Music: A Conversation With Nicholas Payton

The trumpet virtuoso talks about breaking down barriers, creating art, and returning to Colorado Springs after the American premiere of his Black American Symphony.

Nicholas Payton is a force to be reckoned with. A multi-instrumentalist, visionary composer, iconoclast, Payton resides firmly at the forefront of contemporary music, pushing ensembles and audiences in new, challenging directions.

Colorado Springs had the opportunity to experience the innovative trumpet virtuoso firsthand last October when Colorado College’s Africana Intellectual Project and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic made it possible to perform the United States debut of Payton’s Black American Symphony, alongside Miles Davis’ iconic Sketches of Spain.

“To my mind, the significance of that performance has grown rather than diminished as time has passed,” says Professor Michael Sawyer, director of the Africana Intellectual Project. “More than the quality of the performance and the music, the way Nicholas transcended and destabilized the notion of high versus “low art,” or classical versus “common,” and his stated objective of situating Black American Music as an overarching system based on the blues remains transformative.”

Payton returns to Colorado Springs on March 7 for a single performance with his quartet at the Ent Center for the Arts. We caught him in the midst of a hectic schedule to talk about his art, creative process and performing in the Springs.

Springs: The last time you visited Colorado Springs was for the American premiere of your Black American Symphony. What did that performance mean to you?

Nicholas Payton: To finally have a performance of it on its own home soil is only fitting. I think a big reason why it’s taken so long is probably because of the Black part. In a lot of symphony orchestras in the classical world, black music and musicians are still largely marginalized. Shout out to Michael Sawyer at Colorado College, visionary professor of Africana Studies, who saw that this is an important thing that needs to happen on American soil.

What it’s like to write for a quartet as opposed to a symphony?

It’s not really different to me. It’s just more people, more instruments to write for, and it has to be more mapped out. If you’ve got 70-plus musicians on a stage, unless you’re going for something kind of cacophonous, using written music so everything sort of gels is optimal. But in terms of a compositional process, the writing aspect of it, it’s basically the same for me. It’s very motific, or minimalist—I’m a kind of minimalist in that I take small motifs and ideas and repeat them over and over again. That part of the concept is pretty much the same.

Nicholas Payton plays piano
Nicholas Payton plays live. Photo by Gulnara Khamatova.

Building off the idea of you as a minimalist, can you talk about your use of silence? You’ve said, “Silence is cool.” What do you mean by that?

Any great work of art often uses negative space. Without that, you inundate the viewer or the listener. It’s important to give your diamonds settings for context. If you’re just playing a flurry of notes all the time without breathing, it’s hard for someone to interpret and receive the work.

It’s in the space between where the magic happens, or even that the ideas come from. It comes from nothing. Theorists say things started with a big bang, but that bang had to come out of nothing. So to me, this is just nothingness. That is the coveted space that all artists seek to be in, which is a wellspring of ideas and inspiration.

This practice is a means of conditioning your body and conditioning your mind, conditioning your spirit to be able to be in those creative spaces where you can be like an open vessel and able to receive. If you are always out to assert yourself, I don’t think you leave room for the real magic to happen. It’s out of that silence that, to me, most great works are created.

You’ve said you write for the head and the heart, the booty and the beauty. How are they connected?

All of it. That quote is all of it, not just the second part. Head, heart, booty, beauty, all things. All realms. Physical, spiritual, mental, not one or the other. These all can coexist, and my mission is to create music that connects on all levels. Not just intellectually, not just sexually, not just physically, not just emotionally. I want to appeal on all levels, and to speak to all those things simultaneously, not one or the other. 

See Nicholas Payton Quartet

March 7 at Ent Center for the Arts

Info and tickets:

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