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Nicholas Payton Is Chillin' On Our Nutz: How One Musician Misrepresented the Facts And Bullied the Jazz Narrative Off Course

Jonathan Wertheim
Staff Writer / @rtbjazz

Author's Note: This is my last feature-length piece as a staff writer for Nextbop before taking an extended break from jazz.

Payton's Black American Music, or BAM, has been a lot on my mind since hitting the jazz internet headlines last year; I got caught in one of Payton's rhetorical catch-22's and wrote several angry posts about him at my blog.

This piece, which I thought about, rewrote several times, and researched very seriously, is an effort to get the conversation about the terminology of jazz back on track by reminding those of us in its community what the basic tenets of the BAM argument are, and the flaws that appear when they are examined.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at, or go to Rehearsing The Blues, where this piece is excerpted, and leave a comment. I welcome your input.


Since Payton's initial declaration that "jazz is an oppressive colonialist slave term," other advocates of Black American Music (BAM), notably Ben Wolfe, Orrin Evans, and eventually Marcus Strickland, have repeated the idea that the word “jazz” is racist or derogatory, and so should be replaced (they've even gone so far as to write it as j***). The word's actual origins are far less clear, however - if they are known at all. Webster's dictionary merely says of the origin of “jazz” that it is "unknown," and that the word dates from the "early 20th century." As for Payton's phrase, then, it is hard to colonize one's own country, so "colonialist" in its literal sense can be done away with as forgivable hyperbole; and we can already lay to rest the charge that it is a "slave term" in the conventional sense, as the word entered into the English language half a century after slavery was ended.

But, as we all know, oppression and prejudice persisted in forms hardly distinguishable from slavery for decades after the Civil War, and this, it would seem, is what Payton means. “Jazz” is a racist term, he argues, one that has its origins not in the African-American experience but in that of whites. It is, he says, just one more way that whites have metaphorically "colonized" black history and tradition. It sounds true, and it really should be true - after all, whites did that in many ways. But “should be true” is one thing, and “is true” quite another; and when a debate rests on such fine lines and such hazy distinctions as this one does, every word counts in full.

In the book Keeping Time: Readings In Jazz History, there is "one of the earliest published discussions of jazz," [1] taken from a 1917 edition of the New York Sun. Written by Walter Kingsley, "Whence Comes Jass" is, as should be expected of the time, inaccurate and often racist in its depictions of black life and traditions, but it is notable for its opening passage:

The word [“jazz”] is African in origin. It is common on the Gold Coast of Africa and in the hinterland of Cape Coast Castle. In his studies of the creole patois and idiom in New Orleans, Lafcadio Hearn reported that the word "jaz," meaning to speed things up, to make excitement, was common among the blacks of the South and had been adopted by creoles as a term to be applied to music of a rudimentary syncopated type. [2]

There is no way to fact-check Kingsley, of course. And I certainly do not present this as any kind of definitive answer to the question; only recently, for example, I saw an article saying that an early 20th century baseball player was the originator of the word. [3] We can add that to the laundry list of origins: whorehouses, onomatopoeia, etc. The important point here is that Payton's allegation that “jazz” is a slave term, or even has its origins in racism, is on contested ground, and he has provided no concrete evidence to support his claim.

And, in fact, the reception of the word “jazz” by its own musicians is more or less divided. Payton provides a helpful and accurate list of its detractors. Max Roach is quoted as saying, "I resent the word unequivocally.... I would call it African-American music." [4] But the story doesn't end there, and when we look at those who don't mind the word, or even endorse it, the story gets more complicated. Nina Simone, for one, says, "Max Roach defined the word technically [in his interview]. Jazz is not just music, it's a way of life, it's a way of being, a way of thinking.... It's the definition of the Afro-American black." [5]

A good place to look for this side of the conversation, the side left out by Payton, is Arthur Taylor's excellent book of interviews, Notes And Tones, from which the two passages above were quoted. Taylor conducted these interviews in the late 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the avant-garde and black power movements in jazz, and his subjects are often astonishingly candid about their views on race (as when Art Blakey pronounces that "the only way the Caucasian musician can swing is from a rope" [6]). Taylor usually makes a point of asking his interviewees their opinions on the word "jazz."

