Pain Relief Beyond Belief





From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.


Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.


For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.






Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin



       In Her Own Words

Nicholas Payton Talks Lockdown, Instrument Juggling, and His New Album

Nicholas Payton Talks Lockdown, Instrument Juggling, and His New Album

Ted Panken catches up with the Zen Gangster

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Nicholas Payton (photo: Leslie Gamboni) 550w, 768w, 822w, 600w, 1000w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" style="box-sizing: inherit; border-style: none; max-width: 100%; font-style: italic; vertical-align: middle; height: auto; clip-path: none;" /> Nicholas Payton (photo: Leslie Gamboni)

Nicholas Payton’s latest, Smoke Sessions, recorded at the end of May and released by … Smoke Sessions, caps a 14-month span of intense productivity since COVID-19 disrupted the world. During the year prior to this created-in-the-studio post-lockdown encounter with 45-year-old drummer/DJ/producer Karriem Riggins, 84-year-old bass grandmaster Ron Carter, and (on two tracks) 85-year-old tenor sax giant George Coleman, Payton had released on his imprint label Paytone the sardonic, dance-oriented Quarantined With Nick and the one-man-band invention Maestro Rhythm King. 

Smoke Sessions is the fifth recording on which Payton documents himself playing trumpet and keyboards (piano and Fender Rhodes), sometimes simultaneously, in high-level interplay with a trio, employing a stylistic palette that spans swing, funk, and hip-hop. Guitarist Isaiah Starkey complements him on “Gold Dust, Black Magic,” the “title track” of a Payton-penned symphony that the Louisiana Philharmonic performed last March. Several tracks showcase Payton’s acoustic piano prowess: soulful and Jamal-esque on “Q for Quincy Jones,” French Impressionistic on “Lullaby of a Lamppost,” post-Bud harmonic poetry on Keith Jarrett’s “No Lonely Nights.” The proceedings conclude with a kaleidoscopic electro-acoustic exploration of Herbie Hancock’s “Toys,” as Payton channels several Herbie periods, each one in his own argot; free-dialogues with Carter in an expressive improvised section; then wraps on trumpet with a self-accompanied “I’m Nicholas Payton and you’re not” solo that evokes the spirits of Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. When the music stops, Carter—known to be parsimonious with compliments—remarks, “It doesn’t get any better, Nicholas.”

JT: You’ve said that your portal into what you do opened at age 11, upon hearing Tony Williams’ sock cymbal at the opening of “Four” on side two of the Miles Davis Quintet’s Four and More, with Ron Carter and George Coleman. 

PAYTON: This record is a full-circle moment. As a kid, I practiced with Four and More every day, pretending I was in this band.

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You’ve spoken frequently about the importance of interacting with elder masters.

All too often it gets lost that it’s a lineage. It’s ancestral, passed down from master to student, for eons—and when you play, ultimately you’re supposed to connect with those here or no longer here. To me, that should be the central focus.

The beginning of your trumpet-keyboard concept was at a jam session you established at New Orleans’ Snug Harbor in 2006, in Katrina’s aftermath. 

Before that, I had larger bands. I wanted to go the opposite direction, to highlight the idea that I’d be more part of the rhythm section. The most obvious way is to have a trio. Maybe there are a few trumpet-out-front trios, and obviously a slew of keyboardists-out-front trios, but I don’t know of any trumpeter/keyboardist trios. So it was also a way of creating culture and establishing a new way of communicating, without a reference point.

Was it complicated to establish yourself in that format at the time?

Only with bookers and presenters.

This reminds me that you’ve also been playing drums since you were a kid, when Herlin Riley and James Black rehearsed in your living room.

Well, yeah, that’s in an obvious way. But all these instruments are drums. The bass is a drum. A trumpet is a drum. You don’t necessarily have to play drums to be an architect of rhythm. I mean, Louis Armstrong revolutionized rhythm in the 20th century. Charlie Parker is another great example. Although he’s often broken down in terms of chordal relationships, I think his chief contribution was of a rhythmic nature. He’s only discussed harmonically because people can codify it and disseminate it in schools. But you can’t codify free rhythmic thought. You have to be standing next to somebody on the bandstand to get that, or to really delve deeper. That’s tribal.

Many musicians have said that the worst thing about COVID was the purgatory of not being able to make music with people. How did you cope?

As usual, I threw myself headlong into work. It didn’t really hold me down. It gave me space to be perhaps more productive, because I didn’t have any distractions. I’m an introvert anyway, so I don’t necessarily need a lot of people to feel inspired.

Apart from the digital release, Quarantined With Nick, you also did a fair amount of live streaming.

Yes. [Vocalist] Sasha [Masakowski] and I did weekly streams for the first part of the pandemic. A lot of the streams I was watching, people were doing shit on their speakerphones. We did it in a recording studio, high-quality audio. We developed a couple of things that we knew, but I was also using a lot of current news and Black Power voices from the ’60s up until now, mixing those samples with the music, creating things on the spot. It was catharsis—using music as a vehicle for justice and awareness.

“All these instruments are drums. The bass is a drum. A trumpet is a drum. You don’t necessarily have to play drums to be an architect of rhythm.”

Will you be drawing on that more explicitly political material for future projects? 

I feel my music has always been political. I mean, just being Black in America is political. 

When I do stuff, I don’t really have a preset idea. Even this date with Ron and Karriem and George, a lot of the stuff was sketched out days before—or the day before. I had some 50 tunes that I wanted to do. We just started going through them, and whatever felt right made the record. Got to be creative for me. Fresh.

On your web page, I noticed that the last entry in the essay section was from 2018.

I don’t write much anymore. Basically I’ve been mostly channeling my thoughts through the music. Once the blogging thing became trendy, I sort of weaned off of that. But my writing has lived in shorter form, in the way of the Zen Gangster, a name Vijay Iyer gave me that I thought was a cool moniker. On my Instagram, every now and then I put up these little placards—short aphorisms, sometimes just a few words—from the Zen Gangster. Like my music becomes shorter, my words have become shorter too.

Nicholas Payton: Where Raw Talent Meets Controversy


Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.

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