth.
PAYTON: I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old.
TP: Let’s talk about your early years and your family history and so forth. Both your parents are musicians, and your father’s a professional musician.
PAYTON: Correct. I asked my father for a trumpet at age 4. I’d always been fascinated with the trumpet. It symbolized some sort of strength or whatever. The trumpet player usually played the lead or the melody, and I just liked the sound of it, moreso than the instruments. I was fascinated with the trumpet the most.
TP: Now, when you’re saying that, the implication is that you were seeing trumpet players already through your father’s activity, I would assume.
PAYTON: Yes. Well, my father used to bring me out on gigs with him and there were many rehearsals at my house. I grew up listening to trumpet players like Leroy Jones, Wendell Brunious, Clyde Kerr, Jr., Teddy Riley. So there were a lot of great trumpet players.
TP: Now, in New Orleans, for reasons that combine economics and culture, there’s a lot of traditional music and older styles of playing are active and current and in the air moreso maybe than in other places.
TP: So you were hearing a wide range of approaches to trumpet, I suppose, from that early age as well.
PAYTON: Definitely, from the early beginnings of the music all the way up through to now.
TP: Talk about the dynamics of the New Orleans scene, how the older music intermingles with the newer, and the sensibility of the players.
PAYTON: New Orleans is basically a tourist town, so the entertainment industry is geared toward older styles of music basically because people who travel to New Orleans expect to see a certain thing. That’s good, in a sense, because that helps perpetuate that music, but in another sense a lot of the players who are more interested in more modern forms of the music don’t get as much of an outlet to perform and work in New Orleans unless they go elsewhere.
TP: Another aspect of the music in New Orleans is the perpetuation of the second line and marching bands, some of which have been going on for several generations, some back to the time of Louis Armstrong, which is another source of continuity.
PAYTON: Definitely. It still goes on til today.
TP: You were playing in marching bands from what age?
PAYTON: I started doing that I guess around 9.
TP: So what was happening with you between the ages of 4 and 9? Your father, Walter, is a bass player, and your mother, Maria, is an operatic singer?
PAYTON: Yes, she’s a former operatic singer.
TP: Talk about your earlier musical career? Was it a natural thing? You picked it up, you did things, they said, “here, if you do this, you can achieve such-and-such”…
PAYTON: No. I mean, the first time I learned how to play I was extremely sad. Everyone, my father and other musicians, encouraged me to play. Throughout that period they were very supportive of me. I remember the first gig I did, where I was hanging out with my father while he was getting ready to do a second-line parade (he plays tuba as well). He took me out with him, and I had my trumpet with me. So the musicians asked me to play, and I did the whole parade, It was like two hours we were walking, and I was extremely tired, but I hung in there, and at the end of the gig all the musicians chipped in and gave me a little bit of money, like ten dollars. I thought I was rich! But that was like my first experience as far as being on the gig.
TP: How about formal tuition on the trumpet. I know you studied with a very strong trumpeter in New Orleans named Clyde Kerr.
PAYTON: Right. I studied with him. He was one of my early influences. I remember having rehearsals at my father’s house; Clyde would be on the gigs a lot of the time. I used to sit by him and play his parts with him, or just watch him. He knows a tremendous amount about the music and the trumpet, and the love and the beauty of the music in terms of… He has a real lyrical sense, and he really turned me on to Clifford Brown and a lot of different things. I’m always grateful to Clyde for that.
TP: One thing about the older musicians in the New Orleans area is their combination of functionally having to play the traditional music, and mastering it and respecting it, but also being very interested in contemporary music and new developments. People like Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste and various visionaries have come through there. Louis Armstrong himself combined that sense of being rooted in the vernacular and creating something entirely new, and we’ll start out the Musician Show with two classics by Pops. Now, you’ve been pretty much immersed in performing his music publicly in the last six months to a year, and I’m sure way before that.
