The Payton Bait ‘n Switch: Nicholas Payton in Grand Rapids

I went to see the famous jazz trumpeter, Nicholas Payton, perform in the magnificent Royce Auditorium at St. Cecilia’s Music Center in Grand Rapids, and on that night, I did something I have never, ever done before: I walked out in the middle of a concert that I paid good money to attend.

I have to admit, though, that my reasons for attending were not purely because I wanted to hear Payton play. I’ve never heard him live before, but I was familiar with his earlier work and was always impressed with his musicianship and his skills as a trumpet player. Lately, the trumpet players I’ve been listening to include Tomas Stanko, Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu, and Ingrid Jensen. I just hadn’t kept up with the “Young Lions” from the ‘90s.

The reason I was interested in attending was because I had been reading and following Payton’s blog. Several months ago, a student of mine sent me a link to a post entitled On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore. I read the post with a mixture of amazement and sadness. It read like that 1:30 AM Facebook rant from someone you don’t really know all that well, but who is clearly in the process of publicly coming unhinged and whose drug-addled “poetry” must have seemed deep, philosophical, and authoritative when written under the influence of whatever white powder or brown liquid was being consumed; for those not under that influence, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here are a few examples from Payton’s blog:

Jazz died when cool stopped being hip.

Jazz was a limited idea to begin with.

Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.

The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.

Jazz ain’t shit.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

Jazz is incestuous.

Let it go.

Definitions are retrospective. 

Jazz, like the Buddha, is dead.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

Let it go, people, let it go.

Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz and someday all kings must fall.

Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.

Stop fucking the dead and embrace the living.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

 (Got it–you’re not a jazz musician, you’re a Postmodern New Orleans Musician, and we know that because you told us so. Three times.)

It’s not just that the tense is confusing (Is he making statements, or giving advice?), or that most of the statements don’t clarify anything (“Jazz ain’t shit”–OK–good argument), or that the statements are circular (Would jazz still be alive if “cool” was still “hip,” or if “hip” was still “cool”?), or that the metaphors are both tortured and immature, or that the statements are just false (the term “jazz” was forced on musicians?), or that it relies heavily on swearing and words with supposed shock value (“necrophilia” is mentioned twice, and referenced once), it’s that Payton must actually have convinced himself that this is a meaningful discourse on the state of jazz in today’s culture.

I followed the blog for awhile, and found more disturbing posts. Here are some titles:

 On Meditation And Taking a Shit…

 How “Brent Black” Can Go Smoke A Carton Of Cocks!

 Good Intent Is “De NIGGABITCH” With A Ghetto Ass And A Golden Throat

 On Sanctified Pussy…

I sent Payton’s blog links to several jazz musician friends, and they were all as confused and dismayed as I was. My view was that we were watching the jazz version of Charlie Sheen unravel in front our eyes on the internet. A few of my friends, however, disagreed. They said that his blog is just an act, a marketing tool, a clever way of generating controversy to kickstart a stalled career. That’s why I went to the concert. I wanted to see what a person who writes this kind of trash and nonsense actually sounds like when they walk out on stage and play. Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, I found out exactly what that sounds like.

To begin, let’s play a guessing game–Click here to listen to a mystery excerpt (it’s only 2 minutes long). Can you guess who the Rhodes player is?  Herbie Hancock maybe? Chick Corea? Jan Hammer? Russ Ferrante? Bill Evans? None of the above?

If you guessed “none of the above” you guessed right, and if you’re familiar with the remarkable history of electronic keyboards in jazz, you also know immediately that this is not part of it. In fact, this is none other than Nicholas Payton playing the ironically titled The Backwards Step from his album Into the Blue, which was the first tune they played at the concert in Grand Rapids. Payton played some trumpet as well, but played it one-handed while seated at the Rhodes electric piano.

The tune, with its banal, almost “smooth jazz” chord changes, lasted for about 25 minutes, and most of that was Payton playing a meandering, sophomoric keyboard solo not unlike what you heard in the example above. There’s no way to say this nicely: he’s not a piano player. His skills on the instrument would be impressive if he were a high school junior playing at a state festival, but he’s not, he’s a celebrated trumpet player playing a concert for about 500 people who paid good money to see him play the trumpet. Lest there be any confusion, his promotional materials and the marketing clearly advertised that we were paying to hear a trumpet legend play the trumpet, not to hear a trumpet legend noodle around on an instrument he can’t play for an hour.

