Live: Nicholas Payton And Guests Don’t Need All That Jazz


Nicholas Payton with Gary Bartz, Marcus Strickland, Ben Wolfe, Orrin Evans, and Touré
Thursday, January 5

Better than: Having a “discussion” on the Internet.

If Nicholas Payton had it his way, the venue where he moderated a discussion last night—Birdland—would not be known as the “Jazz Corner of the World.” If Payton had it his way, I would have spelled “Jazz” like this: J***.

On November 27, Payton posted the manifesto “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” on his blog. “Jazz died in 1959,” its opening salvo went; he went on to declare that he would cease using the term “jazz” for a brief period, and he encouraged other musicians to follow suit. “I am Nicholas Payton and I don’t play ‘the j word’,” he said. “I play BAM. BAM is an acronym for Black American Music.”

The post resulted in the jazz blogosphere trading thoughts and words like musicians swapping eight-bar solos (a few thought-provoking responses can be read here, here and here). Payton remained steadfast in both his defense of what he wrote and his desire to continue the conversation he had started.

Payton has taken a 90-day sabbatical from using the word “jazz,” and the website has been created; he tweets the hashtag #bam incessantly. His mission culminated with the “Inaugural #BAM Conference,” moderated by the writer Touré and putting Payton alongside some of the best jazz (err, black American music?) musicians playing today—bassist Ben Wolfe, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Orrin Evans, and saxophonist Gary Bartz. There were no musical demonstrations until after the panel was finished; instead, the night was devoted to straight talk with a packed audience that included Stanley Crouch and other notable musicians like trumpeter Igmar Thomas and Vijay Iyer.

By taking the transition offline, arguably more was accomplished, an important note in this day of keyboard activism. Sure, there were less people in attendance than the number of Twitter followers Payton has (1,609). But hearing the musicians speak with authority and passion gave the discussion a gravitas it was never going to possess if it stayed online.

On page two, a roundup of quotable moments from the evening.

Nicholas Payton: “If we look back, [jazz] was a white characterization of black music, and there was a blackface version of the serious black art of guys like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard, Louis Armstrong.”

“Louis Armstrong was the world’s first pop star. He was the Michael Jackson of his time.”

Kind of Blue is the record that we all have to vie against for attention. If our records do well, we’ll be at No. 1 for a while, and here comes the ghost ofKind of Blue coming to kill us. We need to separate from that. Miles was not in support of this.”

Gary Bartz: “Musicians don’t name their music, because it’s music. You cannot argue with, it’s music. It’s like saying, “I want a bottle of Perrier.” You’re not drinking water? You’re drinking water. You’re asking for water, but someone has given a name.”

“To me there are three types of musicians in the world. You have house musicians. You have field musicians and you have free musicians. It’s a plantation system.”

“You think it’s funny the most successful j-word musicians in the world are house musicians? That’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Orrin Evans: “With Black American Music, BAM, you’re giving it new life for black American people to check it out.”

“There’s a thin line between making things inclusive and then also exclusive, and you have to do a combination of both in order to get who you want out in the audience.”

GB: “It’s a religious thing. Call it Gospel. I defy anyone to tell me [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme is not a gospel record.”

“Max Roach would have a fistfight for calling it [jazz]. It’s insulting, it’s like calling it the N-Word… because there’s an image. You say, “He’s a j-musician” and people see an image: Drugs, no money…”

Touré: “That’s not what I see. Miles, Coltrane, Monk, whoever you want, these people are geniuses. And they’re dealing with music and the audience and themselves that far outstrips nearly all musicians who are dealing with it today.”

Ben Wolfe: “To play this music, you have to somehow get the feeling of the music inside of you so you can play it. In order to do that, you must study the music, listen to it, understand it, read about it, talk to older musicians.”

“The stereotypes, I’ve heard so much stuff: You’re Jewish, therefore make one phone call you’re in. Well, who do I call, first of all. You’re born with black skin, you rolled out of the crib playing the blues immediately. That’s all just ridiculous.”

“Study the art form. You’ll find out yes, it’s Black American Music, and that’s a beautiful thing for everybody.”

Marcus Strickland: “We’re trying to find a more suitable label for this great music that is for the most part, from other people, identified under a very, very arbitrary and disdainful word.”

Critical bias: I was hoping Nicholas Payton would say another one of his well-known phrases, “Motherfuckers Chilling On My Nuts.” (Hashtag #mfcomn.)

Random notebook dump: Note to self: Re-organize all music in my iTunes categorized as “Jazz” and put it all under a new category called “BAM”.

Note: This article has been corrected. The original posting said that Payton had created; he did not. It also said that there were no musical instruments on stage, and that there was no musical performance during the evening; in fact, there was a performance later Thursday night, and the Nicholas Payton Television Studio Orchestra is playing at Birdland through Sunday. Sound of the City regrets the errors.