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Nicholas Payton Interview


Julio, 2024

By: Claudia Tebar

Photos: Nicholas Payton



Not everyone is lucky enough to sit down with someone like Nicholas Payton. In this interview that Nicholas Payton gave us in November 2023, you can see the renowned artist in a personal setting. Mr. Payton, not only talks about music, but also about his philosophy of life, his self-perception, and his opinion on current society.


In&OutJazz How do you define yourself? Where does the term “The Zen Gangster” come from and what does it mean to you?

Nicholas Payton I didn’t come up with that, so that’s not a self-definition. Vijay Iyer called me “The Zen Gangster” and I thought it was a bit apropos given my nature. Much like The Savior of Archaic Pop, which a lot of people think I’m calling myself a savior, no, someone else called me that and I adopted it.

In&OutJazz What does it mean to you to be The Savior of Archaic Pop?

Nicholas Payton Well, it’s been one of my monikers for over 10 years. Someone wrote a post about me on a blog site called “The Pop of Yestercentury,” you can look it up. But it was in the wake of the initial post that I made about why jazz isn’t cool anymore; they wrote an article talking about the concepts behind my post and they branded me that. Their theory behind it was that I, in some way, was trying to save pop music by reconnecting it to its roots in Black American music, the genesis of pop music before so-called jazz separated itself from the popular aesthetic. So, again, this was someone else coming up with a name that I adopted, but it wasn’t me calling myself anything.

In&OutJazz Can you tell us about the term #BAM?

Nicholas Payton Okay, well, I don’t like the term “jazz”. I believe it has racist connotations and roots. So, when I wrote the initial post, a lot of people were like, well, if you don’t call it jazz, what would you call it? And I simply said Black American Music. We live in the age of the internet and hashtags, so #BAM is an acronym for Black American Music. I thought it was a cool way to have somewhat of an onomatopoeic destruction of the word “jazz,” so, #BAM is a declaration of strength affirming the idea of Black American Music.

In&OutJazz What has the #BAM concept meant to you on a musical level as a new idea and criticism of what’s established? What have been some of the consequences for you? Not consequences in a bad way, but just in general.

Nicholas Payton I don’t know if there’s been any musical consequences per se. I mean, I’ve had people not want to give me gigs or think I’m angry or racist for saying it, but I mean, I knew before I said it that that was the risk of speaking to this because I’m challenging the status quo. I’m challenging decades long of musical oppression and centuries long of racial oppression. So, I was well aware of what I was doing, and I was willing to accept the consequences for my actions because what I had to say about it is important. And it was also ahead of its time when I started speaking to this. We were in the height of the Obama years, and a lot of people felt maybe that we had crossed over or come past certain racial things. This predated George Floyd, and predated Tamir Rice. It predated Trayvon Martin. It predated Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement. So, in light of all those things, after they happened, over time, the concept of #BAM became more sensible to people. So, I think what happened was perhaps it was before its time, which is strange to me because racial oppression has never gone anywhere. It never dissipated. It just changed forms. But I think to a lot of people, maybe they were under the impression that somehow we had advanced a lot further than we actually had. And I think what I helped uncover is that we are not as advanced as perhaps we thought we were. So…

Then, whereas it seemed like a majority of people did not agree and were against me, fast forward 10 plus years later, I think a majority of people actually understand my point and actually agree. So, it just took time for a lot of people to see, which to me seemed pretty plain and obvious, but it wasn’t, which is why I needed to speak on it the way I did.

In&OutJazz Do you think your critical and controversial nature has interfered or interferes in the present with your work?

Nicholas Payton I don’t view myself as controversial. It’s just that we live in a society in which the things I see and the ways I feel tend to be in opposition of a lot of the ways we’ve been taught to think and feel. But I don’t intentionally set out to be controversial. These are ways in which I quite naturally think and feel.

In&OutJazz Could you name some contemporary musicians or artists with whom you have greater musical and conceptual affinity?

Nicholas Payton Anybody who’s recorded with me, I would say. Bill Stewart, Vicente Archer, the people who have been playing with me for years. Kats in Butcher Brown, Corey Fonville and Devonne Harris and all of those guys. I like Joel Ross.

In&OutJazz Yeah, can you tell us some names with whom you have conceptual affinity? Maybe you haven’t played with them, but you know, they have similar opinions and support the term #BAM.

