When Nicholas (Payton) Met Philip (Seymour Hoffman)

Photo Credit (l-r) Nicholas Payton/Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images; Philip Seymour Hoffman/Rob Kim/Getty Images

That headline is intentionally misleading.
Yet not as misleading as this one, from New York’s Daily News: “Jazz saxophonist Robert Vineberg, arrested for heroin dealing in Philip Seymour Hoffman net, has A-list recording credits
And neither is as clever or cynical as this one, from trumpeter Nicholas Payton‘s website: “Another Shot in the Arm for Jazz,” which ran atop Payton’s riff in response to the Daily News piece.
Through his music, Payton has attracted a wide range of listeners and consistent acclaim: His most recent CD, Sketches of Spain(BMF Records), revisits the classic Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration of the same name, expanding his working group into a 19-piece ensemble conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.
Though his website, Payton has angered a great number of people during the last few years, mostly through a series of blog posts beginning with one on November 27, 2011 titled, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” His prose style can veer toward anger, his posts sometimes sounding like rants. Yet he nearly always has good and necessary points to make, not least that to talk about the word “jazz” and about whatever music you associate with that word is also, at some point (if you’re honest and well-educated) to consider the issue of race. Payton’s 2011 post, which was structured almost like a poem, contained these lines:

Jazz was a limited idea to begin with.
Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.
The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.

Payton’s thoughts about the word “jazz”—its etymology and connotations—are anything but radical and, style aside, are pretty much in line with the things musicians like Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Yusef Lateef (among many others) have said through the years.
I’m highlighting here Payton’s latest post, about the odd tangent of coverage resulting from Hoffman’s tragic death via heroin overdose that has honed in on one of the actor’s dealers, who plays saxophone. The leaps of logic that led the Daily News’ Wayne Lockwood to connect Hoffman’s death to the heroin addictions of dead jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker via the musical career of his heroin salesman, Robert Vineberg, would be funny if, well, they were funny (or at all logical).
I had thought about writing something about this thread (there have been yet sillier spinoff pieces at other quasi-news sites, including this one at The Daily Beast, and this one, perhaps the oddest of all, in the Oakland Examiner, titled “When Miles Met Philip,” and recounting (though I’m not sure why) a fleeting meeting decades ago between the late trumpeter and the late actor).
I suppose that to these “reporters,” any excuse to trot out the outdated yet alluring image of the drug-addled jazz musician (nearly always a black man) is irresistible, especially if it can piggyback on the trending digital story of a famous human’s tragic end.
All that is set within the reality that, even for far more credible newspeople, jazz rarely makes it onto their radar save for Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis or a spectacle of tragedy in which there happen to be trumpets or saxophones nearby (after the levees broke, jazz on TV (albeit mostly in B-roll footage reached a high-water mark).
So Payton, who is from New Orleans, beat me to it and said most of what needed to be said. In his post, he begins with questions:

How did the narrative get twisted from one about a deceased actor with an addiction, to one about Jazz? The first line sets the tone for what follows:
“Since even before the days of its most famous fatality, alto legend Charlie Parker, heroin has been the dark shadow of jazz.”
Then, the piece is bookended by:
“Going back to the early 1940s, trumpeter Joe Guy supplemented his work as a drug dealer, most famously supplying Billie Holiday while they carried on an affair.”
Why evoke the names of 3 Black musicians who passed on over half a century ago to tell your story about a White drug dealer and abuser with whom they share little to no association? Did Black people or Jazz musicians invent heroin? Were Blacks the first to do it or bring it into America? And why does it take a celebrated White actor to die for the police to crack down on the supply of contaminated dope that’s been killing folks for weeks?

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