Interview with Nicholas Payton

When Payton was in New York playing with Lenny White and Buster Williams at the Blue Note I visited him at his hotel. Thanks to Kevin Sun for transcribing the interview.

Ethan Iverson: We were just talking about New Orleans a little bit. I’d like to hear about what it was like growing up there.

Nicholas Payton: Well, first, my parents: My father Walter Payton played bass and sousaphone. His first recordings were playing electric bass in a lot of the early New Orleans R&B stuff. That’s him on Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine” and Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is.” He also played on a couple of tracks on the thing Allen Toussaint produced for Labelle. Then, at a certain point he decided he didn’t really want to play electric bass or do that kind of thing; he wanted to exclusively play straight ahead and upright bass.

My mom was a former operatic singer and a classical pianist. Being a vocalist herself, she loved a lot of vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, so I heard a lot of that growing up.

We had a big space, particularly a big living room and we had a grand piano, so our place was where cats came to rehearse for whatever band my father was playing with.

As early as two years old I remember looking at guys like Ellis Marsalis at the crib. Professor Longhair, he once came by the crib and I remember sitting under the piano while he was playing. I was being immersed.

Long before I had decided to be a musician, as a toddler, as soon as I could crawl up on stuff, be it drums or the piano, I was playing music. One of the first musical memories that my father used to recount all the time that he was in a rehearsal with a band and they were trying to take a tune off the record. They couldn’t figure out what this chord was, and I had this little toy piano and, apparently, I walked right up to it, put my hand down, and they were like, “That’s the chord! That’s it!” And from then on it’s been all music.

EI:  I know you play drums and I think it’s impossible to talk about this music without talking about the drums. Tell me about the drums in New Orleans.

NP:  I got to see all the greats. Everyone from cats who may not be familiar to a lot of people outside of the New Orleans scene like John Robichaux, who my father played with in The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.

If you’ve ever seen that film Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields, which was kind of a big deal, it was the ’70s and she was maybe 12. There was a nude scene because her mom, I think, basically prostituted her out so it was this whole thing surrounding that, but my father’s actually in that movie as part of this ragtime orchestra. They played a lot of music that more or less predate jazz, with instrumentation that was of the period: trumpet, vocals, trombone, clarinet, violin, piano, bass, and drums — the kind of bands that used to go on the riverboats. I think Louis Armstrong might have had some history in one of those types of bands, and another great trumpeter from New Orleans, Thomas Jefferson, used to play in one of those types of bands. Jefferson was actually referenced in the Miles Davis autobiography — great player, sort of in the post-Armstrong style, and my father had a regular gig with him at this place called the Maison Bourbon…

…But getting back to drummers, there’s John Robichaux; there’s this great cat, Ernie Elly, who’s on the album I did with Doc Cheatham; Herlin Riley, who I remember being one of the guys I idolized as a kid sitting on the floor, being in awe of him. Shannon Powell, another great drummer who worked many years with Harry Connick Jr. and for a little bit with Diana Krall. Then there are guys who I’ve met over the years who I was too young to remember when they were living there, but moved abroad, like Zigaboo Modeliste and Idris Muhammad.

There’s a strong connection between the trumpet and the drums, and obviously some of the most noted musicians who come out of New Orleans play either of those instruments, and many former trumpet players switch to drums, like Herlin. A lot of people don’t know that he played trumpet before drums. Also someone else who was very important to me who lived right around the corner from us when we lived in the Sixth Ward, also known as Tremé: James Black. He was also a trumpeter who switched to drums.

EI:  I guess both those instruments are parade instruments.

NP:  Definitely.

EI:  When I think about these great New Orleans drummers, there’s some way about how they sit behind the drum set that still sounds to me connected to a parade.

NP:  Well, it’s the dance element.

We can go as far back as we want up through The Meters and beyond. Even when I was coming up playing, my first gigs were basically playing in brass bands.

I frequently criticize jazz for its moving away from that element; not being as connected and producing generation upon generation of musicians who aren’t connected with that because once you’ve come up in bands where you see the direct correlation between how music makes the body respond, makes the body move, that’s something you carry with you.

To me, it doesn’t matter how much I’m stretching out or how avant-garde the context is; that dance sensibility is always implied. It’s always here, in my mind.

It’s one of the central differences I’ve found between Black and European music. I’ve always suspected this, but it became more prevalent to me when I started working with symphony orchestras a couple of years ago. In 2012, I wrote my first orchestral work, the “Black American Symphony,” and the first thing, when I wrote it, I was like, “I know I’m going to be dealing with symphony orchestras and they’re not used to playing Black music.”

Even though times have changed where many of the people in the orchestra have most certainly heard Black music or probably grew up with that sensibility, but in practice actually playing it is a different story.

The first thing that I noticed, one thing was that I was always under the assumption that you could just put fly shit in front of a classical musician and they’ll just read it. [snaps fingers] They’ll just read anything, and the first thing I noticed is, like, not really, you know—a lot of ghosting and fakery going on in fast orchestral passages. After we rehearsed it a few times or whatever, they got it together, but it wasn’t this immediate thing that I just thought you could put anything in front of them and they’d just read it right off the page.

The other thing I noticed is the thing with time, how a lot of classical music is very languid and it flows, but the forward motion that’s in Black music — I found that they weren’t accustomed to that.

These are just generalizations; of course there are exceptions. Still, a lot of them just didn’t have the experience of doing something that I take for granted. Where I come from, you can just put a chart in front of somebody and count it off.

There were a lot of time issues. It wasn’t even a rhythmic thing as far as swinging, because my whole thing was I didn’t want that kind of feel. I’ve heard a lot of instances where bands who swing play with orchestras and try to make the violins or the people who are not used to swinging swing, and it’s wack.

So I used the orchestra more as colors and pads and said, “Okay, we’ll deal with swingin because that’s part of the idiom we’re used to dealing with.”

EI:  I haven’t had the experience of having a full orchestra read something that I wrote, but I’ve been around a lot of classical musicians trying to play something with an American beat and it’s always worse than expected.

NP:  I’m really shocked.

EI:  Even basic even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right.

NP:  And triplets! Triplets really messed them up, and I thought, “Well, it’s a triplet.”

EI:  It’s funny because they can probably play five in the time of four, but really playing three in the time of two will hang them up, right?

NP:  Yeah, that really kind of messed me up.  This was right in the wake of the #BAM movement. I was inspired by a quote by Dvorak, this story of him being brought over here by a conservatory to teach and his whole vibe was, “Well, what do you have me here for? In your music of the native and the Negro melodies, you have everything you need for a school of music. You don’t need my input.”

That really inspired me. I know William Grant Still did the Afro-American Symphony, but to me, not to discredit the work, it was coming out of the European school so it didn’t really embrace the things I would imagine a Black American symphony sounding like.

My whole thing was to use the orchestra, but to use it and to create and to sort of revel in this idea of writing Negro melodies and so forth. Another thing that I found interesting, because all too often people try to say, “Well, Black musicians used European harmony and took all this…” and one of the first calls I got after I sent the music to the orchestra was the harpist, who wanted to get together with me to go over the parts. She made a comment that resonated with me; she said, “I’m not used to playing this.” In her words, she said, “I’m not used to playing these jazz harmonies.”

Now, to me, I’m using the sharp nine chord and these things that people say that Duke Ellington took from Debussy and all this, so I’m like, “Wait a minute now.” If she’s used to playing this literature from your Stravinskys and your Debussys and all the people they say we took the harmony from, then these chords shouldn’t really be all that strange to her. So it made me think about how you can have a series of notes—you can even have a dominant seventh chord—it’s the same notes, but its functionality in terms of how that functions in the music, could be totally different. It’s like using a word that looks the same in another language but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing.

EI:  Your point about Duke Ellington I think is so dead on because there’s no harmony that Duke uses that doesn’t sound like Black music, especially when you hear him play the piano. Ellington playing chords on the piano, it’s completely Afro-American, you know what I mean?

That’s definitely a big misconception in the literature about Ellington borrowing from a Delius score or something. Of course everybody is inspired from different places, but the problem is a long-term glorification of the European side.

Like when they say Strayhorn was more sophisticated than Ellington, or that Strays was a more advanced composer…

NP:  I hate that.

EI:  Those same folks never point out that Strays needed to learn a lot about aesthetics from Ellington. Strayhorn wrote a corny piano concerto in high school; he knew more about musicals than jazz; in the first decade of writing for Duke he had a lot of meaningless decoration that Duke had to pare down in order to give it the right feel.

NP:  Well, that doesn’t fit the narrative, that’s why they never say it.

EI:  I regret to say, I wish I could ask you more about your symphony. I haven’t heard it yet, but I will hear it at some point.

Maybe we could go back some more. Nicholas, you were very talented very young, and you were also very recognized very young. I’d like to hear about the ’80s and the ’90s, who your peers were and how all that happened. I mean, in a way it’s recent history, but I don’t think it’s a story that’s understood very well yet.

NP:  You’re absolutely right.

I started playing trumpet when I was four. I wanted a trumpet. I saw in my own living room some of the greatest trumpet players in the world. My big four, the first and most influential cats for me, were Teddy Riley; Clyde Kerr Jr., who I would later study with at the New Orleans Center For The Creative Arts; Wendell Brunious; and Leroy Jones.

Out of all the instruments, the trumpet just appealed to me, something about its role and its prominence in New Orleans music in particular: the penchant and the style and the swagger which the New Orleans trumpet players played with, and its leadership role — just the whole energy of trumpet players. Something about those dudes was kind of cool to me, and I loved the instrument for its wide range of expressive possibilities because you could peel the paint off the wall or it could be this beautifully melodic, warm instrument. I just liked that range of expression.

