Nicholas Payton and what we mean when we say black music

By Sam DeLeo 
February 19th, 2015 
It’s one thing to devote your life to music. It’s another to talk about that experience the wayNicholas Payton does.

Unsurprisingly, music surrounded Payton as a child growing up in New Orleans.

“Bands would just form on the streets,” he said in an interview this week. “I still don’t know any other place where that happens.”

He started playing trumpet when he was four and was performing shows with his father, an established bassist, by the time he was nine. In order to perform on a cruise with renowned musicians like Clark Terry, he learned the trombone – at 12. Now 41, Payton’s musical virtuosity has awarded him a Grammy and over a dozen albums as a leader, and he recently began his own recording label. But Payton is also a writer, a spokesman for the music that has been his life.

On his popular blog The Cherub Speaks, Payton tackles controversial issues about music, culture and the interplay between them. He’s a founder and proponent of the Black American Music (BAM) movement, which seeks to identify music, specifically black forms of music, according to its roots instead of the genres and labels we use to describe it. His opinions are as distinctly his own as his trumpet lines. And whether you agree with all of them or not, Payton is one of the few musicians brave enough to bring discussions to light that are long overdue.

We talked with Payton about his music and musings in advance of his trio’s performances this Thursday and Friday at Dazzle Jazz.

What went into the decision not to overdub your trumpet onto the tracks of your album “Numbers” from last year, where you just play a Fender Rhodes?

Going into the project, the whole idea was to focus on a groove. It’s been really popular now to play with the time, and place things solidly back on the one, on the groove. I felt to leave that album as it was, without my trumpet over it, was to remain a little truer to that vision.

Do you think a counterculture exists today, and do you think one is necessary to create music that can do more than entertain?

To me, the essence of art is to do more than entertain. The artists I revere are those who use art as a means of catharsis, of communing with other people or with nature and – in terms of society – who use it to remind us that fundamentally we’re human beings put here to try to evolve. Music and art can break down constructs preventing that. So yeah, it’s more than just entertainment, it’s about creating what inspires people to remember who they are fundamentally. Great art breaks down those barriers.

Speaking of breaking down barriers, “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis and Gil Evans was an album that drew from European roots, not Black American Music, so, given your views on the primacy of African rhythm and meter, what made you want to reinterpret that album in 2013?

Well, first, the recording was from a live performance in Basel, Switzerland. I was prepared to produce my “Black American Symphony” (Payton’s six-movement symphony). And they suggested, how about you do something with the music of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, as well – you know, “Miles, Duke and Nick.” That’s how I ended up doing “Sketches of Spain.” But really, it gets a little murky when you look at the cultural influences of Spain via the Moors from Africa. Many European cultural influences came from Africa. Essentially, we’re all African. So the idea was to show the relationship of those influences, not to discredit the impact Europe has had on the world, and music especially.

If, as you’ve proposed, you get rid of genres and labels in music but insist that music be rooted in African meter and rhythm, does that become a little like replacing one limitation with another?

Just because it’s African doesn’t mean that everyone can’t play it. Race is not a real thing, but culture and geography are real things. In my mind, am I really black, are others really white? No, but if I don’t deal with these things, if I don’t address them, they can act as obstacles. That’s the point of great art – to break to down these constructs.

What about black classical composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor or William Grant Still, or even Charley Pride, the black country singer who was popular in the ‘70s – are their musical pursuits somehow less authentic?

We’re not taught about Africa in world history – at least I didn’t learn about that at my school. You would think that all African people did was go from being savages to slaves as far as Western education was concerned. But it is possible to create from a wholly African culture. Dvorak spoke of that when they brought him here to the U.S. He said you have everything you need with these rhythms.

What contemporary music or artist is making the biggest impression on you right now?

There’s Butcher Brown from Virginia, which is the band actually playing on “Numbers.” Erykah Badu is someone I always appreciate. We share a bass player, Braylon Lacy. I’m looking forward to her next album, I was just watching some of her videos last night.

Do you think the recent resurgence in vinyl, in kind of slowing down the way we consume songs and albums, is positive for music?

Yeah, we don’t spend as much time embroiled in tactile experiences now. For all the ease of communication in one sense, I think we’re regressing in another, we’re forgetting what it means to be human. It’s my mission to create art that affirms and reinforces the fact we are still human beings – that is, we are still tactile beings.

How is the tour going, and will you be ready to swing when you come to Denver?

I haven’t had more fun as a musician than playing with (drummer) Bill Stewart and (bassist) Vicente Archer. And we are always ready to swing.

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Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at