An Open Letter to Branford Marsalis . . .

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you An Open Letter to Branford Marsalis.

WARNING: This broadcast contains no obscenities (unlike Branford’s last JazzTimes interview which is replete with the usage of  “F” and “S” bombs.)

‘Sup, Branford:

First, let me thank you for restating my argument and making my point for me. Now allow me to completely dismantle most everything you’ve said about Black American music and Nicholas Payton — with your own words.

On The Black Issues Forum . . .

There was a video someone hipped me to several months back with you speaking on #BAM. This was in the heat of the fire when I was getting blasted from all sides on the issue of Black American music. I addressed several “open letters” to many of the dissenters. I didn’t comment on every attack because they were so numerous it would have consumed all of my time and I didn’t want to indulge in any more negative energy than I deemed necessary. Though it was very tempting for me to outline point-by-point the fallacy in your statements, I decided I would let it go. (Video posted below).


It’s interesting that in this video right before your attack of the idea of Black American music, you say “I didn’t grow up with the idea of genre. . . . Genres don’t really exist. Human beings, for whatever the reason, we feel comfort in categorization. I think probably because it allows us not to have to think too much.” Exactly, Branford. I agree. You go on to say, “We all live in these narrow worlds that we consider large and expansive, and then something occurs that is about to expand your world, and you say ‘No, no, no, no, no. I have my world right here. I don’t need you coming in here and messing up what I know because then that’s going to change everything that I think. But then there’s those people who are just like, ‘Man, there’s so much I don’t know; let’s go get some of this, let’s go get some of that. Let’s go find out about this.’ And, I always had that kind of curiosity and I was lucky enough to live in a city where it embraced that idea.”

It’s interesting you note in the above video that some people reject a broader perspective because a more expanded view forces them to change the way they’ve looked at something their whole lives and they don’t want to have to think about reevaluating their views. Isn’t that exactly what you’ve done with #BAM? How ironic!

Well, Branford, I’m from that same city you speak of; born in a musical family just like you. Our fathers played music together, they both taught music in the Orleans Parish Public School System, and embraced a genre-free ideal of Black music.

You fundamentally agree with everything that I’ve said, but why the dissent? It doesn’t diminish your shine to acknowledge someone else’s brilliance. It takes a real man to recognize that there are other cats of note who are torchbearers. It’s particularly reminiscent of that way The “Marsalis” Coterie attempts to control the conversation and dismisses anyone who disagrees — that I’m all too familiar with. It’s easier to be dismissive of a new idea than to admit that maybe you’ve been wrong in your thinking, especially if someone else made that proposition.

You said that I said my point of view is superior to all other points of view because I am Black. This is a lie. Nowhere did I say that. Nor did I say people of other races can’t play this music. In fact, I’ve made it explicitly clear that anyone can play this music, but Black people created it. This is not a point of view or an opinion, this is a fact. You may not like the way I said it, but this was historically well-documented before I was born.

You also reference a question I posed on Facebook which was: “Why doesn’t Mulgrew Miller get the love that Brad Mehldau gets?” This was not to attack Brad as much as it was to highlight the fact that — though it is a Black American art form — it is controlled and dominated by Whites. These are stems of colonialism and imperialism that have plagued Black people since they crossed the shores of the Atlantic from Africa. You made the same observation while in attendance at a Michael Brecker concert where you asked your pianist, Joey Calderazzo, if John Coltrane would have gotten the same amount of standing ovations.


A slight sidebar, but worth discussion: You say that Americans don’t feel a need to support nationalist superiority and we haven’t had wars fighting for national sovereignty? What about the Cold War? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Vietnam? The Middle East? Wow, you really bought into American White denial, haven’t you? This revisionist idea that America is the land of the free. America is the capital of imperialism and nationalism. Were it not for American nationalism, Black people wouldn’t even be here. Even a perfunctory knowledge of American history would enable you to see that. Next thing you’ll be saying is not only did Christopher Columbus discover America, but he invented jazz.

You close your argument by saying that Blackness in America is a cultural identity, and I completely agree. Black American music is not a genre, it is the truth. It’s not a style, it’s a communal expression that evolved from enslaved Africans who were transplanted from their home to America. It is not African music. It is not African-American music. It is Black American music. This is not territorial any more than saying Afro-Cuban music, Brazilian music, Celtic music, or any other music of ethnic origin.