Elvin Jones, for instance, says the word is "misleading in a lot of ways, and it's an inadequate expression, but I don't think there's anything degrading about it.... I think that the fact [that the music is] pure transcends all colors and races." [7] Randy Weston, whose connection to African music is undisputed, says:

I somehow get the feeling the word jazz describes a certain stage in the development of our music, a period when there was a thing that really was jazz. Where people would go and get lifted spiritually…. [8]

It is interesting to note that while Weston thinks of good connotations from “jazz,” he comes to the conclusion that

today the word jazz doesn't describe what's going on in the music. Music has become more modern, more rhythmic. It's more influenced by modern classical music…. I have been searching for a title to describe my own music and I thought of African rhythms. [9]

Weston describes the “jazz” period with fondness, and includes in it Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. [10] But he does wish for there to be a new name, African Rhythms, not because of any inherent racism or prejudice in the word “jazz,” but simply because he feels that his music is more diverse than the genre was in the 1930s and 1940s. "I play calypso, I play jazz, I play spirituals, I play Latin and I play African music. So how can anybody just call me a jazz musician?" [11] This is echoed by Richard Davis, who notes that while he feels "that as long as it's swinging and it feels good, it's jazz," he "don't like to label nothing." [12]

Art Blakey, another musician with strong ties to African heritage, takes a different approach:

There's nothing wrong with [“jazz”]. It's only a word. What's in a name? Nothing! [...] A name doesn't make the music. It's just called that to differentiate it from other types of music. Jazz is known all over the world as an American musical art form and that's it.... I've seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn't have a damn thing to do with Africa. We're a multiracial society here. [13]

Blakey echoes Weston's distinction between jazz and African music, and also gets to one of the key points about the debate over “jazz”: what's in a name? In my recent interview with pianist Robert Glasper for Nextbop, he said on that topic:

We're having a hard enough time with a name. And trying to change the name now, I personally don't think is going to make anybody like the music any better. I think we should just change the music. Maybe change the music and then change the name of your music. If you're coming up with something kind of new, maybe call it something - you know, call that something else. [14]


The kind of name-change that Payton advocates has a famous precedent: Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). In a television interview filmed in 1963, El-Shabazz says:

My father didn't know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather and his grandfather got it from his grandfather who got it from the slave master. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever. [15]

He makes an important point. "During slavery," as he says in the interview, "the same slave master who owned us put his last name on us to denote that we were his property." His point, then, is that this slave name is symbolic of the hold slavery and racism still had on black Americans of the 1950s and 1960s - a hold far more widespread, less acknowledged and more horrifically violent than is the norm today. By discarding his slave name, El-Shabazz was breaking that hold and standing up to the terrors still accepted or endorsed by most of white America. He identified the origin of his shackles, and by removing it, he broke the chains.

Payton and his most vocal adherents are making much the same argument for jazz. "Some aim to nix jazz for perceived racist connotations; [Gary] Bartz is most strident on this point, comparing jazz to a plantation system with 'house' and 'field' musicians," writes Shaun Brady in the Philadelphia City Paper. [16] "Whites created the title [‘jazz’] anyway," writes saxophonist Marcus Strickland in arguing for Black American Music. [17] Because, Payton argues, “jazz” is "a label that was forced upon the musicians," [18] much like slave names, then it should be cast off and replaced. Malcolm X. Jazz X. "It’s the colonialist mentality that glorifies being treated like a slave," Payton writes on his blog, The Cherub Speaks. [19] "Go on, 
continue to box yourself in a label that was designed to marginalize [b]lack musicians and cut them off from their brilliance." [20]

As we have seen, however, the origins of the word “jazz” as "a label that was designed to marginalize" African-American musicians and their work are far from certain, and may be completely false, a jazz urban myth. And the above-quoted passages from some of the most creative and heritage-minded musicians in jazz show that not all, or even most, musicians would agree they're being "boxed in" by the word; or, if they are, it may not be because it's a racist, colonialist or oppressive word, but merely an outdated or too narrowly defined one.

So, the question is: Do we need to Malcolm X jazz? Does changing the name of the genre have the same symbolic power that it had, for instance, when Duke Ellington told Fletcher Henderson he wanted jazz to be called "Negro music"?