Nicholas Payton Well, I don’t judge if people support Black American Music or not. People have a right to feel and label their music as they choose. What I do find important is the idea that people self-label and not think they have to succumb to being labeled. So whatever someone wants to call it, whatever they want to do, I’m open with it. For instance, Christian Scott, who I’ve known since he was a teenager in New Orleans, he calls what he does “stretch music” and that’s cool, but he also doesn’t like the term jazz. Different people have different ways of expressing that. I’m all for that, whatever it is. I just don’t like the term jazz. I find it to be particularly degenerating, derogatory to the music.

In&OutJazz Do you prioritize creative freedom above all?

Nicholas Payton I don’t know. I don’t think creative freedom is more important than, say, having clean water and clean air or having a certain moral character in which people treat one another.

There’re certain things in terms of living on this planet in this realm that I find to be more important than music. The creative part is just a means for me to utilize the art to speak to those freedoms that we have as beings on this planet. So the music to me is not even the most important thing. It’s what I create and how I make people feel and changing thought. Most of us as beings in this realm, on this planet, are oppressed in some way. We feel some lack of freedom, not necessarily creatively, but just to be ourselves, to think as we want to think, to live as we want to live. The Earth’s natural resources are something that we are forced to pay for, that are commodified and monetized. I don’t think we should have to pay for water any more than we don’t pay for air. To pay for water is as ridiculous to me. The fact that people don’t have access to clean water is more important than if we call music “jazz” or “Black American music.” So the point of art to me is to speak to those socio-political issues. I try to use music and words as a means to speak to our liberation as beings and people on this planet. That’s the most important thing to me.

In&OutJazz Can you define what creative freedom means to you?

Nicholas Payton Well, I think that’s a bit redundant. I mean, it’s the same thing. You can’t be free without being creative and you can’t be creative without being free. But you also can’t have freedom without tradition and form. So, to me, you have to have an understanding of history and lineages and those who came before you to be truly free. Some people want to be free of rules or free of traditions or free of whatever. And to me, that’s not true freedom. There’s only freedom within the context of confines and rules and form. That’s not to say you need to be oppressed to be free. But, in order to be free, one must have some understanding of what the limitations are. It must be contextualized against something. You can’t be free within free. It has to be contextualized against something else, juxtaposed against something that is perhaps more static or less lucid, if you will.

In&OutJazz How do you feel about having become identified as a guru? Guru of this community, guru of the arts.

Nicholas Payton A guru is what a teacher is, is that what you mean by guru?

In&OutJazz Yes.

Nicholas Payton I mean, yeah, I am a teacher of sorts. I thought it was weird at first, you know, when I first started giving lessons and teaching, because at that time in my, I guess, early, mid 20s, I still very much considered myself a student. And even at 50, I still consider myself a student. But yeah, I think I’ve learned some things along the way. And I think a part of learning things is sharing what you have learned with those who may not have had those experiences, as my elders did for me. So that’s why lineage and tradition is important because it’s important that we share what we find along our journey as a means of helping the music and this artistic community grow. That’s a part of the tradition to me. So, yeah, if some people see me as a guru of sorts, I guess I get that. It’s certainly nothing I necessarily set out to do. But at the same time, it’s something that I proudly step into, a position and a mantle and a responsibility that I accept because there are certain artists or gurus of mine, which many people perhaps don’t have access to because they’re not around in the physical realm anymore. And it’s incumbent upon me to be a link to those people for younger generations through my experiences with them. And not only that, but the things that I’ve learned or the concepts that I’ve been able to develop in my experiences and making mistakes and doing things perhaps the wrong way or not the most efficient way. I’ve learned maybe easier ways to do things, and if something that I’ve learned can help someone younger than me save some time of going through the headaches and the challenges that I’ve been through, then I have no problem sharing that to make their journeys easier with hopes that they can learn something from this information and maybe improve upon it and teach that to someone coming after them. That is the main part of what it is that we do here. The work that I do here is that we share what we’ve learned and hopefully make the journey easier for other people that we share this planet with. To me, I value that above music itself or creative freedom. This is to help one another, make this journey easier.

In&OutJazz Could you name a couple of teachings or experiences that you’ve had in the past that have changed your life or the vision you had about something? Anecdotes with other artists when you were younger or even in the present?

