In honor of Columbus Day—a holiday I can neither grasp nor endorse save for the joy of suspended alternate-side parking in my neighborhood—here’s a celebration from Nicholas Payton
—”The Egyptian Second Line
” (two versions, in fact).
I first met Payton, a trumpeter, keyboardist and singer, while he was still in his teens (he’s 43 now). He was supporting pianist Ellis Marsalis in a band assembled for a morning TV show. It was the sort of publicity event that, 20-some-odd-years ago, supported the idea of a nascent neo-traditionalist jazz renaissance (with Payton as the latest young lion to follow in Louis Armstrong’s—and perhaps Ellis’s son Wynton’s—wake).
Payton had soaked in his history and his tradition, for sure, not least from his father, bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton.
In the decades since, Payton has distinguished himself as a musician who questions categories and even the dogma of accepted history as much as, well, Armstrong did (do some research at the Armstrong House museum, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).
Payton is an intense and restless soul, and his thoughts and feelings spill forth with self-assuredness and defiant pride through both his music and his online posts. His music should probably raise more eyebrows than it does because, aside from its integrity and range, it generally doesn’t respect the party line heeded by many so-called jazz musicians. Payton’s blog posts—in which, among other stances, he refuses to wear the term “jazz,” and instead favors the acronym BAM (for Black American Music)—perhaps shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. At least, these missives can’t be dismissed as rants, which they’re not, or even radical, which they’re also not. The musicians involved in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said pretty much the same things 50 years ago.
I’ll not get into a long catalog of what Payton has written online and what was then written about him and what he then wrote in response (though it’s easy enough, and illuminating, to follow that chronology). Yes, it’s about race as much as music, as it should be: Yet whereas, say, the comments appended to articles in the Times Picayune of Payton’s hometown discusses race in a lowest-common-denominator who-can-hate-more style, Payton channels his own feelings (sometimes, yes, rage) into the sort of truth-telling that black trumpeters born and raised in the United States have long done. Amstrong and Miles Davis weren’t enamored with the term “jazz” either.
In a March post titled “#WorldSoWhite,” Payton wrote:
“Louis bowed and scraped so Miles could turn his back.”
He’s right about that.
And still, let’s not let all that distract our attention from Payton’s music, which keeps coming and never stays put.
Through an arrangement with his own music label, Paytone, Ropeadope Records will reissue five of Payton’s recordings and plans to release his “Afro-Carribean Mixtape.” (You can find his catalog at pantone.bandcamp.com.)
The label describes the forthcoming release as “an exploration into the history of the African diaspora as it follows the original trade routes to this hemisphere”—which must naturally involve the slave trade.
Ropeadope released a download of Payton’s single, “The Egyptian Second Line,”on Friday, October 7th as “a poignant statement in advance of Columbus Day, as much of the nation questions the version of history handed down by the colonists.”
The stuff is deeply funky, simple on the surface in both groove and structure, yet embedded with a complex and shifting set of cues, clues and hues, most through a dense layering of samples.
I’ll not say more about it until I listen more. And perhaps not until I get the whole album and can pen a proper review.
But here’s what Payton wrote about what’s in the mix:
In the spirit of reclaiming that which colonization sought to destroy, I’m releasing the first single from my upcoming album Afro-Caribbean Mixtape at the top of Columbus Day weekend. Like a piece of African patchwork, this track is comprised of a lot of different elements — some old, some new. The main body of this record was constructed from the end vamp of a tune I wrote for Dr. Greg Carr (chair of African-American studies at Howard University) called, “Kimathi.” In fact, throughout the piece, you can hear my turntablist, DJ Lady Fingaz, scratching a sample I chopped from one of his interviews. I constructed a new work by cutting and pasting the best moments of Kevin Hays and I playing keyboards on top of the extended jam, and superimposed that over the groove laid down by bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Joe Dyson, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. I did this with the help of my mix engineer, Blake Leyh (The Wire, Treme).
Towards the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a chant from vocalists Yolanda Robinson, Jolynda Phillips, and Christina Machado. It’s from a thing my father made up while walking through his childhood neighborhood of 13th Ward New Orleans back in the 1940s, “Na-na ni-ta ho-ho. Left, right. Left, right.” Thirty years later, as an elementary school band teacher at McDonogh #15, he had us chant this whenever we marched in second line parades. It recalls the syllabic prayers of ancient languages used in modern dance songs like Mani Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” of which Michael Jackson borrowed for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”
The centerpiece of the single is a poem I wrote back in 2006 in the aftermath of the flood commonly referred to as “Katrina.” It’s called “The Egyptian Second Line,” recited by Nicole Sweeney, a deejay at WBGO. The gist of it toys with the theory that somehow Africans submitted to slavery in an attempt to become better versions of themselves. After the ladies chirp the hook, I step away from the keyboards and embrace the instrument I’m most known for — the trumpet — and blow a few before we take it out. With this song, I am channeling the energy of the ancestors to help give Africa back to herself in the best way I know how, through the power of music.
In New Orleans, a “second line” is the procession where we dance in the streets to music played by a brass band to celebrate either life or death. When I think about what an Egyptian second line looks like, I think of the imagery of that photo of Louis Armstrong serenading his wife, Lucille in front of the Sphinx — again Africans giving Africa back to herself.