I’m sure that no one who reads this blog is unfamiliar with the lively debate that’s recently transpired in social media in response to Nicholas Payton’s declaration on his blog that jazz died in 1959, and that the music that he and his peer group are playing should henceforth be described as “Black American Music.” He’s followed this salvo with a series of fascinating posts, erudite, impassioned, antagonistic, soulful, profane — just like his tonal personality. Last week, to offer a little context to anyone who’s interested, I posted an article that I wrote about NP in 2001 and the proceedings of a radio interview that we did in 1995. (By the way, some of the liveliest and most civil discussion has transpired on George Colligan’s superb blog, Jazz Truth.)
My own two cents is that, however rough the linguistic signifying, this is an extremely healthy dialogue. Whatever nomenclature you prefer — “jazz,” “Great Black Music,” “BAM,” “Pan-American Music,” “creative music” — the music that emanates from the people of the African diaspora whatever the idiom, is about using notes and tones to tell a story, map identity, speak the truth. Why should we settle for anything less in the discourse about this abundant, vital, very-much-alive art form, one of the crown jewels of 20th and 21st culture?
As for Mr. Payton, he’s been a BMF for a very long time, latest evidence coming from that Victor Goines Quartet youtube from 1991 with Brian Blade on drums that was posted on Facebook yesterday. I’ve heard him destroy some of the best and brightest on several bandstands (though they held their own), and not one thing that he said about his abilities is incorrect. He is qualified to call his music whatever he chooses to.
In his most recent post, NP wrote, “With all due respect, until I hear Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff sit in at Smalls and rip everybody in the club to pieces, nothing they say matters.”
Now, I wouldn’t put myself in Nate and Ben’s class, and I will never destroy anyone on the stage at Smalls or Cleopatra’s or anywhere.
But for what it’s worth, I’ve listened to jazz and its offshoots very seriously for a very long time, and talked with at length in public and private and written about many of its practitioners over the years, including NP. Although I’m not crazy about the term, I intend to keep using it. If I had my druthers, I’d call the 2011 edition “Creolized American Music With African-American, Euro and Latin and Asian Elements Animated By Trans-African Aesthetics” (CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA…that rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn’t it…).
I also don’t think the “colonialist” trope holds up…as Jeremy Pelt and Wallace Roney stated, the context has shifted from the original usage. Not sure how “Black American Music” denotes what NP is doing when he plays the shit out of “E.S.P.” or “Con Alma” or “Prototype” with a completely distinctive voice over a swinging, interactive rhythm section , as he did as a sideman on a recent recording that I’m writing liner notes for. Should I think of these soulful, sophisticated, virtuosic declamations, each a grandmaster exposition in the art of improvising, in the same breath with, let’s say, L’il Wayne? With “The In Crowd”? (All respects to Ramsey Lewis.) With “The Signifying Monkey” (all respects to Dave Bartholomew) or the Dirty Dozen or the Wild Tchoupitoulas? Don’t think so, though someone else might. For me, these solos place NP directly in the conversation with any of his trumpet influences. Any trumpet player under 30 will have to reckon with them. If this is “jazz,” the form sounds pretty alive to me.
But then, I’ll repeat that I think that “jazz” is the crown jewel of 20th and 21st century culture on the international playing field. It’s a big umbrella, one that for me includes this component of NP’s musical production but also many other ways of “getting there,” from Jelly Roll to Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne and Jerry Gonzalez. It doesn’t adequately describe any single one of these musics, but I can’t think of anything better…except for CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA.
NP describes Bitches as a “post-Dilla Modern New Orleans album,” and, from one-off listens to five youtube clips (I don’t have a hardcopy, and I’m in the middle of a lot of writing assignments), that sounds about right. I like each track. The lyrics are honest and poetic and deft. The production is spot-on. He plays all the instruments — drum-beats, basslines (love the groove on “Stole Your iPhone”), keyboard harmony, trumpet — at the highest level. He interweaves jazz elements, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, with other Black American music forms (second-line, post-Grover soul jazz, urban/hip-hop, soul, Caribbean), each of which he obviously knows intimately. The rhythms are intoxicating. To my ears, a couple of tunes could use a little trimming, and I’m not sure if it’s Here, My Dear, but it’s pretty damn good. Congratulations to NP for putting his money — and his heart and soul — where his mouth is.