Friday, October 29, 2010

New Orleans loses beloved jazz teacher and bass player

The Times-Picayune
By Keith Spera, Music Writer

Walter Payton Jr., the father of Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton, was an exceptionally versatile musician and an exceptionally engaging personality. A student of music theory and music history, he could easily switch from electric bass to upright acoustic bass, from rhythm & blues to traditional jazz to modern jazz. He was also an accomplished classical musician who, for many years, kept a grand piano in his parlor. His recording credits include Aaron Neville's Tell It Like It Is and Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine."
He grew up on Annunciation Street. As a boy, he played sousaophone and dismissed his grandmother's suggestion that he take up the string bass. "Naw, I don't see nothing but old men playing those things," he said, recalling the scene in a 2008 interview. "I don't want to do that."
But on Easter 1958, he attended a performance at the Municipal Auditorium by James Moody and Ellis Marsalis' New Orleans Jazz Quintet. "The bass players in both groups, they were having so much fun," he said. "More fun than anyone else in the band. There were literally dancing with their basses."
He was sold on the instrument. Decades later, he described its appeal. The upright bass is "shaped just like a lady," he said, laughing. "The hips, the waist. And the best thing is, she don't do nothing you don't tell her to. She don't talk back. If you press her in the right place, she says just what you want her to say. And no more."
Other than a brief time spent working in the cafeteria of Xavier University, he made a living in music. After graduating from Xavier with a degree in music education, he spent the next 25 years teaching in the New Orleans public school system. During his years at McDonogh 15 elementary in the French Quarter, he taught music and organized the school band; in the '70s, he conducted the young band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He influenced many aspiring musicians, including his future boss, Preservation Hall creative director Ben Jaffe. “When I was his student – and I still consider myself his student – Walter was a bit scary,” Jaffe once recalled. “But he had a lasting impact on me. He instilled in me a respect for music.”
Throughout his teaching career, Mr. Payton also worked as a professional musician in a variety of settings. He marched with various brass bands, including the Eureka, Olympia. Treme and Apollo. He made his debut at Preservation Hall in 1965 and worked at the old Dew Drop Inn and the original Blue Room at the Fairmont Hotel.
After retiring from the school system in 1991, he plunged headlong into the life of a fulltime musician.
With his Snap Bean and Gumbo File combos and with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he traveled the globe. “I love being on the road,” Mr. Payton said in 2008. “I love it, love it, love it.”
Along the way he performed at Carnegie Hall, accompanied symphony orchestras and backed Robert Parker, Nancy Wilson, Harry Connick Jr., Clark Terry, Doc Paulin, the king of Thailand, and many more. He contributed to his son Nicholas' 2001 Louis Armstrong tribute "Dear Louis."
Mr. Patyon was a robust man who at one point was an avid kick-boxer and martial arts practitioner. Married four times, he was quick with a sly smile and an even slyer line.
“He always used to say to girls, ‘When did you leave heaven? You’re so beautiful,’” recalled Michael Paz, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's road manager.
Mr. Payton suffered a stroke in January while in Washington D.C. on tour with Preservation Hall. He eventually returned to New Orleans, but never recovered sufficiently to return to the road. He had been in and out of hospitals for several months.
“I saw him a couple days ago, and he spoke to me a little, which he hadn’t done the last few times I saw him,” Paz said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Keith Spera can be reached at or 504.826.3470.

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