Born September 26, 1973, in New Orleans, LA; son of Walter and Maria Payton. Education: University of New Orleans Addresses: Record company--Verve Records/Verve Music Group, 555 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019, Phone: (212) 333-8000 Fax: (212) 603-7919 E-mail:

Prominent among the "young lions" of jazz, trumpeter Nicholas Payton was born and raised in New Orleans, a city where jazz resounded regularly from the streets and clubs. He was a hard bop prodigy from early adolescence, and from his earliest years he fit squarely into the proverbial mold from which jazz legends were formed. At age five he was heard (very) briefly on a live recording from Snug Harbor, with Ellis Marsalis and Art Blakey, and Payton performed professionally for the first time at age eight. As the young trumpeter matured, his musical charisma blossomed, and he developed the ability to temper his loud, hard bop musical style with renditions of soft and slow ballads. To complete the aura of Nicholas Payton, observers noted often that he bore a striking physical resemblance to the late jazz trumpeter, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.

Nicholas Payton was born in the Broodmoor District of New Orleans on September 26, 1973. He was raised in Treme, a district of New Orleans near Armstrong Park known to be a traditional haven for brass jazz band activity. His father, bassist Walter Payton, was a professional jazzman who nurtured the seed of talent in his young son. Walter Payton presented the boy with a trumpet as a Christmas present when the boy was only four years old and taught him to read music in the third grade. Payton's mother, Maria, was a singer and pianist who provided her son with classical instruction on the piano. As a result, the Payton home was generally filled with music, and Payton was very young when he first developed instincts about musical instruments and their idiosyncratic sounds. As a youngster Payton also grew accustomed to his father's band rehearsals and developed a personal familiarity with the professional musicians that frequented the household. By the age of ten, Payton was acquainted with such improvisational trumpeters as Wendell Brunious, Leroy Jones, Clyde Kerr, Jr., and saxophonist Earl Turbinton. It was in those boyhood friendships with the grown men of jazz that young Payton focused his early admiration.

According to those who knew Payton well, he possessed a special confidence about his music even as a youngster when he performed with a group called the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. At age 12 he joined a youth group called the All-Star Jazz Band that played not only around town and at jazz festivals, but also traveled to Europe. It was just around that time, at age 12 or 13, that Payton took the initiative to play an impromptu audition--through the telephone wires--for Wynton Marsalis. The anecdote was widely related of how the adolescent Payton played his horn in the background one day, while his father spoke with Marsalis over the phone. Marsalis was duly impressed and from that day forward never ceased to recommend the young Payton to bandleaders. On the recommendation of Marsalis, Payton went to New York City at age 16, where sat in at the Bottom Line with bass player Marcus Roberts.

Payton attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and there he studied under Clyde Kerr, Jr. Payton also worked at jazz clubs around New Orleans while he was in high school. After graduation he enrolled briefly at the University of New Orleans. Although he attended college for only one year, he worked with such jazz legends as Harold Battiste, Ellis Marsalis, and Victor Goines. Among Payton's most memorable experiences in college were the semi-weekly jam sessions hosted by the music department. Participants at the university jams included Peter Martin on piano, Chris Thomas on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. Payton was particularly gratified at the opportunity to bring his own musical compositions and hear the music performed on an assortment of instruments simultaneously. Unlike his own hard-bop style of trumpet playing in those days, Payton's musical compositions were less harsh and more melodic overall. He was quoted by Bill Milkowski in Down Beat, "My whole thing when I write is to come up with a singable melody that would be easily discernible to listeners and that would stick with them."

Payton admitted freely that as a youth he was much more inclined to wail and blare when he played his trumpet, and to improvise with extra notes. In order to perform his own compositions, however, Payton developed excellent control of his instrument. He attributed that control to a combination of maturity and experience and noted that slow smooth sounds are particularly difficult for trumpeters to reproduce. In 1997 it was just such mature and refined musical interpretation that won Payton his first Grammy award.

By the time Payton left college, he was a seasoned performer. In September of 1991 he joined Teresa Brewer in an all-star tribute to Louis Armstrong. The show featured trumpeters Clark Terry, Red Rodney, Dizzy Gillespie, Terence Blanchard, Ruby Braff, Harry "Sweets" Edison, and Freddie Hubbard. In 1992 Payton toured once again with his former colleague, Marcus Roberts. Payton also worked with Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine that year. In addition to playing the trumpet, Payton served as the musical director for the Jazz Machine. It was a rewarding experience that gave him primary responsibility for putting the musical sets in order and overseeing the rehearsals, while Jones personally retained responsibility for selection of the musical content. Payton played with the Jazz Machine at the Blue Note in New York City, among other performances, and remained with the Jones band for two years. Additionally Payton was heard on recordings with Jones. By Payton's admission he learned much from working with the popular drummer, including how to "pace" a set of songs, and most importantly how to blast his music loud and clear over the uncanny loudness of Jones's drumming. As Payton matured, critics noted the ease with which he played. According to the consensus of commentary he displayed an unusual "restraint" and an easy stance that belied his youth as he performed on his trumpet, an instrument regarded by many observers as the most difficult to play of all jazz instruments.

Also in 1992 Payton toured with Jazz Futures, a group of young jazz musicians, and again in 1994 he toured through Europe with Jazz Futures II. Payton was heard on New Orleans Collectivein 1993 and later on Evidencein 1995. He secured his own recording contract with Verve Records as a bandleader, and released his first album, From This Moment,in 1995. Among Payton's assembled band members, he habitually worked with Jesse Davis on alto saxophone, Tim Warfield on tenor saxophone, Anthony Wonsey and Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Adonis Rose on drums. Payton often played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and became an active participant in the many youth programs of Lincoln Center Jazz. He also performed with Carl Allen's Manhattan Projects, with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and with George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars. In 1996 Payton appeared in the role of Oran Page in the Robert Altman movie, Kansas City, and in July of 1997 Payton performed at the Donostiako Jazzaldia (San Sebastiain Jazz Festival) in the Basque country of Spain.

Payton's musical style, as well his looks, conjure memories of Louis Armstrong, according to Tom Turco of Gannett New Service. Payton "can sear a room with the white-hot intensity of his horn, which he wields with laser-like precision.... Like the legendary Satchmo, Payton commands attention with his innovative phrasings, flawless technique and passionate sound. He makes his trumpet growl, croon and swoop...." Turco said. The late jazzman Doc Cheatham, a mentor of sorts to Payton, was also one of Payton's biggest fans. The two recorded an album together in 1997 and won a Grammy award for their instrumental rendition of "Stardust." Cheatham, who never presumed to play solo until the age of 70, publicly applauded Payton's own humility and never ran out of kind words for Payton. Ira Gitler dubbed Payton a "trumpeter for the millennium," in Down Beat.

by Gloria Cooksey

Nicholas Payton's Career

Performed with Carl Allen's Manhattan Projects, Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine, Doc Cheatham, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars; signed with Verve Records as a bandleader and released debut solo album From This Moment, 1995; released Gumbo Nouveau, 1995; released Grammy Award-winning Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton, 1997; released Payton's Place, 1998; released Nick@Night, 1999.

Nicholas Payton's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Solo Jazz Performance, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1997.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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