So I told my father I wanted a trumpet, he bought me one for Christmas that year, my fourth year, and it was a pocket trumpet, like Don Cherry used to play.

I was pretty much playing by ear. I remember my maternal grandfather, who also played piano, would come over a lot and I would always ask him to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It was weird because I liked that section where it went to the IV chord at the end, so sometimes I would just lay out and let him play, and I would come in right there. He’d keep looping it and I’d come in right on that IV chord. And pretty much just playing by ear at that time.

I think it was around this time or maybe a little before that I became cognizant of wanting to hear specific songs. The first thing I really remember wanting to hear and hear a lot of was Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic.” It must have been annoying to my family to play “Mr. Magic” over and over again. But they indulged me, and I remember just standing in front of the record player watching it spin. That Grover piece was very mesmerizing to me. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but actually I was transcribing, either humming along with what I heard or playing along with it.

And my development pretty much remained the same until about eight years old. At that point my father thought it would be best for me to study with a formal trumpet teacher, so my first lessons were with a cat by the name of Johnny Fernandez — they called him, in New Orleans, “John-KNEE” — and I only have a very vague memory of him. Then I studied with another teacher at Xavier University, where both my parents went and where my grandfather went, by the name of E. Diane Lyle — I still think she’s around in the Pennsylvania area — and that’s when I started working on etudes, trumpet technique, literature and stuff like that.

At first my playing had been for fun and at my leisure, but now my father was paying money for me to go to lessons every week, so I had these things I had to practice. Then it just became too much of a task, so I found myself sort of rebelling against music because it ceased to be fun. I remember we’d get into this little thing of my father being like, “Well, just practice for half an hour and I’ll give you a dollar,” or something like that. I’d fuck around for a half an hour and then I’d just be done.

It was also at eight that I joined the school band. To play in the school band we played written music, so I had to read. My father taught me to read and I learned to read basically in one day through him, taking those songs that I had picked off the radio or the albums, writing them out with the fingerings underneath so I began to recognize what I was playing — what I already heard — through sight, through fingerings, and through the notation. That’s how I learned to read music, and I started to play in the school band.

We had a great elementary school band, which my father was the teacher, so much so that we rivaled a lot of junior high and high school bands. Such was the prowess of my father as a teacher, a great teacher. Maybe about a year or so I was in the band and then I graduated; I think I was on third trumpet and maybe moved quickly to first, and then around nine or ten I found that I wasn’t clearly as much better than everybody else. I had kind of a jumpstart on people, but once my other peers were playing for a little while they started getting a little better, and, in some cases, they were probably better than me.

That was kind of a blow to the ego a little bit, and that coincided with the tuba player in our band leaving and my father, not having a replacement, asked me if I wanted to play tuba. There was only one tuba and it was like, “Cool, now I don’t have to battle with all these trumpet [players]. Now I can just hold down the bass and be the tuba player.” I stopped playing trumpet for like a year or two, and I played tuba in the school band and even made the all-city band playing tuba for two years.

However, I did my first professional gig on trumpet. My father played with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and at Mardi Gras, when I was about nine years old, my father asked me to come along with him and bring my pocket trumpet. The cats asked me to sit in and I played with them the whole parade.

At the end of the parade, all the guys chipped in a couple bucks apiece and paid me a salary. I just thought this was the greatest thing. I came out here to have some fun and hang out, and you mean they pay you to do this? And that put a seed in my head, like, “Man, this is the best thing in the world,” and then maybe like two years later I started doing gigs and started playing trumpet again.

Cats in my neighborhood had heard that I was playing and everyone knew my father, so I started getting called for some of these brass band gigs. There was a band in my neighborhood called the All-Star Brass Band, which was led by James Andrews, who’s the eldest brother of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. He came by my house one day and asked my father if I could join the band. And my father said yes, which was kind of weird because James didn’t even ask me, so it was this strange kind of arranged marriage.

But it was cool with me, so that was when I started gigging seriously then, going out every day. This was like the summer of maybe ’85. I had just graduated elementary school.

I loved the music; as I said before, the musicians were super cool to me, especially the trumpet players. I just loved their energy and the way cats were and how they had this lingo with each other that no one else really spoke…

…but I hated jazz!

Something about it that I didn’t like. It had nothing necessarily to do with the music, but just some idea connected with it that turned me off. Most of the music that I was really into at the time of 9 or 10 was hip-hop. The first albums I bought were Jackson Five records. There was also this popular hip-hop female artist named Roxanne Shanté who was a big thing at the time. There were all these fake Roxannes who came out to kind of piggy back off the original Roxanne’s coattails. The original Roxanne was was Roxanne Shanté, but then another chic came along called, The Real Roxanne; I had a girlfriend named Roxanne at that age, Sting was singing about “Roxanne,” so it was all these Roxannes going on around this time.

I didn’t have any so-called jazz records and I wasn’t really into it. A funny thing: this was also around the time that there was this meteoric rise of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. I had remembered them as a kid: My father used to play at the Hyatt Regency on a Sunday brunch with Ellis Marsalis, and I remember seeing these two young guys and they had these huge afros, playing. That just kind of struck me because the rest of the cats in the band seemed pretty old, but there were these two young dudes wearing dashikis and afros.

EI:  They were actually in dashikis? Wynton and Branford? In dashikis?!?

NP:  Shit, man, back then Ellis had an afro and wore dashikis. You can find pictures of them if you research it. They look of-the-era!

Then they went away and I didn’t know them too much after just seeing them, then I started hearing all this stuff. They were very controversial and polarizing at that time.

EI:  Even in New Orleans?

NP:  Yeah, like some cats really loved them, some cats thought they were really bad for the music. Wynton and Branford talked a lot of shit, so that put a lot of people off, and my general vibe was, “Yeah, I don’t like these guys,” for whatever reason.

So I’m in this brass band and for the first time in my life I’m now going to my father’s record collection. I was like, “I want to hear some of this stuff. I’m playing trumpet now. Let me check this shit out.”

So the first record I pulled out—I’m thumbing through the albums and my father had thousands of albums: Miles Davis. “Okay, he plays trumpet, let me check this out,” so I put on Four and More. I put on side two and I think the title track “Four” is on, and from the first moment I heard Tony William’s intro on the sock cymbal it was like I was hearing this stuff for the first time. Like I had never heard swing before and I was like, “Damn.”

It really fucked me up, and at that moment from Tony’s high hat — before I even heard Miles — I was like, “This is what I want to do. I want to be a musician the rest of my life.”

I wore that record out. I played it every day. Again, before I even knew what transcribing was and before anyone had told me that this was a means of developing a vocabulary, I started playing all the solos, not only Miles’s solo, but I would go into George Coleman’s solo, Herbie’s. I knew every bass line, every snare drum hit. I knew everything about that album.

EI:  Wow, man. That’s a bunch of up-tempos to try to get into! That’s a hard one to play along with by ear, Four and More.

NP:  Yeah. Also Miles’ chops were up on that one, he goes up to like a high A at one point on this thing. No one told me I couldn’t do it and nobody told me it was difficult, and because of that, there was no judgment. I just played it and I would just pretend that I was in the band. I would stand up and I would put a suit on sometimes and pretend I was Miles and then pretend I was George Coleman.

Then another thing that struck me when I was looking at the album: I was like, “Wait a minute, there’s Miles and George Coleman and Herbie Hancock, but this guy played this kind of acoustic music?” Because at this time I associated Herbie with “Chameleon” and “Rockit,” and “Rockit” was huge among kids my age because we were breakdancers. I was like, “Wow, so this guy played this.” That kind of opened up something for me in my mind, like maybe these things that I think are different as far as Hiphop and Jazz and all this — maybe there’s more of a connection here than I’ve been able to see thus far.

Then another album I was listening to heavily was Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, which again had a funky vibe to it and electronics with the Fender Rhodes piano. I think a lot of my interest in the Fender Rhodes had to do with my upbringing because when I was a child Heavy Weather by Weather Report was a big album and “Birdland” I just heard everywhere. All the cats were playing it, it was a huge hit, so I started listening to Heavy Weather and I had an immediate connection to not only Wayne Shorter, but also to Jaco, so much so that my father bought me an electric bass and I started learning Jaco’s solos and bass lines and so forth.

Those three records were my really early listening, and then after my father saw that I had a considerable interest in straight ahead, he bought me some records. The first albums he bought me were Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder; Branford’s Royal Garden Blues; maybe Think of One, Wynton’s album; and Fathers and Sons, the album where one side is Von and Chico Freeman and the other side Wynton and Branford. James Black on drums, Ellis on piano, and Charles Fambrough’s on bass. Also, Art Farmer’s Live at Boomer’s, was another one of the albums.

EI:  With Clifford Jordan and Cedar? That has some fast tempos on that, as well.

NP:  Yeah, pretty hardcore. I definitely didn’t take any kind of primer or introductory road.

EI:  You know, I had Royal Garden Blues young, too. It’s a great record, it really had an impact.

NP:  Still to this day probably my favorite Branford record, my personal favorite.

EI:  Yeah, it has the vibe.

NP:  I’m sure he would disagree, but it’s a masterpiece. The thing I like about it is there’s no pretense. And normally an album like that with a different band on every track and is conceptually all over the place, doesn’t work, but something about it is very cohesive. So that was a very pivotal album for me.

EI:  Yeah, I think everyone just plays so good on it. Branford always sounds great, of course, but some of that early Branford is just so fresh.