PAYTON: Well, I didn’t really get into the music of Louis Armstrong until later in my playing, when I was 17 or 18. Before that, I was just really into Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan. Then I started listening to Louis Armstrong. I took that style of playing for granted because I had grown up in New Orleans, and I had heard it a lot, but I didn’t really see the beauty of Louis Armstrong’s playing until I started listening to the recordings. Then I saw how great he was. I had an image in my mind of Louis Armstrong just being an entertainer and joking around. I didn’t take him seriously as a trumpeter. When I went back and started listening to his recordings, I realized how great he was.
TP: This has been done ad infinitum, but I’d like you to briefly talk about the characteristics of his style that are pertinent today, to you.
PAYTON: First, he had a huge sound, a very great sound. It was very personal and very distinctive. He had tremendous amounts of endurance. A lot of the pieces that he played, especially in the ’30s period with the big band, like “Swing That Music” and “Jubilee” and “Chinatown,” where he takes these extended solos where he plays all these high notes and ending on like F’s and G’s. I mean, a lot of people say, “Well, Louis Armstrong didn’t have the technical training” or whatever. But I’d like to see trumpet players play that now. It’s incredibly hard. Rhythmically, he took the music years past what was before him. Also harmonically. As Miles Davis was quoted saying once, you can’t play a note on the horn that Louis Armstrong hadn’t already played, and that’s true. I mean, a lot of things he played with phrases like bebop musicians played later on and whatnot. So he’ll always be the definitive voice in jazz forever, regardless of how far the music goes. His place in history can never be denied.
TP: Now, you’ve had to both replicate his solos and improvise on the solos as well, I guess…
PAYTON: I never replicated his solos. I just…
TP: Okay. But what are the challenges of playing Louis’ solos for you?
PAYTON: Well, I guess I’ve sort of gotten accustomed to it because I’ve listened to it so much. I grew up listening to that style of music, so it wasn’t as hard for me as it may have been for some to approach the music. But to me, when you’re learning a person’s music or style, it’s not so important to me to know exactly what they’re playing or learn every solo when you’re playing in that style, or to play exactly what they played. To me, it’s always been more important to get their concept and where they were coming from. Why did they play this here? What actually were they doing? What was his mindset when he was actually playing that. To get the concept. That way, when you’re playing in that style, you can be free in whatever you’re doing, and be creative and bring yourself into it, rather than give some kind of recreation of what it is. Because it’s never going to be as great as what has already been documented.
TP: Well, Pops came up under King Oliver and formed a lot of his ideas from hearing him play, but of course it’s something very different, and the recordings they did in the early ’20s. We’ll start with “Dippermouth Blues.” Before we hear it, a few words about King Oliver.
PAYTON: King Oliver was a great trumpeter. He had a real hip, bluesy feel. He influenced a lot of trumpet players, especially with the wah-wah conception that people like Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams later employed. This solo here is one of his most famous solos. Trumpet players such as Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Rex Stewart…when you play this tune, you almost have to play these three choruses, because it just becomes monumental. When you play this tune…all the trumpet players who have really played, play this strain when they’re playing this blues.
[MUSIC: Pops/King Oliver, "Dippermouth Blues" (1923); "Potato Head Blues" (1927); Roy Eldridge, "Body & Soul" (1935)]
TP: Nicholas, would you address what Roy Eldridge did that’s jumping off from Pops, and his own conception.
PAYTON: Well, one thing is that Roy Eldridge, along with being heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong, was also very influenced by the great Coleman Hawkins. As you can see, Roy is playing a lot of the longer, linear lines, like Coleman Hawkins was dealing with in the ’30s.
TP: Trying to play like a saxophone.
PAYTON: Exactly. Yet he still has the punchiness and the attack like Louis Armstrong, and was heavily influenced by both.
TP: What’s interesting is that Coleman Hawkins sat next to Pops in the Fletcher Henderson band in the mid ’20s and was very influenced by him.
PAYTON: That’s correct.
