What to make of Nicholas Payton and the ‘J Word’

“Nicholas (Payton) is a force to be reckoned with. The most powerful thing he can do is just keep playing that horn.” – Bobby Watson from an article in the Kansas City Star

I’ve had a pretty difficult week as a writer. I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to figure out not only how to respond to trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s blog post On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore, and the primary reason is because I honestly can’t come up with a concluding thought on the issue in the slightest.

Well, that isn’t entirely true. I have a few thoughts, but I have yet to figure out if Payton is right, wrong, both, neither, or anything in between.

While I invite you to read Payton’s post (at your own risk, as some of the language could be considered controversial), my best effort to summarize it by saying that Payton suggests that the word “jazz” is racist (he mentions that here, among other places), that jazz died in 1959, and “Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few. The elite make all the money while they tell the true artists it’s cool to be broke.”

Since then, Payton has decided to take a 90-day sabbatical from using the word jazz. And he isn’t the only musician with similar opinions. Payton recently moderated a discussion held at Birdland in New York (which is ironic, since Birdland is called “the jazz corner of the world”), with musicians Gary Bartz, Marcus Strickland, Ben Wolfe, Orrin Evans, and Touré. In a review of the evening from an article in the villagevoice.com, a few quotes were shared:

Nicholas Payton: “If we look back, [jazz] was a white characterization of black music, and there was a blackface version of the serious black art of guys like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, Louis Armstrong.”

“Louis Armstrong was the world’s first pop star. He was the Michael Jackson of his time.”

Kind of Blue is the record that we all have to vie against for attention. If our records do well, we’ll be at No. 1 for a while, and here comes the ghost of Kind of Blue coming to kill us. We need to separate from that. Miles was not in support of this.”

Gary Bartz: “Max Roach would have a fistfight for calling it [jazz]. It’s insulting, it’s like calling it the N-Word… because there’s an image. You say, “He’s a j-musician” and people see an image: Drugs, no money…”

There have been some thoughtful reactions in blogs from the likes of Marc Rosenfeld Antunes, Nate Chinen, and Ian Carey. And yesterday, the Kansas City Star posted an article featuring thoughts from a variety of musicians who have interacted directly with Payton, who expressed surprise at Payton’s tone, but supported him in ways as well.

“I think he is very divisive with his comments. Even though I believe he means well for the music and all who play it, his stance, which he’s completely entitled to, comes across as very angry.” – Clint Ashlock, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator, from an article in the Kansas City Star

Even during the time I’ve spent composing this post, my opinions seem to change and continue to develop. What I can say is that Nicholas Payton is an extremely intelligent person, and an extraodinary trumpet player. I appreciate and respect his passion and dedication to the issue. I wish Nicholas Payton the best of luck with his campaign.

What I also feel is that the average person who listens to music is far less concerned about the cause and politics, and more concerned about, well, whether or not they simply like how it sounds. Does it make them smile, or cry, or dance, or think? Does it make them think about a particular person, place, or event that took place in their own life? Does it tug at the heartstrings or ignite some energy? Does it entertain?

That is not to say that what Payton is talking about is not important. In fact, I think it is. But my gut tells me that the simple fact of whether or not a listener likes the music or not will always outweigh whatever label or genre might be given to it.

Create a giant music store where CD’s are all filed alphabetically, with no designation to genre at all, for all I care. I am still going to find Payton’s Place, Gumbo Nouveau, nick@night, and Into the Blue (all Payton albums I purchased and highly recommend), just as I would find other albums that I have added to my collection by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Notorious B.I.G., Van Cliburn, Al Green, Jewel, Michael Brecker, and Outkast. Why? Simple. I liked the music.

I’m reminded of a quote from Art Blakey from an interview conducted by Ben Sidran:

“Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life. So they’re (the audience) is supposed to come in and enjoy themselves. So if they start feeling like they need to be educated, then it’s not interesting any more.”

