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Nicholas Payton Remembers Dr. John

The trumpeter and keyboardist pays tribute to his fellow New Orleanian (11/20/41 – 6/6/19)

Dr. John
Dr. John on his way to record the Bluesiana Triangle album at Acme Studios in Mamaroneck, N.Y., March 5, 1990 (photo: Ebet Roberts)

Being a product of a musical family, and growing up in New Orleans, I never didn’t know about Dr. John; he was just always there. He was one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, just a true original, not only musically but in terms of his speech. The cat had his own language. He made up words; he was a neologist.
            We used to talk about all sorts of things. He liked to talk about the New Orleans cats and the older people and his experiences there, and things not related to New Orleans too. The amount of stuff he knew and the cats he had been around and performed with was vast—not only coming up in New Orleans when he did, but then being in L.A. [as a studio musician] as well.
            And that translated into the music. His feel, and everything about him, just really oozed New Orleans. At any point in time, when you’re hearing him, you’re only hearing a small part of what he can do. Playing with him, I was always continuously amazed at the wellspring he had to draw from and what he had at his disposal.
            We worked together on his Louis Armstrong album [2014’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch]. He told me that the whole project came about after he had a dream, that Louis Armstrong visited him in his sleep and said he wanted him to do his music. He did the project as a result of that.
            He’s also on my Armstrong record, [2001’s] Dear Louis, on “Mack the Knife” and “Blues in the Night.” I remember that when I first called him about that, he was a little apprehensive, but he agreed to do it anyway. When he showed up to the session, he told me, “When you called me, I didn’t know what you were going to do, ’cause you do all that modern stuff.” But my dad [bassist Walter Payton] was on that session too and [Dr. John] said, “When I saw Walter, I knew it was going to be all right.”
            Mac [his other principal nickname, short for his real given name, Malcolm] was hilarious, and always super-chill. I never saw him angry one time, or unfettered or upset. Not to say he didn’t get that way, but I certainly never saw it. Everything he said and did stood out.

[as told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Read JazzTimes‘ obituary for Dr. John and a personal remembrance of the Doctor from New Orleans pianist Josh Paxton.