On The JazzTimes Article . . .

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Bill Milkowski, the journalist, asked what your thoughts were on my supposed “diatribe,” and before he could finish the question, you say: “There’s no topic there. There’s nothing there.” That’s interesting. A year after I started the conversation, you’re still talking about it. There must be something there for you to have already had an opinion raring to go. You say it doesn’t matter, but the fact that it’s Black American music is actually the most important part. This music was fundamental in breaking down the climate of racial oppression all over the world. It’s the world’s first popular music and instrumental in making the White race reexamine its position of people of color not being human.

A key thing that many don’t seem to understand is that Black American music is not a replacement for the term “Jazz”. It is the umbrella under which all manner of the Black American musical aesthetic lives. Gospel, Blues, so-called Jazz, Bebop, R&B, Soul, and Hiphop are the same communal expression of the same people. The only things that differ are the eras and the individuals who created it.

The whole premise of the proposition of Black American music are two basic facts: 1) Jazz is a disdainful term of dubious origin. 2) Black Americans created it.

As LeVar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”


“What does Jazz mean to you when I come up behind you: ‘Jazz,’ I say, ‘what does that do to you? That doesn’t explain the music. But let me tell you one thing: Jazz, that’s a name the white people have given to the music. There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…But Jazz, ­ Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass…”

– Sidney Bechet

“By and large, jazz always has been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with. The word ‘jazz’ has been part of the problem. In the 1920s I used to try to convince Fletcher Henderson that we ought to call what we were doing ‘Negromusic.’ But it’s too late for that now. This music has become so integrated you can’t tell one part from the other so far as color is concerned.”

– Duke Ellington

So what I propose is absurd? But are Bechet and Ellington absurd? If there was nothing there, why were they talking about this decades before we were born?

If you look in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, every synonym for “JAZZ” is a pejorative:

Synonyms: applesauce [slang], balderdash, baloney (also boloney), beans, bilge, blah (also blah-blah), blarney, blather, blatherskite, blither, bosh, bull [slang], bunk, bunkum (or buncombe), claptrap, codswallop [British], crapola [slang], crock, drivel, drool, fiddle, fiddle-faddle, fiddlesticks, flannel [British], flapdoodle, folderol (also falderal), folly, foolishness, fudge, garbage, guff, hogwash, hokeypokey, hokum, hoodoo, hooey, horsefeathers [slang], humbug, humbuggery, nonsense, malarkey (also malarky), moonshine, muck, nerts [slang], nuts, piffle, poppycock, punk, rot, rubbish, senselessness, silliness, slush, stupidity, taradiddle (or tarradiddle), tommyrot, tosh, trash, trumpery,  twaddle.

Black American music wasn’t called “JAZZ” to begin with . . .

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“I moved back home with my mother. I was working at Tom Anderson’s Cabaret ­ located on ‘Rampart…Lots of Big Shots from Lulu White’s used to come there…And I was playing the Cornet. We played all sorts of arrangements T’wasn’t called ‘Jazz’ back there in those days They played a whole lot of Ragtime music. We called it Dixie ­ Jazz, in the later years.”

– Louis Armstrong

You said if I think changing the name will make people like it, that’s absurd. When you take into account many people don’t like it — not because of how it sounds — but because it’s “Jazz,” it makes sense that a title more fitting would give it new life and get people to see the continuum of Black American music in a new light. I’m not saying a name change is a cure-all, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

The most ridiculous thing that you said — and there are many — is:

“If you believe there are people making decisions about music based on cultural ignorance or arrogance, then there is an argument to be made for that. The whole idea of European jazz is that argument. You have people who say they want to play jazz and at the same time they want to pretend that Black American culture doesn’t even exist and has no part of the discussion.”

Branford, I have a solution to that argument: Stop calling it “JAZZ” and call it Black American music. End. Of. Argument. Thanks again for outlining the whole impetus behind the Black American music movement.

You sight a story about a friend of yours who was told by a professor that the diminished chord has been used in Jazz since Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans. When the student sighted Duke Ellington, the teacher told him if he did, it was a mistake! Before all of them did it, Dippermouth Blues used the diminished chord in its intro.


Saying, “When Black musicians used this chord was a mistake,” is racial coding for, “Those Negroes aren’t sophisticated enough to have known what they were doing.” With “mistakes” like this, perfection is overrated.