It is that quote that makes me think perhaps Bobby Watson was right in the quote at the very top of this post. Nicholas Payton is in fact a force, and his most powerful weapon is his trumpet.

2 Replies to “What to make of Nicholas Payton and the ‘J Word’”

  1. Payton appears to dislike the classification of “jazz” more because of connotations he has in his mind about jazz musicians (old fashioned, separate from popular music, defined by others). But then he goes and creates his own definition of his music (Post-Modern New Orleans), a definition that no one who sought his sound out could identify. By the end of the diatribe, he calls is Black American Music (I wonder how many Black Americans would relate to his music and embrace it as theirs). I think Payton is dead wrong – jazz is not dead and has managed to successfully evolve as a musical genre over the past 50 years since its supposed demise in 1959. To say that Roy Hargrove has not extended and diversified the genre belies the effort and popularity of both his straight-ahead work as well as his hip-hop work. To say that Herbie Hancock failed to extend the genre with both quartet and fusion work that has popularly infused itself into latin, hip-hop, and electronica genres misses an era of evolution. To say that Pat Metheny’s work in constantly crossing straight-ahead, fusion, latin, rock, and world music boundaries to make him one of the most popular jazz musicians in the world fails to realize the influence jazz has had and continues to have on other music genres. Jazz is separate? Maybe Ornette Coleman’s “Free jazz” is, but I would say jazz is integrative, mainstream, and embraced. Payton doesn’t like labels? Labels are there to make it easier to find something and have confidence that once found you know what you’re getting. Post Modern New Orleans is about not being found – and it’s a shame that Payton doesn’t want to be found, listened to, and embraced.

    1. I would like to respond to the comment above by Michael Goodheim. I am “Black” and you pondered “I wonder how many Black Americans would related to his musi and embrace it as theirs.”

      I wanted to answer that.

      Black is very diverse. In the content of Africa, there is more diverse languages, cultures, religions, customs, and music than in any other group. The people who performed the music, performed the music from their time and from their experience. And the majority were Black. All they did was take the blues chords and expand it out.

      It became jazz when the mob got involved in it and it was marketed to cater to various audiences.

      As far as what Blacks think in calling it there music, the answer is “OF COURSE WE IDENTIFY WITH IT!” It’s no different than anything else. Many do not like it nor listen to it very often because of the closed society view of this music, but we all know the value of its influence to the African diaspora and the Black psyche.

      I think you are missing the point of Payton’s poem or prose. He was speaking about how it FEELS. And honestly, I don’t think that you would understand the FEELING of his words unless you can fully understand the Black experience from the Black perspective. You would have to let go of any guilt or hatred. You would have to fully understand what flows in the DNA of a person of color.

      Black people read this poem and it speaks to the soul. White people read it and want to analyze it. A Black person would not need to pick it a part line by line to critique it. We get the overarching and the belly of his heartfelt, sad, painful, independent and sometimes angry words. We don’t need to overanalyze why he is calling his music “POST MODERN.” Your response is the typical brick wall response that comes from whites when speaking about Black experience and Black contribution.

      Many of the musicians could not read music. They created it. And then white musicians who could not FEEL the music, turned it into an academia. But much of the music has lost its feeling and that feeling is from the Black soul. (that’s not to say that whites are soul-less).

      That’s why he is saying that the music that many play today, no matter who they are, is based on their CURRENT experience. There is no way that you can call your music jazz and compare it or feel that you are sitting alongside Louis Armstrong when you wouldn’t have been doing it during the time Louis Armstrong was alive.

      In many ways, the jazz community has created its own poor mentality. Until “jazz” is fully embraced and people just say “Okay, yes it was a Black thang and we truly do appreciate what it was,” then the music will flourish. As long as people overly-critique and analyze it, the music creativity in America will not draw the crowds as a Justin Bieber or Britney Spears.

      On a side note, I find it interesting that the Kansas City Star pulled the article with Bobby Watson. Sounds like some politics going on there.

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