TP: You have a piece on your new record that’s very much in the idiom and vibration of Roy Eldridge, a version of “Taking A Chance On Love.” Talk about the dynamics of his style.
PAYTON: Roy bridged the gap between the older style, the real straight style of playing, to playing lines more flowingly, more of a linear conception of playing the trumpet. And he influenced a whole generation of trumpet players, mainly Dizzy Gillespie, who really was influenced by Roy. Especially on the real early recordings you can tell how much he was into Roy.
TP: That interaction was memorably record in 1954 for Verve on 9 tracks bringing together Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. Nicholas selected “Algo Bueno.”
PAYTON: You’re about to hear some great trumpet playing. It’s history being recorded. These two trumpet titans are really… It’s a good experience to hear where Dizzy was heavily influenced by Roy, but he took that thing and made it his own, and these two trumpet players playing their own style… Stylistically, there’s a difference between them, but Roy wasn’t that much older than Diz — maybe four or five years older. But they were both great trumpet players.
TP: One aspect of Dizzy Gillespie’s impact wasn’t just his harmonic innovations, but his rhythmic innovations as well, bring the Afro-Cuban sound into the idiom. But in New Orleans there’s an implicit Caribbean aspect as well.
PAYTON: There’s a lot of multicultural influences in New Orleans, being that there were different settlers from all over. You had French, you had Spanish settlers, you had the Indians. So a lot of different cultural expressions all culminated into that. All that goes back to the meetings on Sunday in Congo Square, where the people would get together and play. That all comes out of that. The second-line street beat comes out of all those influences. It comes out of the influence of the march and… Sometimes you see those things where it’s the piccolo and the drum, or also the Afro-Cuban rhythms… It’s all mixed in, and it all comes together…
TP: That lives on also in the Mardi Gras Indian bands.
PAYTON: Exactly. That comes directly out of all that.
[MUSIC: Roy-Diz, "Algo Bueno" (1954); Bird-Fats, "Street Beat" (1950); Clifford Brown, "Donna Lee" (1956)]
TP: Again, put on the professor’s hat and talk about Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, the evolution of trumpet sensibility.
PAYTON: All those trumpet players came out of Dizzy Gillespie. Fats came out of Dizzy, but he had a different thing, a real personal sound. He had a huge sound. He played very lyrically but at the same time being very virtuosic in being able to play long, complex phrases, while at the same time he utilized space and also played lyrically, which is beautiful, which is something that Clifford Brown was very influenced by — the playing of Fats Navarro.
TP: Talk about playing melodies. You’ve been quoted — and I can hear this, too — that you always create a melodic phrase even out of very convoluted type of harmonic lines.
PAYTON: To me that’s the beauty of music. That’s what it is for me. Just being able to play a clear, sensible melody is one of the hardest things you can do. And that’s something I think all the great jazz musicians strive to do over the course of their lives, is just be able to deliver the melodic line.
TP: How long have you been composing for groups?
PAYTON: I’ve been composing seriously for three years?
TP: Do you do it off the piano, off the trumpet?
PAYTON: It’s a combination of things. Sometimes I’m sitting sat the piano and something might hit me, and I go on and write it from there. Sometimes I hear something in my head, and I go to the piano and work it out. But I never try to write from an instrumental or theoretical standpoint. I try to hear something that’s singable to myself in my head, something that someone who doesn’t necessarily like jazz or know anything about it could maybe come to the gig or hear it on record, and it’s something that will be singable to them, that could be catch, maybe they’d be whistling on their way home. I try to think of melodies in those terms. And I try to write melodies that lead the tune. I don’t write changes. I don’t try to write complex changes and then fit some kind of contrived melody over it. I write the melody to lead where the progression of the tune is going.
TP: You’ve recorded some standards as well on In This Moment, like “Taking A Chance On Love” and “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.” Do you follow the dictum of knowing the lyric and keeping it in mind?
