New Orleans trumpeter and BAM proponent Nicholas Payton at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at UCLA.

Jay L. Clendenin • Los Angeles Times ,

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton: Don't call it jazz; call it Black American Music

  • Article by: Chris Barton
  • Los Angeles Times
  • May 6, 2013 - 3:11 PM


In a cramped UCLA classroom, trumpeter Nicholas Payton is leading a young septet of college students through his piece “The Backwards Step.” He’s here as part of a weeklong teaching residency, and the song he plays to the group at the Thelonious Monk Institute is led by his gliding trumpet. Framed by keyboard and vibraphone, it sounds like a simmering post-bop standard. But to Payton, this isn’t just jazz — it’s the sound of Black American Music.

BAM, an acronym Payton coined to break with the word “jazz,” is a term that’s become linked with the 39-year-old trumpeter.

“When Black American Music became ‘jazz,’ it separated itself from the American popular music idiom,” Payton posted on his blog in 2011. “I’m just trying to take it back to its roots.” He closed with a declaration: “I am Nicholas Payton and I play Black American Music.”

The New Orleans-based artist explained between classes, “I don’t have a problem with anyone who wants to refer to what they do as jazz. I do have a problem with the historical connotations of the word, which has been well documented. … Many great artists, including Thelonious Monk, were not fans of the word. [Sidney] Bechet, Miles, we can go on down the line.”

Payton’s oft-repeated Twitter hashtag, #BAM, has become something of a calling card, but he began his campaign with a 128-line post titled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” He included musings such as “jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians,” “jazz died in 1959” and “jazz is haunted by its own hungry ghosts.”

“I’m not against anyone supporting the music or playing the music,” Payton said. “But the fact that it’s been misappropriated and mislabeled and packaged as such that it doesn’t have anything to do with the black community is ultimately detrimental to the art form. … It’s not about renaming it so much as giving the proper acknowledgment to those who created it.”

Support and dissent

He campaigned on the social media site Thunderclap, where he proposed to have BAM added as a genre on the music site CD Baby. He set a goal of 500 supporters, which he exceeded a day before his deadline in March. Musicians were among those joining his cause on Twitter, including the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea.

But not everyone agreed. His ideas rubbed many the wrong way, especially because he is far from a fringe figure in jazz. The son of New Orleans bassist and composer Walter Payton, he is a respected musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of the music’s history and enough of a mainstream presence to have toured as part of an ad-hoc band celebrating the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records.

The term BAM has become a particularly hot topic over the past year, which saw jazz artists tapping into the broader spectrum of black popular music, such as hip-hop, soul and funk on Grammy-winning releases from Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper, who has played with Payton.

When asked about BAM in 2012, Glasper agreed with Payton’s ideas — to a point. “I understand the origin of the word [jazz] and I understand what Nicholas is talking about, and I respect that,” he explained. “I just don’t think to call it Black American Music is the way to go, because there’s a whole lot of black American music under that umbrella, and they all have names. So now what?”

He added, “I think the umbrella is BAM, but this piece of the genre that doesn’t want to be called jazz needs to be called something else.”

Others reacted harshly, such as fellow Crescent City native Branford Marsalis, who tartly dismissed Payton’s talk as “nothing” and “a nondiscussion” in a 2012 interview with JazzTimes. Marsalis’ response surprised Payton, particularly because he sees that the two fundamentally agree about the jazz tradition. “I’ve seen him in the past say essentially the same thing,” he said. “It’s not so much what I’m saying, it’s just that he’s used to creating the conversation. … It’s been hard for [Branford] to admit that I’m right.”

Payton’s advocacy of BAM has also resulted in some in the jazz community branding him a racist. “Saying something is black has become offensive to the mainstream, which shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

There is no way to talk about Payton’s views on jazz without talking about race and the language surrounding it. Over a freewheeling conversation that touched on Al Sharpton, technology’s impact on society and ’70s television, Payton scoffed at the idea of a “post-racial” society. Among his examples are the Trayvon Martin case, proposed shifts in language about slavery in textbooks and the immigration debate.

“That whole dichotomy like we see here, it’s ‘Go back to Mexico.’ This was actually Mexico before you quarantined and marginalized a whole section of people and said, ‘This is yours,’ ” he said. “That’s what’s happened with black people, that’s what happened with jazz. It’s been taken and we’ve been erased out of it, and it’s been called something else.”

It’s a situation that Payton sees as playing a role in a disengagement on the part of black people from jazz, which he feels BAM would help address.

“I think the image that many black folks associate with jazz is primarily being white music. Because that’s who goes out to the clubs, that’s who they see,” he said. “If you ask most black folks or maybe people in general who is the most popular living jazz artist, they might say Kenny G.”

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