NP:  There’s just so much abandon there.  I’ve had arguments with Wynton — even at that time — because those are some of my favorite records. Not only from a nostalgia standpoint, because it’s sort of the first stuff I was listening to and what was popular at the time when I became serious about listening to straight ahead — but even still to this day because it’s like, I don’t know, before maybe they developed a conception of what jazz is supposed to be or whatever.

They just went for it.

Some of the stuff Wynton was doing on the trumpet nobody had ever played. And some cats criticized them for being corny or, “Oh, he’s too technical, he’s too this and that,” and I know he got a lot of flack from the older cats. Particularly Freddie and Miles and Woody were hypercritical, but I’m sorry — all due respect to the masters, but I know they had to hear this young dude and be like, “This motherfucker is scary!”

And I’m sure he intimidated them to some degree. And we also have to take into consideration that they were all at Columbia Records until Wynton came along. At a certain point, George Butler was sort of catering to all these other guys and when Wynton came along it was kind of like, “Forget you guys, I’m putting all my money on the young star.”

EI:  Well, you know I love Woody Shaw, and the Woody Shaw CBS records are killing, especially the trumpet playing — but if you put on Black Codes, it just trumps the Shaw CBS records on some basic level about band vibe.

NP:  See, I like Black Codes, but my favorite has always been Think of One.

EI:  Interesting.

NP:  A lot of people don’t say this.

EI:  It’s like the one right before Black Codes, right?

NP:  I think maybe Hot House Flowers comes in between…

EI:  But it’s still the cats, essentially, with Tain and Kirkland.

NP:  Right.  I have a lot of theories about the direction of that album and the juxtaposition of those, Think of One and Black Codes.  I think Black Codes is a great album, don’t get me wrong, but by then the band conception became codified. A lot of what I used to love about what Wynton and Branford and Doc Tone and Phil Bowler — be it Phil Bowler was on bass or Ray Drummond was on bass or Charles Fambrough — was that when they burned out, they could go anywhere. When they played “Knozz-Moe-King,” it could go anywhere. There was no set chordal structure and it was almost like they were picking up where the Miles ’60s quintet left off.

Now, by the time it got to Black Codes there are real chord changes on the forms and prescribed meter changes, whereas before it was just completely open, what we’d call “burnout.” “Burnout” is the term for a style of spontaneous composition where the musicians collectively create a sound based on minimal or no chordal sketches. Usually high energy, but can also be sultry and romantic.

They’d just burnout, and that’s what I loved about them. Later, they had a system of cues, but the way those cues functioned became different, then by the time it got to the quartet, particularly at Blues Alley, it became really codified. It became worked out, prescribed: “When we do this, we’ll turn around whatever and then Tain will play this and then we’ll do that.” In fact, I read your interview where he kind of expounded upon that concept and he was like, “No, they were doing this wrong or doing that wrong,” while that other band, to me, he didn’t have that much control over.

EI:  Well, also because Kenny Kirkland was a little older. He had been around the block.

NP:  And a lot of people forget that Branford is Wynton’s older brother. I mean, the conception a lot of times is that Wynton was the serious one and Branford was the jokester so it made it seem like Wynton was his older brother and Branford was sort of like the young spaz. But yeah, Think of One I love. Also Hot House Flowers. Wynton’s playing on there is superb, and those arrangements by Bob Freeman are great too.

EI:  I don’t know if you’d agree with me here, but one of my theories is, like, that burnout stuff owes a little bit of debt to the Dave Liebman-Richie Beirach world. Kirkland played with Liebman in the ‘70s, and they sort of took that Coltrane model but put some of those more crunchy, whatever, “Eb triad over E” chords and made that more the base, rather than the Coltrane modes. I hear this faint echo of that in that burnout music.

NP:  It’s out of Coltrane and it’s out of Miles. I would say, at least how it manifested in Wynton’s band, more on Miles’s side of things. You can actually see in Tain’s playing at a certain point, like on Think Of One, Tain is definitely leaning more towards Tony, then later it became a thing of him embracing Elvin and maybe Jack [DeJohnette]. This is just my theory.

Still to this day, I think J Mood was a really fabulous record, and different. It’s a very romantic and intimate record, perhaps with the exception of maybe “Skain’s Domain,” which again is codified burnout. But “Melodique,” Marcus’s tune “Presence that Lament Brings,” it’s a very melancholy album, and that made a strong impression on me.

EI:  Wynton plays with restraint, considering he can play everything.

NP:  It was kind of a change for him at that time. It was interesting because years later when I would join Marcus Roberts’s band, when I made my first record, the vibe of my record I wanted to be very melancholy. I wanted Marcus to be on it and play sort of like he did on J Mood, when he was still heavily influenced by Herbie and Kenny Kirkland, in particular. I wanted Marcus to play in that style and he flat out told me, “Well, man, if that’s what you’re looking for then you need to call somebody else, because I’ve worked years to get that stuff out of my playing.”

EI:  Interesting.

NP:  So I went to Mulgrew Miller instead.

EI:  Marcus was so good so young. J Mood is his first record, I think. He comes out of the gate so strong.

Anyway go back to your personal history. We left you off with brass bands.

NP:  I played with James a number of years in the All-Star Brass Band. I started doing gigs with a lot of other people. It was through that band that I went on my first tours, went on a cruise ship, and that’s where I met Clark Terry. At the time, when I met Clark, I was playing trombone because basically James was the leader. He’s a trumpet player, he said, “You can make this gig, but I don’t want two trumpet players on this gig. If you want to make this hit, you gotta play trombone,” and I had never really played trombone, but I wanted to make the hit so I got my trombone chops together and made the gig.

Our first gig on the ship, we’re playing and Clark Terry and Al Grey come and sit right in front of the band, and we’re like, “Aw, shit. This is Clark,” because another big album for me at this time was Clark’s album Clark After Dark, which, in my opinion, has always been my favorite Clark Terry record. It’s not a very popular record amongst a lot of people, but certainly has always been one of my favorites.

EI:  Who’s on that again?

NP:  I think it’s like an orchestra, European cats if I’m not mistaken.

EI:  Okay, it’s not one I know.

NP:  Yeah, check it out. His playing is really beautiful, mostly ballads.

So I was like, “Man, this is my big moment to meet Clark,” so after we finished I walked straight over to him. Before I could make it over to him, Al Grey intercedes and is like “Oh, what you got there, young man?” and he picked up my trombone out of my hands and he moved the slide around and said, “You’ve got to work your slide. Come to my room and I’ll teach you how to keep your trombone in better shape, dut duh-dut duh-duh.” He just kind of held me captive there and by the time I was able to break away, Clark was gone and that moment was lost.

The funny part about that whole cruise was every time I would see Clark, I would try to talk to him, but Al Grey would always be there and, after a while, he’d start to get annoyed because I wouldn’t be taking him up on his offer to take a lesson with him or whatever. My whole memory of that cruise is Clark avoiding me and Al Grey getting continually peeved with me because I wasn’t serious about playing the trombone.

Fast forward to a couple months later: Clark came to New Orleans, and we wanted to have this big jam session at this place called The Shop, which was this warehouse that we used to shed in. This time I had my trumpet in tow, and we jammed, and when I first started playing I could see Clark’s eyes light up from the other side of the room. When we finished, he came up to me and he was like, “Man, I didn’t know you played trumpet! I didn’t know you could play like that! I just thought you were some sad trombone player whose arms were too short to reach sixth position.”

And from that moment on he took me under his wing and was like a musical father of sorts, invited me to play gigs and just a really, really great mentor.

A lot of my first early record dates in New York were through Clark. The first major label album I was on was with this cat, Amani A.W. Murray, who was noted at the time because he was this 12-year-old kid who could play Bird solos. He was on like maybe David Letterman, he was on “Showtime At The Apollo,” these TV shows playing Charlie Parker solos. He was making his debut album for GRP, which was a huge label at that time, and the band was Billy Hart on drums, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, and Benny Green on piano.

Shortly before that, I got invited to play in Marcus Roberts’s band. He knew me through Wynton. I actually met Wynton when I was 12. He called the house to speak to my father and I picked up the phone — this was post-me not liking this arrogant young cat — so I started listening to his records. Keystone 3 with Art Blakey was an album my father had and that was another one I’d listen to nonstop, the Messengers band with Billy Pierce, Bobby Watson.

EI:  There’s that tune they played I really like, “Wheel Within a Wheel?”

NP:  They did play that in that band, but that’s not on that album. Yeah, that’s a great Bobby Watson tune.

I was really into the Messengers at that time and particularly because I saw that Wynton and Branford were in that band and Duck [Donald Harrison] and Terence [Blanchard] followed them, so in the back of my mind it was, to me, “Get your chops together, get your shit together, go to New York, and play with Art Blakey.” This was a thing that had already started crystallizing in my mind. I wanted to be in the Messengers like Wynton and Terence, so I was listening to a lot of the Art Blakey stuff. I started listening heavily to Wynton and Duck and Terence.

Speaking of ’80s music and how it’s not really been dealt with historically: That first Blanchard/Harrison album on Concord, New York Second Line, is where they began to bridge this gap between the burnout and this New York/New Orleans sound that Branford and Wynton had become known for. But Duck and Terence fused the second line and the Mardi Gras Indian thing with it, which gave it a whole other coloration to it. They were pioneers in that thing. It’s something I don’t think Donald Harrison gets properly credited for.

