Tag Archives: Nicholas Payton

Nic in Fight: Jazz, “Jazz” and Nicholas Payton as the Savior of Archaic Pop

Nicholas Payton Hates the Word “Jazz” Applied to His Music, and So Did Paul Whiteman

Trumpeter/bandleader/composer Nicholas Payton lit a cyber bonfire recently when he judged “jazz” to be a narrow, outdated, and even racist term.  With so many artists, jazz journalists, “jazz” defenders, label haters and twit heads out there weighing in, I’m going to avoid discussing whether Payton is “Right” or “Wrong.”  He has inspired plenty of thoughts and feelings though, and that’s vastly more important than any value judgments that will come out of this debate.

Most of the discussion hinges upon one very specific word (but given Payton’s commentary on race in America, it’s become just part of the argument).  Payton insists that he is “…not dissing an art form.  [He is] dissing the name [emphasis mine], Jazz.”  Criticizing “jazz” (but not jazz) is a fascinating proposition since this blog spends so much time reconsidering a lot of music that is denied “jazz”/jazz’s street cred.  Many historians and critics don’t know what to call the music of the early Fletcher Henderson band, Red Nichols’ various ensembles, forgotten twenties dance orchestras and musicians such as Buster Bailey, Don Murray and Adrian Rollini.  Letting them all into the proud family tree of “jazz” has proven tricky.

Sorry Red, Hugues Panassie Says You Can’t Be Filed Under “Jazz”

Yet the people who enjoy and care about vintage jazz and early American pop have been eager to extend a branch to their heroes.  For many people (excluding Payton, of course) “jazz” denotes something perennially hip, music requiring flawless technique and a unique voice.  It has a rich history, yet it continuously evolves.  It’s also a proudly American invention, fed from the blues, rhythmic nuances and vocal inflections that could only have appeared in this country with its complex, often troubling cultural and ethnic history (I’ll leave it up to Payton and his interlocutors to discuss where those elements came from and how they define the music).

Adrian Rollini’s Bass Sax Has Found Equal Difficulty Getting Through Doorways and Jazz History Books

Best of all, “jazz” gets played in swank nightclubs, fancy concert halls and prestigious college campuses.  “Jazz” is a passionate, sincere and intelligent “art form,” a much more impressive name than “old pop,” “syncopated concert music” or other sobriquets given to piles of 78rpm explorations.  “Jazz” is respectable, and it’s cool.  It’s no wonder fans want their favorites to get on the tree, even on some obscure branch that never bore fruit.

Yet here’s Nicholas Payton, asserting that “jazz” itself is a rotten root!  According to him, “jazz” died in 1959, and it’s way too limited and self-conscious to be considered “cool” anymore.  Payton also describes the word as an external imposition on the actual music and its voices (who Payton has always expressed vast admiration for, in both words and discography).  Based on Payton’s description, “jazz” doesn’t even seem like it’s worth the fight.

Maybe giving up that fight is what all that old music needs.

Payton’s politics and occasionally confrontational tone aside, what if all us trad fans, moldy figs and hep cats of latter day swing took his suggestion to heart?  What if we simply stopped using the word “jazz?”

Aside from making it much harder to organize our record collections, it might excuse a lot of music we love from taking a stylistic blood test.  Couldn’t we do without yet another debate on whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman are “jazz?”  Wouldn’t Gunther Schuller’s verdicts about which bands are not “jazz” seem much less damning?  And whatever it is that Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and so many original New Orleans musicians were doing before they “learned how to swing” might even be respected on its own musical terms, not just some stepping stone to the title of “jazz” bestowed by critics and scholars.

If I’m hijacking Nicholas Payton’s ideas for other ends than he assumed, it demonstrates how powerful those ideas are, but also how simple they turn out to be.  Not to deflate the scope of Payton’s ideas, and the anger and attacks of his critics notwithstanding, all he is doing is criticizing a word; he’s protesting a label.  He’s not even the first artist to do so.  As he points out, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, not to mention Charlie Parker and Eddie Condon among many others, have expressed varying degrees of reticence about “jazz” and other labels.  Judging from Payton’s commentators, he won’t be the last to get the word out about putting “jazz” out to pasture.

Speaking of which, maybe the pop of yester-century can stay just as exciting and intelligent without having the title “jazz.”  Maybe “jazz” needs to be as open about its past as it does its future.  Or maybe “jazz” is simply as limited as Payton describes.  Words are as powerless or as powerful as we make them.  Nicholas Payton merely points out how powerful we have made one word.

And if he’s reading this he may or may not appreciate my posting a ten year old clip, but good music has no expiration date here.  Here’s Nicholas Payton scorching “Tiger Rag” with ample ‘postmodern’ swagger:

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Now, Give the Tuba Some!

Contrary to (my) previous comments, many do in fact believe that tubas “rule.” In fact Sam Quinones’ article in the LA Times describes a thriving tuba culture among Mexican-Americans in Southern California.

At least two musical communities are probably thrilled to see the brass bass getting some attention in a major newspaper, but they’re probably not surprised. The Norteno ensembles mentioned in this article, as well hot jazz groups influenced by tuba-toting bands of the twenties, have always ignored images of indigestion and fat kids with pimples (even if they kept their red suspenders). For many ensembles, the tuba was, and remains, simply another unique voice.

While most jazz histories treat the tuba as a technical compromise (simply used for projecting outdoors or in large halls), or a vestigial artifact on the way to the string bass’ ascendance as the one true jazz bass, the best tuba players exhibit the “deep warmth” and big rhythm that tubist Jesse Tucker describes in the article. June Cole exudes both qualities and gives the Fletcher Henderson band plenty of swagger on “Henderson Stomp”:

John Kirby would eventually make “the switch” to string bass, but started out with his own distinctly burnished, bumping sound on tuba, and nearly the same agility he would later exhibit on the bull fiddle. On “Wang Wang Blues,” he trades off between booting the band in firm two beat style, and walking four to the bar:

While he never played in the same jazz big leagues, tuba player Joseph “Country” Washburn’s rounded tone, firm beat and (judging from “Piccolo Pete”) sense of humor made him a favorite with dance bands such as those of Ted Weems:

Of course the tuba’s jazz pedigree extends back to the streets of New Orleans. One has to ask, even if those parade bands could have hired a mobile string bass, could they pull off what Nicholas Payton’s (unnamed) sousaphone player does on “Tiger Rag?”

Do these groups swing? Perhaps more like a pendulum than a ride cymbal. Do they sound like “jazz” in a post-Basie, post-Bird world? Maybe not. More importantly, do they make you want to move? Dance?

The story’s out: any instrument can be a powerhouse, if it’s played with imagination and style.  So rock out with your bell out, and repeat after me: “that tuba kicks ass.”

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