Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Payton, Nicholas (Anthony)

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton's style combines the rich vibrato of Louis Armstrong with the flexible articulations of Clifford Brown. The result is a personal sound that reflects the technical history of the trumpet while paving the way towards a new sonic frontier, with irony and humor.

                            Nicholas Payton, by Jos L. Knaepen

Nicholas Anthony Payton was born on September 26, 1973 in New Orleans. Raised in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Payton’s father Walter was a professional bassist and tuba player who often performed traditional jazz at the Preservation Hall nightclub, and his mother Maria was a singer and classical pianist. Both parents encouraged the boy to pursue music, and at the age of four, Payton received a trumpet for Christmas.

Payton’s childhood was filled with music. His father taught him how to read music by age eight, and his mother provided additional musical education by teaching him classical music on the piano.

As a child, Payton grew acclimated to his father’s band rehearsals, and began to familiarize himself with the musicians who frequented his home. Nicholas performed for the first time when he was eight years old and by the time he was ten, he became aware of the improvisational talents of trumpeters Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, and saxophonist Earl Turbinton.

Payton’s early performance experiences were with a youth group, the All-Star Jazz Band. The group performed around New Orleans as well as in Europe. By the age of nine, Nicholas become so skillful that he would perform together with his father in the Young Tuxedo Band. Within the year, he started to perform more frequently, performing around town for bar mitzvahs and funerals, and in the streets of New Orleans.

At age eleven, Payton first heard a record by trumpeter Miles Davis. At that point he resolved to pursue a career as a jazz musician. Once when he was around the age of twelve, his father was talking on the phone with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis while Nicholas was playing in the background. Marsalis was impressed by the boy's precocious skills.

As a teenager, Payton attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he studied with trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. In addition to his training on the trumpet, Nicholas studied music theory and classical music. Throughout this time, Nicholas gained important performance experience by performing in jazz clubs throughout New Orleans. Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of New Orleans.

Nicholas attended college for a year and during that time he studied with saxophonists Harold Battiste and Victor Goines, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and pianist Ellis Marsalis. A highlight of his time in college was the music department’s weekly jam sessions where Nicholas took the opportunity to workshop his compositions and hear his compositions performed by a variety of instrumentalists.

During this time, Payton performed around town with pianist Peter Martin, bassist Christopher Thomas and drummer Brian Blade. Nicholas also performed with the Louisiana Repertory Orchestra, Leroy Jones’ group “New Orleans’ Finest” and saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler.

At Wynton Marsalis's encouragement, Payton went to New York City in 1990, where he sat in with pianist Marcus Roberts at the Bottom Line. The same year, he performed with trumpeter Clark Terry on the SS Norway Jazz Cruise. In 1991, Nicholas appeared with Roberts at Carnegie Hall.

In September 1991, he performed with Teresa Brewer in an all-star tribute to trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The show featured trumpeters Red Rodney, Dizzy Gillespie, Terence Blanchard, Ruby Braff, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Freddie Hubbard. Shortly after, Payton started to perform with drummer Carl Allen, both in a small group and in the group Manhattan Projects.

In March 1992, Payton toured with Marcus Roberts and worked with drummer Elvin Jones’'s group Jazz Machine as a trumpeter and as his musical director. He remained with the group for two years, leaving in order to pursue other opportunities. 1992 also saw Payton on the road with Jazz Futures, an ensemble of young jazz musicians. Nicholas would later perform with a second incarnation of the group in 1994 where they toured throughout Europe.

Around this time, Payton became a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and became a contributor to the numerous youth programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He also performed with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and with George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars.

In 1994, Payton signed with Verve Records and released his first record as a bandleader From This Moment. Included on the record were guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Mulgrew Miller and vibraphonist Monte Croft.

Throughout this time, Payton performed with pianist Renee Rosnes and the folk band Black/Note. In 1996, Payton appeared in director Robert Altman’s movie Kansas City, as famed trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page, and performed on the movie's soundtrack. The movie also featured guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Ron Carter and alto saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman.

The same year, Payton appeared on saxophonist Joe Henderson’s album Big Band and performed with pianist Eric Reed and guitarist Mark Elf.

In July 1997, Payton performed at the San Sebastian Jazz Festival in Spain. Also in 1997, Payton and trumpeter Doc Cheatham recorded the album Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton, which featured an instrumental version of “Stardust.” The song eventually won the “Best Jazz Instrumental Solo” Grammy Award in 1997.

On September 9, 1997, Payton, along with Mark Whitfield and bassist Christian McBride, released the album Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock, an album featuring selections from Hancock’s vast career including “Chameleon,” “Eye of the Hurricane,” and “Speak Like a Child.”

On June 9, 1998, Payton released his third album, Payton’s Place, which featured tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Adonis Rose. The album includes the song “A Touch of Silver,” which features a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.

What is most striking about the song is the combination of Payton and Redman. Their individualistic style results in a warm melodic design that is improved by Wonsey’s performance. During his solo, Payton exhibits a harmonic vocabulary of someone much older, using his time to carefully weave a musical story. The superiority of his tone is demonstrated with his vocal and articulate timbre.

A year later, Payton released Nick @ Night, his first live album. The following year, Nicholas releasedDear Louis, an album honoring Louis Armstrong. The album features twelve songs that were made popular by the legend including “Potato Head Blues,” and “You Rascal You,” and an original song written by Payton entitled “Dear Louis.”

In 2003, Payton left Verve Records and signed a deal with Warner Brother Records. His first release for Warner Brothers was the album Sonic Trance. The album featured him experimenting with fusion and hip-hop elements. Shortly after, Payton was in an automobile accident, which briefly sidelined his career. He spent the next few years recovering.

In 2007, Payton appeared on singer Cassandra Wilson’s album Loverly. On “Lover Come Back To Me,” Payton takes the mid-tempo feel of the song and crafts a sophisticated presentation of trumpet accompaniment. During his solo, he holds a mirror Cassandra’s performance by including some of her inflections into his solo. Throughout the end, his back round lines behind her adds a dramatic push and pull of the melody.

The following year, Payton performed with clarinetist Dr. Michael White on his album Blue Crescent. On “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” White constructs an arrangement that pays respect to traditional New Orleans jazz. Though the style of the song is traditional, Payton eschews most traditional harmonic methods while keeping the excitement coming. Payton along with trombonist Lucien Barbarin easily blend their tones together allowing White to cut through the ensemble.

On April 20, 2008, Payton released Into the Blue. Released on the Nonesuch label, the album included nine originals by Payton and a cover of /music/2008/4/30/nicholas-payton-chinatown">“Chinatown,”the theme from the Roman Polanski movie.

The same year, Payton joined the group The Blue Note 7, a septet that was formed as a tribute in honor of the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records. The ensemble features Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist Bill Charlap, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, drummer Lewis Nash, bassist Peter Washington, and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson.

In 2009, the group released the album Mosaic, which featured music of past Blue Note artists including pianists Thelonious Monk and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.

Select Discography

As a leader

From This Moment (1994)

Gumbo Nouveau (1995)

Payton’s Place (1997)

Nick @ Night (1999)

Dear Louis (2001)

Sonic Trance (2003)

Into the Blue (2008)

With The Blue Note 7

Mosaic (2009)

With Doc Cheatham

Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton (1997)

With Joe Henderson

Big Band (1996)

With Christian McBride and Mark Whitfield

Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock

With Dr. Michael White

Blue Crescent (2008)

With Cassandra Wilson

Loverly (2007)


IN CONVERSATION WITH NICHOLAS PAYTON by jazz.com contributor Ted Panken

Contributor: Eric Wendell