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20 Oct

Nicholas Payton Interview

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Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton   is widely considered one of the greatest artists of our time. George Voudiklaris has met him for an exclusive Interview.  " I play  Black American Music, which is not a genre. To me this includes everything from James Brown to Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye  to Stan Getz, Chet Baker, to Charles Davis, Ray Charles, you know. The whole continuum…"  Nicholas Payton

- GV - It’s truly a pleasure being with you, Mr. Nicholas Payton. Welcome to Athens.
- NP - Thank you.
- GV - As a man who’s had music in his family from the beginning, do you remember when music got into your life for the first time?
- NP -No, I don’t remember my life without music. It has always been a part of my life.
- GV - And do you remember when you decided that your life would have to do with music?
- NP -Ten or eleven years old. I was already working with some groups, brass bands in New Orleans, and I started going through my father’s records. Before I never listened to his music, only through him playing and then I would hear it, but i never consciously went through his collection and put on some of his music. Most of it, i thought it was old people’s music, because I was into hip hop and r&b and staff kids listened to at the time. So because I was gigging and playing a lot, I said OK, let me listen to some of my father’s records. So I put on a record by Miles Davis called “Four and more”. And from the moment I heard the beginning of that album, even though I had been around music the whole of my life, it was a defining moment. I said: I wanna play for the rest of my life.
- GV - Did that also play a part in your choosing your main instrument?
- NP -Well, I was already a trumpeter; I had been playing the trumpet since I was four. But yeah, I would say that Miles’s voice sort of clarified things. Because I could have pretty much have played anything, as I am a multi-instrumentalist. But I’ve always felt a special thing for the trumpet in particular, more than any other instrument, even before that moment. So it became my main instrument. Since I was four and I asked my father for a trumpet.
- GV - So since we mentioned Miles, I think this is a good moment to talk about Sketches of Spain. You decided to work on a monster, one of those things that all jazz fans always listen to. I believe you truly had something to say on it. How did that happen?
- NP -Well, I was asked to do it! (Laughs). And i agreed. Yeah, it’s not something that I thought I should do per se. I’ve played the piece in the past, so when I did a concert in Basel with the Basel Symphony Orchestra. I was originally contracted to do my symphonic work with the Black American Symphony. And because they wanted to make it a part of a broader concept, they said: “Why don’t you play Sketches of Spain as well?”.  So that is how things happened.
- GV - I know you’re not particularly fond of the term “jazz music”.
- NP -This is true.
- GV - Tell me a little about it.
- NP -Well, the term is of dubious origin at best. No one really knows what it means or where it came from. And the first uses of the word were very derogatory and racist. And a lot of people seem to think they can make it their own term. However I don’t agree. I still think the marginalization of black people from their music is still a big problem. We don’t typically own any of the festivals, or jazz clubs, or jazz record labels and so forth. And I think by saying jazz it makes it easy for people to forget that this music came for the black community. And  that’s not to say that anyone from all over the world can’t appreciate or perform the music,  but I think it’s important to know the roots of the music. And I believe that by saying jazz and getting into that whole thing, it makes it easy for people to forget what the roots of the music are. So that’s my primary thing. It’s not about excluding any group of people from playing it. It’s about acknowledgement of who the music came to, who gave the world this music.
- GV - Yeah, now that I think about it, this kind of music has gotten now to include almost everything. World music has found its way into jazz, symphonic music as well; any improvised music now is called jazz. It is a little problematic; I believe there is a point in what you’re saying.  
- NP -Yes, you can put anything. Kenny G is jazz, anything you put together. So it’s become this word that doesn’t mean… It has never meant anything. It doesn’t mean anything. You ask a hundred people in a room what is jazz, and you get a hundred different answers. So yeah, it is problematic.
- GV - So how would you describe the music that you play?
- NP - I say Black American Music, which is not a genre. To me this includes everything from James Brown to Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye  to Stan Getz, Chet Baker, to Charles Davis, Ray Charles, you know. The whole continuum… And you know, I don’t think that it’s a musician thing to categorize. How are you going to categorize someone like Ray Charles, who has gospel roots, but plays bebop and very much identifies with Charlie Parker, and a great blues player.  Or Duke Ellington? How are you going to put them in a box and say “This is Jazz”? And then how are you going to say Louis Armstrong is jazz, and then say John Coltrane is Jazz? To me the continuum, the thing that makes all of it, is it that it has roots in black American culture. This is the thing.  It’s not jazz that contains all these things; it’s the black American culture.