After this tune, they played another original from the same album, and in this one, his Rhodes “solo” was filtered through a horrible effects box that distorted the sound in the most wretched manner imaginable. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rhodes piano and I love synthesizers, but this was so bad, I could hardly believe my ears. At times, it sounded like a “space ship landing” sound effect from a cheap sci-fi B-movie from the 1950s; then, it got more distorted and sounded like an early Moog synthesizer being pumped through a broken guitar amplifier. What it did seem to do, however, was turn the homophonic Rhodes into a monophonic (capable of only playing one pitch at a time) instrument that also slurred the movement from pitch to pitch. This is a trick used by most beginner keyboard players when they want to mask their poor technique, especially when attempting to play fast lines. Turn the synth to “monophonic” with some “portamento” and you think you’ve succeeded in making yourself sound more skilled than you really are.

I should also say that I have no problem with someone playing two instruments at the same time. Art Lande, for example, certainly does so with aplomb (it is hard to tell that one person is playing both the piano and the drums!).Trumpet and piano together, however, is more rare, but my good friend from Detroit, the late Ed Kubilus, regularly played gigs for 4-hours straight with the trumpet in his right hand, and a rock solid stride-based piano with his left hand. This was a truly amazing thing to hear, not because it was freakish, but because it was so musical and so effortlessly achieved. Payton has none of this in his “duet” playing.

How was all of this received by the audience? That is hard to say with complete certainty, but it did not appear that the audience was impressed. The applause was not enthusiastic, and there were several people around me who were texting and falling asleep after the first tune and its 25 pointless minutes. (The only thing that made it even marginally listenable was the aggressive, virtuosic playing of the drummer, Damion Reid, and the steady foundation provided by the bassist, Vicente Archer.)

I don’t normally critique or review performances, but I made an exception here, because what I witnessed was simply so outlandish that I will likely never see anything of the sort again. It reminded me of the trick that high school music students often play when there’s a substitute teacher–a few of the class clowns switch instruments, hilarity ensues. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a substitute audience, it was a real audience made up of about 500 people who paid to hear an outstanding jazz trumpet player, and instead, they heard a hack pianist indulge himself in his own inarticulate neophyte fantasies. Many of them won’t ever come to a jazz concert again, and I wouldn’t blame them. That’s okay I guess, because “Jazz ain’t shit,” right Nicholas?

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10 Responses to “The Payton Bait ‘n Switch: Nicholas Payton in Grand Rapids”

  1. Maybe if you went to the show with an open mind and not with an idea of what you wanted to hear or were going to hear, you might have had a different experience.

  2. Jennifer, I totally agree with you. However, I think whether you are a professional musician, casual listener or a non-musician and attend a concert with an open or closed mind you can tell when what you are hearing is good or bad.

    This performance was bad (and I’m not talking in the jazz hipster vernacular here). No way around the fact that there wasn’t anything happening during this concert. This was like “flock of seagulls” stuff. Just a gentle “swoosh-swoosh” of the rolling waves lapping gently on the seashore. It was a yawn-fest from the opening rubato meanderings…

    I was at the performance this blog refers to and it was awful. I am a professional musician, have played professionally for over 20 years and have heard amazing groups from all over the world. Within the first 30 seconds I could smell a SCAM (sorry no BAM at this performance).

    I did go with an “open mind” (& evidently an open wallet) and was really disappointed. I am allowed as a concert patron to leave early and say “that sucked”. I didn’t go to see a Barnum & Bailey Circus act (“Hey suckas’, watch me play trumpet with one hand and a poorly played Fender Rhodes with the other”). Why not just add a hi-hat & tambourine with your left foot Mr. Payton? Complete the one man band routine and call it a day. Tix could be $150 a person and you’d make even more dough!

    I expected to hear one of THE “Young Lions” blow us away with his technical prowess on the trumpet. Even his biography, in the program, made it sound like Mr. P was “…a culmination of all trumpeters that came before him”. Does this include Chuck Mangione Mr. Payton? Just curious.

