Last Call

Everywhere I go people ask me about Nicholas Payton!

Ultimately, I have to defend him, at least on matters of race.  Almost all Americans love American music but only a small percentage consider the social ramifications:  American music owes its charisma to those brought here as slaves.  Even though Civil Rights happened, inequity remains.

Some of my favorite late-‘50s and ’60s jazz has an important political element. This aspect is covered in the thrilling essay “Jazz and Race, the Big Elephant in the Room” by Atane Ofiaja.

Perhaps this current internet ferment could spark some powerful music.  The avant-garde must be included, though.  You gotta have the avant-garde when making some seriously provocative jazz. Maybe it’s already happening  — the politically aware ensemble Tarbaby (Oliver Lake, Eric Revis, Orrin Evans, Nasheet Waits) is going into the studio right around now.  Brooklyn Circle with Stacy Dillard, Diallo House, and Ismail Lawal is still bewildering the terrified populace every other Saturday late night at Smalls.

I addressed an earlier Payton tweet in the incomplete statement that I have since withdrawn,  “From the Ground Up.”  This essay angered some on Twitter but I’m not aware of any longer blog posts taking me to task.  However, Angelika Beener (one of those who got mad) has indirectly responded with this profile of Kris Bowers.  Almost all the names in the piece are new to me; I’m looking forward to checking them all out.

I’ll be even more excited to check out any of these young musicians if they jettison the old leader-centric model in favor of bands.

I like Nicholas Payton’s music best when he is a superb jazz trumpet player in a jam session. He shines on some 2002 YouTube videos with Kenny Garrett, Dave Kikoski, Christian McBride, and Roy Haynes.  It’s not just Payton:  Everyone in this quintet is a leader of near-miraculous skill, brought together for the elder statesman behind the drums.

But in a way this is also a missed opportunity.  Although they might have needed a younger drummer, this could have been a collective that stayed together, argued about arrangements, brought in only their best compositions, split the money evenly, and forged a band sound that evolved from high-echelon jam session to something instantly identifiable by everyone everywhere.

That was something the second generation Young Lions really missed: collectives.  Collectives are not just good artistically, they are good economically.  You stay together and build your career.  If there are no gigs, you take one for the team and wait it out until next month.

On my previous sally, I neglected this important point, but it came to mind when reading Dwayne Burno’s comments on George Colligan’s post, “Much Ado about Nicholas Payton.”

Like Payton, Burno likes to put it out there, and I support him for doing so.  A previous endorsement is buried in my own comment thread from a few months ago.  (“As I’ve said before: OK, you are pissed about some older black musician bitching about young white players knowing nothing about real jazz?  Fine.  First, play a medium up blues duo with Dwayne Burno and sound completely comfortable.  After that, let’s talk.”)

Late in the firestorm of that amazing thread on Colligan’s blog, Burno says: “Anyone that knows, knows my name is high at the New York list and I fall within the top ten to fifteen calls and have since age 19 (1989).”

Burno is right about this. He’s a top call cat.

But what does that mean anymore?  Sure, that meant something profound in the era of Paul Chambers.  But now?  In his interview with Colligan, Burno says, “I wholeheartedly believe the music industry fucked up everything within the music and mostly through the ‘Young Liars’ movement. This created or exacerbated the schism between the generations which has remained and will never go away.”

I interpret this to mean that there are too many young leaders.  So if you are a young “top call,”  you go from one like-minded leader to another, making music even a die-hard fan like me can’t easily identify on WBGO.

Rather than be a “top call,” Burno should be in a band of equals.  I’ve always admired George Colligan’s first record from 1995, Activism, with Burno and my hero Ralph Peterson.  Perhaps it’s even a modern classic.  I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons why this trio didn’t stay together or make any more records.   But if they had been at it since, loving and fighting each other all the way, in 2012 their music would be insane.

I’m done buying records of top call cats treating each other as sidemen.  It’s time for “top calls” to be “the only call.”  If anyone in the band isn’t available, then:  no gig.

It’s true that the jazz industry wants leaders.  Not only that, once that leader gets off the ground, they demand fresh projects. Sam Newsome’s pointed “Are We Selling Our Music Short in an Effort to Work?” has an amazing story about an early interaction with a record label.

It’s not just Sam.  I guarantee that every successful leader has had their team beg them for new bands and projects in order to get press and gigs.

Maybe that model used to work a little bit.  Now, with so few gigs and almost no print press that means anything, that model is irrelevant.  I’d love it if some of Bowers’s generation followed a different model used by successful new rock bands:  get the fans first. Record labels and tours will follow.

Of course, there’s no real money for anyone for years. Everyone has to pitch in to make it happen. You gotta have a band.