In person, the bearded and bald-headed Nicholas Payton does not look like one of the most polarizing figures in modern jazz. The 39-year-old trumpeter is a calm and quiet presence. Whether he intended to or not, however, after posting a blog entry in late 2011 entitled “On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore,” a blizzard of controversy descended upon him, inciting late night, off-the-record conversations that prompted twice as many questions as answers.
The rub? Payton's determination to do away with the term “jazz” in favor of the phrase “Black American Music” or as his tweets have fashionably reduced it, “#BAM.”
Payton is the New Orleans-born son of bassist Walter Payton, and appeared on the scene in the early 1990s as a brash young lion, releasing a string of records on Verve and winning a Grammy at the age of 23. Right now he's in town teaching private lessons at the Monk Institute at UCLA, and hosts a master class (a lecture and discussion) this Thursday at Schoenberg Hall.
“I wasn't trying to start anything,” Payton says of the incendiary post. “It wasn't even fully conceived. I was tweeting off the dome and after a certain amount of time I took all the tweets and put them in order.”
Here are some examples from the piece:
Playing Jazz is like using the rear-view mirror to drive your car on the freeway.
People are too afraid to let go of a name that is killing the spirit of the music.
Payton followed by responding to detractors with open letters, addressing fellow musicians like saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Through them he outlined his disappointment, and strengthened his argument.
“People always try to use European ideology to tear down Black music, to try and make the claim that Black people appropriated European harmony,” says Payton. “Europeans didn't create harmony. It exists first of all in nature. We are all harmonic beings. Blacks haven't appropriated European harmony as much as those rules that govern Western thought have been used as a way of legitimatizing or discrediting the Black American aesthetic.”
His only other post for November 2011 is entitled “On Meditation and Taking a Shit,” while his tweets are frequently dedicated to sex or tagged with the hashtag #MFCOMN which stands for “Motherfuckers chillin' on my nutz.” Perhaps that's why he's drawn so much controversy: It's not so much the message as the messenger.
He is not lacking in confidence. however, and is happy to take on those that don't agree. “What are you gonna really say?” says Payton of his critics. “You can disagree with me but it doesn't make it any less true.”
He's a bit weary of speaking on the subject, but also aware of his need to continue the discussion. “I'm going to have to stand by what I said.”
Of course, Payton is not just sitting at home tweeting. He is an active performer and recently released #BAM – Live at Bohemian Caverns on his BMF imprint. The album is a raucous set that features Payton not only on trumpet but grinding out a vicious electric keyboard sound — simultaneously. The man can clearly play, and he felt it was important to remind people of that.
“I've been blacklisted to some degree. I have some promoters who won't fool with me now, but do I really want to play those venues anyway? I'm working. I don't say nearly the things cats like Miles Davis and Mingus said. Sometimes you have to deliver a message a certain way and people will hear it. That blog post for some reason — the wording, the flow, the pace, the timing — was meant to happen that way and for it to have the impact that it had in that moment. If I had tried to create the response, I couldn't do it.”
Payton will host a master class this Thursday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall as part of the Monk Institute of Jazz. it is open to the public.