- GV - And what are the particularities of New Orleans in this culture?
- NP -Very important. Because that’s where the roots of the music started. And how it branded the rest of America. It’s one of the only places where the Africans were allowed to practice their rituals and drumming so forth. And that was a make to those rhythms being transmuted from Africa to America. But it is very important to say that it’s not just black, because black to me is another word for African. So it’s not just African music, it’s the way those rhythms transmuted into America.  Because that sound is distinctly different. The swing feeling, though it has roots in Africa, it’s not purely in African aesthetic. It’s from Africa, but it’s different.
- GV - Do you still live in New Orleans?
- NP -Yes.
- GV - How did things change there after the big disaster?
- NP -I don’t know if they’ve changed. From a physical standpoint, things have changed, obviously people have moved and there was a lot of death and destruction, but outside of that, from a political – social point of view, I think there were issues that were already present there.  The flood. I thought perhaps would give us a clean sweep to start over, but things have not improved. There is always a chance for improvement, but I think it’s a larger, world issue. It wasn’t even Katrina, it was the flood, which actually can be seen as a man-made disaster, because if the levees were being taken care of, this wouldn’t have happened. Katrina had passed.  So I think just the idea of saying “Well, Katrina created this” is reactionary, it’s more of a political, structural issue. And most structural issues were already present, and are becoming more, just as like now that the US government is shutting down. There are a lot of political, social issues that have to be worked out before we can get to really improving the status of life in America. And what’s happening in New Orleans is just a microcosm of what’s happening all over the world.
- GV - When Barak Obama was elected for the first time, I happened to be talking to Chuck D, as we’re talking now, who told me that for the first time, he was looking at the American flag in a totally different way. Now that Obama has been around for a while, how did this affect the status of black people in America? Did it affect it in any way? Has something changed?
- NP -Yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s been affected positively, at least not yet. I think that’s an achievement of sorts, the fact that a black man – or a man who is classified as black – became president. But as far as his political platform, it’s not like he’s done things to necessarily improve the conditions of the black community. And rightfully so to some degree, because he’s the president of a country, not a race of people. So that’s one thing. Two, he is still yet the President, so regardless of what skin color you are, even to be nominated as a presidential candidate,   you’d have to be politically minded. They would not allow someone to be President who’s actually going to, to me, change the status quo. And if they did, then this President wouldn’t last too long (Laughs). It’s a part of the system; he’s a part of the system. And as we can see as a result of him just trying to get simple policy pushed through like healthcare, and the government, because they can’t deal with a black man being President, gets shut down.  So have we evolved? I don’t think so. I think it’s exposed perhaps in many other ways. It brought out more racism, perhaps, than anything, which to me is not necessarily bad. Now that it’s being exposed, the question becomes: what are we gonna do about it? Now that we see it blatting right in front of us, how racist Washington is, how racist America is in its core, what are we going to do? That remains to be seen.
- GV - You know, you are the second person that said that to me in an interview. Archie Shepp was the first one.
- NP -I’m not surprised. Archie Shepp and I tend to agree on a lot of things. (Laughs).
- GV - Your views are quite interesting, and I think I should read your blog more often.
- NP -That’s what it’s there for!
- GV - Does it absorb a lot of your time?
- NP -No. I mean, when I make postings, I write things it doesn’t take me long to write. The inspiration is there, like a solo. It flows and it comes through. And sometimes I write a lot, sometimes I don’t write at all. No, it doesn’t consume a lot of time. To me, it’s a part of my artistry. Just like composition, just like improvisation, just like practicing, just like studying, reading books, living life… All of it is a part of the same thing. So I don’t look at it as a distraction from my musical artistic voice. I look at it as another mode of expression.
- GV - Going back to music: you have played with many, many people. I will only mention Joshua Redman because he is also in Athens playing on Monday and I interviewed him recently. From all those people you have played with, which ones do you feel were closer to you musically and intellectually?
