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Nicholas Payton: Black Keys

How the polarizing trumpeter, bandleader and blogger found his way to the piano bench

Nicholas Payton
Nicholas Payton (l.) with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, Oct. 2014
Nicholas Payton multitasks on trumpet and keyboards, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, Oct. 2014
Nicholas Payton in 1998 (with Jon Faddis looking on)

In his controversial 2011 blog post “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” trumpeter Nicholas Payton asserted, among other things, that he’s “not the same dude” he was a decade and a half ago. “Isn’t that the point?” he asked. “Our whole purpose on this planet is to evolve.”

That pronouncement hasn’t attracted as much attention as some of his other sentiments: “Jazz is an oppressive colonialist slave term,” for example, or its follow-up, “I play Black American Music,” which yielded the hashtag #BAM. But it resonates deeply, both in light of Payton’s evolution as a cultural critic and his changing focus from the trumpet toward the piano bench, where he’s settled in as a leader in recent years.

At the moment, Payton, 42, is settled into a booth at the New Orleans seafood haunt Frankie & Johnny’s, near his home in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. Clad in a Saints cap and a T-shirt featuring the logo of the band Trumpet Mafia, Payton considers what compelled him to veer off the path that earned him a Grammy and decades of critical acclaim.

On a basic level, he explains, it was a pragmatic move. But there’s also another advantage. After becoming increasingly adept on keys over the past few years, he began playing trumpet with one hand and either Fender Rhodes, piano or organ with the other, essentially converting his trio into a quartet at will. It’s a skill that has opened up a whole new realm of musical possibilities while expanding his voice within the context of his band. “The cumulative effects of opening that door add so much vibrancy to what I’m able to express,” he explains.

“I didn’t set out to do it as a gimmick or some kind of parlor trick, even though it does have that type of entertainment value, perhaps. I set out to do it out of just … function. I want to play these things that I want to hear. It’s easier for me to do that than to try to coax someone else to do it.”


Like his blogging, which touched a nerve in the music community when he divorced himself from the notion of “jazz,” redefining his artistic output in terms of “BAM,” the Rhodes and trumpet/keyboard combo add weapons to his arsenal of expressive devices. The results are reflected in three strong albums, #BAM: Live at Bohemian Caverns, Letters and Numbers, each of which built on its predecessor, adding new depth and dynamics to his repertoire. “When I play trumpet and piano or keyboards at the same time, there’s so much that hasn’t been done,” he explains. “To be at the cusp, at the vanguard of expanding technique for a voice that doesn’t have much of a recorded history? That’s a whole other realm. … It’s a new frontier.”

On 2014’s Numbers, featuring Payton almost exclusively on Rhodes alongside the Virginia-based quartet Butcher Brown, he left as much space as possible for interpretation, compiling pieces of music he’d already written but not yet used into 12 soulful, open-ended tunes designed with the idea that listeners might play along to the music. Letters followed the next year, reuniting Payton with his main trio bandmates, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart, in a context blending hard-bop motifs with swinging grooves and shades of funk and R&B. The disc also found Payton performing at the top of his game on acoustic piano, organ and Rhodes, which he occasionally used to accompany himself on trumpet solos.

Payton’s committed himself to exploring new musical terrain for the better part of his career, which had already been prolific and wide-reaching, style-wise, despite his relatively young age. In that sense, his latest shift feels like a natural progression.

Initially branded a traditionalist-“unfairly so, but OK,” he concedes-Payton experimented with electronic effects and lyric-writing in the late ’90s, leading a band called the Time Machine that drew on funk motifs and an R&B sensibility. At that point he’d already snagged a Grammy for his 1997 release with Doc Cheatham, and was consistently putting out tight and fiery forays into hard bop.

By 1999’s [email protected], the trumpeter felt more confident in his grasp of what he calls “a certain tradition of straight-ahead,” and started experimenting with less orthodox instrumentation. “I was hearing something else, keyboard-wise,” he recalls, “so that’s why I have the harpsichord and the celeste, which are sort of like Rhodes and clarinet.” He was also pretty much ready to break out of the Young Lion mold.

In 2001 Payton released Dear Louis, an album he describes as “a farewell to the idea that I needed to uphold someone else’s idea of traditions.” It wasn’t a defining feature of the album, but Payton contributed some Rhodes to the record, as well as flugelhorn and vocals. “I’ve always loved the Rhodes. In fact, growing up in the ’70s, most of the music that I heard around me was Fender Rhodes, and that was the piano of choice then. A lot of clubs didn’t have acoustic pianos,” he says. “It just has such a warm, lush sound. You have to work really hard to make it sound ugly. And it has a great sustain. It has more sustain than a piano. And in a lot of contexts, I think it blends better with instruments than a piano.”

Payton’s arrangements on Dear Louis updated the tradition associated with Louis Armstrong, imbuing classic tunes and solos with a contemporary feel. In subsequent work with his B-3-centric band Soul Patrol and the hip-hop- and groove-soaked Sonic Trance, Payton continued to push the music forward without compromising the traditions that helped birth it. Sonic Trance also featured more of Payton’s multi-instrumental capabilities. While trumpet remained his primary focus, Payton played keys, flugelhorn, bass and drums, underscoring his growing interest in developing a wider palette from which to express himself. Still, he was sticking to trumpet in performance settings.


