Payton's latest album, "Bitches" is probably a surprise to those who are only aware of Payton as a mainstream jazz trumpeter. I was aware of Payton's move into a singer-songwriter territory when I was fortunate to be asked to sit in with his group for a concert in Grenada, Spain, in 2008. "Bitches" is, on a technical level, extremely impressive; Payton sings, plays all the instruments(I'm imagining some real and some digitally; it can be hard to tell these days) and wrote all of the lyrics and music. I'm especially amazed by Payton's vocal prowess; he clearly has an "instrument" in his voice, and not only shows that he has vocal "chops", but he has a lot of vocal expressivity and flexibility as well. In a nutshell, if you listen to "Bitches" and remove the preconception that "this is a CD by a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans", then you close your eyes and hear a great R&B singer.
From a production and compositional standpoint, the music on "Bitches" draws on many influences which are common to many of today's musicians: Herbie Hancock, Earth Wind and Fire, Prince, Stevie Wonder, D'Angelo. There are reminiscences of these artists, however, Payton has made his own statement on "Bitches". You could say, for example, that the first track, "By My Side" is an R&B tune, however, the rhythms and bass figures are a little rougher around the edges than most smoothly polished radio friendly R&B. And lyrics like this:
Don't ever want to look back
Keeps me from advancing ahead
Won't let the salt erode my spirit
Like a Zombie in Romero's Night of the Living Dead
The night before Christmas Eve
I know it must be true
'Cause I heard it from Rudolph himself
He said he got so fed up with Mrs. Claus' bull
that he cheated on her with an elf
It's cool to hear the final production from a musician with so much skill and experience (all too lacking in much of today's so called "contemporary music"). Many "jazz" musicians shy away from things like electric keyboards, or drum beats that are from later than 1959, or writing lyrics, or using sequencers and computers. I think we end up stifling our own creativity; "Bitches" above all, is a creative work, that comes from an extremely thoughtful and fearless musician.
In an interview with Asha Brodie, Payton mentions that there was "controversy" regarding the title of the CD. The Concord label wouldn't release it, so they gave it back to Payton, who then secured a better deal with the In and Out label. I find it hilarious that the title, "Bitches" would create any controversy, since Miles Davis "Bitches Brew" has been out for over 40 years, not to mention all the other so called "obscenities" that are marketed in the U.S. without anyone batting an eye. It makes me shake my head that Concord would essentially judge a book by it's cover; while the word "Bitches" obviously might not be included in polite dinner conversation, this CD "Bitches" has so much depth musically that should far outweigh the title. (Concord is a pretty conservative label; you will see a lot of Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi and various jazz singers in their catalogue. Nothing against those artists, of course, but my point is that Concord markets music to the typical American mainstream jazz audience, which is, let's face it, a lot of older white people; They probably thought that their consumers might take offense to the word "Bitches", but also would possibly listen to "Bitches" and completely miss the boat. Oh well, their loss.)
When I first met Payton personally, I thought he was rather quiet, which I mistook for shyness. I think Payton is actually quite confident, however, he is careful with his words. And he is clearly not afraid of controversy. His blog is a forum where he is regularly and eloquently writing on various issues related to music and culture. Recently, there has been much controversy around a blogpost in which Payton explains why jazz isn't cool anymore:
Jazz has nothing to do with music or being cool.
It’s a marketing idea.
A glaring example of what’s wrong with Jazz is how people fight over it.
People are too afraid to let go of a name that is killing the spirit of the music.
Life is bigger than music, unless you love and/or play Jazz.
The art, or lack thereof, is just a reflection.
Miles Davis personified cool and he hated Jazz.