They did a version of the “Saints” on that second album, Discernment, and not many people talk about it. You know those are great records, the Columbia records, and then they did several for Columbia, Black Pearl, like “Ninth Ward Strut” and all this stuff. I mean, very, very unique albums. I don’t think there’s been anything in music like what they had together before or since — very special band, very special energy they had. And there was something exciting about the competitive spirit, like not only between Wynton and Branford and Duck and Terence, but their competition with each other, to one up one another, because I think by the time Wynton started fusing that New Orleans thing into his music was like Black Codes. That was the first song that I can recall that he recorded that hinted at a New Orleans groove, a lot of those tunes were influenced by one of our mentors I spoke earlier of, James Black. That thing of putting a bar of ¾ in there, that was a James Black compositional element from way back in those records he was doing in the ’60s on A.F.O. Records with Ellis Marsalis.

EI:  Right. Yeah, there was so much energy in all that 80’s music and it really had its impact. It became one of the ways to play ever since. I was just reading Robert Glasper talking about making the Kendrick Lamar record, saying that the direction was Branford and Kenny Kirkland for a tune, you know what I mean? Total ‘80s reference.

NP:  I heard that as soon as they did it. Before they said it, I said, this is Mo’ Better Blues. I just got it in the voice over and the way, even the feel, the bounce, it had.

Now, there’s a difference between the bounce of the ‘90s and the ’80s swing because the ’80s swing didn’t really have a bounce to it. My feeling about it is cats didn’t really learn to swing yet. Some did better than others, but a lot of those cats were first generation musicians who were just getting exposed to swing with the exception of Wynton and Branford. A lot of these musicians who were playing didn’t come up in the tradition of hearing it in households, really, or being connected to swing music. In some cases it took a few years before cats started getting their swing feel together and by the ’90s now, that coinciding with the New Jack Swing era, where there was this hard bounce to the music.

Branford’s band in particular seemed to captivate that feel in a certain way. Bob Hurst has that bounce. There was a hump to it, and by the time you got to like your Rodney Whitaker, who played with Duck and Terence, then when he went on to play in Roy Hargrove’s band with Marc Cary and Greg Hutchinson and Ron Blake, that album Of Kindred Souls, in particular, there’s a hard edge to it. There’s a certain bounce on the swing that, you know, that was when cats were eschewing the pickups, bass players were digging in harder, there was this pro-black message. Public Enemy had just done whatever. KRS-One was doing his thing, you know, Malcolm X the movie had come out with Spike Lee, and all these things sort of fused together. You had these hard beats with Teddy Riley, what he was doing for Keith Sweat and Blackstreet and Michael Jackson, and this imagery that ’80s music had where, particularly from a male perspective, there was this effeminate kind of R&B sort of thing that Michael Jackson and Prince had with the Jheri curls and the wet hair and the androgynous vibe.

Now to counterbalance that, we saw this hard-edged thing that kind of got introduced through a woman: Janet Jackson.  She had the kneepads on and the jeans, and she’s in a basement with leaky pipes, and what was this sort of soft, R&B androgynous element became this very masculine bravado that became reflected not only in the imagery but in the style of the music.

And like I said bass players started unplugging, Wynton and Branford started putting on their albums that Delfeayo produced that they were not using the “dreaded bass direct,” and bass players were getting calluses on their fingers, and things started to change a bit.

Wynton took Reginald Veal from Duck and Terence, and he got Herlin in the band and started embracing New Orleans in a more obvious way.

The thing I’ll say about J Mood also, which I hadn’t really heard many people or any people talk about, is that that’s an essentially New Orleans record. Chordally and that melancholy, I think what attracted me to it is that it reminded me of the type of harmonic language that I heard in cats like James Black, who to me was like the Wayne Shorter of New Orleans. He was the compositional guru, he was the one who I first heard implement polychords and unusual root movement. Their harmonic movement was very similar.

Eventually, I started to study Wayne Shorter’s music. I realized how similar it was to James Black’s music. First of all, they favored sus chords and polychords and a lot of movements in half steps and thirds, either major or minor thirds. The way the chords would move, that just creates a certain type of harmonic energy. And that record in particular, that kind of pathos and melancholy I associated with J Mood.

Now, I was hanging out with Wynton a lot at that time, but I hadn’t seen him play live yet with his band. The first time I saw his band live was in ’88 and……the first tune they played was “Majesty of the Blues.” Now, Majesty of the Blues I don’t think had come out yet, Blues Alley was the last album that was out, so we were all expecting to hear him burning out again, and when we heard the first tune, “Majesty of the Blues,” it was a shock.

It was a momentary disappointment, but at the same time it was unlike anything we had ever heard. There was something…I’m trying to describe the feeling. It was an ominous sort of thing taking place. It was familiar because of the New Orleans and the Herlin and Veal connection in the rhythm section, but there was this other layer to it. And I think particularly because I was expecting him to burnout, hearing that coming off of Blues Alley was like…I’d liken it to maybe what people felt like when maybe they first saw like Miles when he was playing Bitches Brew, like, “What the fuck? What is this?”

Even if you loved it, it was like a complete culture shock.

EI:  For me, too. At my stage in my development I didn’t really know that much about Black music or New Orleans music, frankly. I mean, I had my record collection there in Wisconsin, but what did I know? Anyway, I really rejected it at the moment. I’ve since gone back and listened to The Majesty of the Blues and it’s actually more creative and edgy than I remembered it. But to go from Blues Alley to Majesty of the Blues was a hell of a thing, for sure.

NP:  That was a big jump, a huge jump: and to see it, to have that expectation of that’s what you’re going to see and to hear that live…it was a cool feeling, though. And to Wynton’s credit, he really made me respect and develop more of an appreciation for my connection to Armstrong.

Because when I was trying to play…you know, I started with Miles and Freddie and all this stuff, I wasn’t trying to hear the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens, you know, playing in brass bands and stuff like that. It’s interesting to some degree, maybe like vicariously, it was good that I met him at that time because he perhaps missed out on some of that. He was like, “Don’t miss out, don’t do like me and piss away your teenage years thinking Louis Armstrong was an Uncle Tom.” And because I had so much respect for him and he was saying this, it made me look at Armstrong differently, like, “Well, okay. If he’s saying this, then there must be something to it.”

But what was weird was that the connection was like this: It went from almost being ashamed of Armstrong to being like this was some language that I had known for years, and all I had to do was change my mindset and it would come. And almost as instantly as I changed my thought about who Louis Armstrong was and what he represented, I began to get comparisons to him, playing-wise. The funny thing was that I didn’t really listen to him that much; I might have transcribed one Armstrong solo. Even to this day I don’t consider myself an aficionado of his recordings, but there was something on a cellular level that I just got.

And it’s one thing to feel that, but also guys like Doc Cheatham and Jonah Jones and Sweets Edison and these people who knew Armstrong told me that they felt Armstrong’s spirit in what I played. Jonah Jones once said,  “Man, you’re better than Armstrong!”

I don’t think I would go that far, but it was important to get that affirmation from guys who, particularly in Doc’s case, too, who was mentored by Armstrong. When Doc Cheatham moved to Chicago, all the other cats were kind of mean to him, but Armstrong and King Oliver embraced him. He would sub gigs for them and what not.

Part of this circle: I first met Doc on a cruise ship. I was playing with Clark Terry at the time. I went from being snubbed by Clark to being in his band, and when I introduced myself to Doc after his first set and I told him I was from New Orleans, he just lit up and instantly began telling me all these stories about Armstrong and Oliver. Not even hearing me play a note, he invited me to come sit in the whole second set with him. That was the beginning of a relationship I had with him from the late ’80s for the rest of his life.

EI:  This is of course all New Orleans again. New Orleans is still probably one of the best places, if not the best place, where you can get an idea of the spectrum of the music—from the brass band to the latest dance moves, right?

NP:  Yeah, we even had our avant-garde free movement in Kidd Jordan and also one of my mentors I spoke of earlier, Clyde Kerr Jr. They did an album in the early ’80s called No Compromise! It’s killing because it’s interesting to hear concepts that we sort of associate with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry but with this underlying New Orleans undercurrent.

To me, what’s always been unique and important about Ornette is that he brought the music back to its New Orleans polyphonic roots at a time when, post-Bird, the music became sort of codified. Whereas people used to improvise within a concept of free rhythmic and melodic thought, Bird had developed this system that people had interpreted as a paint by numbers thing so if you have a set amount of chord changes, we don’t really have to think or improvise anymore.

His rhythmic inflections and the shapes of his lines is to me what is most important about Bird. Yeah, the notes are beautiful and they have their place, but what set Bird apart from his predecessors was not the notes. If you look at cats like Don Byas, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, in many instances they were perhaps more harmonically daring in some ways.

EI:  There can be more extensions on the chord, at any rate.

NP:  And it hadn’t become a codified thing because Bird had a certain way he liked to move from note to note, whereas before cats didn’t have that guide so it could kind of be anywhere. So when it became a thing of cats getting so drenched in the harmonic or the intellectual aspect of it, I think lines started to lose shape and they just became lines.

What Ornette made cats remember is, “That shit’s not really important,” you know. Like, we don’t even have any fucking music. I can have 10 cats here and we can all kind of play, you know, polyphony, and just create with reckless and wild abandon within a blues context: melodic structures, play shapes, as opposed to playing things that are only shapes that a musician can hear because they understand harmony. Normal people can’t hear that. What’s exciting about bebop to the average listener is the shape of a line. [scats rapid, shaped line] When you bring this excitement somewhere, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Once it becomes something where you actually have to understand how a scale works over a chord to be able to hear the shape, then, to me, that’s not really a shape anymore. So I think that’s what Don Cherry and Ornette reminded cats of.

EI:  Well, there’s such a vocal quality in the playing, right? And certainly it’s the blues. The thing about Bird and Ornette is that they’re always playing the blues.

NP:  Exactly.

EI:  It doesn’t matter what the context is or even the content, as you are saying. It’s got this cry of the blues is in there.