That started to change in the months after the 2005 levee breaches that devastated New Orleans. With musicians scattered across the country, venues struggling to stay open and power flickering on and off across the city, the New Orleans music scene was suffering. Payton wanted to help remedy that, so he proposed playing a series of free late sets at the club Snug Harbor on weekends. “That’s when I started playing trumpet and piano at the same time,” he recalls. It’s also when he came to terms with the difficulty of what he was trying to do.

“One of those nights, some guy [pointed out] I was playing in two keys at the same time. And I had never thought about it; I was just doing it. Then I started thinking about it and it kind of fucked me up. I had to relearn what I was doing instinctually,” he says. “At a certain point it was just a textural thing for me, and also a way to be more a part of the music the whole time. … Playing a melody, taking trumpet solos and standing on the side of the stage for a majority of the show … just felt boring after a while.”

Drummer Shannon Powell, who’s known and worked with Payton since he was a kid, remembers being astounded by his expertise on trumpet and piano at the Snug gigs. “Nicholas is a guy that constantly practices and sheds,” says Powell, who proudly claims he gave Payton his first professional gig, at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street, with singer, banjoist and guitarist Danny Barker, when the trumpeter was a young teenager. “I can hear some improvement every time I hear him play. That’s the way Wynton is. They’re both constantly shedding and trying to perfect their craft.”

Though Payton’s played trumpet since age 4-“something about the instrument spoke to me,” he says-he’s played multiple instruments for most of his life, just as he’s explored various styles of music. His father, the acclaimed bassist Walter Payton, alternated between bass and sousaphone, and worked with players ranging from Lee Dorsey to Aaron Neville to Ellis Marsalis to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The piano that Walter shared with Nicholas’ mother, a classically trained pianist, maintained a central position in the family’s home and remains a strong source of musical memory for Nicholas, who used to sit beneath it when musicians like Marsalis and Professor Longhair would work their magic on its keys. “This cat Eddie Collins would come around,” Payton recalls. “The late, great Ed Frank was another. He had one hand. He played with his right hand but he never missed [his left]. Seeing guys like that really impacted me.”

He was also drawn to Herbie Hancock, whose sound, touch and chordal voicings, among other elements, continue to influence Payton. “He’s one of those rare, quintessential-type pianists. You can put him in any context with anybody and he’s going to sound like himself. But he’s also going to uplift the music and serve the music,” Payton says.

His bandmates over the years get that what he’s doing runs much deeper. “I’ve been struck for years by Nicholas’ ability to play multiple instruments-drums, bass, etc.-at a high level,” keyboardist Kevin Hays writes in an email. “He’s such a remarkable musician and seems to be able to absorb any music he hears very quickly.”

Hays worked with Payton regularly from the early 2000s through Into the Blue, from 2008, which marked a turning point with regard to Payton’s instrument of choice as a leader. Prior to the session, Payton set up Pro Tools in his house and recorded demos of the material on each instrument. “There are people who can play an instrument, but they might just be playing a line or a written-out part. He’s adding some kind of flavor to it, too,” Vicente Archer says. “He’s hearing where the music can go. Hearing those demos, it was like, ‘Wow,'” he continues, laughing. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.”

Archer was one of multiple associates who suggested Payton record an album by himself. It seemed like “a novelty” to him, Payton says, until he developed the idea for the vocal R&B project Bitches, much of which was based on leftover demos from Into the Blue. Bitches came out in 2011, the same year Payton launched his “BAM” campaign, which heightened the exposure of his writing online. By then he was leading from the piano bench regularly and working toward launching his own label, BMF, now Paytone. All those elements indicated that he sought a greater degree of control in both his artistic expression and in the way others define it. “He’s not focusing on what people consider him to be famous for,” Powell points out. “Coming from New Orleans, if you get famous doing one certain thing people expect you to do that the rest of your life. People have a tendency to want to categorize musicians.”


Archer agrees that Payton has more control of the music these days. “We’re very elastic with the music, [with] form and harmonically,” he says. “It gives the songs even more of a breath of fresh air each time we play.”

In terms of artistic evolution, Payton is still open to new ideas and vocabularies. He recently completed work on Textures, an album created entirely with the software program Logic-no live instruments-that he recorded alongside the visual artist Anastasia Pelias, who painted while he worked, each artist riffing on the other’s compositions. Payton remains involved with more conventional music as well, having produced, played on and written most of the arrangements for singer Jane Monheit’s upcoming tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

As for the resistance he’s encountered while challenging public and critical expectations-and there’s been plenty-recent recognition of his skill as a keyboardist has helped mitigate early complaints. “I guess I could have said, ‘Fuck it,’ and acquiesced to people’s expectations. But to me, you don’t ever get people to accept your artistry if you’re willing to cave because they want you to follow suit with whatever they expect you to do,” he muses. “You have to be willing to make sacrifices for the shit you feel strongly about.”

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Originally Published