My PSU colleague Darrell Grant sent me a link to this blog and wanted to know my opinion. I think Payton is mostly right. Labeling music will ultimately limit it. I posted something a while back regarding the issue with "the name" of the music(http://jazztruth.blogspot.com/2010/10/time-to-call-jazz-something-elselike.html). There's a lot to think about on Payton's post, and I urge you, dear reader, to go read the entire post and form your own opinion. But I think it's clear that Payton is not saying that the music is dead, he's saying that the preconceived name and concept of "what jazz is" has clearly been dead for a long time. Unfortunately, this seemed to spark some controversy, which Payton answered in his next post(http://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/1319/):
Let me make one thing clear. I am not dissing an art form. I am dissing the name, Jazz. Just like being called Nigger affected how Black people felt about themselves at one time, I believe the term “JAZZ” affects the style of playing. I am not a Nigger and I am not a Jazz musician.
What do Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gary Bartz and myself share in common? A disdain for Jazz. I am reintroducing a talk to the table of a conversation that my ancestors wanted to have a long time ago. It is on their shoulders that I stand.
”Jazz” is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts of it. If Jazz wasn’t a slave, why did Ornette try to free it? Jazz is not music, it is an idea that hasn’t served any of us well. It saddens me most that some of my friends can’t see that. Some of y’all who know me and I’ve even employed, stood on the bandstand with, know how important tradition is to me. My work speaks to that.
Again, I think Payton is on the money here; it's just the labeling that's at issue, not the music. I suppose some white folks, maybe some black folks, have trouble calling their music Black American Music. I don't have a problem with that. I do think that it might actually make things more confusing, since the vast majority of people in the world don't have a clear idea of what jazz is anyway, and if we were to all of a sudden replace "jazz" with "Black American Music", then someone watching an all white jazz band in the middle of Ohio, or even the middle of Denmark, might be scratching their heads. Obviously, there's always someone who gets sensitive when RACE enters the conversation. I also wonder whether Payton is suggesting the acronym BAM(as in , "I play BAM music"?) as an alternative. I think that's as good as calling music "jazz" or "bebop" or whatever. Words can't really describe music accurately anyway. Again, I have no problem as a musician, and especially as a teacher of history(I am not a jazz historian, by the way), recognizing that the African-American experience was crucial to the development of jazz. As long as I, a white person(see my website for photos), am still allowed to play, I don't care what it's called. (I think though, just to have perspective, if Toby Keith started calling his music "White American Music", then we might have a little problem......)
It's interesting how controversies spread like wildfire across the internet and social media: I was able to find this statement posted by saxophonist Marcus Strickland:
I can now see why the next post on Payton's site was defensive(http://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/an-open-letter-to-marcus-strickland-and-his-facebook-friends/):
You can be mad, but they are trying to steal this music away from Black people. Many of you just can’t see it. Y’all are going to wait until it’s too late to do anything about it before you realize what’s going on. Those who know me know I am generally a man of few words, but when I speak, it’s of importance.
I’m putting my ass on the line for you. Not for me. It’s you who don’t realize what’s going on who are my sharpest critics. I ain’t angry. I am trying to fight for what Duke Ellington wanted to do for this music years ago, call it Black music. Why? Because he knew back then that if we didn’t label it in a way that spoke of its origins, that years later, White folks would try to lay claim to it like it was a collective invention.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant, genius White cats that have played this music, but it’s ultimately a Black art form. What’s wrong with renaming the music in a way that puts that argument to bed once and for all? Do you think I’m the only person that ever wanted to do this? Hell no. Miles, Max, Mingus, J-Mac, Dr. Donaldson Byrd and so many others have wanted to do this for a while. They gave up because they got tired of the backlash from Blacks and Whites alike that it caused. Well you know what? As Roy Haynes says, “The time for hesitation is over.”
Later in the post, Payton acknowledges that many people besides Blacks have added to jazz. But:
Black American Music was created by Blacks, but it belongs to everyone.
