Nicholas Payton says jazz is dead, and should be.

Musician Nicholas Payton has a blog (actually, it’s here on WordPress) in which he recently wrote a piece on why jazz isn’t cool any more. It’s kind of semi-poetic, and uses language little kids shouldn’t hear, but you should read it if you are interested in any kind of music written past 1900.

He says jazz died in 1959, and that we should let it go. His language is a little stronger than that.

I was buying into the piece for about half of it. I figured he was trying to make a point that what we call “jazz” today still has its roots in post-bop, and that in many ways we’ve not moved past it and allowed it to develop.

Then he said that he doesn’t play jazz, he plays Postmodern New Orleans music. He defines some of the artists who played, respectively, Traditional New Orleans music, Modern New Orleans music, Avant-garde New Orleans music, and Neoclassical New Orleans music. He says, “I don’t let others define who I am.”

But, he did. He took the bait. In defining the music he and others play as having roots in New Orleans music, he limited himself to the understanding of that kind of music that others have. The label “New Orleans music” may be a complex one to him, but to many of those who read it, it conjures up traditional New Orleans music. This music is what others refer to as “traditional jazz.” At least, I think that’s the same music he’s referring to.

If he doesn’t want to be defined by others, he shouldn’t put labels on himself. That’s what he did.  He just created the label. By using the words “New Orleans” he eliminates from consideration any possible influences he would like to embrace that might have come from musicians who were not based in New Orleans.

Maybe he means that his music is in a direct line from traditional jazz. Does that mean that there is no music outside of that tradition that he considers influential in his own work? I find that difficult to swallow.

I’m afraid what he means is that he is part of a lineage of exclusively black musicians. I understand that point of view, but only to a degree. By now, over a hundred years since “Traditional New Orleans music” was created, music rooted in that tradition is played by musicians of all colors and many cultures. As a white musician I know I need to be aware of the traditions and the roots of the music, but I do not agree with anyone who says that improvisatory American music is exclusively in the domain of “the black experience.”

I think as long as any musician, black, white, or any other color or cultural group, narrows his (or her) view to something like that, he has just stifled his creativity. I admire the genius of all sorts of musicians, and who play all different kinds of music. Listen to this new “supergroup” called SuperHeavy. Put together by Dave Stewart, it includes Mick Jagger and Joss Stone, almost two generations apart; Damian Marley (youngest son of Bob Marley), and Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman. You would think the combination of styles of music these musicians were comfortable with would make it impossible to create a cohesive musical whole, but they do. (At least, in my opinion.)

So I would say to Nicholas Payton, for whom I have great respect: relax and just make the best music you can. Try every day to make music that touches people, somehow. You do a damn fine job of that now, but don’t create labels for yourself that will restrict you and blind you to new ideas.

I think I would say that to practically any musician, come to think of it.


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