NP:  And essentially that’s what all Black American music should have, at the very least, regardless of your stylistic preferences. It should be a given that you’re a blues player. And I think the music at a certain point got away from that.

EI:  No doubt!

NP:  And we’re still suffering from that to this day.

EI:  Let’s go back to the ’80s because you talked about Wynton and Branford a little bit and then about Blanchard/Harrison a little bit. So then, who’s next? What’s the next stage of the development? You mentiond Roy Hargrove’s Of Kindred Souls

NP:  Yeah, I touched on that a little bit. Ralph Peterson’s V, that album he did with Terence and Steve Wilson and Geri Allen and Phil Bowler—that’s a very pivotal record. Donald Brown’s albums! The importance of Donald Brown’s compositions can’t be stated enough. The Early Bird Gets the Short End of the Stick is a very important album that people don’t talk about.

And I’m almost afraid to open this box, for missing cats: Ralph Moore’s Images, which Terence was on. Charles Fambrough’s The Proper Angle. Billy Pierce as a voice, the impact that he had on saxophonists, Branford in particular. I don’t think we’d have a certain amount of the language were it not for cats like Billy Pierce and Donald Brown and James Williams.

EI:  I finally was checking out some James Williams at last. He was a blind spot, but Noah Baerman gave me a mix CD of prime James Williams that made me realize that he was really a gospel player at heart. This unlocked a piece of the puzzle for me.

NP:  Again, gospel is the blues. It all comes back to the same communal spirit of Black music, which is central and fundamental.

“Jazz” becomes problematic, because jazz sits outside of that perspective. Traditionally, from the beginning — from the earliest jazz with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band! — we see it sitting outside and being a caricature of the music, as opposed to an acknowledgment of the community. You read statements of Nick LaRocca basically promoting a very white supremacist idea that he had, like his shit was better than this Black stuff, even though, like, “Yo, you wouldn’t even be doing this if it weren’t for King Oliver and people like that.”

EI:  Ok, hold that thought, we’ll get back to that, but before we do…

NP:  It’s hard to discuss that without maybe perhaps being politically offensive — but since when the fuck do I care about that?

EI:  No, I’m in, but while I have my chance I’d like to finish up on that scene with Donald Brown and Ralph Peterson’s V and some of the other guys we’re talking about. Is there a way to characterize the feeling the musicians had about it at the time? You observed it, you knew the cats.

NP:  Ok, back to Wynton. As I said, this energy from Wynton doing his thing and the burnout became codified on Black Codes. That was like the swan song of Branford and Kenny leaving. I mean, he had to change; he couldn’t continue. It’s like after Trane and Cannonball and Red Garland and Philly Joe weren’t with Miles anymore, Miles had to figure out something else to do. It wasn’t about a style; it was about these musicians bringing this to the music. They are the progenitors of a certain idea and without them, you can kind of force it, but it’s just not really quite right, so you gotta figure out something else to do.

I think Wynton tried to find other sax players for which he had that connection, but he never really found that telepathic kind of thing he had with Branford. From outside of just being a musical kindred spirit, this was his older brother. They shared experiences. That’s even different than Miles and Trane having a connection; you can have a connection with somebody, but when somebody’s your fucking brother? You can’t trump that. And it’s something that’s intangible because even years later after all the scuttle went down and they played again on “Cain & Abel” from The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, they still had that thing where they were finishing each other’s sentences.

As a side note Wynton’s sound had changed. Black Codes is, I think, the first album where he played the Monette. The Bach has a distinctive tone to it; when I think of Bach, I think it’s a real trumpet sound. The Monette, while a brilliantly designed instrument, is a Monette. It is the difference between a flugelhorn and a trumpet: it’s not the same type of sound, it’s not the same type of instrument. A Monette is its own instrument.

My idea of the Monette is — because it’s kind of a reedy thing as opposed to brass — I think Wynton was able to find that sound he had in oneness with his brother. It was that sound, the Monette sounds like a trumpet and the saxophone together in one horn, and that’s kind of how I looked at what the Monette was.

EI:  This is some real trumpet stuff now. We talked about Wynton, Roy, Terence: How does Wallace Roney fit in this?

NP:  Fuck that motherfucker — he don’t fit in at all.

EI:   [Incredulous laughter, waits…] And Roy? You have anything more to say about Roy?

NP:  I think Roy and I met Wynton around the same time, even though Roy’s a couple years older than me. Roy was someone I heard about through Wynton. He would kind of taunt each of us, you know. He’d tell me, “Man, there’s this cat in Fort Worth who you gotta watch out for,” and years later I’d find out Wynton was telling Roy the same thing about me. It actually felt like a long lost brother by the time I met Roy because I’d been hearing about him for years. Wynton had an ear to the streets and knew who all the young cats were across the country, so we’d just hear a lot about each other through him.

It was also in the late ’80s when Ellis Marsalis had moved back to New Orleans to start teaching at the University of New Orleans. Also on the faculty was Harold Batiste and another New Orleanian who had moved to Virginia with Ellis to study with him, and had moved back with him to teach, Victor Goines. Ellis moving back brought a lot of these cats, young musicians who had studied under or had been fans of Wynton, like Jeremy Davenport, a lot of St. Louis cats—Peter Martin, David Berger, Chris Thomas, they all went to the same school, so there was this influx of a lot of cats to New Orleans through that program that Ellis had started at UNO.

I was hanging out with all of them and this was when I was like 16. I started playing with Marcus Roberts, and this was around the time I first met Brian Blade. He was studying with Johnny Vidacovich over at Loyola, and we used to have these Sunday jams at this club called Tipitina’s on Sunday afternoons, a matinée.

I remember when Blade first came down, we were all vibing him because he was this kind of meek cat with these little round glasses. He still has that kind of meek persona. He got on the drums, he hadn’t really put it together yet, and cats were kind of vibing him. I didn’t see him again for another three months and he went into some type of Jimmy Smith-in-a-warehouse with the B3 or like some Sonny Rollins-on-the-bridge shit, because when he came back to that session the next time, he sounded pretty much like how he sounds today, like that kind of force. It was like, “What the fuck did this cat do? Like, what happened?” Of course he’s developed since, but he already had that sound that’s associated with Blade now.

We started playing together a lot. We were a part of Victor Goines’s quintet. In fact, we made an album called Genesis: myself, Blade, Peter Martin, Chris Thomas, and Victor, obviously. There’s a video of part of the band on YouTube, but Peter wasn’t on it. It was Glen Patscha on piano and Roland Guerin is on bass. I was a few years younger so I didn’t begin going to college with them until like two years later, but we did a lot of playing and hanging. That was the first time that, for me, I felt connected with people close to my own age who were playing outside of a New Orleans brass band thing. Up until that time all the cats pretty much around my age were playing brass band music or trad music. No young cats were playing outside of NOCCA, where we learned Bird tunes and stuff like that, but no one around my age was playing things other than brass band repertoire or traditional New Orleans music.

I felt a sense of camaraderie with these cats closer to my age who were into a lot of the things that I was into. We used to watch “In Living Color” and shit. This was like the first generation of cats younger than Duck and Terence and Branford and Donald Brown and all these guys. We had been listening to their music and we were the first cats under them coming up, so we shared this spirit of being the first generation of cats who were influenced by that body of work and playing that music. That was a really special and fertile time in the New Orleans scene. We were all broke as hell, you know, but it was music all the time. I remember going to gigs and Brian Blade had this VW Bug, and we’d stack all his drums in there. I’d be on the floor under shit, with Thomas’s bass — I don’t know how we got all that shit in his bug — going to do a gig. We were lucky if we made five dollars, but it was all music. We listened to records all day, we jammed all day, and we’d play gigs, and I learned a lot in that period.

A lot of us started working with Marcus Roberts at the time. Chris was already in the band, Herb Harris was the tenor player, Scotty Barnhart was on trumpet, and the first drummer in the band was Billy Kilson. A lot of people didn’t know that there was that connection between Kilson and Marcus; Kilson only did a couple gigs with us and then he left Marcus’s band to go play with Dianne Reeves—Marcus was pretty pissed about that—and then Blade came in the band.

EI:  Say something about Marcus Roberts.

NP:  Whew! Obviously a force, and I admired him on records for years. There was such an intensity about him, and you could see that even when you would watch videos at the time, like when he played: very little body movement, animation to what he was doing. It was super, super serious, and when he would do interviews there was this very super-concentrated-type thing. When I joined his band, that was, to this date, the hardest situation that I’ve ever been in. He was so hard on us.

EI:  Like in what way?

NP:  I mean, we rehearsed from like twelve noon to like three in the morning.

EI:  Really?

NP:  Yeah, and there was no music. Marcus is blind, so we would learn parts by ear, and he was coming out of Wynton, so when he started writing the long form, through composed stuff in the spirit of “Majesty of the Blues” we’d be learning these parts, note by note, piecing them together. In a sense it was good, because by the time we would finish learning a tune I knew everything about that tune. Listening to him play, I knew the tenor part, the bass part, the drums, you know. But we’d be in rehearsal, we’d start at noon, it’d be seven o’clock, and somebody would be like, “Uh, Marcus, we’ve rehearsed for seven hours. We’re kind of hungry.” He’d be like, “Okay, somebody call for pizza so we can shed ’til it gets here.” [laughs] We’d take a little break and then we’d go back to shedding.

It was like that every day. But also, besides the endless hours, he was mean! He was fucking mean. Talking about paying dues!

