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Nicholas Payton: Playing Strong and Playing Blue

By Published: May 12, 2008
He was born into a musical family. His father, Walter, is a bassist and his mother played some piano and sang. Payton took up the trumpet at the age of four and by the age of nine he was alongside his father in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. He says being around his father and other veteran musicians helped his growth immensely, and he played in other brass bands by the time he enrolled at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts, where he studied the trumpet, music theory and also undertook classical training. Early trumpet influences included Walter Brunious, a teacher at NOCCA, Miles, Clifford Brown, Armstrong. Over the years he would also be influenced by the music of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. Payton also attended the University of New Orleans where he studied with Ellis Marsalis, and while growing up heard and was affected by players like Wynton Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard from his home city.

By the age of fifteen he was on the road with pianist Marcus Roberts and had played with Clark Terry. In his twenties, his resume grew by playing with Jimmy Smith, Hank Jones and Milt Jackson. At eighteen, he began a two-year stint with drum legend Elvin Jones.

Nicholas PaytonFormal music education is important, and invaluable, he says, "but unless you've actually had a chance to really be with these guys who've been out here, and learn from them, then you're missing a goods part of what it takes to be a jazz musician."

Payton has contributed to projects, and groups, of many jazz stars over the years, including Steve Wilson, Jesse Davis, Teresa Brewer, the Joe Henderson big band, Courtney Pine, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove and Marsalis. In 1997, he received a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo ("Stardust") for his playing on Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton (Polygram, 1997).

Payton tries to be thoughtful as a soloist, aware of his sound and knowledgeable that thunderous technique does not always win the day. Having grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, he's also aware of the influences of pother kinds of music. He tries to be faithful to jazz traditions and also open to follow other paths, something that fellow trumpeters like Christian Scott and Jeremy Pelt are also very keen to do these days.

"We as musicians of today have to negotiate in this great legacy we come from," he says. "When you talk about guys who have done so much with the music, like Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Chet Baker. All these guys that have done so much with the music. You're listening from that perspective and studying that perspective, yet you grow up listening to certain music, you go to school dances where you're part of what's happening now. I think the challenge for the younger musician is to learn from and understand what's come before, but not be bound to that as the only means of expressing what you have to say. That's the challenge for the young musician and I think that's what a lot of guys from the current generation are negotiating. What we love and what is considered jazz music. Only time will tell where this is going and how this will all pan out."

Nicholas PaytonPayton says the level of opportunity for musicians is not the same as when he came onto the scene in the early 1990s, when major record labels had jazz divisions and musicians were getting recording contracts. With technology changing the game, and record labels having less and less influence, musicians are coping with new ways to make music and get it to the people.

"Times have changed and we're going to have to change with them. Or else we're going to find ourselves in the cultural dark ages. Things change and the jazz musician of today has to figure out how to get there music heard and have a career. The amount of gigs, the amount of clubs are perhaps not what they were several years ago. The level of opportunities to record and have record deals is not the same; however it's much cheaper and much easier for musicians to record their own music. You can buy a Mbox and do a record inside your living room. So it's empowered the artist to be able to do their own music, have control of their own product. Everybody can put files on the Internet. You don't even have to have a physical disk anymore. You can cheaply disperse it and sell it and put it on MySpace for 99 cents apiece.

"We're still in this transitional mode where we don't exactly know how this is all going to settle in and we can take advantage of this new technology. That's what we're trying to figure out right now."

Payton is one of the musicians who have remained in the New Orleans area post-Katrina. Several moved on, never to return, and he doubts things will ever be the same in the Crescent City. But there are still opportunities to improve.

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