WRTI Young Artist Spotlight: Trombonist Henry Koban Payne
Henry Koban Payne is a junior at Lower Merion High School. He studies trombone, piano and composition at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Settlement Music School, and the Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra. Henry has had the opportunity to perform on trombone in venues across Philadelphia.
One year ago, in a Clef Club small ensemble, he had the pleasure of opening for the Sun Ra Arkestra and working with Anthony Tidd in a masterclass series organized by WRTI. Henry has been studying composition and arrangement for big bands, and in May 2023 he won the Dr. J. Douglass White Student Composition and Arranging Contest at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition.
10 Questions with Henry Koban Payne
1. Outside of jazz, what do you like to listen to?
I think that a lot of it is connected to the music I play, but outside of jazz, I love to listen to funk and R&B. I also really enjoy hip-hop, from its earlier days to people making music right now. Of course, I also listen to my share of classical music, especially in the Romantic and Modernism periods.
2. What is it like to hear your compositions or arrangements being played by an ensemble for the first time?
It’s always an exhilarating experience, and I’m always at the edge of my seat when it happens. It’s very gratifying to hear the sudden realization of hours of writing. Just because a lot changes when the score is played, a lot of the time I end up worrying whether the parts I wrote will work or not — but when everything works, hearing my music played is one of the greatest things that I could ask for. Especially if a great band is really trying to play music I wrote, I always feel a lot of gratitude towards them.
3. What was one thing about your instrument that surprised you when you started learning to play?
The very first time I tried the trombone, I was surprised that the instrument had a lock to keep the slide in place. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to finally being able to move the slide.
4. What’s your favorite thing about Philadelphia?
I feel a great sense of community over the whole flavor of the city. Philadelphia is so unique, with such interesting people and diversity. Just because of that, the city has a certain air to it that I love to be around. I also have to say that I love the incredible role Philadelphia has in jazz, in terms of the sound that jazz musicians from Philly tend to have to them and the amount of musical greatness that has come out of this city. My favorite place in Philadelphia is probably around the Italian Market or at the Clef Club on Broad Street.
5. Can you describe your creative process when composing or arranging?
I try to work a lot with inspiration — to imagine the way something is or feels, and try to find something that replicates that musically. It’s usually a lot of time at the piano where I just play around until I can find the sound I’m looking for. I also try to sing a lot and record my ideas into my phone as soon as I can. As soon as a song starts to materialize, the easier composition gets for me. For arranging, I just try to be as deliberate and precise as I can with what I write. I’ve been told never to settle for a sound that isn’t exactly what I want when arranging for an ensemble, especially when writing for larger groups like big bands.
6. What did you enjoy most about taking part in the Essentially Ellington Competition?
For me, it was everybody I got to be around. Getting to meet members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was an indescribable experience. Everybody was so kind, human, and insanely talented. Talking to them really gave me some perspective about what this music is about and how serious it is. Just by being around people for the short period of time I was, I learned a lot and was incredibly inspired. One of the best feelings in the world is to feel supported by musicians who are way better than you, and it’s been wonderful to figure out that the vast majority of these very great musicians have been willing to share their craft. I also met some really great people from the competing bands who I have seen again since then, and I would hope to keep in contact with.
7. What or who do you consider to be your musical community?
I feel like I belong to a couple of musical communities. There’s a strong jazz program at my school, and I have a lot of friends there who I can play music with often, so I definitely feel a strong connection to all of those people. There’s also organizations such as Settlement Music School, which has been very helpful to me as a way of developing my craft, and PYJO (Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra), which I genuinely feel like a part of and would strongly associate myself with. I feel a very strong sense of community to the Philadelphia Clef Club because of all of the incredible people and opportunities that are always there. I first went to the Clef Club when I was 11 years old, and I’ve been involved ever since then, so I definitely think of myself as a musician from the Clef Club.
8. Where do you look for inspiration for your compositions?
I think I look for inspiration in my compositions from everywhere in my life. Anything I find interesting or that causes me to feel a certain way is worth writing a song about. I think music and life are so connected that almost anything in life could be represented in music, whether a feeling, a place, a time period, or anything at all. As long as it gets me writing, I would take inspiration from it.
9. What advice would you give your 9-year-old self?
I would tell my 9-year-old self not to worry about where I am going in my musical development, and that a love for the music is enough. I’ve always had a tendency to overthink progress, but with the sheer amount of opportunities Philadelphia has, I feel that acting only out of how much one loves music takes you further than anything else.
10. Who have been the greatest champions of your career so far?
All the many people and the community at the Clef Club have launched me into a seriousness about the music I might not otherwise have felt. It is such a great organization with such great people that I have met through it, and it has completely changed who I am as a musician and person. I have to mention Mr. Lovett Hines, who has been a phenomenal champion of young players for decades and also just celebrated his 80th birthday. PYJO, directed by Justin Faulkner, has supported me immensely and really set me on a good path in music. My high school band has a great program that has really built a good jazz community around me at school. All of my private teachers have inspired me so much and shown me how to keep progressing in my development. Everybody in my family who are universally supportive of all of my musical endeavors, enroll me in programs, drive me to where I need to be, and come to shows.
Henry Recommended Playlist: