nicholas payton

The Nicholas Payton Quartet will play Payton's original compositions and interpret some standards at the concert on Wednesday at the Manship Theatre.

Fresh from his second consecutive end-of-the-year residency at Chicago’s landmark Jazz Showcase club, New Orleans trumpeter, keyboardist and composer Nicholas Payton has a gig at the Manship Theatre on Wednesday.

Veteran music journalist Howard Reich, of The Chicago Tribune, previewed Payton’s recent seven-night stand in Chicago, writing that the passing of the torch from Roy Hargrove — the much-admired trumpeter who died in 2018 at 49 — to Payton is a boon to the city’s music lovers.

“Payton stands as a singular figure in American music,” Reich said. “He can evoke the stratospheric brilliance of Louis Armstrong in historic repertory, yet he also pushes at the stylistic boundaries of what’s possible in 21st-century music-making.”

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At the Manship show, the Nicholas Payton Quartet will play his original compositions and interpret some standards. 

In October, Payton and the quartet performed the U.S. premiere of his “Black American Symphony” with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. An example of Payton’s boundary-stretching compositions, the symphony incorporates multiple styles of black music into six movements.

“In the wake of the black American music movement that I started in 2011,” Payton said, “I wanted to write symphonic music that reflects the history and the story of black American music. That is something I’ve been preparing for my whole life.”

The child of professional musicians, Payton began composing music during early childhood — at the piano, with the trumpet he got at 4, with any other instrument available to him and simply with his voice. His father, Walter Payton Jr., was a longtime Preservation Hall bassist and a music teacher in New Orleans public schools. His classically trained mother, Maria, played piano for church services and sang opera. The music Payton heard at home included his mother’s Sarah Vaughan and Anita Baker records and the Bach cello suites his father practiced on acoustic upright bass.

“But, really, black music was the bulk of what I heard at home,” Payton said.

Because his father was a school band director, Payton had afterschool access to many instruments. In addition to trumpet and piano, he learned to play bass, drums, tuba, trombone, clarinet and saxophone.

Payton began sitting in with bands at 9 and performing with the All-Star Brass Band at 12. Preservation Hall drummer Shannon Powell helped him get his first recurring gig, with Powell and singer, banjo player and raconteur Danny Barker at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street.

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Though Payton was musically precocious, he credits his pre-teen work as a professional musician and Miles Davis’ 1966 in-concert album, “Four & More,” for inspiring him to be a musician for life.

“When I heard that album, it was a defining moment for me,” he said.

Payton’s music teachers included the best New Orleans had to offer: Clyde Kerr Jr. at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Harold Battiste and Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans.

“I very early on understood how important it was to be around the elders, to serve tutelage under them and have them as mentors,” he said. “I put off signing my first record deal until I had served apprenticeship under the great masters, until I felt ready to jump out here on my own as a leader.”

Verve Records released Payton’s album debut, “From This Moment,” when he was 21. He’s since released 18 albums as a leader and contributed to more than 140 recordings as a composer, arranger, guest or sideman. His eclectic collaborators include Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Ray Charles, Chucho Valdes, Dr. Michael White, Zigaboo Modeliste, Trey Anastasio and Jill Scott.

An outspoken artist, Payton doesn’t let the possibility of losing a gig stop him expressing his potentially controversial views about music and the world.

“It’s been forgotten that that’s what artists are supposed to do,” he said. “We live in a society which often celebrates mediocrity. We live in an era which isn’t as celebratory of new ideas as when I was a youngster. But I’m a product of those people who challenged the status quo and pointed to a different way of living and thinking.”


7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St.