Nicholas Payton has recently stirred up a hornets nest of activity on Facebook and Twitter by asserting that ”Jazz is dead” and stating that we ought to abandon the term “jazz” altogether. He did so in an interesting, almost poem-like post on his blog that you ought to read for yourself. You can find it by clicking here. If you read the post without preconceived notions, it actually is a very acute and interestingly argued argument for Nicholas position.
He is clearly not saying that the music that we currently categorize as jazz is “dead”, although I think he IS saying that a lot of the music currently performed under the heading of jazz has gotten so far away from it’s roots as being barely recognizable – to the detriment of the music itself and to the art form known as “jazz”. Nicholas argues that the music originally is of African-American origin, that it is Black American Music which explains his use of the hashtag #BAM on Twitter, which other artists, such as pianist Orrin Evans, are now also starting to use in place of #jazz. If you search #BAM on Twitter you will see a wealth of posts on this acronym.
Soon as you start dividing things up in “black” and “white”, not least in America, conversations start breaking down pretty quickly. And some people take offense and issue with the idea that this music belongs to anybody in particular – not least a race. Conversations start turning personal. Pianist George Colligan‘s blog about this issue is a good example of that. While George himself stays above the fray, and is even keeled in discussing the issue at hand (plus retains a focus on the music itself), there’s a (white) critic called Brent Black (!!) who is not only in disagreement with Nicholas Payton’s statements on race, but also totally dismissive of the qualities of Nicholas recently released album entitled “Bitches“, and uses his criticism of the album to also tear down Nicholas argument..and the other way around. Needless to say it all quickly erupts into a flame war.
When I read Nicholas statements they don’t appear to be coming from a perspective of reverse-racism to me, but reads more as a history lesson and as a statement of general concern for the music + a call to rediscover the roots. But as Nicholas album “Bitches” clearly demonstrates, both in the title and in the music recorded – it is a vastly different agenda than the one propagated by Wynton Marsalis & Stanley Crouch back in the 80ties and 90ties – the days of the “young jazz lions”. Nicholas #BAM is much more inclusive of music that we don’t think of as jazz, including hip-hop, R&B and other “genres” as well, and “Bitches” as an album is reflective of that openness.
“Bitches”, as a title, is clearly also a nod to “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis, although musically speaking it is a very different album. Nicholas is mainly featured as a vocalist on “Bitches”, not as a trumpeter, and I think he does a great job of it, sounding a little bit like Luther Vandross at times. Judge for yourself. As an album it sounds like nothing that Miles ever did, but the title reflects, I think, a commonality of spirit. Namely that jazz can be many things, including being inspired by pop culture and music of it’s day, and that this music doesn’t only live to push the boundaries further than “Live At The Plugged Knickel” and “A Love Supreme”. As Dizzy said in 1948: “As soon as jazz loses it’s dance beat, it will lose it’s audience”. He also said that “the audience don’t really care if we play a flatted fifth or a ruptured 128th as long as they can dance to the music”. I think that largely holds true today, and, sadly, very few jazz albums pay any attention to this part anymore. Nicholas took a solid stab at that on Bitches!
At the end of the day I think it’s much more interesting to hear a demonstration of musical intent, rather than to discuss the nomenclature behind it, but I arguably don’t have as much of a stake in this as Nicholas and other (especially black) artists do, and I can’t really find fault with most of the reasonings or with the musical results of his leanings.
What I do find offensive is when a critic like Brent Black is so disrespectful of the music that Nicholas Payton has created, and tries to use Nicholas words on #BAM vs. Jazz as a tool to tear him and his artistry down with statements like “he can’t sing” to “Wynton Marsalis is a better trumpet player” to “he’s not even in the top 5 of trumpet players”.
I first met Nicholas Payton in 1991, when he came through the now defunct Montmartre Club in Copenhagen (then a much larger 440 capacity venue than the current 80 capacity venue). He was part of Elvin Jones band. Nicholas was very young, barely in his twenties, but he not only looked like a classic trumpeter – he played like one! Big, huge, warm tone, great lines, rootsy when he wanted it to be, advanced bebop when he felt that. Cue to about 10 years later I caught Nicholas again at the Blue Note here in NYC. He was then a member of Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth project, and shared the stage not only with the master himself, but also with Kenny Garrett, David Kikoski and Christian McBride. Not exactly a group of slouches! Yet Nicholas impressed me just as much again and had just added maturity and space to the qualities I had already heard when he was with Elvin.
To have been on bandstands like these, and to have conducted himself the way he did, musically and personally, is to embody the very core of the spirit of this music, at it’s most exalted, and there’s no question that someone like that have lessons to teach anybody who has NOT been there. Especially if you love and respect this music and it’s origins. Brent Black – and any critic – ought to be aware that at the end of the day nobody can defend, protect and carry this music into the future better than a musician..especially a masterful musician like Nicholas Payton.
That said several critics have been more than fair in their analysis of Nicholas Payton’s statements. Read noted critic Ted Panken’s blog post about the same here. Or Nate Chinen, from New York Times, here which also includes comments by Angelika Beener (a black female jazz writer – her own blog Alternate Takes here) and by Aaron Cohen.
Our own position is that jazz most certainly IS a primarily black art form, and that, as Nicholas often points out, there’s been many white and even non-American musicians that have been making valuable contributions as well. I don’t think the term jazz is going to go away, and even if it did I don’t think the music we think of today as jazz would become vastly more popular than it is if we instead called it BAM.
As for the health of the music itself I think it’s doing great! While many are pessimistic due to the fact that there are very few headlining ticket sellers today in jazz, there are many, many pointers in the opposite direction: The fact that Herbie Hancock could win album of the year at the Grammies a few year ago, the fact that Esperanza Spaulding beat Justin Bieber as Artist of the Year, and even more so the fact that today there are so many great artists – whether African-American, Asian, Caucasian, African, Cuban, Latin – that reinvent the music the way it always happened: With a solid eye cast both to the past and to the future.
Let me finish off by quoting Antonin Dvorak - I took this quote from Alex Ross excellent treatise on modern (20th century) classical music called “The Rest is Noise” – the great Czech (Classical) composer, in a statement he made in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country (USA) must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people. Beethoven’s most charming scherzo is based upon what might now be considered a skillfully handled negro melody. In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or any purpose.[ There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source”.
These words now appear prophetic, as jazz MUST be described as THE classical music of the 20th century – also called “The American Century” because of American hegemony economically, militarily, culturally etc. Now it is our challenge to help keep the music alive well into the 21st century…whatever we call it!
Anders Chan-Tidemann/January 2, 2012