For the past few months there has been a raging debate surrounding esteemed jazz artist Nicholas Payton and his declaration of the death of jazz. On his blog, (http://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/on-why-jazz-isnt-cool-anymore/) he wrote what amounted to be a manifesto about how jazz was not longer relevant in the context it has been placed in. He contended that since 1959, the word “jazz” was no longer representative of the cultural and spiritual breadth of this art form. According to Payton, he plays Black American Music (BAM), not the commonly accepted genre. His words triggered a deep and somewhat divided conversation about the state of jazz and what it really represents.
When I first heard about Mr. Payton’s concepts I wasn’t sure what to make of his arguments. At first glance it seemed argumentative and rather self-serving. Here is this talented musician who has experienced the highest levels of success playing jazz, denouncing the very thing that he’d achieved so much in. Why do that? What was I missing? For the record, there have been several musicians that fought vehemently against the characterization of the term “jazz”. Perhaps Miles Davis was the most well known detractor, whose sentiments most resemble those of Payton’s. As I read more of his comments and opinions, I began to realize that his argument went much deeper.
There are important elements of his argument that have gone relatively unnoticed. For one, Payton contends that the spiritual and communal elements of this art form are beginning to be ignored. The historical significance of slavery, black culture and heritage has a direct connection to jazz music. It is a legacy that must be preserved in order to maintain its cultural and artistic significance. As a native of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz it is not hard to understand why this issue hits close to home. Payton argues that there are music scholars, historians and even some musicians who are beginning to reject this connection; seemingly attempting to rewrite the history books, while making jazz less Afrocentric.
Second, Payton talks about how the music industry has marginalized jazz by creating sub-genres that force artists into “boxes”, thereby compartmentalizing the art form and stifling creativity. Most artists, who play, don’t summarily refer to it as “jazz”. Conversely, I doubt that the likes of Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk sat around practicing “jazz” either. In his most recent interview with Willard Jenkins, Nicholas Payton speaks about how as an artist, his music must evolve. At times, his audience has had a difficult time accepting this. They always expect him to “play the trumpet” while ignoring his other musical talents and expressions. (For the record, Nicholas Payton plays several instruments, aside from the trumpet.)
And finally, Nicholas Payton speaks passionately about how the essence of Black American Music cannot be captured fully in the confines of the classroom. There is an innate spirituality that is largely connected to the musical interpretations of this art form. He contends that ALL people can channel this understanding, but he feels that academia has reduced several artistic representations into tools that are merely musical overtures. For example, jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie have been reduced to musical “segments” which are formatted and taught as one specific construct. (He discusses this in greater detail in his interview with Jenkins.) The complexity and emotional connotations of their works are omitted by design. This is particularly damaging because students cannot learn true improvisation, without learning the value of challenging conventions. It cannot be taught with such rigidity and structure. This is a hindrance to the creative process. Payton and Jenkins feel that artists today are seemingly “playing for themselves” and have not learned the professional nuances that are passed down generationally. They believe that most scholars who teach jazz have not developed these skills in their own right. There are too many “academics” that are teaching jazz, that haven’t played music for a living.
Since this debate was first initiated, Nicholas Payton has been the target of hate mail and other racial epithets. These notions are misguided and misplaced. In my opinion, he is trying to address an issue that stems deeper than its base argument. He has eloquently challenged ideas that most people have standardized. Jazz is one of the great contributions in American culture. Instead of lashing out at his ideas, perhaps we should challenge ourselves to pay more attention to their merits. Whether you agree or disagree with him, Nicholas Payton has critically questioned commonly accepted conventions in jazz music, which has brought the argument to the forefront. To say the least, his courage should be applauded.