Interview | Nicholas Payton reflects on race, music and the slow death of convention (AUDIO)

Nicholas Payton spoke to Tom Porter on WPFW earlier this month. Audio of that conversation is available below. Courtesy Michael Wilson.

“Some musicians and fans thought that I was talking about the music itself, and the tradition, and its history. That’s totally not at all what I said. In fact, I thought I made it very clear to make a distinction between the word and … the art form. My feeling is that the word just has negative historical connotations.”

— Nicholas Payton, in WPFW interview (listen below)

by Tom Porter
CapitalBop contributor

Race is the Achilles’ heel of Western societies, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in discussions of African-American/Black Classical music, commonly referred to as jazz. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton last month started a firestorm when he discussed his opinions on the use of the word jazz on his blog. It is strange how easy it is for Americans to accept notions of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Jewish music, etc., whereas referring to jazz as Black Music causes an uproar.

When asked earlier on in his career what jazz should be called, Payton’s response was “Black Music.” Charles Mingus said the word jazz means “Nigger” music and that it separates the musician from the money. Gigi Gryce was blacklisted by the establishment for daring to want to own and control the results of his creativity. Irving Mills put his name on early Duke Ellington compositions and to this day his descendants are benefiting monetarily from Mills’ trickery. Fortunately, Duke discovered this and gave him the boot.

African-American/Black Classical music is a gift from African people to the world. However, like the early settlers or the missionaries in Africa, European society could not accept the “gift givers” but kept the gifts while destroying the “gift givers.” Miles Davis said that he hired white musicians to play in his band but when they got their own bands they refused to hire any Black musicians. A well-known drummer recounted to me that when he spoke to the owner of Birdland about playing there again, he was told that he might consider booking him in the club if he had at least one white player in his band.

Night after night all around the world, including D.C., armies of young white men and ladies fan out with their recording equipment claiming that they are doing so because they love the music, only to start their own record labels – rarely with permission from the artist. Even more rarely do they compensate the musicians involved. Nicholas did not say it in this way, but the implications of what he said are here. All artists, whatever their ethnic background, should have the right to control the fruit of their labor.

What follows is a recording of the Dec. 12 interview that Dr. Jared Ball and I conducted with Nicholas on WPFW, D.C.’s jazz and justice radio station. It is available for streaming and download through the courtesy of WPFW.

Nicholas Payton interview, WPFW
[audio:|titles=Nicholas Payton interview – WPFW] —

Tom Porter is the former program director at WPFW, and a respected D.C.-based musicologist and cultural critic. You can hear more radio segments featuring him at



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  1. One thing I’m not getting is: Since there are hundreds of white musicians who played jazz before me and with me now, what are we suppose to call ourselves?. What do I say when asked what do you do? Answer, I am a guitarist who plays Black American Music especially when it took me years to learn the craft and become my own voice.?

    Dom Minasi /
  2. Mr. Payton’s measured tone in this interview may attract more listeners than his more extroverted blog posts. It makes you wonder how this debate may have progressed had he taken this tone to begin with, or if anyone would have listened had he not shaken people up from the start. Guess he doesn’t need a trumpet to elicit a wealth of reactions from a variety of listeners!

    Either way, at least people are listening and talking. Choosing sides, well, ASIDE, there is ample food for thought in this debate, once we get past all the polemics.

    Andrew /
  3. Yeah, I always thought Country music should be called While American Music.

    Willie /
  4. If anyone had bothered to listen to the interview or actually read my blog posts, you would know that I’ve been saying the J word was dead for years. There were far less controversial posts than this one dating back as far as August 2009. This is the one that set everything off. I choose the tone that I did and don’t apologize for it. You can criticize the way I said it, but it’s my blog to express things the way I want to. You want to say things differently? Use your blog to express yourself the way you see fit.

    Anyone who has a problem with Black people calling a music they invented Black American Music is either a racist or possesses a colonialist mindset.


    -Nicholas Payton The Creator of BAM aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

    Nicholas Payton /
  5. “What am I supposed to call myself now?”
    You figure that someone is trying to take back something from you,that you been calling “‘your own’ since you can remember?
    Lol…….welcome to the world of race 🙂

    Pops Popper /
  6. I agree with Nicholas…..I am a white cat who has spent most of my life trying to play JAZZ MUSIC…..with that said, I am not as cynical as NP……I have a sincere reverence for the greatest period of American Jazz music..the 50’s-60’s. How do you evolve PERFECTION? Freddie HUbbard, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Dizzy, Miles Davis….What can I possibly say that these cat havent already said? Its a bitch….we keep trying though. Perhaps that is where the victory is?

    Wayne Humbyrd /
  7. […] motto is “Standing up for real jazz,” but Payton has famously refused to even use the word “jazz,” citing the history of exploitation wrapped up in it. how […]

  8. Nicholas Payton is very very very misguided. i feel sorry for him. His expressions will continue to bring hatred and disenfranchisement.

    Thanks for that.

    chris /
  9. What up Mr Payton I’m a Black American Trombonist that totally agrees with you. There is no such thing as J word music it is (BAM) Black American Music. Mr Payton I think people of other races are scared to go along with what you and many greats Like Stanley Turrentine, Arnold Sterling and Lou Donaldson and many others for this reason. They don’t want to accept the fact that he or she has been studying, black music all their lives. And because of their ethnicity they don’t want to have to tell their friends that they went to a Conservatory or some university to study black music. And yes Mr Payton your right you never said that other races can’t play the music. You are just stating the facts which is that music comes from Black Americans and I’m proud to say that . No one has a issue with calling music from Korea Korean music or Music from Russia Russian Music. So Mr Payton don’t trip lol and don’t worry about the Haters you are a great Black American Musician and one of my heroes . I remember working with in Washington DC you where Awesome then and are still Great to this day GOD Bless you once again you just stated the truth brotha. Peace and Love Herm Hopkins BAM 4 Life HH

    Herm Hopkins /
  10. […] whether on trumpet, coronet or fluglehorn is full and robust. The way he interprets the standard of black classical music more commonly referred to as “jazz” is reverent. His toe-tappers are just that — […]

  11. I understand NP’s take on the obsolete perception of jazz (“died in 1959”), but its current image is either so geared to the black audience through smooth jazz as to stereotype jazz in that vein or the common picture of the quartet playing 1950s standards as taught in jazz studies programs across the nation. I get that “jazz” is an American original music art form create in New Orleans by African-Americans. But that music like any type of music is an expression of the soul and is created to relate to the heart and minds of people regardless of their race, religion, or creed. That is the reason why “jazz” grew in popularity across ethnic cultures in the past and still does today. To lay claim to jazz as BAM is somewhat selfish and egocentric and in some part is racist and elitist. Listeners and students aren’t stupid. We all get the origins of Jazz and honor the musicians who contributed to our musical landscape. But changing the name of jazz should not be about reparations for the misdeeds of “colonialist” mindset of marketing businesses of the past or present (hey, there’s greedy, evil people everywhere), but as NP stated to express music in new ways and hopefully turn on a new generation to a great music form.

    Gordon Shaffer /

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