Jazz icon Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong was born approximately 100 years ago (August 4, 1901) in New Orleans Treme district, the same hometown of Grammy winning trumpet master Nicholas Payton. Payton parallels his childhood idol in many respects. First, his mature mastery of the trumpet at a very young age, coupled with his energy and influence on the music scene follows a lineage crafted by the youthful Armstrong in the twenties. Living across the street from Louis Armstrong Park certainly didn’t hurt either. These "young lions" created a buzz among their peers with regard to their technical skill and great instrumental arrangements, while offering highly accessible material and virtuoso performances. This is no easy feat since the Crescent city is the Mecca for world-class trumpet masters such as Wynton Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield just to name a few. A proverbial baptism by fire, if you will. The lineage of trumpet kings coming from New Orleans proves to be one of the most fertile proving grounds for jazz as any place else on the planet. Growing up in a family with two musician parents and thousands of records at his disposal, young Nicholas absorbed the music like a sponge and started sitting in during family rehearsals and the rest is history. Payton began gigging with his father at age eight which led to a chair in the All-Star Tuxedo Brass Band a renowned jazz youth group. While performing steadily through his teens, Payton enrolled at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and eventually studied with Ellis Marsalis ( father of Wynton Marsalis) at the University of New Orleans.
The early nineties proved to be a fertile time period for Payton as he toured with Marcus Roberts, Elvin Jones, Jazz Futures ll and had Jazz at Lincoln Center performances under his belt. Today, Nicholas Payton has a twelve piece band full of highly seasoned virtuosos that are alumni of jazz luminaries Charles Mingus, Jimmy McGriff, Gil Evans, Jimmy Smith and Miles Davis to mention a few. In regards to the large band, Payton cites the texture and size (12 pieces), was needed for the right treatment of the iconoclastic Armstrong’s compositions. "On ‘Dear Louis’ I wanted to evoke Armstrong’s spirit and give listener’s a view of what I’m about compositionally," says Payton. "Since the recording, the music has blossomed," Payton enthuses. "Using a lot of instruments gives me a broader range of colors to draw from and enables me to better express myself texturally." Payton explains, "I feel fortunate to have a group of musicians as talented as this, who are open-minded and challenge me every night." While ‘Dear Louis’ offers a retrospective of "Satchmo’s" material, Payton first delved into his New Orleans / Armstrong roots with ‘Gumbo Nouveau’ (1996) and sites "Pops" as a natural influence. "I could have done five CD’s!"
Payton had a hard time paring down the Armstrong selections he would record from such a large catalog of material that spanned half a century. However, Payton has a collection of thirteen gems that span a forty year period of "Satchmo’s" career. "Armstrong did so many great tunes. I tried to represent as many periods and aspects of his musicianship as I could, from the lighthearted to the deep and the complex." Nicholas Payton definitely knows how to compose and perform on a Grammy level as evidenced by the incendiary performance of his group and special guest Bela Fleck during their performance Thursday, December 6, 2001 at Langford Auditorium.
Nicholas Payton entered the Langford Auditorium with an entourage of eleven band members and proceeded to burn through a fiery set of nine compositions from his latest Verve release, ‘ Dear Louis’. The set opened with a grooving rendition of " Potato Head Blues" featuring a clarinet and piano solo setting the pace for the evening. The crowds enthusiasm was very evident after the song concluded. Payton introduced the second piece, "St. James Infirmary" which included some spicy bass soloing at the intro and featured searing solos from tenor sax and piano. Payton began soloing and "traded" 8’s, 4’s,2’s to the excitement of the crowd. After each composition, the crowd offered resounding approval of the music during the concert. A 1920’s Cuban influenced "Peanut Vendor" would utilize the whole band for solos and spicy Latin "tinges" showing the diverse multicultural rhythmic base of the coastal South. This forward looking , modernistic composition featured flute solos with muted trumpets. The trombone made a strong appearance with the auxiliary percussionist Kenyatta Simon performing beautiful world beat and Afro-Cuban rhythms to the joy of the crowd. Latin music has long been a part of the development of jazz and this Armstrong original from the Twenties shows how organic and futuristic jazz music has always been. With the latest Latin music craze across all genres of music, jazz and world music lovers are buying Cubanismo, Afro- Cuban All Stars, Paquito D’ Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. Many listener’s are too young to remember the Rumba craze of the Thirties but tropical music was in vogue in the fifties.
Anyone remember ‘I Love Lucy’ and catch the salsa beats? Dizzy and Bird recording multiple Latin recordings here and abroad. Bossa Nova, Afro- Cuban, Tango and Latin fusion are mainstays of popular and jazz music today. Unfortunately, Ken Burns omitted this important aspect of jazz and its development in his jazz special. Perhaps, he will update his series and understand the multifaceted, multicultural nature of jazz music in all of the incarnations it is presented to the listener. The fourth piece ‘Tiger Rag’ was intended to introduce the crowd to the "flavor" of New Orleans Jazz. Payton and company succeeded and the crowd was introduced to Bob Stewart on Tuba who improvised while the band backed him with stop time horn kicks. Slide trombone followed with slur and double tonguing with a great gut-bucket ragtime feel from Vincent Gardner. Big Nick would enter with a bright swinging tone and accented his solo with horn rips and half valve slurs on trumpet. The trombone added a street processional ending at the end for extra spice. Another Latin tinged piece, "Tight Like This" featured a crowd pleasing tuba solo which added humor and great energy to the set.
Nicholas Payton would feature his Flugelhorn on an ultra modern, hip version of the most famous Armstrong selection, "Hello Dolly." A cornucopia of sound textures would be used as soprano sax, tuba, flutes and percussion with horn kicks would punctuate the instrumental piece. Payton directed the horn kicks and added a great flugel horn solo that brought the house to a great pause then loud applause. The seventh piece was a ballad entitled; ‘Dear Louis’ which brought the house to a serious moment where the heartfelt melody struck a resounding chord with the approving crowd. The eighth number was "West End Blues" (no relation to Nashville’s West End) which had the saxes riffing against horn kicks and "ripping" slurs while the trombone and alto were featured. Payton added some great feels and even hand plunger for great vocal inflections on his ragtime era solo feature. The pianist, Anthony Wonsey added great stride piano solos which complemented the raspy vocal attack of Payton’s earlier jam.
After performing almost an hour and a half, the band left the stage to a raucous applause from the crowd of 1000 at Langford Auditorium. A few moments passed and Nicholas Payton and his eleven disciples of jazz returned to the stage with a great uproar from the audience. Payton announced there was a special guest in the house. Nicholas added he had spoken with a gentleman who had "talked his ears off on the plane flight from New York to Nashville and he wanted to welcome him to the stage for an encore performance with .Bela Fleck" The tension of the audience anticipation ended with resounding approval. Payton announced the last piece was "I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You" and began to sing while the band supported with horn kicks and great riffing.
The crowd was treated to a great ragtime era solo from special guest Bela Fleck on banjo. The banjo added a great element to the jive blues. Fleck strummed rhythms and lightning fast single note burst with fiery delivery and swinging passion. The crowd couldn’t have anticipated such a great end to an already stellar evening at the Langford Auditorium. Payton showed great vocal range and delivery and will probably feature his vocals in the future much like his idol, Louis Armstrong. The evening was indeed a celebration of two great artists; Louis and Nicholas and the great music they are both synonymous with in the world of jazz and pop music. After 100 years it appears Louis Armstrong’s music and legacy is alive and well as Nicholas Payton can testify the blues truth, proven today. Welcome to the New Orleans valley of the trumpet kings. Happy Birthday, Louis!