John Clayton: Playing it Cool


John Clayton is a natural born multitasker. The multiple roles in which he excels – composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and extraordinary bassist – garner him a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar. His many musical pursuits include the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which he founded along with his brother Jeff in 1986, and the Clayton Brothers quintet, which includes his son Gerald on piano. As a teacher, in addition to presenting individual clinics, workshops, and private students as schedule permits, he directs the educational components associated with the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Centrum Festival, and Vail Jazz Party.

John’s many career highlights include arranging “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1990 Super Bowl (the recording went platinum), playing bass on Paul McCartney’s CD “Kisses On The Bottom,” arranging and playing bass with Yo-Yo Ma and Friends on “Songs of Joy and Peace,” and arranging playing and conducting the 2009 CD “Charles Aznavour With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra,” and numerous recordings with Diana Krall, the Clayton Brothers, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz, Orchestra, Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander and many others. He will be honored by the California Jazz Society with the Nica Award at the organization’s annual Give the Band a Hand gala at the L.A. Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on April 2.

John took time out of his very busy schedule to speak with Overture’s Linda A. Rapka at his home studio in Altadena.

You are a man of many musical hats, as an accomplished jazz and classical musician as well as performer, composer and arranger. Musically speaking, who do you see yourself as?
It sounds a little cliché, but I identify myself as a music guy. There are kinds of music that I’m drawn to more than other kinds, but that range is pretty broad for me.

Judging from the volumes of music behind us, I don’t doubt that one bit.
I never want to feel like I’ve arrived. I never want to feel like OK, this is what I do. Period, the end. These are the styles of music I play or write. No, please. More. I think most artists are like that.

Who has inspired you, and continues to inspire you?
People inspire me. People give energy. Whether it’s a musician that’s playing something that really touches me and makes my eyes go wide, or an encounter with somebody on the street that really moves me. Somehow that’s going to affect me, and then it’s going to therefore translate through to my music.

What value has the union brought to you as a professional musician?
The union was at the ground level of a lot of negotiating talks when I was doing a lot more studio work. I remember how they fought to go to battle to create better situations, better payment, better conditions for us. When I was younger the Special Payments Fund was brand new. I saw a lot of that going on in the early days. I remember Ray Brown was actually on the Board of Directors when I was a teenager, and he’s the one who really told me what the union could do for me. He said, “Look, if you do a non-union job then the union will never be able to help you. But if you do a union job at least they can go to battle for you if something goes wrong.” I always remembered that.

Let’s talk about your current projects. What is keeping you busy lately?
[Laughs] I don’t want to bore you with the list!

OK – what have you been having fun with lately?
Everything I do I have fun with. I don’t do anything that’s not fun. Period. Life’s too short. A record that we just finished came out with the Clayton Brothers, and I’m really excited about that. We’re a quintet that has my brother Jeff on saxophones and flutes, a great trumpet player who lives in New York named Terell Stafford, a great young drummer named Obed Calvaire, and my son Gerald plays piano. The new album is not only the usual Clayton fun, but also we used it as a vehicle to kind of acknowledge where we are regarding a lot of social struggles that we’re going through right now in this nation. So even though the vibe of the album is basically uplifting, there’s a song on there called “Saturday Night Special.” It’s about a gun that disrupts the peace of a community. I also wrote a song called “Until We Get it Right,” ’cause people are sitting there like, “How long do we have to keep struggling and fighting, and protesting and working?” Basically, until we get it right.

Even that’s empowering because it’s touching on a negative but at the same time positive because you’re saying “Don’t give up.”
Yes, exactly. That was my whole idea. We didn’t want this to be totally a social/political statement and have people feel this dour vibe, this dark cloud, ’cause that’s not what we’re about. We’re playing music, it’s joy, it’s having fun. But there’s another side to us too that is aware and more serious, so we kind of mix that all together. I’m also writing something for the Metropole Orkest, which is this big orchestra in Holland.

What’s unique about it?
The orchestra has been around since shortly after World War II ended, and they still have the same instrumentation. It’s basically a big band with a complete string section and harp and percussion, French horn, oboe, flutes… Vince Mendoza had been the chief conductor of that orchestra for years, and he still spends time there. He asked me to be part of the project, so I wrote something to feature this great singer, Cécile McLorin Salvant. She was one of the past winners of the Thelonius Monk jazz competition. I’m writing right now for the WDR Big Band, which is the Cologne, Germany big band. It’s a lot going on!

I’m amazed you found the time to sit and talk with me.
When you’re gone I’ll get right back to writing!

When you saw your son Gerald becoming this budding musician, were you at all scared your presence as a professional musician might pressure him?
That’s exactly right. We never pushed him, we only encouraged. For instance, I remember having a really negative experience with a professional musician whose music I admire. The experience was so painful to me that I said, I’m not buying any more of his records. I never let Gerald know that experience because if that musician ended up being a really big influence and inspiration to him, I didn’t want to get in the way of it. That’s a small example of supporting, but not pushing.

Let’s talk about your early years, when you first joined the union.
I got to study with Ray Brown when I was 16 years old. Ray Brown saw that I was hungry and interested and eager, so he helped open some doors for me. He would recommend me for jobs he thought I could do. One of them was for an organization that I don’t think exists anymore called the Musicians Wives of Los Angeles. That was probably my first professional job. It was an afternoon luncheon or something like that. I was playing in a quartet or quintet with people, these older jazz guys. I say older; they were older to me then. Jake Hanna was on drums, Bud Shank was on sax, Herb Ellis was on guitar. There I was, 17-year-old kid, scared, green, and I remember Herb Ellis with his one leg up and guitar on his lap, he’d be playing and every now and then he’d kind of swing around and look at me and smile and nod his head. It was so touching, so necessary for this scared kid. I never forgot that. Soon after I needed to be in the union to do these other things I was doing with Henry Mancini and stuff like that.

