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Music Inside Out: Nicholas Payton

Andrea Canter

Ask him about his hat. The multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton wears an assortment of caps, fedoras, and other lids on stage. He first needed the head wear nearly 40 years ago, when he was way too young to play club dates in and around New Orleans, but played them anyway.

“Danny Barker, one of my early mentors, hired me to do a gig,” Payton tells Gwen. “It was a trio: Danny Barker (guitar, banjo), Shannon Powell (drums) and myself. We were playing the Famous Door on Bourbon Street … That was my first regular gig. I remember the first time we played, we were sitting up there … and the owner is like, ‘Who’s that kid up there? He’s too young to play here.’ And Danny Barker was like, ‘Oh, slap a hat on him. Nobody will know.’ And I’m still wearing fedoras to this day.”

Chances are, the sound of Payton’s trumpet convinced that club owner to look the other way. As a child prodigy, Payton was a veteran side man by the time he reached puberty. He’d played in the All-Star Brass Band with New Orleans trumpeter James Andrews. He’d toured in Europe. He’d performed with his father, the celebrated bassist and sousaphone player, Walter Payton. So who knows how many hats Nicholas amassed over the years? The collection he has also represents his multi-faceted identity as a sideman, band leader, producer, composer, arranger, solo artist and advocate for Black American Music (BAM). That’s the music Payton pledges his allegiance to. For a variety of reasons, he’s not a fan of the word “jazz.”

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.