PAYTON: Definitely. I don’t feel I’m really playing a tune unless I know what the lyrics are and what the meaning of the tune is. Then you can do whatever you want with it. I find a lot is lost when you don’t know the melody for yourself as a reference. I mean it’s good to know what other jazz musicians have played on tunes, definitely. But you need the score really to see, so you can bring whatever you can bring to it, instead of just getting someone’s interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation, and by the time you get it the whole melodic structure of the tune may be gone. So you need that as a reference point, I feel.
TP: I’d like to talk to you a little bit about sound as well. At the top of the show I said that I think the one thing that strikes everyone on hearing you is just the breadth and warmth of your sound. Is it a sound you’ve had in your mind’s ear? Is it a quality of combining hard work and embrochure and so forth?
PAYTON: Well, sound is something you always are working on. As a musician, you’re always trying to develop your sound. And your sound matures as you grow older. To me, sound is the most important aspect of playing. Because that’s the thing that people can most readily identify with — your musical sound.
TP: It’s your voice.
PAYTON: That’s right.
TP: Was this very expansive sound in your ear from your early years of hearing brass bands and other music?
PAYTON: Well, it’s a culmination of different experiences and different influences.
TP: We’ll leave it at that, and turn to a trumpet player with one of the most beautiful sounds, Joe Wilder, who spent most of his career in the studios, but has recorded a number of extraordinary small group albums where he improvises at wonderful length, and one was done in 1956 for Savoy, a trumpet and rhythm date with Hank Jones on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. We’ll hear “Cherokee.”
PAYTON: When I first heard this, I didn’t really know much about Joe Wilder. I had heard his name before. I knew he had been a member of several different big bands. But he hadn’t been involved in a lot of solo projects, or really gotten out there. This is an example of some of the great musicians who have been in our music but have never really gotten the opportunity to get their due. He was a great player, and I think he deserves to be listened to.
[MUSIC: Joe Wilder, "Cherokee" (1956); Clark Terry/OP, "Brotherhood Of Man" (1963); Sweets/Ben Webster, "Did You Call Her Today" (1961)]
TP: What came to mind hearing those tracks is that all three trumpet players had mastered and assimilated modern harmonic developments, but kept the phrasing and pace and feel of an earlier generation.
PAYTON: Well, they sort of fit between the mold of the old-style Swing period and the Bebop period.
TP: A few words about each. Harry Sweets Edison has a very vocalized style, almost like he’s having a conversation with you.
PAYTON: Sweets was a truly great trumpeter. What I love about him is he has great time. He really gets into a rhythm. He can swing one note to death. A great phraser. Plays beautiful melodies, too.
TP: Clark Terry is really a total musician. Miles said because he heard him in St. Louis in the early ’40s, when he went to 52nd Street nothing he heard surprised him. He seems able to play every area of music with a totally personal conception. And you’ve had a chance to associate with him in the last few years.
PAYTON: Clark has helped me tremendously. Besides me, he’s helped many young instrumentalists. He’s a great educator, and he’s very patient with young students of jazz. Besides being a great musician… I’ve stood on the bandstand with him many a night and listened to recordings. He’s just another one of those great musicians who never really was able to get established on his own, which is really unfortunate. Clark influenced many musicians, like Miles…he’s just great…
TP: He’s a musician who played in the big bands, then stayed in the studios because of the economics of raising a family.
PAYTON: Yeah. He was one of musicians’ favorite trumpet players, even though he never got exposed to the masses. Duke Ellington and Count Basie were quoted as saying that he was their favorite trumpet player. So he had the respect of the whole musical community.
TP: I’d like to talk a bit with you about phrasing. On the one hand, people who come up in different times and are affected by what goes on around them think and phrase in different ways, and yet that type of phrasing we heard with Sweets and Clark Terry is classic, part of the idiom. Let’s say you were approaching that type of material. Is putting yourself in that frame of mind something you have to think about, or does it come naturally with playing the piece.