Nicholas Payton Sure. We could be here all day doing that. I am getting ready to release my first book, Notes from the Zen Gangster, which should come out some time in the next couple of weeks. And that’s full of anecdotes and stories and things that I’ve learned along the way.

In&OutJazz Wow, okay. We will pay attention to that.

Nicholas Payton Please, thank you.

In&OutJazz How would you define your musical evolution?

Nicholas Payton I don’t know if I would. The only thing that’s really mattered to me is that I’ve evolved.

For me, there is no need to have to define it. It’s been my musical journey. And when I look at it, I can say that I’m proud of my growth, that I have grown. I feel blessed and honored to still be here and to still be creating new things and discovering new things. I feel honored at the great musicians I’ve been blessed to work with and learn from and share with. But I don’t know if I would define it. I don’t know if I can because it’s not over yet. I don’t know if I can while I’m still doing it.

In&OutJazz Could you tell us what period or vital moment are you in now, musically speaking?

Nicholas Payton Is that the same answer? I don’t know. I’m creating it right now, so it’s hard for me to say what it is while I’m creating it. Once I do the album, that album has a name and that’s usually the end of whatever that is. Once we go on the road and play the music, the music often evolves and that becomes something else. So that album, those recordings are a snapshot in time and can’t be recreated, not even by myself. I can’t recreate those moments. So I don’t really seek to define things or categorize things in that way, which is kind of why I opt for, if this could even be considered a categorization, Black American music because it’s open-ended. I don’t like genre classifications. I don’t like those types of definitions. They’re stifling to me. They stunt growth.

In&OutJazz Tell us about celebrating your 50th birthday with the publication of a new album came about.

Nicholas Payton It was a last minute idea, kind of like everything else I do. When I recorded it, I had no idea when it would come out. I just knew I wanted to get an album out some time this year. Initially, it was supposed to come out on September 9 and the person I had helping me upload it to the portal made a mistake in leaving out some of the guest appearances, so I picked another date. The next closest date that made sense to me was September 26, which was my 50th birthday, but there was no initial plan to release a 50th birthday album. I live my life as a free-flowing, creative form of exploration, moment to moment. I don’t tend to plan these things well in advance.

In&OutJazz How was your experience with Verve Records and why did you decide to create your own record label?

Nicholas Payton I enjoyed my time at Verve. It was a long time ago. I mean, the last album I made for them was in 2000, 2001. It was over 20 years ago. I’ve since been at Warner Brothers. I did two albums for them. I did an album for Concord. I started my own label because I grew over having to adhere to someone else’s schedule, which was based on other artists and other releases. I wanted to be able to record and release as many albums as I wanted to without having to get approval and consent from anyone else in terms of how I did that. Even though when I was at Verve, I was very good at developing a sales pitch to get people on board to support what it is I was doing. But I don’t have to create sales pitches anymore. Just like I told you, I decide “Hey, I want to release it on the 9th. Okay, that’s not going to work. I want to release it on the 26th.” I don’t have to pass this decision through someone else. I don’t have to wait months for someone’s release schedule and a publicist and this and that. So many of the inner workings that happen at labels, you have to wait six months for a setup to release an album. I can record an album today, mix it and master it tomorrow, and release it on the third day for the world to hear.

That’s why I started my own label, to be able to do it the way I want to do it, when I want to do it.

In&OutJazz What’s your experience and opinion with the big festivals, clubs, and events? Do they put limitations on you when they are hire you? Do you think they leave artists complete freedom or not?

Nicholas Payton I don’t know. Every festival, every venue is different. Some venues want to know who’s playing with you, they want to know the concept of the gig. Some venues don’t care and they’re perfectly fine with whomever you bring and whatever you do. Everybody’s different. Ultimately, nobody can make you do something you don’t want to do, so I think every artist has the choice to do what it is they want. Now, you also might have to pay the consequences for that. You have to pay the consequences for your choices or your actions to comply with what you’re being asked to do, or not comply with what you’re being asked to do. At the end of the day, you have to live with your decisions and that’s how I’ve always guided my career. None of these people at a record label or at a venue have to live with your performance. You do, so you have to be happy with it. So yeah, there are no rules as far as how everyone runs their business. Everyone’s different. Some venues, some festivals have a heavier hand and want to have more input than others. So unless we go down the list name by name, festival by festival, we can’t categorize them all as one way or another.

In&OutJazz Let’s generalize, do you think it’s more one way or another? There’s no predominant way?

