'Jazz doesn’t exist': New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton happy to mix it up

Nicholas Payton is looking forward to bringing his boundary bursting tunes to the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival this weekend, writes Ed Power.

NICHOLAS Payton is one of the most radical jazz musicians working today. So radical he takes issue with the idea that what he does even qualifies as jazz.

“To me, jazz doesn’t exist…There are no definitions of jazz blues, gospel, swing, funk, hip hop, r’n‘b... all of these things are basically part of the same family. Mostly these labels are marketing tools. They are not things that artists necessarily come up with. If you are going to have a brand, then self-labelling is best.” 

In 2011 the New Orleans trumpeter sparked a debate with his essay ‘On Why Jazz isn’t Cool Anymore’. 

Consisting of a series of interlinked tweets, the piece argued that jazz had ceased to exist — and may never have been a coherent genre to begin with. He had an inkling the essay would cause a fuss — but was nonetheless surprised at just how big a furore it prompted within the community.

“I had been writing about it for many years. Why that particular post took off is a mystery to me as much as to anybody else. The cumulative effect of writing about it for certain years... a certain wording perhaps resonated. I was tweeting and I had an inkling I was onto something.

“Every line in that piece was a tweet. A lot of people branded it a manifesto, a poem. It was not necessarily conceived as whole piece. 

“After that tweetstream I basically cut and pasted and put it together and published it… It’s not unlike music… in terms of playing phrases. It was very improvisational and off the cuff.” 

Payton believes art and politics can not always be separated and sees his music as a way of articulating his views about the African-American community and its complex position in American history. 

His core argument is that music has served as a voice for oppressed “people of colour” — his phrase — across the world.

“In these highly political times we need to refocus and revamp and reconnect with this music. There is no true liberation without music. It cuts through all the false social barriers — be it racism or sexism. 

“Music has a way of bringing people together and getting to the root source of our being… Before, my music was my music and my words were my words.

“I’ve finally figured out a way to marry the two in a way that is a cohesive whole in a way that makes a very powerful statement overall.”

These ideas are expressed with passion and wit on his latest album, African-Caribbean Mixtape. A cut ’n‘ paste mash-up of American, Jamaican, and African musical forms, it incorporates spoken-word samples from Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and prominent black intellectuals.

“It is probably my most overtly political album to date. It has to do with the voice samples I incorporated throughout the record — some of the foremost intellectuals in African-American studies. 

“Interpreting these spoken samples within the music creates this narrative — to basically illustrate how music has been [the key] to liberating not only black people but people of colour all over the world.” 

Along with music, he has worked as artist-in-residence at several institutions, including Tulane University in his hometown.

“Teaching has always been another component of my work. It’s a part of the continuum. To be able to impart information and teach, you have to be able to understand it yourself… I draw from the energy of those learning from me. And I learn as well. 

“It is a mutually beneficial situation… I have benefited from many hours and years from those before me. To pass it on those those who are younger… I view as part of my responsibility as an artist.”

He feels his message that music and race are intertwined is having a moment. 

When he first expressed these ideas nearly a decade ago he was shouted down. In this era of Trump and Black Lives Matter, the consensus is very different.

Irish people have an affinity with the struggle of African-Americans (though Irish-Americans ironically have a history of racism). 

Payton isn’t necessarily familiar with Irish music. But he appreciates the historical parallels.

“I have heard things in Celtic music that is reminiscent of blues. Most folk traditions, if you delve into it, particularly those of an oppressed people, you can hear that translate into music in some way,” he says.

“All too often it is forgotten [about] the Irish in America. Up to maybe about 50 years ago, Irish people weren’t considered white. 

“This is a new definition of whiteness that has come to approve those of Irish or Italian or Jewish descent. All these people were not considered to be part of the white race.” 

Whatever side Irish people are cast on the racial divide, plenty of them will, no doubt, be getting down to Payton’s genre-melting sounds in the Everyman tomorrow.

Nicholas Payton brings his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape project to Everyman Cork, Saturday, in a double bill with the Kenny Garrett Quintet.

JAZZ IT UP: FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS 

Miles Davis Kind of Blue, with Gary Crosby’s New Troupe, Everyman, Cork, Friday: The seminal 1959 album is reprised by London double bassist Crosby and his acclaimed ensemble.

Kenny Garrett Quintet, Everyman, Cork, Saturday: The Grammy-winning Detroit saxophone legend has played with Miles Davis, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Sting and rapper Q-Tip. “Records and concerts are about me taking people on the ride I want to take them on. It can be pretty ballads, some intensity, and then we can party.” 

Booka Brass Band, Cork Opera House, Saturday: This acclaimed funk crew from Dublin have backed Lisa Hannigan, The Frames and James Vincent McMorrow.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Everyman, Sunday: Iconic vocalist Bridgewater makes her Jazz Festival debut. As singer with the Thad Jones/ Mel Louis Big Band she collaborated through the 70s with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and others.

Michael Wollny, Triskel, Sunday: The German pianist and his trio (above) draw on influences from outside the jazz genre, and their set could include everything from original compositions to covers of the Flaming Lips and the Twin Peaks soundtrack.


More in this Section

Pussy Riot perform in Ireland five years after making headlines

‘Gender shouldn’t be an issue’

When exile is the price of poetry

Album review: Experience counts on U2’s return to form


Lifestyle

Having fled the Nazis Elizabeth Friedlander designed covers for Penguin books before moving to Kinsale

The 40-year-old charity that ensures no-one dies alone and poor

Equal treatment is at the heart of a healthy society

Pussy Riot perform in Ireland five years after making headlines

More From The Irish Examiner