PAYTON: I think I just try to play that way, period. I always try to think in terms of phrasing, regardless of the period. To me, it’s all jazz and they all consist of the same elements. There are differences within different styles of music, but the foundation is always the same.
TP: With Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington and Louis Nash at this Vanguard this week, you have a rhythm section that’s capable of both playing extremely creatively in their solo aspect and also totally supportive.
PAYTON: They’re great. Mulgrew and Louis are two of my favorite musicians playing today. They’re both very tasteful and supportive, but at the same time being very great individual soloists. I couldn’t think of too many people I’d rather work with than those guys.
TP: Coming up is Miles Davis, a piece we heard you play last night, albeit under its original title and not the royalty-avoiding one. This is George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Miles Davis recorded in 1951, then subsequently in 1954 as “Take-Off” for Blue Note. Within your own personal framework, how does Miles Davis come in?
PAYTON: Miles has been a tremendous influence on my playing. He totally changed the concept of the trumpet. Once Miles Davis’ playing came in the picture, that added a whole new thing to the art of jazz trumpet. He’s a masterful musician, a master of lyricism and phrasing and timing — and had a wonderful sound, of course.
[MUSIC: Miles, "Take Off" (1954); "Old Folks" (1961)]
TP: We’ll hear three performances featuring trumpeters with Duke Ellington, two of them by Ellington trumpet players. Nicholas, you’ve had a chance to play quite a bit of Ellington’s music now with the J@LC. Ellington used his trumpets in so many different ways, had trumpeters with different personalities, and wrote and arranged for the personalities of those personalities, going back to Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams and Freddie Jenkins and Rex Stewart. Was your first exposure to Ellington’s music as a kid listening to records?
PAYTON: When I started listening to Ellington, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the great music he composed. To me, Duke Ellington wrote “Take The A Train” and “Satin Doll,” and that was my extent of my knowledge of what he did. It wasn’t until later on, when I got into a lot of his extended works that he and Billy Strayhorn both worked on, like “The Far East Suite,” “The Perfume Suite” and all those type of pieces… I remember talking about the Ellington days with Clark Terry, and he shared a lot of memories. He said, you look at the Ellington band, and you can take the trumpet players who went through that band and get the whole history of trumpet playing practically, just out of the trumpet section, different people who passed through there. So there’s a lot of rich history in the Ellington band, not only with the trumpets, but all the instrumentalists as well.
TP: It must extremely useful to you as an improviser to be able to play the music of the great classic composers of jazz, more or less the music’s building blocks, within the Lincoln Center Orchestra, and then come out as a contemporary improviser with your own sound.
PAYTON: Yes, I’m very fortunate to get an opportunity to play a lot of this music.
TP: You get involved in its inner dynamics.
PAYTON: Definitely. I mean, it’s great listening to it, but it’s a totally different thing when you’re right there in the middle of the band and you can really hear all the parts clearly and really see what’s going on, and you can really see yourself the range of difficulty this music entails.
TP: And I think what you want to make clear to people is that it’s not imitative, it’s a processing, then filtered through your consciousness, and something contemporary and new is coming out.
PAYTON: Yeah. And that’s what Duke Ellington’s thing was about. When Clark Terry came in the band, he didn’t make him play like Rex Stewart or anybody. He let him be Clark Terry and based the band around that. And I think any great leader has the ability to do that. Like Miles, To be a leader doesn’t mean to tell your sideman what to do. It simply means you create an outlet for the player to express themselves, and let them bring whatever experiences and talents they have into it to make it great.
TP: One of the great individualists in the Ellington band was Ray Nance, who had the trumpet chair for many years, and we’ll hear a feature for him from 1959, “Pie Eye’s Blues.”
PAYTON: Ray Nance is a great trumpeter, another who was very respected among musicians but never could really get too much out of the big band circuit. He was a master of muted playing, and also playing with the hat, and had a gorgeous sound.
