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Dexter Payne: All Things, All Beings

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Music, for me, is two things. It is a way to help civilized humans with the discomfort of silence – the real stuff is the space between notes. And first and foremost, it is a prayer for the good of all present, player, singer, and listener. And for those "not present" as well. —Dexter Payne
Clarinet, harmonica and saxophonist, composer and bandleader and musical globetrotter Dexter Payne is the type of musician who is most often categorized as "difficult to categorize." Profoundly influenced by physical and spiritual journeys through the cultures of America, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil, Payne's recorded output checks off every box from Mississippi delta blues to Brazilian choro to Hindu chant. "From a young age, I have been drawn to music that speaks real culture, beginning with the rich musical heritage of African slaves in North America and their descendants," he writes in his website biography.

At first spinning his wheels in formal education, Payne jumped in as a founding member of the Big Sky Mudflaps, one of Montana's foremost American and roots dance bands, and remained for their first two recordings. Both Armchair Cabaret (1979, Helios) and Sensible Shoes (1983, Flying Fish) demonstrate Payne's emotional and technical dexter-ity (no pun intended) with jump blues, swing music, and other roots Americana. He accompanied blues singer-songwriter Judy Roderick both professionally and personally for many years, until she succumbed to diabetes in 1992. Payne documented their relationship with the 2008 release of When I'm Gone by Judy Roderick & The Forbears (plus Dr. John on piano and Hammond B-3 for several tracks) on his own label (Dexofon Records).

After visiting Charlie Parker's grave during a sabbatical to Kansas City, Missouri, Payne was gifted a fortune-telling session with an astrologer who suggested he would benefit from traveling alone in a foreign country. "That journey was a thoroughly life-changing experience. There I met Thiago de Mello," says Payne. "1995 through 1998 were very rich years, in life and in music, for me."

Payne's quietly brilliant collaborations with Brazilian composer and percussionist Thiago de Mello, reflected through numerous titles released from 2004 through 2012, are one of the cornerstones, and some of the most beautiful music, of Payne's career to date. In his notes to Inspiration (2004, Dexofon), Brazilian jazz entrepreneur Arnaldo DeSouteiro called Payne ..."a clarinetist with beautiful sonority, fascinating fluency and—for the general astonishment of those who still think that 'Americans cannot swing playing Brazilian rhythms' —he proves otherwise with his own mischievous phrasing. To define him as a mixture of Artie Shaw and Severino Araújo would be no exaggeration whatsoever."

In his notes to their 2007 duet release Disk Tum Derrei (Chorando e Sambando), de Mello wrote: "Chorando e Sambando is the subtitle of this album. It represents two of the most common rhythms in Brazilian popular music. I dedicated it to Dexter. He plays as if he were a native from Brazil. Heart and soul!"

But Payne's wandering continued beyond lush and luxurious Brazil. He toured with Senegal's Boubacar Díebáte in various configurations (including one with Bela Fleck) and contributes dancing flute to "Saya" on Kambeng (2002, (Bantuba World Dance & Music) by Boubacar Díebáte & Dialy Kounda. His saxophone tears through folkloric melodies collected from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey, Greece, and India by Meg York and Veelah for Village Squared (2006, Self-Produced) like it's careening from bar station to bar station at the world's wildest multiethnic wedding reception.

In 2008, Payne was appointed Director of the Afropop Ensemble at Naropa University in Boulder (Colorado), where he served for four years. The end of his Naropa tenure overlapped with him reconnecting with longtime friend The Lionel Young, who invited Payne to join his band as they prepared for an international blues competition. "We decided that the best way to prepare for the competition was to make an album. So we recorded a CD as we were preparing and we...we just knocked everybody out of the water here locally, then regionally, and then we went to Memphis and won the national competition," Payne recalls.

On Our Way to Memphis [2011, Dexofon] rips and roars through solid gold soul, from the raw blues guitar urgency of "Drivin' Wheel" (Roosevelt "Honeydripper" Sykes), and extended blues and R&B jams through Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train" and Muddy Waters' famous "Got My Mojo Workin.'"

"Difficult to categorize" Dexter Payne, through all these regional/musical adventures, has generally remained untracked by and under the music business' radar. "I'm not a superstar, in talent or personality, and don't want to be," he suggested while agreeing to this interview. "But I do have something worth sharing and it's increasingly apparent that there is only so much time..."

In 2014, Payne released Pra Vocé, his homage to Thiago de Mello (who passed in 2013), by the Dexter Payne Quartet +1: himself on clarinet with percussionist Raoul Rossiter, accordion player Dave Willey, pianist Victor Mestas Perez, and guitarist Bill Kopper. Its uniquely beautiful blend of Brazilian, jazz (especially New Orleans), African and other instrumental musical styles features a live update of "No Wolf at the Door" from Payne's 2007 duet album with de Mello (Another Feeling [Dexofon]).