-NP - Well, I have to shout out my mentors, people like Clark Terry, Doc Cheatham, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, Roy Haynes, Clyde Kerr Jr, almost hate to miss people because I don’t want to leave any folks out. Danny Barker… I’ve been a recipient and a beneficiary of so many of the masters, most of who are no longer here. And I just feel fortunate to have had them share so much with me. On the flipside, from my point of view I’ve always sought out those types of opportunities to be around all the musicians, to learn from the masters, even if it’s not talking about music, a lot of times you ask them questions and maybe  they wouldn’t answer on musical questions, they’d start talking about something else, and then you’d talk about something else and they’d tell you about music. And what I learned from that is that a lot of times a lot of it is just being quiet. Not asking a lot of questions, just being still and just being around them. A lot of times you can learn more about music just from being in a non-musical situation with them than by talking about chords and scales and gear and stuff. Most of the time I was hanging out with Clark Terry, he didn’t talk about technical or theoretical musical stuff. Music is not about music, music is about life. The people I respected most, they were real, for lack of a better word, men. People with pride and honor and dignity, respect for the craft, respect for others for the most part. And even some who were not that respectful, I’ve learned from them too, because in many ways I’ve learned sometimes what not to do. And also from my point, to give myself credit for that, like I said, I sought out for these opportunities too, and I feel like a lot of the younger people today, they don’t. The culture has become so insulant that younger artists only hang out with one another and they only exchange ideas and they can’t really learn that way. And I feel that because I sought out these opportunities, I had a lot of opportunities, otherwise If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have that information.  And for many, I am the link to those people. To somebody young now who’s never played or never heard Art Blakey or something like this, whereas I have. I can share that story, but when I find out that – and I don’t consider myself old – that the younger artists who should be seeking now advice from me, they are not interested, or they are very disrespectful or they think they’re on a par with me. They’re not humble at all. I think it’s ok to be self-confident and to know if you’re a great musician, to know that deep down within and to be confident. But this type of arrogance that I see in younger musicians before they’ve even done anything, before they’ve achieved anything, is I think not only destructive to the music, but destructive to the human race. It’s destructive to society. But again these are not musical problems, these are societal problems. That we’ve become more youth-oriented, that people don’t want to mature and grow older, they want to stay young. And it’s ok from an intellectual perspective to be young in the mind so that you’re constantly learning, but to not mature and to not respect experience, and to glorify something being new over something having a foundation and use, that’s a big problem in society.
- GV - And are there any such men like the ones you mentioned that you haven’t worked with yet, but you’d seek the opportunity to do so?
- NP - Mmm… Good question! You know, literally I’ve pretty much played with just about everyone I wanted to play with – who was alive, anyway. And those who I haven’t played with, I‘ve heard live. And I don’t necessarily always have to meet my heroes or play with them. Sometimes it’s better to stay away. I found sometimes too that I’ve met someone from those I idolized before I met them, and I’ve met them and maybe they weren’t so nice when I met them. And it turned me off. It actually made it difficult for me; it took several years before I could listen to their music, because when I’d hear their music, all I would hear is that bad energy. So what I’ve learned from that is that sometimes it’s better to just appreciate somebody from the far, you don’t have to meet everyone that you appreciate from the far. Sometimes it’s best to keep your distance and just appreciate something for what it is, for what you see it is.
- GV - What will take place on stage at the Half Note club these four days that we will have the pleasure of having you with us?
- NP -It’s different every night. And I believe I’m playing the energy of the room. So a lot of what we do will be the side of the energy that the people of Athens will give us.
- GV - And any future plans you would carte to talk about now?
- NP -I launched a record label earlier this year, BMF Records. So far we have released two albums, the first is the live recording Live at Bohemian Caverns, and I just released Sketches of Spain last month. I will have copies for sale at the Half Note. And I’m working on releasing right now a symphonic project, the Black American Symphony, which was inspired in the wake of the band, the Black American Music. And basically the symphony is around what Dvorak called “negro melodies”.  And the idea was that a lot of the time that people do projects with strings, it’s typically been a way for musicians to legitimize themselves by placing themselves in a European classical aesthetic. My idea was to take something that’s hard to associate it to the European classical aesthetic, and draw heavily from the Black American aesthetic. So to use a symphonic orchestra, but use it in a way that would be atypical from the European point of view.
- GV - This talk has been a real pleasure, and I thank you. Can’t wait to see you on stage!
- NP -Thank you very much.

Interview George Voudiklaris - October 2013

More about Nicholas Payton http://jazzonline.gr/en/articlesinterviews/musicians-in-town/item/1815-nicholas-payton.html

Last modified on Friday, 06 June 2014 12:21