    Speaking of Chuck Mangione, I found it insulting and rude that Mr. Payton introduced himself as “Chuck Mangione, on trumpet,” then adding, “It feels good!” It didn’t feel good. This would be like Dave Douglas introducing himself as “Louis Armstrong – Ooooh What a wonderful world!” (BTW, I think the racist train rides both ways. So for Mr. P to blurt out the Mangione comment is just as bad as a white trumpeter saying the opposite).

    I listen to a lot of jazz and love a lot of musicians, both black & white. I have many musician friends whom I deeply admire and respect. They take their craft seriously. Mr. P struck me as either bored playing the trumpet or just tired altogether of playing music.

    Had Mr. P just played trio, with himself solely on the trumpet, playing his tunes and maybe a few standards that would have been great. Who knows? Maybe he just doesn’t want to. That’s fine. I’ll go back to my Chuck Mangione records.

  3. It really has nothing to do with having an open mind.
    I worked in Joey DeFrancesco’s band for years and we shared the same bill with Nick or whatever group he was playing with many times.
    Nick is a cat that got a lot of attention at an early age due largely to his “prodigy status” – who, now that he has aged a bit, seems to very much resent the fact that others have now entered the scene thereby robbing him of the attention he seems to think he deserves.
    Your comparison of his behavior to that of Charlie Sheen is spot on.
    In both cases drugs and, especially in Payton’s case, alcohol have played a major part in their descent into madness.
    That said, I feel compassion for Nick (and Charlie) as I would for any sick person.
    What I don’t feel compassion for is the fact that neither one of them is willing to get the help they need to the point of putting on a pointless charade/tirade that leaves many of us who have seen them both in better times shaking our heads in a mixture of disappointment and disgust.
    May they both get the help they need.

  4. Heard Nicholas Payton in Toulouse, France last night and I can’t say I have ever been so disappointed with a concert. Finding this reveiw of a former concert online made me realise that this unfortunately was not a one off. The concert was similar to the one you attended – the first 45 minutes were incredibly tedious, and a number of people left, fell asleep, were texting, etc – nobody wanted to give their full attention to what they were hearing. Payton didn’t interact with the public at all, didn’t, I feel, perform to us, didn’t put any energy into what he was doing or any excitement or emotion into his work. It was like the whole event was a staged set-up, the guy has his name, and he doesn’t care what we think, he will just suffer the 2 hours necessary to get his pay check and give none of himself in the process. Very disappointing

    • Sorry to hear that this is an ongoing phenomenon with him, and in Europe no less, where there is so much excellent jazz happening (they certainly don’t need to import THIS from the US…). I’m frankly quite surprised that he’s getting away with it for so long. Can’t be long before jazz fans stop attending.

  5. So no one knew that black musicians were treated worse than white musicians? Who killed jazz? who had the motive?

    Are you blinded by your own racism, that you cannot see that black musicians are exploited to the benefit of white musicians. Did Lester young drive a Cadillac which Stan Gets had? So who was a derivative and who was the original. oh , ah

    you cry oh ah , where where you when rock and roll was stolen from black people?

    you are silent now, where were you when the demented emperor Napoleon strategically assassinated the sphinx?

    So yo think you are going to be allowed to take with impunity. white people were. copying yet were often proclaimed kings but to me they were queens, like Mavis, sorry Elvis.

    Payton is one uppity negro, how dare he claim jazz as black? If we allow that then the Indians will claim their land back.

    You guys are ganging up on one dude, for saying a lie, like jazz is black music. jazz is a plantation.

    • Just heard “NUMBERS”….what a ripoff……having now made a search of Paytons performances I can only repeat….what an absolute riffoff.
      Its nothing to do with race…I bought Numbers album as a random purchase…its musically naive and is more experimental. The fact that the performer is promoted as a trumpeter yet the trumpet artistry is minimal is an insult to the purchaser.

  6. Saw him last week and he is no better than described in this article. I was astonished by his mediocrity.

    • Thanks for the comment Kaleen. Sad to see, such talent there, I was hoping that over time he would change direction and start getting serious again. If it was anything like this experience, the audience went home disappointed and confused. I’m sure most who are not serious jazz listeners would think twice about going to see another jazz concert.

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