I think it mostly boils down to semantics. But Payton is astute in many ways; I, being an American, even a white American, think that certain European's notions of somehow co-opting the ownership of jazz to Europe is upsetting.(See Stuart Nicholson's" Is Jazz dead? Or Has It Moved To A New Address?", A book with which I has serious conflicts with.)I think that, like most things in America, jazz is inextricably linked with our racial history. In a way, Payton is too correct; I think Jazz was in a sense stolen a long time ago. Well, stolen......I'm not sure. But whether the music has been co-opted, or "shared", is a subject for more lengthy debates. Again, let's be real; jazz is listened to and played by a lot of white people. Blacks have deserted jazz as listeners and players in favor of more contemporary forms like R&B, Hip Hop, and Modern Gospel.
But I believe Payton's Point is that the name Jazz limits the influence of more contemporary influences such as R&B, Hip Hop and Gospel. Indeed, I can say as a jazz educator that I can't help but notice that we are teaching kids a frozen-in-time way of looking at jazz. For example, calling a "modern" tune at a jam session means playing "Speak No Evil", which is a Wayne Shorter tune from the 1960's! So according to jazz education, Jazz stopped in 1969.
Here's where it gets interesting;when I started playing with artists like Vanessa Rubin, Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie Plaxico, Robin Eubanks, Lenny White, Christian McBride, Stefon Harris, and Don Byron, I noticed that they were all very influenced by Black music other than Jazz of 1920-1969, particularly post 1970 to now. And they incorporated that influence into their music. And I believe that this is the NEW JAZZ; today's jazz musician should welcome R&B, Hip Hop, Gospel, and anything else that tickles their fancy.
It might be an over generalization to say that oftentimes jazz critics(who are primarily white) miss this connection. And yet, a band like The Bad Plus(white guys, and friends of mine, I went to Banff with Ethan Iverson in 1990) or Brad Mehldau(white, I'm fairly certain) get lauded with praise if they play "rock" tunes. Believe me, I have no problem with that as well. But I do think that some white people have their limit as to how much overt blackness they can handle. The good news is that it's changing. I think it's important to acknowledge the issue. And that is EXACTLY what Payton has done with "Bitches" and his blog.
Proving my point right on schedule, a writer who I was previously unfamiliar with named Brent Black(I have no idea of his race but it's surprisingly not relevant) decided to critique Payton's philosophies and his CD in an overly defensive and shoddy way:
Concord Records made the right call in passing on the latest project. Not because Payton says things that make people uncomfortable, not because Payton attempts to stir the pot, but because the record is a horrendous train wreck. If Miles Davis could not make it work then game over. i.e. this record lacks originality.
This is just ridiculous and unfair; Payton's "Bitches" while logically could not possibly be everyone's cup of tea, shows WAY too much ability to be dismissed as a "train wreck". Payton is arguably one of the baddest musicians on the planet, and a mere jazz writer has no business talking about Payton in such a manner. It shows little understanding of the skill involved in making music, and other comments he made shows that he has no understanding or empathy of musicians:
I guess no major record deal since 2008 would make me a tad tight as well.
There are almost no major jazz artists with major record deals for about a decade. And as Payton rebutted, a major record deal is "slavery". The music industry has been referred to as "modern sharecropping." (That's the topic for another blog, but maybe check out Walter Yetnikoff's book "Howling At the Moon" about his tenure at Columbia Records, and how record companies keep three sets of record books to MAKE SURE that they screw musicians.)
OK, this is just pathetic. This is a great example of a jazz writer who has gotten too big for his britches. As should be clear by now, Payton is an undeniably great musician, and deserves respect.Even if he wasn't, he still deserves more respect than that. This and the other statements are purely disrespectful and meaningless.
Here is Payton's full rebuttal ;if you have the time, read as much of Payton's posts as you can(he is an articulate and engaging writer, regardless of whether you agree with him) and make up your own mind. My mind is made up; Payton's latest CD is a tour de force of artistic importance, as well as symbolic of how we should evolve past the mid- 20th century idea of Jazz... and into the 21st century. I personally don't care what the music is called, I just want to PLAY it and LISTEN to it.....