When I met up with him, we were rehearsing in Tallahassee, where he lived, and we were staying at Scotty and Herb’s house. He said, “Catch a bus and I’ll reimburse you,” so I took a 14-hour bus from New Orleans to Tallahassee and I got there and we rehearsed for like a week, might have done a gig after that. Then at the end of the week I needed bus fare to get back home, so I’m like, “Yo, Marcus, I’m going to need to get the bus fare home, and you said you’d reimburse me,” and he kind of brushed me off.

I remember I told my father, “Dad, yeah, Marcus don’t want to pay me. He told me he’d reimburse me.” He said, “Boy, you better get your money or don’t come your ass back home!” [laughs]

So I was like, shit, I had to man up, and I went back to Marcus and I was like, “Marcus, I’m gonna really need you to reimburse me,” and he reluctantly reached in his wallet and said, “You ought to be paying me.” [laughs]

But he gave me the fucking money, though.

Shit like that. We’d be playing, we’d be doing a gig somewhere at a festival, and he’d feature everybody on something and he’d introduce such and such, “Scotty Barnhart’s going to play this and Herb’s gonna play that,” And he’d get to me and he’d be like, “Yeah, we’re gonna feature Nicholas Payton now. He’s only 16 years old and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so forgive him, y’all. Here he is: Nicholas Payton!”

EI:  No…

NP:  And, you know, I’m supposed to go play after that! But, man, I remember at times being so fucking pissed because we’d be in rehearsals and he’d basically be having us feeling like we weren’t shit — he’d say things like, “You can’t play, I don’t know why you’re here” — and after a while I just started feeling like, “Why are we here. We’re so sad, like, why are we here? There must be something you like about us, so why are we here?” Years later I thought about it, and I think a large part of it was because Wynton was his first gig and he didn’t really have any other experience. I think he got hazed really bad in Wynton’s band. That was his rite of passage, so he thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.

EI:  I’ve heard that there’s always hazing with Wynton’s band—

NP:  …hoooo!

EI:  Branford’s band too, right?

NP:  Oh, yeah, man, big time, like college fraternity, like really fucking with you. And while I grew up in a ’hood where cats rib all the time, there’s a different power dynamic when it’s your peers and y’all just talking about each others momma or whatever else than a cat that’s like five years older than you and you listen to their records and shit…

EI:  And you really want the gig, besides.

NP:  Yeah!  I think I got from my dad putting it in my head, like “Don’t let no motherfucker — I don’t care how much you revere them — don’t let them fucking talk to you any kind of way.” And so I would kind of talk back or I wouldn’t take the shit or I would stand up, and they didn’t like that.

But, to Marcus’s credit years, later, maybe like 10 years later, I went down to see his band at the Vanguard, and he pulled me to the side and he was just like, “Man, I’m really sorry for how I treated you. I was a young man, I didn’t know what I was doing.” And I respected that.

EI:  Right, he was young at the time. Later he knew better.

NP:  Those were some hard years, man. And a lot of cats didn’t make it. A lot of cats fell by the wayside because this was a lot of cats’ first gig and they thought if this is how it is then why should they stick around?

I’ve always saw both sides. On a certain level perhaps you should be more encouraging to young cats, and then on another level if you don’t have the emotional fortitude to withstand some hazing, then maybe you can’t be out here, because there are a lot worse things you’re going to have to deal with in this music business than somebody hazing you or telling you you ain’t shit. People going to be telling you that to some degree for the rest of your musical career, so if you don’t have the wherewithal to wade through it, then maybe it’s not for you. So I kind of feel two ways about it, but I saw a lot of my friends and a lot of cats who I thought would be major contenders wave the white flag and do something else.

EI:  I’m not sure if I’m right about this, but when I think about when the music existed in a time when there was segregation: The cats who were going to play in a band, they were representing something bigger than just the music. They really had to prepare. It was a very serious thing to play in one of the bands that would actually have a gig and tour and be presented to the culture as a whole. It seems to me like that’s one of the reasons that music was so good in those eras.

NP:  You were playing for your life.

EI:  You were playing for your life.

NP:  You were playing for generations.

EI:  Exactly.

NP:  “We’re all counting on you.” Yeah, it was that kind of pressure. It was a life or death kind of thing. You’re representing ancestry, you’re representing a lot of people, and you’re breaking down doors. And for musicians, long before there was a Civil Rights Movement, you were going in places that Black people were not allowed unless you were serving, so there was a lot resting on you at that particular time.

Like I said, there was a bit of that energy coming back in the music in the ’90s because there was this resurgence of the Black Power edict. Coming off post-Reagan and post-War On Drugs, post-crack infiltrating, there was a certain vibration in the air and the music meant something larger than a gig or just playing. You were representing, for Black people and fight the power and all these things; the swing had that feeling in it. It had that same burn or that same edge as Coltrane’s “Alabama,” or it was another ’60s in a sense.

EI:  This might be a stretch, but is some of that hazing from Wynton or Branford might be connected to that feeling, like, “We’re taking on the big guns here; we need the biggest guns we got,” you know what I mean?

NP:  I would like to believe that, but honestly I think it had more of a root in insecurity. But there was also a resurgence of Black Power, though.

You can look at interviews and read what cats were saying then about Black culture and about Black people versus what they’re saying now — if they’re addressing it at all. It’s just interesting to me to see the juxtaposition of where certain musicians were then and what they were speaking of versus now. A lot of the same people aren’t even addressing the cultural aspects of it anymore, so that’s interesting to me.

Although maybe at a certain point, you just get tired. There’s a line in Kendrick Lamar’s thing, at a part of the interview where they create this thing where he’s talking to Tupac and he’s talking about, “Yeah, you have this window,” and (I’m paraphrasing), “You catch a black man and up to a certain age, the teens and twenties, and after that you just lose that fire.” You lose that fight. You lose that thing that makes you feel like you want to challenge the status quo.

EI:  Let’s talk about your own activism.

NP:  For me, contrary to a lot of popular belief, it doesn’t come from a space of railing against something just for the sake of it. It’s not that these things were not important to me at a time, but as I’ve grown older and saw the changing of the guard and a lot of your Ray Browns and your Elvin and Hank Joneses — the people who I worked with who kept shit in check a certain way — the generation that followed, my generation, the generation or so after kind of dropped the ball.

And I’ve seen the milk and honey years of the Young Lions, and record deals, and a certain type of fee structure, and things that took years to build come crumbling down in such a short amount of time — things that were not acceptable, that people fought for them to be not acceptable, are acceptable now, like musicians undercutting one another. You should leave this shit better than what you found it. We shouldn’t turn this over to the cats who are under us in worse shape. In extreme cases those cats died for us to have the opportunities and the privileges we have.

Unfortunately I’ve had to — and I say “had to” because I don’t really have a choice — step out in many instances alone or be a sole voice in something, when I think that should be mitigated by my peers. A lot of them are like, “I ain’t touchin’ it!” so I’ve had to bear the brunt of a lot of shit because it’s not being spread out between a lot more people.

Even if we don’t agree, even if you don’t like the way I do it, whatever, then wage your own movement — but there should be a sense of solidarity where it can be like, “Well, we aren’t going to pay you because we don’t agree that it’s Black music or whatever,” then they shouldn’t be able to go to you and be able to take the gig for less, or get you to take it and make that concession. Whereas at one time there might have been instances — and not this utopian thing where we all fight together or whatever, I mean, a lot of those older cats hated each other and fucked each other’s wives and cheated each other out of money, so it’s not a thing of being morally perfect — but there was a time when there was even a code of ethics among criminals, certain things that people wouldn’t do, a certain moral code that I find is little to non-existent now.

As I said, I’m the only one speaking to certain things, because a lot of other people are too worried about losing a gig or something. But you ultimately do lose when you start to see the fee structures going down. It gets to the point where you can’t live anymore. When that next generation under you comes and starts undercutting you, then what are you going to do? And when the frame of reference gets shorter and shorter. My generation and maybe a little before is one the first generations where I felt that cats wouldn’t give other cats their due.

For instance, I was always the youngest cat in a lot of the situations. I remember how strange it felt to me when there were cats coming up who started sounding like me and started playing like me. And I didn’t consider myself old yet, but I guess when, by a certain amount of years, I had developed a sound and a body of work and a concept — particularly when I was working with my quintet — there were people who looked up to us. To these high school and college kids, we were their Miles Davis or whatever, in the same way that Wynton and Terence was for me. But then to see a lot of these young trumpet players come out here — cats who I gave a lesson to, cats who I turned onto records, they were always at my gig, I would get them in for free — then they come out here and pretend like I had nothing to do with their development at all.

And I think it does a disservice to the music because a lot of the critics, they don’t know, they can’t hear. Like when I hear some of their records that are lauded as this, that, and the other, I’m like, “Man, I played that on such and such a record,” but these critics, a lot of them, their frame of reference is even shorter, so they don’t know that on such and such a record this was done, or that one.

But we see it happening with the generation that preceded me with your Billy Pierces and your Donald Browns and those cats not properly credited. And it just spirals, so then with each successive generation there’s less homage and credit paid. I shudder to think about those cats who pretended like I didn’t exist: Now, what do you think is going to happen to you? So yeah. It just really becomes cannibalistic and incestuous and doesn’t serve the music at all.

EI:  I think your voice is an important one and that you’re having a really positive influence on what people are thinking. I’ve seen how people who were so certain of themselves five years ago are maybe now not as certain, and that’s positive.

NP:  I agree, and it was funny to me when I started seeing it. When some cats who had a staunch position against me started to echo some of the shit I said I was like, “Oh, okay.” That’s just how it is.

EI:  I think jazz education is one of the biggest problems in term of honoring a black aesthetic in the music. The history of jazz education has been somehow very uninterested in the blues. At the beginning there was the Stan Kenton-supported Lab Band from North Texas, and the next coup was Gary Burton and Berklee world. These are the iconic starts of jazz education. It’s not that there isn’t good Kenton or Burton music of course, but at the same time preserving a black aesthetic was almost what they didn’t want to do.