Ray Brown was very much a mentor.
He was the definition of mentor. He was not kind of a mentor, he was the mentor of mentors for me. Again, he saw how hungry I was. He let me follow him around. He became almost more of a father figure for me than my real father, because he connected with me on this level, this music level that even though my parents supported, they really didn’t understand. Ray Brown would look at me and say, “Here’s what you gotta do.” That was one of his often-used phrases before he started talking to me. I remember one time when I was in the studio with him, and was getting star eyes about studio work. Here’s Ray Brown, here’s Quincy Jones, Sweets Edison, there’s Snooky Young, there’s all these jazz greats. I said to him, “When I’m done with school, do you think you can help me get into studio work?” And he exploded. He started screaming at me and cursing, “Are you out of your effin’ mind, you don’t even know how to play the effin’ bass, and you wanna play this B.S.? First thing you gotta do is get your ass out there and learn how to play the bass from here to here, from top to bottom, and then get out there and make some music. And if you wanna play this when you’re done, it’ll still be here.” I was so frightened, he’d never talked to me that way. So basically I did what he said. And he was right. Years later I said to him, “Do you remember that time you blew up at me?” He said “Oh, do I ever. I was afraid you were gonna get sucked into this studio world and not know how to make any music.” That was a huge lesson for me.

You did eventually find your way to the studio, working with just about everyone. What is that part like, working with other artists?
It’s just an extension of touching the music. It’s an extension of it, but obviously it poses other challenges. Not only do you have to learn how to perform live but the whole recording life and the studio life requires different ways of doing things. If I’m writing or arranging for an artist, then I have to think differently than I would for a live concert if it’s a studio thing. You never know what the song and the vocalist or the instrumentalist is going to require for the project. It may be that you create a sound and a vibe that you can only do in the studio.

Getting into that vibe, that groove – what’s that process? How do you get to that place?
It’s collaborative, but it always starts from within. There’s a mantra that I use: “So go I, so go they.” However I am, I am going to allow others to be that way as well. If I am in a room with my musician friends and I’m upbeat and happy and ready to go and really into it, then that invites them to be that way as well. Because at our core is a big part of us that’s chameleon-like. We want to empathize, we want to be like others around us. Especially as a bandleader I have to remember this, because a lot of times people look to me to set the tone, and I need to set the right one.

That’s a good lesson not only in music, but in life. Well, music is life, so…
[Laughs] You hit the nail on the head! Most of the stuff that I deal with in my music, I’ve learned from life lessons, and books and talks about life lessons. When I do the workshops and teaching that I do, 75% of what I talk about is that — more than playing the instrument, more than the other musical things. There’s a lot of negativity out there so I have to help them understand how they need to bring their light to every situation that they deal with.

What’s the most important thing you share with your students?
You’re going to hear stuff by well-meaning people saying things like, “It’s really rough out there. There aren’t as many jobs as there used to be for all the people graduating.” It’s creating a fear in younger musicians; a fear-based education. I try to help the young people understand, number one, statistics never apply to art. Never in the history of our music have there been, quote, “enough” jobs for the people that are graduating. Ever. Number two, the doors of opportunity open for you based on the level of your art. It’s not the networking, it’s not trying to have something to fall back on. In our world, too often I might hear about a student who wants to be a Music Ed major because they’re encouraged to have something to fall back on. Basically what they’re saying to me is, “I really want to play, but if I fail, let me mold your children’s minds.” [Laughs] I don’t want you near my kids! The teacher says, “I’ve got to teach, I must teach.” That’s the one I want to teach my kids.

There’s the danger of “falling back” in case of failure becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The thing is that we — adults, teachers, professional musicians — too often will look at our trajectory and how we have made it to the point that we are. In everybody’s lives you get to a point where you look back on your life and say, “Things are different now. It’s not like when I was growing up.” But really what’s going on is when we’re younger, we’re learning music, and we’re moving up, and at some point the telephone starts to ring. We start working. Music continues, and at another point the phone doesn’t ring as much anymore. So what do we do? We blame the music business instead of looking at ourselves and saying, “What do I need to add to my music to allow me to have doors open for me as well with what’s going on today?” There are not fewer opportunities. There are more opportunities.

They’re just different. I think a lot of times that gets overlooked.
I do too. Being connected to the world now there are more opportunities, different opportunities. Just like when we were younger, you have to be creative in terms of how your tailor-made life will look. There never has been one recipe for getting where you want to go.

How can musicians better adapt to today’s musical landscape?
Look in a mirror. Admit to yourself what it is that you need to add to your music that will allow you to achieve those higher levels. Too many people are too quick to blame the music business, and it’s on you. We can’t compare ourselves to other people because the beauty of what we do is that it’s tailor made. Once you actually dive into the pool, then you realize, “Yeah, OK, I’m swimming. I didn’t know how I was gonna do this, but I’m doing it.” That still is a part of my life. When I stand in front of a big orchestra and I’m conducting something, I always in the back of my mind think, “Will this be the time that everybody discovers that I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing?” No two people in life have ever followed the same path to get to a lot of the same places. You have to dare.

– Learn more about John Clayton and keep updated on his many current projects at

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