Home > Opinion > An Open Letter to Nicholas Payton: How Far Are You Willing to Go?

An Open Letter to Nicholas Payton: How Far Are You Willing to Go?

Dear Mr. Payton,

I recently read your November 27 blog post entitled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore” in which you, among other things, argue that jazz stopped being cool in 1959.  But your main point was explaining your decision to reject the term jazz and to critique the very word, arguing that it has served to limit and hem in African American musicians – that it is fundamentally racist and a tool to oppress African Americans.  As you know, many people, including jazz musicians, take issue with your argument.  Some folks may have even took offense to your tone, but I have no problem with it (anyone such as myself who studies Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and other Black Arts Movement cultural critics are used to engaging with similarly argued criticism) – although it’s a rhetorical strategy I would not take.   While your argument is not new – scores of African American jazz musicians and cultural critics have taken exception to the term jazz for similar reasons you do – thinking about your position led me to ask you the the following question: just how far are you willing to go?

In your decision to reject jazz, are you willing to go all the way?  By rejecting the term, are you willing to reject every so called “jazz” institution?  This would entail not playing at any jazz venue, festival, or clinic.  It would require you to stop sending your recordings to jazz magazines, journalists, critics and other jazz media outlets in the hopes of getting your albums reviewed.  It would require you to not record with a jazz label (I congratulate your effort to fight Concord records for what you felt was injustice – but if offered a deal by a jazz label in the future would you sign it?).  It would require you to not hire or share the stage with jazz musicians.  Plenty of musicians who share(d) your philosophy have done these things in the past.  Members of the AACM created their own venues, did their own promotion, and did not refer to their music as jazz.  But, on the other hand, while many of them stayed true to their principles, they were never seen as mainstream artists, and did not profit from their work as much as “jazz” musicians did.

To be clear, I’m not saying you have to do any of these things – I could in fact see how rejecting the word jazz while profiting off of jazz institutions can be an act of subversion in and of itself.  And if you want to game the system for your own financial benefit, go for it.  At the same time, attempting to critique and challenge the jazz world from within may be futile, as I will discuss below.

In your effort to free Black American Music from the constraints placed upon it by the white superstructure, are you willing to acknowledge the contradictions and hypocrisy in your views?  You state that one of the strategies of colonialism is to divide and conquer, and that white people love seeing black people argue amongst themselves.  By likening African American musicians like Marcus Strickland who embrace the term jazz to former slaves who wouldn’t leave the plantation, you are engaging in the same colonialist project you critique, as your comments have no doubt created animosity.

You say you play “Postmodern New Orleans Music.”  I applaud your efforts to take control of what your music is called, although I’m not sure what you mean.  The term postmodern, like jazz, is one way in which a group of people attempt to order the world, even if the word postmodern describes a situation in which meanings are no longer stable.  While I would assume that you would agree that postmodern is not as racist as jazz, you have replaced one limiting term for another.

Perhaps I can tie together my point with a brief discussion of a 2011 performance of yours I recently watched on youtube from the Rio das Ostras Jazz and Blues Festival.


What I find particularly ironic is that when you blow your solo on the jazz standard “Days of Wine and Roses,” you are standing right in front of a giant sign that is dominated by the word “Jazz.”  To use standard, and what I admit is fairly limiting language, your solo is straight ahead, steeped in the bebop tradition.  No doubt you and your group was well paid for this festival performance – but the image of your blowing over a jazz standard in front of a big sign with the name of the jazz festival in front of it leads me to wonder just how far you are willing to go in the pursuit of your social and artistic goals.   By performing jazz standards at jazz festivals in a manner that is stylistically consistent with many peoples’ ideas of what jazz is, you are placing yourself in a situation in which your audience will continue to describe you as a jazz musician, whether you want them to or not, which will only hinder your efforts to escape the term.  Just how far are you willing to go?

Good luck and best wishes,

Chris Robinson

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