NP:  Exactly. It’s funny: it’s not even a thing of so much like we’re gonna ignore it, but there’s gonna be a missive to try to erase it.

EI:  Get rid of it.

NP:  Yeah. You don’t have to love Black music, but do you have to hurt it? That’s another level of commitment right there!

But you know, man, I often think the white cats who have benefited and had their lives changed playing Black music, they know better. They know because they were able to go in ’hoods that they probably couldn’t if the elders didn’t say, “Yo, this white dude is cool,” invited you on the bandstand, invited you into the culture. The white cats should be more vocal than anybody. You should be louder than me because you owe your life, you owe your livelihood — literally, whatever riches or whatever things you’ve established — and it’s no secret that if you look at fee structure of artists, typically white cats get better offers than black cats. (There are some exceptions, obviously.)

EI:  I’ve tried to argue this with a few people and it doesn’t always go over, but now’s the right time to bring it up. Affirmative action can have flaws, but to me the cats who really should have done some affirmative action were Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan or some of these lauded white old-school jazz motherfuckers who then were millionaires and only hired white guys and played for rich white people.

Not that Brubeck or Mulligan weren’t great, or that I wouldn’t love to have a conversation with them and try to learn something. And I’m painting in broad strokes. Those two in particular are not even very similar musicians and don’t think they were similar people, either.

It’s just very odd, you know, the trajectory of many of those kinds of careers at some point when they were really established.

In fact, Miles talks in his book about being disappointed in Bill Evans. Now Bill was one of the cats, although Bill Evans wouldn’t have been one of the cats if it hadn’t been for Miles Davis, right? But after Miles consecrates him Bill sort of goes off into his white trio world and that whole other thing. You just wonder how the music could have been different if Bill had made some consistently more affirmative action-type choices. That’s what Miles hints at, anyway.

NP:  I feel like you owe it. You owe it to the Black community.

EI:  Well, you’d think so.

NP:  Come on, man. At least talk to it.

Okay, I see it both ways: hire who you want to hire, play what you want to play, and play what you’re comfortable in: I get that. I, for one, have never — if cats have been all black in my band, it’s never because I said, “I’mma have an all black band.” I just hired who the fuck I wanted to play with. I’m not gonna hire a Brotha who’s less talented than a White guy on the same instrument just because he’s Black. I’m just not gonna do that.

So, again, I don’t fault people on a certain level for hiring people they feel culturally or personally connected to. Fine. Have an all white band, play music that is heavily-laden with European concepts and light on the Black aesthetic, go ahead.

But if you’ve earned status as a millionaire or become rich off of playing something you know is Black music, I feel you should be louder than any Black person about the injustice that Black people have to go through. Not only to play this music — just to be human.

And I don’t want to say accepted as human because I don’t give that level of power to any man to decide who’s human and who’s not. That’s a whole other discussion to get into, human rights or civil rights, I just don’t get fighting for, begging for, I just don’t get the whole “Black Lives Matter,” “Hey, system, recognize us as human.” Fuck asking somebody to recognize you as human — I don’t give a fuck what you think. I’m not going to let you talk about the ancestors and just say what you want to say, but I’m not begging or asking you to see things a certain way.

Once I even called out Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano after they were getting lauded for the Sound Prints thing for Wayne Shorter. One day, I was just like, “You know, you guys should be talking about these things I’m talking about.” They have a band playing and profiting off of the music of a Black musician.

This is regardless of what Wayne Shorter thinks about it. I don’t know him to address or talk about race. That’s fine. He doesn’t have to.

EI:  He’s from Newark, for Christ’s sake.

NP:  I mean, you know he knows what that means!

But Dave and Joe are smart guys; they should be speaking to this shit more than me.

If you benefit from being invited into Black culture and being taught and groomed by Black masters, your debt, your bill, is bigger than mine at the end of the day. I mean, I’m already Black.

EI:  Yeah, I hear you, man, I definitely hear you. I personally don’t think you need to explicitly address race if you are covering Wayne Shorter, but I also wish I had started considering this point of view sooner.

NP: I’m not saying Lovano and Douglas should address race solely because they profit from covering Shorter. I’m saying all White musicians who make a living playing Black music have a moral obligation to speak about racial injustice. By being silent on such issues, they are de facto supporting the supremacist and oppressive forces that enable privilege to them as White musicians while marginalizing people of color. And using Black culture to make financial gains without regard for the Black people who create it is racist.

EI: Again, this makes me think about jazz education, which is where the money is these days.

NP:  Well, money is the whole thing. But I don’t expect them to figure it out in jazz education. That’s just what that is. I’m gonna let jazz education be what that is.

Now, if you’re gonna invite me into your school, I’m gonna talk about what this shit is and you can decide for yourself how comfortable or uncomfortable that makes you, and by this point if you’re asking me, you kind of have an idea of where my stance is.

But that’s the whole point of jazz — to skirt around the culture and find some other inroad to deal with the music and to deal with all of everything they love about it except the unsexy parts: the struggle, the ugliness.

That’s what “jazz” is. It’s a way of, “Let’s have fun, and let’s play this music, and let’s do this and let’s do that.” But when it comes to the real shit about what it is to be Black, they don’t want to deal with this other part of it.

You can’t go to a jazz school expecting enlightenment, because, if you just deal with the music and let it exist in its own habitat and its culture, you will learn this music is not designed for that Western pedagogy. It’s a different pedagogical system; it’s a different system of thought.

I’m not saying Black thought is better than Western or European thought. It’s different, though: In almost in every way it is diametrically opposed to those Western systems.

You can’t expect to transfer this information within that construct because, first of all, who decided that somebody is a professor? Who gave you your degree? Who said you were qualified to teach somebody? Did Clifford Brown say you were qualified? Did Max Roach say you were qualified? Who have you worked with?

So you have these people deciding in an education system, most of which probably don’t give a shit or care about jazz anyway. And, if they do, where do they get their ideas from? You don’t have the true masters.

It used to be that the true masters decided who was next. There was a clear lineage in place: whom begat whom. You play with this person, you’re alright. Who’re you playing with? You cut your teeth with them. You serve tutelage in several bands or several people before you struck out on your own. You pay your dues. That system doesn’t exist anymore and now we have these competitions that engenders a whole other kind of construct. You go to such and such a college, then you do this competition and we’re gonna lay $20,000 on you and then give you a record deal and kick start your career. That shit is outside of the culture. Also, we all know that a lot of these competitions are rigged.

They would never ask me to judge at the Thelonious Monk Competition…

EI:  Well, when you look at the list of winners and finishers of the Monk competition, while some great players have gone on to have a career, it’s interesting that most haven’t. Perhaps it is because it’s, as you say, outside of the thing.

NP:  A lot of cats who otherwise would have liked to be playing with their own bands or gigging as a means of full-time support found themselves having to supplement their income in other ways. Teaching is one of them, and that’s not to say there’s no joy or beauty to be found in the educational system, particularly if it’s cats who know better.

But even when they’re in those certain constructs, have you noticed that when you put a musician in some famed jazz school and then they’re artistic director, how long do a lot of the real cats last?

Because the games they have to play and the board meetings they have to go to and the lesson plans…all that shit is not conducive to disseminating the real information. There are certain things you have to do. There are certain games you have to play to be in that conversation, to get tenure, to have that job, to have that teaching position. So if you go in there espousing these issues that are upsetting within that construct, you might have a hard time or find yourself not lasting very long. It’s like politics: what you have to compromise to get yourself a position, once you arrive at that position, your original goals are no longer important. Now, you might say, “Well, if I’m in such and such a school, then maybe I might be able to mitigate some of the damages.” Well, what do you have to compromise to get a job there, to keep your job?

The things you can and can’t say to students —like, that didn’t exist. My dad used to cuss elementary kids out and throw erasers at them. You’d be in jail for that today. The older cats were 10 times less politically correct than I am. Their language was far more harsh, but a lot of people don’t know that side of folks.

With all my love to Clark Terry, you know, he had a very congenial spirit about him, but I’ve seen him cuss people out, call women bitches. Talks I’ve had with Ray Brown pulling my coattail, getting in my shit and cussing me the fuck out, you know, if he felt certain things I was doing weren’t cool. But it came from a different space; I wouldn’t call that hazing, and not that these old motherfuckers would be right all the time, but for the most part it came from a space of love, even if it was kind of jive.

Whereas some of the younger hazing is just jive for no reason or jive for insecurity, it was never about that with the older cats; it was always an issue of respect, from my experience, that kind of respect has died. It’s died with a lot of those masters who were here, who made sure shit was kept a certain way, so in many aspects to some people I might seem like an anomaly or a relic or something. But, I mean, I’m far nicer as a leader or even in general than a lot of the cats who people think are so clean-mouthed. I mean, these were some of the foul-mouth-est, misogynist-type motherfuckers, you know what I mean? I’m speaking about this not to disrespect anybody, but I think people need to know this because too much niceness sends a wrong message. “Such and such came to my school and they were the perfect gentleman.”

You know, they knew how to play the game. They knew how to do a certain thing, and a lot of these older cats came in an era where if you said or did some certain shit, you might not be here tomorrow, you know?

So I think it’s important at a certain point that the whole totality of how shit is gets documented. I’m crucified for saying “motherfucker” or for talking about pussy, but when you look at cats like Mingus and Miles — I mean, read some of their DownBeat interviews! I don’t say shit nowhere near as offensive as some of the things they said!