In his first piece on BAM, Payton wrote, "Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz and someday all kings must fall." [21] Whiteman, the bandleader whose orchestra premiered Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, appears most often as an ironically named footnote in jazz history today. But in his day, he was a major figure in the world of a music whose sound was still too new to have a specific sound, or at least one universally accepted by critics and fans (it was Whiteman who inspired the infamous phrases "bringing jazz out of the kitchen" and "making a lady of jazz").

To aspire to be the black "King Of Jazz" in the 1920s or 1930s, as Duke Ellington did, was to challenge Whiteman, or at least the still-fresh legacy of his stature. And to suggest that what he really should be called was "King Of Negro Music", as Ellington also did, was to challenge a system of critics and venues that discriminated against the true creators of the music and put their white imitators on pedestals. It was, in short, breaking the lasting shackles of slavery, just as Malcolm X did in the 1950s. And, sure enough, Whiteman was felled by the music of Duke Ellington.

But Payton has not convinced me that those shackles are still firmly locked on jazz’s wrists - just as he has not convinced me that they are even present in the word “jazz”. And white bassist Ben Wolfe hasn't yet convinced me that the black heritage of jazz is in danger of being erased, or that there is any such movement too large to fit inside the average padded cell.

Whatever the connotations of “jazz” were in the early 20th century, I think it is safe to say that they, if unsavory, have been replaced by only good ones in the eyes of those who matter in the jazz community - responsible historians, critics, fans, and musicians. The most visible proponent of jazz - just jazz - in the United States is not, jokes aside, Kenny G (whose Wikipedia page, probably the best source of information on what the average listener would think, describes him as an "adult contemporary" and "smooth jazz" artist), but Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis may be a somewhat polarizing figure in the jazz world, but he is nevertheless a successful black artist whose initiatives at Jazz At Lincoln Center and elsewhere have placed a "from the plantation to the penitentiary" and strongly black jazz narrative in the foreground of even the musical layman's cultural experience.

And when Randy Sandke published his book Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz in 2010, his claim that crucial contributions by whites have been ignored or denied in favor of a black bias was met largely with astonishment and some anger by the jazz community, which vehemently reiterated its black heritage and viewed Sandke - rightfully, I believe - as a revisionist to be treated with suspicion.

Even this past month, in March, the word jazz has been attached to two important new albums, Robert Glasper's Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society. While neither is wholly in the jazz tradition, both musicians have been vocal about the role jazz has in their music, and both albums "let it go", in Payton's words [22], and look nowhere but forward.


Unfortunately, Payton doesn't seem eager to have a real discussion about his claims, despite the five-person round table he held several months ago (there were no dissenting views included in the round table). Instead, Payton tends to use language that encourages one of two reactions: either walking away in anger or frustration or immediately agreeing with no questions asked.

Many of Payton's colleagues, notably Evans and Strickland, have described having talks with Payton that converted them from skeptics to fervent believers ("Ever since the day I truly understood I just cannot let go of that BAM!!!" writes Strickland [23]). I'd love to hear those phone calls, but until they appear, others who may be skeptical get this sort of response from Payton:

When you hold an intense dislike for someone you don’t know, it means that somewhere down deep inside, you have an intense dislike for yourself.... You can dislike me or what I say all you want, but it doesn’t stop what I said from being true. 
It only disturbs you this deeply because it dismantles everything you’ve built your life upon.... [24]

Or this:

Yes... I am upset. Upset at cats who I have broken bread with, gone out of my way to support, helped out when they were in need of money, shared the bandstand with, have hired, have proclaimed me as a mentor and one of their greatest inspirations, but yet can come on Facebook and participate in a virtual assassination of my character. I expect this from some of the lowlife folks who do nothing but spit vitriol over the Internet all day because they’re unhappy with their empty lives, but my “friends”? OK. [25]

Those who criticize Payton have "participated in this attack"; they are "shit talkers," [Editor's note: or, as Payton has referred to me personally, "house niggers".] and Payton constructs an elaborate rhetorical trap for them if they criticize him further:

You know why what I said disturbs you so much? Why it shakes you at your core? Because you read my piece and you feel it’s a manifesto against YOU. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have such an aversion to what I’m saying. Why take it personally? Did I call out any of your names? No, but I did, indeed, call you out. I called you to challenge yourself to think about what you have been doing all these years. [26]

Payton firmly assumes his own rightness, and he precludes any arguments against him by stating that the only reason anyone would argue with him is because they know he's right and it makes them mad. "What possible motive could people have to insist that I'm wrong," he seems to be asking, "when I'm so obviously right?" With this mindset, the only answer would be that they have it out for him on a personal level.

