by Jerry D'Souza
Nicholas PaytonCopyright © 1997 Jerry D'Souza
Nicholas Payton was to have checked out of his hotel and into the Holiday Inn. He hadn't. Either way. However, wait did not turn into worry even as the clock ticked an anxious path. Word then filtered through that he had been up late jamming at the Top O' The Senator. Can the muse of music be faulted?
Even though Payton seemed tired when he came in for the interview there was an air of confidence about him. He was focussed and was aware of his place in the ever swirling atmosphere of the jazz world. In his vision he reflected welcome maturity.
Payton comes from New Orleans, that hotbed for a gumbo of sounds. Not surprisingly, music weaves its way into the souls of the populace. The Payton family was no exception.
"My father was a bassist and when he had rehearsals at home I would try to get on to the drums," remembers Payton. "We also had a piano and I would play on that a little bit. But the trumpet was my first love. It attracted my attention the most, through the sound and the nature of the instrument. The trumpet to me symbolises power."
The sounds of New Orleans coloured Payton's world and his thinking. The jazz that sprung from his father, the classical music that flowed out of his mother, a former opera singer, the Caribbean music and South American rhythms entwined in influencing him as a composer.
"I started writing seriously when I was in college," he says. "I wrote before that but was not comfortable because, basically, I did not feel comfortable with my compositions. I started writing a lot in college because I wanted to be a knowledgeable musician both by playing and writing. I was always scared to write tunes because I was embarrassed to bring them in for other musicians to play."
Determination helped Payton get over the flushed face. He took his compositions in and worked out the weak points. "I worked through that or else you never get through that period and never develop." And then he adds, "I still have to learn. There is so much more I want to do, so much more outside of what I have experienced both musically and as a person."
Now, when he writes, Payton gets "some guys over at my house to play the music and see what needs to be changed harmonically and melodically. This gives me a better grasp of what the music sounds like. Actually listening to it helped me a lot in terms of composition."
"I use a piano to play what I hear in my head," he continues. "I always try to write things that have definite musical substance. I don't write just because it is different or it is a new chord. I try to write in a concise, clear way that anyone can grasp and not for musicians to hear and say, '0h he has a 5/4 here.' I always try to think of someone who has no musical experience and yet can identify with my music. I want to appeal to all who hear my music."
Payton does not force a tune out of his head. He lets it ride until inspiration strikes. "Maria's Melody" (on his album From This Moment...) which he wrote for his mother, started out with a couple of bars. He left them alone for about a year and then "one night I was up and finished the tune! I would rather let the ideas come naturally."
Payton admits that his skills have been honed by playing with people like Clark Terry and Elvin Jones. But his work with other musicians was no less edifying. It also helped him pick the band that would play on Moment.
" Mark Whitfield and I play together often. For the album he played a lot of the music with me. I played with Lewis Nash in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and I have known Reginald Veal as a little boy. In fact he took lessons from my father. The year before we did the album I played the music for the first time at the New Orleans jazz festival with Mulgrew Miller and Monte Croft".
Marcus Roberts also had an impact. Payton found working with what he calls a solid group of musicians taxing. Rehearsals went from noon to three in the morning with a short break to eat. "At that time it was frustrating but it really helped me. All of us were young and eager to learn. That period will always be important to me."
Payton is one of a new crop of players that have surfaced recently. Along with Cyrus Chestnut and Christian McBride, among others, he has come in for justifiable praise. But history has shown that the 'young lion' syndrome, in whatever guise, has seen roars turn into whimpers. The new players still quote Miles and Monk and Coltrane. And the comparisons don't cease.
"We come out of a great tradition of music," says Payton as he leans back in his chair. "Those guys have definitely to be remembered for their contribution to the music. We cannot forget from where the music came. At times I think it is a bit unfair that some of us younger guys are asked why we are doing the old stuff and why don't we try something new. As for me, I don't think I can do anything new without having an understanding of what went before me. That way one can draw on all those things. Coming up in this day and age is a different musical experience. They say we spend all our time listening to records and trying to do the things Miles and the others did musically. But that is the only option we have at this point. I mean, 40 years ago Miles could go to 52nd Street and check out Bird and Diz playing. Or one could see Miles playing at Cafe Bohemia or Birdland. We don't have that opportunity now. All we have as a reference are the records. To me the music they laid down is rich and complex. One cannot build upon just because one is 20 years old and can play some things better than Monk. He took the time to develop through his whole life. I am trying to develop a foundation and that is why it was important for me to go out and play with Elvin and Clark Terry. It was important for me to learn from these guys rather than to hurry up and get a record deal and jump on the young lion thing. To me there is no real future in that because when you are not young anymore then what? It is all based on one's musicianship and that is what I want to be accepted for, that I have a promising future and not for - oh he is great for 21!"
Score another for Payton and move on to that other irksome bit of finger pointing - hey, these guys have not paid their dues and they want attention!
"Well it is 1995 and there is nothing we can really do about it," he says, quite matter-of-fact and then unravels the skein. "There are not many bands to play with. I can count on my hand the number of bands where musicians work together on a consistent basis and travel together. Most people work with pick-up bands, they use different musicians all the time or they go through the ceiling and use whatever local musicians there are around. There are no bands like the Messengers any more where young guys have the opportunity to study with older, experienced musicians. So what is a young musician to do? I can see on the one hand what they are talking about, where people get a record deal and are not very experienced. On the other hand, there are not many options available. One has to keep it happening the best way one can."
And what of the publicity that precedes every new signing to a record deal?. Has the rapid expansion of the information highway caused more hype to be disseminated than is necessary?
"It has the positive and the negative. The more influential and powerful the media becomes, the less important the music becomes. There is more attention being paid to critics now. Before this if you wanted to hear somebody, you would go out and do so. Today you pick up a newspaper which says so and so does not play well. That has an effect on people in terms of whether or not they buy the record. This is a whole different thing from an artist being made by record company marketing."
Time is closing in and there is just enough to ask Payton whether he thought that musicians of a later generation would be quoting from the present one.
"I don't really know. We are really in a funny period of music right now. I don't see a lot of musicians playing compositions of other musicians as they did in the past. It should happen because there are a lot of great tunes (being written) right now. I like to do that and I will. We need to play each other's music. Sonny Rollins played Monk's tunes and so did Miles. There has to be a whole in terms of us all working together. There is so much separation sometimes into groups or cliques. It will be better for us all to work together than to look out for oneself. When you have someone else then it is going to come back to you. It is never going to hurt you, it will only help you grow. I try to keep my ears open and be as open-minded as I can. There is something one can get out of any music."
But then, someone has to break the ice.