I think a perspective has been lost, perhaps, because we’ve created this sanitized view of jazz and what it’s supposed to be, particularly in educational centers.

I just think sometimes there’s no way to talk about something but how the fuck it is. That’s the way we were taught, that’s how it is. And that’s not to say that there’s not room for a message to evolve, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the well-placed “motherfucker.”

EI:  Right, I’d agree.

NP:  Sometimes it’s necessary to say that shit the way it is.

EI:  You must know that interview with Lester Young where he shows that he is a true virtuoso of the word “motherfucker.”

Well, to close out, there are two musicians I’d like to ask you about.

You mentioned Ray Brown already. You knew Ray and worked with him, so I’d like to get some insight because Ray is kind of not my man, you know. Something about him bothers me.

Of course, he’s essentially an immaculate musician. But I think I like him best almost in the studio environment, when a string orchestra or big band going on and he gets to be the funky bass counterpoint to it. Then it’s beautiful. But in more of a playing situation I just find him a little uptight, like I’ll see him on a video with Kenny Clarke and it doesn’t even sound like he’s listening to Kenny Clarke, he’s just pushing on top next to Klook. There’s something that just bums me out about him as an ensemble jazz bass player sometimes.

NP:  Yeah, I don’t know. I guess I don’t get that. I hear what you’re saying and I know, quite frankly, that some of his peers perhaps felt that way about him. But when I think of him I think of Negroidery and just nastiness on the bass. He’s top of the line to me.

EI:  And it felt good playing with him, with the beat and everything?

NP:  Oh, definitely. Did he play on top? Yeah. It still felt great though.

I know there’s some drummers in particular who just didn’t like to play with Ray. I think it depends; you know, certain musicians have a certain temperament with certain people and it’s almost like a parent can love all their children, but they’d be lying if they say they didn’t have favorites. And if you weren’t their favorite, you might get disciplined a bit more, you might get a bit more struggle in that relationship, you might get away with less.

And I’m not gonna think I can speak for Ray, but maybe if you weren’t a certain type of musician to him, or a drummer that he looked at a certain way, then there might be that fight with him. Me, personally, I’ve never felt that, and talk about just nastiness, as far as playing bass, I will cite this example, and I’ve turned a lot of cats onto this album: Gene Harris Trio Plus One, with Stanley Turrentine and Mickey Roker. Whew!

EI:  I gotta get that.

NP:  Man, like, if he never made another record other than that, that would be enough to seal this position in the canon of great bass players, in any genre, at any time.

But then you juxtapose that with… like I know years ago I read the interview you did with Mickey, and he didn’t even want to talk about Ray.

I’ve had bands like that. Like when I had my quintet: I remember we were doing some shows and we were out with Josh Redman’s band. We would just fuck with each other all the time. We would say the lowest shit you could say about someone to each other, and Josh’s band looked at us like we were crazy, like, “How can y’all talk about one another like that? And still be cool? How could you talk about his mother like that and you still have a job — like, how can you?”

But, man, all that shit went into the music. That’s why we played the way we did; that’s why there’s a certain urgency and a fire about us.

And we had our falling outs and our issues. There were times where Adonis Rose and Anthony Wonsey would get into it, and Wonsey might piss Adonis off and Adonis would be burning behind everybody and, get to the piano solo, he’d crash the cymbal and just fold his arms with the sticks and just let Wonsey have it. In fact, on my album Payton’s Place on “Paraphernalia” he does exactly that. They were fighting I don’t even know about what that time.

EI:  It’s like Tony Williams laying out behind Herbie or George Coleman on My Funny Valentine. He was pissed at them.

NP:  Yeah, all that kind of shit. But it’s like family; sometimes you get into it with your brother or your sister, “I’m not speaking to that motherfucker right now,” and all of that goes into the music. And I think the music misses that a bit, you know.

Not to say that you can’t have great music without dysfunction, but you look at most of the great bands, they’re bands full of leaders. Strong personalities. There’s gonna be clashes, there’s gonna be issues, somebody’s gonna fuck your girlfriend or wife because people are human. Some of this shit is morally reprehensible and I strive not to indulge it. But I do think there’s something to when bands were full of cats who, I don’t know, they might pop a cap in somebody’s ass or stab a motherfucker. Or the drummer walks around with an ice pick or a gun. What that music sounds like as opposed to now where everybody’s doing yoga and…

EI:  …eating raw kale.…

NP:  …and you know, juicing. Kudos to health, but you know what I’m saying?

EI:  Oh, I hear you.

NP:  There’s something about the spirit or the authenticity when people didn’t feel such a need to be politically correct. Like, shake the shit up.

Hey, if you’re really a yoga-loving person and you really juicing, if that’s authentically you, that’s fine. Like Mark Turner, like that’s who the fuck he is, but a lot of people are posing like Mark Turner or faking it. That’s who Mark authentically is, that’s him, whatever, that’s what I’m saying.

But other people are afraid to be themselves, and I think that’s reflected in the music.

People are being celebrated and exalted to this status without having passed through the lineage, or getting positions of prominence and authority within a jazz construct because that’s what jazz enables. It enables an environment where you can say, “This is the cat,” without them having to have to played with anybody or pay any dues or anything.

We just gonna say this is the cat because DownBeat says or because the GRAMMYs say or because whatever construct outside of the music says. It don’t have nothing to do no more with “Because Ray Brown said,” or “Because Art Blakey said.” Because they paid certain dues, because they’re tied to a part of the ancestral lineage. And anybody could be entitled to ancestral lineage; I don’t know why so many white people sometimes feel like I said they can’t be in the lineage, too. Never said that. Nowhere will you find me saying that, even though some white people always feel “Where am I?” in my talk.

That’s your insecurities, not mine. Plenty of white cats are a part of the ancestral lineage because when you really look at it from a genetic point of view, we all have African roots. But your ability to accept the way things are and to deal with your own shit affects how you connect to that. If, as a white person, if you’ve been endowed certain privileges, you have other steps to go through to get to that than someone Black. Life is unfair. It was unfair to my fucking ancestors on the ships.

EI:  No one ever said you gotta play Black music to a white person. That’s their choice. The white person wants to play music that Black people originated, that’s the white person’s choice.

Elvin Jones. Let’s finish up with Elvin.

NP:  [pause] Gangsta.

Just did the fuck what he wanted to do. Said what he wanted to say.

These are complex individuals, you know. They can’t be sized up at face value. Like you just see them and you know all their fucking labors? He’s from that era of Black men — him, Hank Jones — like when you listen to them talk there’s an aristocratic accent in their voices, you know what I’m talking about?

EI:  Yeah.

NP:  There’s a bit of a European-English-type of thing that they talked with. You can hear it in Marvin Gaye. It’s a certain era of Black, but they’ll fuck you up. Like you’ll listen to them talk and he seems meek and humble, but they’ll joog you in the back with a knife if you do something crazy, so don’t get it twisted.

I remember one of my first tours through Europe and I thought it was cool how on the plane they serve you a little wine with your meal, so I started collecting these wine bottles. I didn’t drink at the time, I just thought it was a cool souvenir, and I was gonna give them to people when I got back. Elvin had peeped me doing it for a couple days, but he didn’t say nothing.

So one morning it was an early departure somewhere, like six in the morning and he follows me into the bathroom and he’s like, “You got those wines?”

I’m like, “Yeah, they’re in my trumpet case,” so I crack open my trumpet case and gave him a bottle.

He was like, “You ain’t gonna have none?”

I’m like, “No, I don’t drink.”

And then he looked at me with the most disdain anyone has perhaps ever given me in my life, and he said, very deliberately, “Something ain’t right about somebody who don’t do nothing wrong.”

And that just hit me. Going back to this thing I talk about, this idea of perfection and being pristine and the whole “I don’t do this” and “I don’t do that.” Now, granted I was fucking 18 years old and there’s a lot of shit that I really didn’t do, but him saying that just really brought some things to home. Like, these were real motherfuckers.

And, in his case, because there’s no other way to put it: he was a real fucking Nigga.

Like that’s what the fuck he was, from Pontiac, Michigan, from the elements they grew up in. And being a heroin user at a certain point in his life, like the type of environments he would have to be able to negotiate when you’re involved in drug culture just to survive. What that makes you.

That shit goes into the music. That shit goes into your ride cymbal.

Now I’m not saying you have to shoot up and I’m not saying like you gotta live in the ’hood to have this certain kind of thing, but I’d be remiss to say that those parts of your collective experience doesn’t go into the music.

A lot of times we don’t have to go through that if someone has paid those debts for us, and we acknowledge them. It’s almost like a Jesus Christ-type of syndrome: they died for your sins therefore you don’t have to, so there has to be the respect there.

You could take the long way, and many people have, shooting up and doing this and doing that and getting your teeth knocked out and being whatever if you feel like that’s what you need to have your music be real.  Or, you could just really respect the motherfucker and listen to who’s been through that, and know enough and learn enough to know like, “I can get all the advantages of his struggles and his sacrifice without having to have a motherfucker jack me up in an alley trying to get some heroin.”

I can’t stress enough that “jazz” sits outside of that. “Jazz” won’t tell you that. You might get kicked out of a school for talking about the content that I’m talking about with these people. These are the real stories and these are the stories that they’ve shared with me — and there are some stories that I would never tell because it’s just not my place to tell somebody else’s personal business that they shared with me — but there’s some things I’m beginning to feel need to be said, because this sanitized view that we have of the music is actually serving to kill the music.

These stories were told to me for a reason, and some of them need to be shared for the sake of the music.

EI:  Please keep sharing your stories, Nicholas. I’ll keep reading you, and thanks for your time today.

Nicholas Payton’s blog.