TP: We’ll also be hearing a Shorty Baker feature on “Mood Indigos” from Indigos.
PAYTON: Shorty was a great phraser. He had a very sweet, sensual tone.
[MUSIC: Ellington/Nance, "Pie Eye's Blues" (1959); Ellington-Baker, "Mood Indigo" (1959); Ellington/Diz, "UMMG" (1959)]
TP: We’ll program a marathon set featuring four trumpeters — Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Art Farmer. You recorded one of K.D.’s compositions and performed during last night’s first set — “Fair Weather.” We’ve spoken of individual voices on the trumpet; no one was ever more so than Kenny Dorham.
PAYTON: Yes, he was definitely an individual with his own conception of sound. Unfortunately, again, he’s another one of the trumpet players who never got very wide recognition but was very well respected in the musical trumpet.
TP: As Miles Davis said, he was playing his own thing and was original. He developed his own conception, as evident on his recording. He also influenced Freddie Hubbard, who came up here once and said that K.D. had been a saxophone player earlier and had developed a lot of his attitude from his saxophone experience, as you mentioned earlier about Roy Eldridge.
PAYTON: Freddie is one of the greatest, personally one of my favorite trumpeters. He has all the aspects of trumpet playing I like. He has a warm, big sound. He has a pile of chops. Is capable of playing very complex lines that are virtuosic, but at the same time has a beautiful, lyrical quality about his playing.
TP: Almost operatic in his scope when he’s really on, from lovely ballads to gladiatorial type trumpet pieces. Born in the same year as Freddie was Booker Little, and they emerged at the same time. But we’ll never know what Booker Little would have done since he died at the age of 23. But people are still grappling with what he did.
PAYTON: Yeah, he was amazing. Again, an amazing technician as well as a great trumpet player. He was very virtuosic, but at the same time played lyrically, as you’ll hear. The way he plays over time is so free and flowing, but at the same time you could still hear the continuity of the piece within his freer time even though he’s playing over the beat. Booker Little never really developed his full potential because of his untimely death, but all the trumpet players at the time, when Booker Little came, were frightened by him. I heard Freddie telling about Booker Little, that when he first heard him he was scared. He said he’d never heard anyone play trumpet like that. He was great, as well as a great composer.
TP: Talk a bit about what was great and distinctive about his compositions, and the implications of what those compositions might subsequently have been.
PAYTON: His music was very intellectual, but at the same time a lot of the melodies were very simplistic while being complex, which I love. He had the ability to appeal to people’s highest sense, but at the same time, it’s something someone could relate to on the most tangible level.
TP: Kenny Dorham also had a lot of trumpet players note his slickness, his ability to go in and out of phrases, and connect…
PAYTON: Yeah, he was a master of playing turnarounds and stuff like that.
TP: Finally, concluding the set, we’ll hear a 1964 performance by the Art Farmer Quartet with guitarist Jim Hall on “Stompin’ At the Savoy.” We’re talking about another of the great individualists of the trumpet, and someone whose every note seems clear as a bell, whose thought process you can hear.
PAYTON: Yeah, Art Farmer was and still is a great melodist, a great trumpet player. He was a big influence on my playing. One of the tracks I do on my record, “It Could Happen To You,” which I do with guitar and bass and drums, comes right out of the quartet stuff we’re going to hear.
TP: Another thing about Art Farmer is that he never stops challenging himself conceptually and compositionally. He’s always bringing in new material, and it seems that the harder the piece, the more he wants to play it.
PAYTON: Yeah. He has no limitations or any hangups about playing material.
TP: Well, Nicholas Payton seems to be going in that direction himself, and he’s at the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting career to follow, which I’ll certainly be doing. You can hear where he is right now at the Village Vanguard.
[MUSIC: KD, "Lotus Blossom" (1959); Freddie, "One Finger Snap" (1964); Booker/Max, "Garvey's Ghost" (1961); Art Farmer, "Stompin' At the Savoy" (1962)]