On March 13, his campaign calling for the recognition of "Black American Music" takes a dramatic step forward.

Photo of Nicholas Payton

I don't get usually involved in genre-definition conversations, partly because when asked what they make, most musicians will say "music" instead of identifying a genre. Ultimately, it becomes a question of values as people decide what characteristics are crucial to a genre. When I was at OffBeat and Gambit, genre decisions got heated when it came time to decide what artist belongs in what category. What's Bonerama? Where does Anders belong?

I've always found the definition of "Americana" sketchy, even though I like a lot of the artists considered to be Americana as well as the people who defend the use of the title. It seemed to me that the most genre-defying artists (Lucinda, Steve Earle) were used to suggest that a new musical umbrella was needed for many artists who could easily be considered blues, country, folk or bluegrass.

Still, genres matter. At the simplest level, many aesthetics are genre-specific, and if someone considered an album to be punk because of its antisocial attitude instead of its intensity and aggression, many who bought the album because it was called "punk" would be pissed off. Genre can also have an economic impact. When record stores existed, where you were slotted affected how you sold. Since the Rock section was the most shopped, being there led to more sales than being in the Blues or Oldies sections. Chris Thomas King recently pointed out at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art that Eric Clapton plays the blues but is classified as Rock and sells at one level, while the great African-American blues guitarists' releases are filed under Blues and sell very differently. The same dynamic still plays out today at iTunes and other online stores, he contends.

King contends that New Orleans should be thought of as the home of the blues, and that jazz is a form of the blues, not something independent. Nicholas Payton is similarly swearing off "jazz," instead advocating that it be called not blues but Black American Music, or BAM. He is in the process of orchestrating a call for the adoption of BAM via a Thunderclap - an online petition that will allow him to send out a message advocating BAM on March 13 through the social media of those who signed up.

Payton has been a polarizing online figure in general, and certainly in his critique of what jazz has become. His blog post, "On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore," began, "Jazz died in 1959" and went from there. Later in the piece, he wrote:

Definitions are retrospective.

And if you find yourself getting mad, it’s probably because you know Jazz is dead.

Why get upset if what I’m saying doesn’t ring true?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t play Jazz.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

Louis Armstrong and Danny Barker play Traditional New Orleans Music.

Ellis Marsalis and James Black play Modern New Orleans music.

Kidd Jordan and Clyde Kerr play Avant-garde New Orleans music.

Donald Harrison plays Neoclassical New Orleans music.

I play Postmodern New Orleans music.

I am a part of a lineage.

I am a part of a blood line.

My ancestors didn’t play Jazz, they played Traditional, Modern and Avant-garde New Orleans Music.

I don’t play Jazz.

I don’t let others define who I am.  

#BAM is part of Payton's campaign for self-definition. Needless to say, his position sparked controversy from those who don't share his assessment of jazz's health, and from those who feel alienated by genre definitions that exclude them. In his "#BAM for Dummies" post, he writes: 

I’m Not Black, Where Do I Fit In Black American Music?

You should feel no more disconnected from Black American music than non-Cubans feel about playing Cuban music or non-Brazilians about Brazilian music. The term Black American Music just acknowledges the culture from which it sprung forth. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate and play it anymore than you have to be Chinese to cook and eat noodles.

For Those Who are Black and/or Jazz Lovers . . .

The Black American Music Movement doesn’t seek to take Jazz away from you. It’s your choice. There are certainly artists and musics that deserve the JAZZ title, but there is a growing number of artists who wish to shake the stigma of cultural colonialism.

“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

As the Ellington quote illustrates, Payton's idea is one that has been in the air for decades. Rahsaan Roland Kirk adopted the related position that jazz should be considered Black Classical Music. 

If Payton's Thunderclap has any lasting impact on how we talk about music, that will be gravy. To my mind, he has already succeeded by doing two things. He has got people not just talking but arguing passionately about jazz again, and he has done his part to keep the conversations about race, culture and authority from getting too settled or cozy. Whatever racial progress we make societally comes with conversation, even when it's heated. Silence is the sound of positions calcifying, retrenching, and settling into bad places.   

Participate in Nicholas Payton's Thunderclap by registering here.