Cultural chasms and 90 miles of ocean

Project shows Cuban and American music have lots in common

Stefon Harris, Nicholas Payton and David Sanchez
Photo courtesy of Concord Music Group

Though separated by a cavernous gulf of ideological and political differences, the distance between the United States and the island of Cuba is just 90 miles.

In 2010, three U.S.-based jazz musicians, trumpeter Christian Scott, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, traveled to Cuba to meet with local musicians and make an album. What they found was something both familiar and foreign.

“This reminds of New Orleans,” Scott says in a preview of a forthcoming documentary about the project. “When people start playing music in Cuba, it’s almost like a musical catharsis for the entire community.”

The resulting collaboration spawned a critically acclaimed live album, 90 Miles Live at Cubadisco, and a group of musicians has been playing shows around the country ever since. Scott left the group and was replaced by Nicholas Payton, who has been traveling with the group for about a year.

Payton stirred up controversy at the end of 2011 when he wrote a fiery manifesto of sorts called “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” in which he wrote, “Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia. / Stop fucking the dead and embrace the living. / Jazz worries way too much about itself for it to be cool.” His intent was to ditch the label “jazz” altogether, writing in a follow-up post, “‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no part of it. If Jazz wasn’t a slave, why did Ornette try to free it? … I am Nicholas Payton and I play Black American Music.”

Boulder Weekly talked to Payton about Cuban music, the ever-evolving 90 Miles project, and the state of all types of “Black American Music.”

Boulder Weekly: What was your experience in Cuban music before joining the project?

Nicholas Payton: Well, I have some experience playing in the genre … but I think at this point it’s fairly safe to say it’s far beyond just a Cuban music project. I think “90 Miles” has perhaps come to suggest the relative closeness between cultures as opposed to a specific idiomatic reference to Cuban music. I think we span a broad range of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, all the way to Puerto Rico. Actually most of the band is from Puerto Rico. We have a Venezuelan pianist, and actually only one Cuban, our percussionist Mauricio Herrero. And I’m from New Orleans, which is often referred to as the northernmost region of the Caribbean.

How did it evolve from its roots as collaboration between Cuban and American musicians?

I think the musicians sort of determined that by who’s playing. Obviously, when they recorded the album, it was a Cuban rhythm section and they did it in Cuba. I think with the influx of personnel and different personalities, they bring their experiences to it. So it’s not like a repertory band where we feel restricted to a style or how a particular recording with the band — it’s a totally different band at this point, with the exception of [Sánchez] and [Harris]. By nature of that it sounds completely different, and the band is going in different directions. Everyone is bringing their experiences to it.

Have you ever been to Cuba? What was it like?

I would say it’s pretty much the same in that there’s a heavy root of Africa present; the music has a direct spiritual and social context. There’s music everywhere. The musicians are a highly regarded part of society, there as in New Orleans. Pretty much the same social function, from what I witnessed. It has the same level of cultural vibrance and significance and prominence.

Musically, what adjustments do you have to make to play Cuban-based music?

This is not a Cuban band. I think we’re all versed in that language, like I said — not that you necessarily have to be from Cuba to play it — but what we do is not Cuban music. I think it would be maybe somewhat disrespectful to traditional Cuban music to say that it was, because it’s a lot broader than that. We bring our own personal experiences to the table, which covers a broad range of geography and cultural heritage.

I think the music is more honest if we’re representative of what we’re doing with obvious respect to those roots, but even that music is a lot broader than what’s given credit to. The way that those transmissions of rhythms throughout the Caribbean, from Haiti, to all these places in the Caribbean, they are all connected and re-influence one another. Even the way American music has re-influenced the rhythms of Cuba is a study in itself. So it’s not so linear, you know.

You caused some controversy a few years ago when you said that you don’t play jazz, you play Black American Music. Does this project fit into that label?

I think some of the things that we do could be attributed to that. Not everything, but it does have a heavy part of that. But I wouldn’t say it’s exclusively that, because a lot of it, like I said, is Afro-Caribbean.

What is the state of the controversy that stirred up?

What is the state of controversy that I stirred up? [Pauses.] I wouldn’t tell you that it is controversial. It’s just the truth. I think [the fact] that it is controversial, to me, speaks to an issue, which is that a lot of people don’t acknowledge it as having roots in the black community. They think it’s of either ambiguous origin or that somehow the music has grown beyond that and now it’s kind of this world music where you do what you want. It’s for everybody, certainly, everyone can play it, but the truth of the matter is that the roots of the music come from the African-American community, just like other things.

Do you find more and more people identifying themselves as playing Black American Music instead of jazz?

Yes, I have seen that. You know, I don’t necessarily expect people to do it, or think everyone should, because some people do play jazz, and they should embrace that if that’s what they do. But to me, those are not the same thing. But when you say “jazz,” it’s still based off of black music, it’s just a characterization of that, but it’s still based on it.

Jazz is a type of music that first started in the black community and then was fairly quickly mainstreamed to white audiences. Do you find that most people in your audience are white?


What are your thoughts on that?

I’m glad whoever comes is there. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m appreciative of anybody who appreciates good music. I don’t want less white people, I would just like to see more people of color at the gigs. I think a lot of it is that people don’t realize it’s their music.

I think a lot of black people associate jazz with being Kenny G, or something not of their community. I don’t think they realize and have been taught that this music is a part of their cultural heritage. It’s something that should seem blatantly obvious, but it’s not. And that’s one of the points that I’m trying to drive home, specifically to black people is that, this is something for you to be proud of. All these great musicians come out of your community and have been a part of changing the status quo for black people and have been a part of the struggle for liberation and freedom from oppressive forces.

We’ve come a long way, and a lot of that has been done through people like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and so forth. They were a big part of changing the perception of black people all over the world. When you have to deal with forces like Charlie Parker and see a genius like that, it’s harder to dehumanize that. You have to respect that person on a personal level. I don’t believe we’re post-race. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

What do you think about hip-hop?

I think hip-hop suffers from the same thing. It’s underground music developed in the black community out of a very street and social and spiritual sensibility.

But as it got popularized and mainstreamed, it lost in general a lot of its character. I don’t think the spirit of the music died, but certainly what’s considered hip-hop now, it’s like the same [state] as jazz.

Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by author.

The 90 Miles Project comes to Macky Auditorium Jan. 17. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Visit or call 303-492-8008.