And this is only one way that Payton's rhetoric is halting the conversation before it starts. The most serious consequence of his behavior is the second reaction I described above: when critics or readers immediately surrender to Payton's argument without any discussion, because of race.

"Just like being called Nigger affected how Black people felt about themselves at one time, I believe the term 'JAZZ' affects the style of playing. 
I am not a Nigger and I am not a Jazz musician," writes Payton. [27] And in a section (titled "Jazz = Nigger") of a later post, he writes:

The Jazz musician will never be free, not in music, not in America. To call the music Jazz is to enslave a music that was meant to be free. To call Black music Jazz, is to call a Black person a Nigger. As long as it’s Jazz, some White person like this guy is going to feel entitled to let you know just what your place is in his world. [28]

The problem with this is that Payton’s idea of "Jazz = Nigger" is imposed by Payton, and, nearly, him alone. To equate “jazz” with “nigger” is merely to silence those who might start a conversation with Payton, not to further discussion. A white writer myself, I already feel the awkwardness in commenting, and trying to influence opinions, on an art form with a history of exploitation by my own race. But to say that the word “jazz” inherently, no matter what the speaker's intent, means “nigger,” can only be seen a gag in the mouth of reason.


Why does that matter? We can already see why. In the months since Payton introduced Black American Music, the situation has gone from internet firestorm to metacriticism to near-silence, and now has re-emerged as a beast almost completely disconnected from its origins. Saying "BAM" now stands in for a wider debate, one that has gone on for decades in different forms, about the appeal of jazz, tradition versus innovation, and the usefulness of “jazz” as a term.

This is a good and healthy conversation to have. But I hope that I've at least partially shown that using BAM as its conversational landmark is a mistake. Taking a deep breath and diving to the bottom of this emotionally charged and hot-button issue shows us that BAM's origins lie in a deeply flawed, and potentially very harmful, set of claims and accusations, and all it takes is a partial explanation to uncover them. I'm all for discussing the word “jazz” and its effect on the genre at large, but to do so under the banner of "Black American Music" and Payton's implied endorsement or influence only ushers in an argument that should have been stopped at the door.

A community too timid or too angry to call Mr. Payton on his mistakes and hold him to it has allowed BAM to take on a life of its own, and both need to be checked. The burden of proof lies with Mr. Payton, not the jazz community, and he has failed to carry that burden and provide the evidence his arguments require. Until he does, “Black American Music” simply cannot be considered as a viable alternative to “jazz.”

This is a topic that needs to be raised, perhaps now more than ever. But for it to have any useful long-term effects, we need to make sure we have everything right going forward. The BAM debate is an opportunity for us to start a meaningful and informed discussion about our terminology and the consequences of it, and about reality-checking much of the jazz music that is made today. But for its own sake, the jazz community needs to realize that BAM is not designed to hold that conversation.

[1] Keeping Time: Readings In jazz History, ed. Robert Walser. Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 5
[2] Ibid., p. 6
[4] Notes And Tones, Arthur Taylor. Da Capo Press, 1993. p. 110
[5] Ibid., p. 156
[6] Ibid., p. 249
[7] Ibid., p. 225
[8] Ibid., p. 29
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 214
[13] Ibid., p. 242
[19] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] 2011/12/11/bam_faq/#comments
[24] http://nicholaspayton.
[25] his-facebook-friends/
[26] Ibid.
[27] http://nicholas
[28] /2011/12/05/on-why-i-keep-beating-this-racist-horse/

Jon Wertheim, a jazz drummer and (somewhat) acclaimed jazz writer, can be found at his jazz blog, Rehearsing The Blues, and on Twitter. He has released one album, Returning.