This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Remembering Walter Payton, 1942 - 2010

Walter Payton, a great jazz bassist and educator, died Thursday at the age of 68. He was a longtime regular with the Preservation Hall touring band, and a genial music professor who taught generations of students in the New Orleans public schools.
I have known Walter since he first appeared in Preservation Hall one night in 1965, a soft-spoken 23-year-old among all the "old men" who then played at that historic jazz venue. The regulars around the Hall looked on him as the "young hope"—the first young musician from the local black community to take up the flambeau of traditional jazz. Four decades later, he wound up, with his twinkling eyes and gray beard, the very emblem of the "grand old man" of New Orleans jazz. I heard Walter play many times, and was fortunate enough to play with him on several occasions. I was always struck by his mastery of the instrument and his ability to drive a band. I also enjoyed his warm personality and humor. But my friend Ben Jaffe, Walter's ex-pupil, who currently runs Preservation Hall, knew him far better than I, and recounted his thoughts about him in a recent email. With Ben's permission, I reproduce his moving tribute here:

Walt's been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I started studying music with him at Mcdonogh 15 when I was in pre-school. I wasn't supposed to be in band, but Walt knew my dad and he let me hang around. I went on to study
upright bass with Walt. He lived on St. Phillip Street at the time in Big Jim Robinson's old house right off Rampart Street across from the park. I would carry my bass over to his house every Saturday morning. I didn't look forward to those lessons. He was hard on me. Extremely strict. He pushed me harder than any other teacher I've ever had. We would sit for hours playing scales up and down, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His salt and pepper beard. His rock solid build. His stare...His playfulness...
Walt was a great athlete. He studied karate for years. He became a black belt. He was proud of karate and applied many of the lessons to life and music. I remember him staying up late at night, after our shows, practicing for hours. He made a bet one night that he could kick the sign hanging outside...
The other party eventually backed down. I don't know if it was because the wage was too high or they actually thought he could do it! There was no doubt in my mind he could.....
Walt could be intimidating. One minute ice cold and soft as a kitten the next. He was solid as a brick wall which could be deceiving since he had the temperament of an artist. He was often misunderstood. He could stop you mid stride with his glare. In grammar school, I saw him peg a kid once with an eraser from 30 feet away without even looking! I would not want to ever be on Walt's bad side.
He was an exceptional musician. He took music seriously. Few people know he was the bass player on "Working In A Coal Mine"...He taught me to respect and study the fundamentals of music. He imparted the importance of practice and hard work. Walt taught school in New Orleans for decades. A mighty achievement. Hundreds, thousands, of students passed through his classrooms. Walt battled his own demons up until his transition. It was difficult to watch, knowing he didn't have the will to fight anymore. Katrina left an open scar on his soul. It was hard to stay upset at Walt for long. Walt had lots of sides, as we all do. Some good, some regrettable but mostly lovable. He had the most gentlest of hearts and at the same time could be hard as nails. He left behind a great legacy. His son Nicholas is one of the finest, talented musicians I've ever known.I don't know a world without Walt. I miss his chuckle dearly.

See also Keith Spera's obituary of Payton in the Times-Picayune:

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Anyone who has been following this blog since last summer may have wondered why it suddenly went silent in July and August. (Probably nobody noticed or wondered anything at all, but just in case...) The reason is that my June 27 post on France's Bettencourt scandal attracted the attention of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who asked me to do a full-blown piece on this juicy saga for his magazine. Though I had expected to spend the summer luxuriating in France, eating exotic food and pecking away at a new novel in my spare time, I eagerly accepted Graydon's offer. Abandoning my beloved chaise longue, I launched into ten-hour days of reading press clippings, pumping the Internet, tracking down sources and doing interviews over steaming expressos and, I confess, the occasional gourmet meal in a Parisian restaurant. The reporting and writing job devoured my whole summer, but now that it's out in Vanity Fair's November issue, as Edith Piaff sang, "Je ne regrette rien." It's an intriguing tale about an 88-year-old hieress who gave more than a billion dollars (that's nine zeros) to her fawning dandy friend, photographer/artist Fran├žois-Marie Banier, and nearly brought down the French government in the process. Check it out: