Walter Payton, longtime New Orleans jazz bassist and educator, dies at 68
Thursday, October 28, 2010, 9:06 PM
Keith Spera, The Times-Picayune
Walter Payton Jr., the genial bassist who anchored the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and shaped generations of public school students, died Thursday at Kindred Hospital-New Orleans following a lengthy illness. He was 68.
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."
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.”
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.
“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.