Nicholas Payton I’m not overly concerned with freedom because no one else controls that. I think to be obsessed with freedom is more problematic than the reality of living your life. It all comes down to how free you’re willing to be responsible for, because with freedom comes responsibility. How many people really want to be free? That’s more the question. It’s not a question of can you be free? I don’t think a lot of people want the responsibility that comes with freedom. That’s the issue.

In&OutJazz Can you tell us what projects do you have active right now?

Nicholas Payton A lot. I have a new album I just started recording with Sasha Masakowski That’s going to be the musical companion to the book, Notes from the Zen Gangster and it’ll be my first duo album. It’s also going to be my first drumless album as a leader. And the music is very meditative. The book is coming out of the intense lessons and questions that I’ve had along my journey of studying Zen maybe some 20 years ago. I’m also working on a new project with Otis McDonald. I’ve been working at his studio for the last year or so. Somewhat of an R&B album with me singing through a vocoder. I also have some special guest vocalists that are probably going to be on it as well. But much of it is me singing in the vocoder, which is not something that I’ve done in the past. So that’s a new form of expression for me. When this album is released, it’ll be the third in a trilogy of love-themed, R&B albums. Bitches would be the first, Maestro Rhythm King the second. And this next one that I still haven’t decided the title yet will be the third in that series so far. I have another album that I’ve been working on with Marcus Gilmore that we started at the top of the pandemic. It’s a tribute to the photographic works of Kwame Brathwaite, who was very instrumental in spearheading the Black is Beautiful movement in the ‘60s. We chose photographic works from his archives and composed original songs that sound like the photographs. That’s another project. Then there’s New World Order, which is a trio I have with Sasha Masakowski and Cliff Hines. This is the group that made the Quarantined with Nick album that I did at the top of 2020. On New World Order, we also have some special guests. Christian Sands guested on a song. Joshua Redman guested on a song. Also Butcher Brown guested on a song. So that will come out maybe some time next year. I also have an album, Light Beings that I recorded in 2019 that I was going to release in 2020, but when the pandemic happened I decided to sit on it. I want to get this album out soon. It’s basically a suite of music dedicated to the electromagnetic spectrum. Seven movements, each song is dedicated to a different wave of light. The song Visible Light, which is on my latest album, DRIP, is actually from that Light Beings project. So yeah. And I have maybe 3, 4, 5 other albums that are almost done, that are unreleased, that I want to get out at some point. A lot of things.

In&OutJazz Impressive! Can you tell us about the creative process? What inspires you to start a new project?

Nicholas Payton I always feel it. I never turn that faucet off. It stays running, so I don’t look at creativity as something you turn on and off. I keep that tap running and that way I don’t have to think about it. This is why I have more albums than I know what to do with. I’m always recording. I’m always inspired. Life inspires me. That’s what inspires me. Not music. Life inspires me. As I live my life, my life has certain sounds to it. So I write music based on my feelings, or people I meet, or loves that I have or that I’ve lost. All of these experiences go into creating music. And I write all the time. I don’t give myself a schedule to have to write. I don’t need permission to write. Whenever I hear a melody or a rhythm or a set of chords, I record it and I put it down and I develop these ideas. That is my life’s work. That’s what I do. I’m always writing. Whenever I have a thought or an idea, I write it down. And I compile these things. And over a course of 15 years, then you have a book. Over a course of several months or weeks or days, you have an album. So I just keep making things.

In&OutJazz Could you tell us one thing you would like to do and you haven’t done yet?

Nicholas Payton I don’t know. I guess I won’t know that until I do it. The only thing that stops me from doing certain things is maybe having the money to do it. But I’ve done everything that I want to do, really. I’ve played with most of the people that I’ve wanted to play with. I’ve done most of the things that I want to do. I don’t look for permission. That’s the big thing. I think so many musicians, they look for somebody to give them permission to do something. The artist, to me, does not wait. That’s the difference between an artist and a musician. The artist just does it. They don’t wait for permission. So I consider myself more of an artist. I do the things that I want to do. I seek the opportunities that I want to have and I take the risks necessary to bring those opportunities to light and to create those things. And once you get working on them, then you bring a lot of energy to you. So I don’t sit around and wait for people to give me permission to do what it is that I have the power to do myself.


Interview by: Claudia Tebar

Julio 02, 2024

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