This is yet another reason why people need to know this is Black American music; calling it Jazz allows many to forget the people it comes from and makes the art subject to the kind of whitewashing we’ve seen in all corners of Black culture.

You say in school one of your teachers told you Charlie Parker played eighth-note triplets as the swing feel, to which you said, “Naw, that’s not true.” But the fluctuation of the triplet is exactly what set Charlie Parker apart from his predecessors. Ask Barry Harris. His whole pedagogy of Bebop is based on the triplet feel. 

Since you said I never qualify my arguments in musical terms — another lie — I did a piece (pre-#BAM movement) breaking down in specific musical terms the connection between Charlie Parker’s music and the triplet. See post: Dissertation On Bebop and Hiphop

You substantiated your claim by saying, “Because I played in orchestra, I know that [triplet] feel very well.” By orchestra, I assume you mean, classical. So you legitimize, or denigrate, a Black expression by the measure of a European litmus test? That’s a faulty analysis.

For more on the fallacy of applying European ideals to Black music: On The European Influence in Black American Music

A symptom of being oppressed is accepting the standards of your oppressor as your own. It’s the House Negro syndrome. “Bill Milkowski ( a White dude) calls Payton’s stance a diatribe, so I’ll call it a diatribe, as well.” Calling what I’ve said about Jazz a diatribe is racial coding for calling me an angry, Black man. Telling me I can further my argument just by playing my horn is code for, “Boy, do your job by playing that horn like a good Nigger should.”


“Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. ‘Make a noise, make a noise,’ are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence among them.”

—Fredrick Douglass

What I do on the bandstand is exactly why the #BAM argument has had such life and traction; because I said it. Had some jackleg trumpeter said it, no one would care.

Instead of constantly trying to find fault in me — someone who has done his homework and represents a high level of artistic integrity — why not call to task the real people behind the problem in this music? I know why, because those are the folks who sign your paycheck. It’s the same reason the Civil Rights Movement imploded on itself. You can’t get all Black people on board to further their liberation. The caste system has been deeply ingrained and most are more fearful of freedom than the plantation. Oppression survives because you can always find a “Tom” nigger to sell out his brother.

An oppressed mind speaks the language of their oppressors, adopts their mindset, and their vision of themselves is colored by the colonialist mentality they’ve been conditioned by. They don’t know themselves outside of their master’s vision of them. Any effort to deconstruct the distorted image is shunned as it’s easier to accept what they’ve been sold.

assata shakur

“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”

–Assata Shakur

You criticized the rebuttal piece I did in reference to Ben Ratliff’s Four Pianists On The Rise, by saying what I chose to do is talk about their whiteness. Whose whiteness? Ratliff’s or the pianists’? My point was: it’s odd that on a list of “Jazz” pianists in New York City, no Black Americans were included. It would be tantamount to a list of best Mariachi bands with no Mexicans. I was clear to state that no one should have made the list just because they’re Black, but to have a list of up and coming pianists in an art form created by Black Americans and none are Black Americans? That’s absurd!

It speaks to the amount of control the White critical establishment has in saying who’s hot and who’s not; which is a vestige of colonialism. Not that what they say ultimately matters — but in terms of visibility for this music and its artists — it serves as a means of sustaining viability in a field of practice that has been largely ignored.

nick payton

The power of prophesy is not the ability to predict the future. It’s knowing history so well — you can sense when it’s coming back around again.

– Nicholas Payton

You say, “…whenever things are presented to me that are counter to my way of thinking, I don’t have to discredit it.” But that’s exactly what you’ve tried to do here, Branford. Discredit what I’ve said without even reading it first — by your own admission — and being fed second-hand information and having a knee-jerk reaction to it. In fact, what you’ve done is worse than discredit me. By saying, “There’s no topic there. There’s nothing there.” you don’t even recognize my voice. I’m as invisible to you as Clint Eastwood’s imaginary Obama in a chair.

To say it’s not a topic or it doesn’t matter, you sure have a lot to say about the subject.

You claim to have better things to do than to engage in subterfuge, but just about everything you’ve introduced as your stance against me and Black American music is subterfuge; an ad hominem argument that has little to do with what I’ve said and serves to deride me and derail the listeners toward your deceitful point of view.

Lauded as one of the “young lions” of the ’80s, the new millennium has shown you to bear more resemblance to a paper tiger.



This is a test. . . . Only a test.


– Nicholas Payton aka The Creator of #BAM