Long before Louis Armstrong came along, the trumpet and New Orleans were intertwined. For local jazz legend Nicholas Payton, the instrument represents the essence of the Crescent City.
Nicholas Payton performs at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Nicholas Payton performs at the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Paul McDonald
There may be no tighter bond linking a city and a musical instrument than the one that connects New Orleans and the trumpet. A big part of the credit goes to Armstrong. But the tradition of great New Orleans trumpet players was well-established by the time Satchmo came along in the 1920s.
"In New Orleans music, trumpet is king," Payton says. "[There's] something about the sound of the trumpet — its expressiveness, its sort of regal quality."
That regal quality can still be felt in a city that has struggled to retain its dignity even as it rebulids neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Payton, who continues to live in the city, is among the best reasons that the long line of great New Orleans trumpeters survives today. His city is in his sound, even as he explores more up-to-date styles. One of his albums, Gumbo Nouveau, proves that point. On the CD, he took a well-known New Orleans standard, "When the Saints Go Marching In," and turned it into a more modern ballad.
Like many in New Orleans, Payton was born into music. His father Walter is a bassist and his mother, Maria, is a former operatic singer as well as a classical pianist.
At the ripe age of eight, Payton became one of the youngest members of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. By his teenage years, he was a earning his way as a musician and by the 1990s, he began to make his mark on the international jazz scene. He's now made seven CDs as a leader and appeared on more than 80 albums — including one with the late, great trumpeter, Doc Cheatham.
Payton is now 33 and has already reached veteran status. He's comfortable playing bebop or swing, hip-hop or more experimental, free-form styles.
"My bag is no bag," Payton says. "I don't like to be boxed into a certain type of thing. Musicians in New Orleans I find to be very, very open. It's about the music and the chemistry and the camaraderie. It's not about the genre."
It's difficult to hear the music of celebration in New Orleans and not feel the weight of recent tragedy and a long road to recovery. But when Payton plays the trumpet, there's a joy that lightens that load — and that could only come from one place in the world.
"No matter what I do, regardless of how disassociated it may appear to be from New Orleans, there's always just that thing somewhere in there that says New Orleans," he says.
Ashley Kahn is the author of the book The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records that will be published next month.