Nicholas Payton recently came to Atlanta for a performance with the Georgia State University jazz band. He was also kind enough to give a master class, which I attended. Following are my notes from the class and the concert.
Born into a musical family in New Orleans, Nicholas Payton started playing the trumpet at the age of four. Everything he played, he played by ear. He'd listen to local bands and recordings and try to mimic what he heard. In time, he'd learn entire solos by ear.
Nicholas didn't take trumpet lessons until the age of eight. He mentioned that the lessons were tedious and basically drove him away from the horn for a year or two. His interest in playing wouldn't return until the age of ten or eleven, when he started playing in local bands. From that point on, he played everywhere he could, from street corners to cruise ships. BTW: According to the bio on Payton's website, he started gigging at the age of eight. Regardless of the exact dates, it's clear that he was a great player at a very early age.
At some point early on, Wynton Marsalis called Nicholas' house to speak with Payton's father; Nicholas' father was an educator in New Orleans. Nicholas knew Wynton was on the phone, so he picked up his horn and started playing near where his father was talking. Wynton overhead the playing and the rest is history. Wynton would soon introduce Nicholas to other musicians, effectively jumpstarting Nicholas' career (I believe Wynton was responsible for the Elvin Jones introduction, but I might be mistaken).
LEARNING TUNES, PATTERNS, AND THEORY
When learning tunes, Nicholas doesn't use fake books. Instead, he learns tunes by ear, directly from the original recordings. The same goes for patterns and licks. He never used any of the pattern books that so many young players rely upon. If he did learn licks, they all came from listening to recordings.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that he never got into all of the advanced theory taught in most jazz books. He made this point by saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that he couldn't get into Lydian dominant and stuff like that. He did, however, stress the need for players to know their scales well enough to play well in every key.
I must say, having just written about the importance of playing by ear, it felt great to have that message validated by Payton's history and his approach to music.
Like most trumpet players, Nicholas has a standard practice routine. His routine includes breathing exercises, Cichowicz flow studies, Clarke studies 1&2, Bowman articulation exercises, Arban slurs and articulation exercises, and whisper tones. The whisper tones are basically long tones played at a very low volume.
Aside from a short demonstration of the whisper tone exercises, there wasn't any playing during this master class, either by Nicholas or students. After seeing Randy Brecker and the Heath Brothers, I had sort of expected that every master class has a jam session and/or a demonstration of specific techniques. Earlier that day, Nicholas had been rehearsing with the Georgia State University jazz band for a concert later that night, so perhaps there wasn't a jam session because he wanted to give his chops a break.
As mentioned, Nicholas performed with the Georgia State University big band that evening. At first, I was disappointed to learn that he was only joining them during the second of two sets. The disappointment wore off quickly, however, as the GSU big band was so good that I nearly forgot all about Nicholas. When he did finally join them, he sounded incredible (as expected). Every note he played sung with impeccable precision.
FINAL NOTE - GETTING SCHOOLED
At one point during the master class, a GSU student asked Nicholas if he ever practices legit music. With a 'no you di-int' look on his face, Nicholas responded "so Jazz isn't legit?" Ouch!