Jazz For All (Jazz Forró) (Dexofon) by the Dexter Payne Quintet followed in 2018. This set revisits "Coração Latino," an Arabic-sounding serpentine thrillride that Payne first recoded in 1997 (and released on 2004's Inspiration). "Most of these great Brazilian compositions came to my attention in 2014, a seminal year for me in music and much more, fomenting changes that are still unfolding," Payne wrote in his liner notes.

Payne is also contemplating releasing a solo album culled from years of practice and recording in "The Tank," an abandoned empty steel cylinder that sits on a hill in an oil town hours from his home. "You play a note in there (or even scuff your foot) and the sound lasts for nearly sixty seconds," he explains. "A day in there changes the way you hear and play music forever, and I've gone there on and off for years. It's like Paul Horn in the Taj Mahal on acid!"

"I just want to play a song—for the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned and oppressed, the sick and the dying, the war torn and displaced, for the natural world, for the dead," Payne's website bio concludes. "A song for life, all things and all beings, living in these most interesting times."

All About Jazz: What are the earliest memories of music you can recall?

Dexter Payne: I remember a harmonica around the age of five, but I have seen a photo of me toting one around at about three. My mother's mother singing "Red River Valley," probably before I was three. Our landlord and upstairs neighbors' daughter would babysit us and play her 45s. I was always drawn to older people, and she had the Flying Saucer DJ 45 with five second clips of all the hits from 1955 and '56 like Little Richard, Elvis, The Platters.

We moved to Colorado before my fifth birthday, and when we all got carsick riding in the mountains, Dad made us sing in the car, every song we knew. I got bored with singing and discovered I could play most of the melodies on my treasured harmonica, which was a gift from my grandmother.

Then he got a plastic ukulele with a cheater-box, like an autoharp strapped on the neck and it had a few push-buttons for chords. I looked underneath and figured out how to make the chords with my fingers—probably after watching his brother play and sing, because Uncle Gene always made music fun!

I knew I wanted to play clarinet from about five, maybe because Dad had played as a kid. And I knew there was one waiting in a closet. When I started in third grade band, I discovered it was not a very good clarinet! As a pre-teen, I discovered that staying home from school had benefits—listening to KDKO and a jazz station. I remember Miles and Basie. But I also got swept up by The Beatles.

AAJ: Was your Beatles thing more about their music or about them "happening"?

DP: I would listen to bad white rock 'n' roll for hours just to hear one Beatles song. Because I had heard that it was cool, you know? I didn't see them on Ed Sullivan or anything like that. I wanted to check it out and it was certainly a breath of fresh air when it came on. Yeah, I was a fan as a kid and I remained a fan. The Beatles were amazing. But as that unfolded, it was at the same time that I was listening to jazz on the radio, although I didn't know what it was.

My dad had a really small number of sort of warhorse classical records, and to his credit he would make us listen to a piece before dinner and guess what it was. So I knew my 1812 and I knew my Rachmaninov piano concerto, a few of those things. But I discovered with my first radio that there was a good jazz station in Denver, or at least I thought so, and I would listen to Miles and Basie. It made staying home from school a real joy.

AAJ: Do you recall a strong musical community in and around Denver as you were growing up?

DP: There WAS a rich jazz scene in Denver—the Voters Club and other venues in Five Points, the center of black culture there for many years. Denver was sort of a crossroads, a stopping off place for black musicians trekking from New York to LA. Growing up, I knew nothing about it. In fact, just last week was the 50-year anniversary celebration of a famous concert in Denver, Duke Ellington performing his Second Sacred Concert at Montview Presbyterian. But the heritage lives on, and I keep learning!

Underground radio was beginning in Denver later in the 60s. DJs could play anything: Soul, Hendrix, psychedelic, to Todd Dockstater and Morton Subotnik, John Cage, and Dr. Theremin! It started on a couple of FM stations with late-night shows or weird afternoon slots, when people would just get in there and do their thing, and very quickly there were full-blown stations that were completely off the hook. They would play classical music, they would play jazz, they would play blues, they would play rock 'n' roll—they really played everything, and they had a good dose of electronic stuff. This is the kind of thing, you would listen to a guy do the news late at night, he would get stoned and start reading quirky things from the newspaper. Then one night he was reading the news in sort of a halting fashion, and then you heard this crunch and he had passed out and fallen face first into his newspaper. The radio went silent for an hour, until the next guy came in for the next show.

There was a local rock 'n' roll band in Denver called Lothar and the Hand People and they used a theremin. So this guy would tell this story, and I heard it more than once, about Dr. Theremin (made up, I always assumed) going back home to Russia, and creating a theremin built into the walls of a room so that he could dance around, recreating the Chopin waltzes. This is the kind of radio I was listening to...

What I heard there on those radio stations was a real education. Early on, I heard Jimi Hendrix, who stopped me in my tracks, and a lot of other stuff. My best friend's brother turned us on to the first Cream album. I heard a lot of that stuff but they also played jazz, Satie, the Flock, Zappa (of course) and other kinds of obscure stuff. Just music.
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