John Clayton

January 6, 2014


by Bryan Reesman

Grammy Award-winning jazz composer, performer, and educator John Clayton believes in honesty and sincerity in music, and his artistic passion has lead him across the world, working with stars like Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, and Queen Latifah, among many others. For over three decades he has collaborated with his brother Jeff in the Clayton Brothers, Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and other musical endeavors – it’s sibling synergy rather than rivalry – and in recent years, his son Gerald has joined the Clayton Brothers ranks as well. Clayton thrives on collaboration and believes that “healthy competition” is an oxymoron.

Beyond his recording and touring, Clayton has devoted himself to teaching and furthering jazz through several different venues. He conducts workshops and clinics around the country. He serves as the artistic director of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho, the artistic director of Jazz Programs for the Centrum Festival in Port Townsend, Washington, and on the Board of Directors for the Vail Jazz Foundation, which holds an annual festival. The man lives and breathes music.

When he spoke to JAZZed, Clayton answered queries on a wide range of topics, from his teaching techniques to playing with family to finding the connections between different genres of music. One thing is very clear: He’s always learning.

JAZZed: You have a jazz and classical background and have also played R&B. Have you been finding new connections between the different genres of music after all these years?

John Clayton: Yes. I think in fact the borders are becoming more blurred, which is what I love. The connections are more obvious because you’ve got more and more people who studied both [jazz and classical] and are making their profession doing both and playing both. But it’s more than two. You get an Edgar Meyer, for instance, who can play “Stella By Starlight” and then do the Bach cello suite and then turn around and play some bluegrass, and that’s becoming more and more normal. He’s a freak of nature anyway, but you look at a Victor Wooten and it’s the same kind of thing. And those are the names you might know. There are more and more people that are kind of hiding away and flying under the radar. I love it.

I embrace many forms of music, and for me it’s as easy as switching between CDs.

I hope that the world is turning in your direction, that more and more listeners are reflective of your model. Who cares about a pigeonhole.

Jeff and John Clayton

Jeff and John Clayton

It seems like the kids growing up now are listening to a wider range of music than we did growing up simply because they have more access to it. When we were growing up, you heard music on the radio, at a friend’s house or a record store, or you bought it. You couldn’t download things at the speed of light and dive into ten genres of music in an hour. Do you think that kids are getting into more stuff these days?

I guess I’d be a fool if I would counter that because it’s too obvious. We have easier access, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily steering the ship in a different [direction]. I think the ship may be turning very slowly. For instance, as you’re talking and explaining what your thought is here, I’m thinking back on my youth. We were fanatic about turning guys onto different stuff. I heard stuff because my friends would do exactly what you said – they would play a record for me or walk me to the Venice library to hear this amazing record that this kid had found in high school of this piano player named Oscar Peterson with this bass player Ray Brown. I had never heard the bass played like that. We were always turning each other onto different stuff. That hasn’t changed.

I think what’s changed is obvious – it’s global, it’s faster – but people still have kind of a herd mentality, and we go with the flow of what our peers are into. Of course we get to choose our groups within those peers, so some guys my age might be into white rock ‘n roll and other guys might be more into Motown/R&B. They’re all still my age, I’m still friendly with all of them, and we’re still hearing each other’s music. Then I might be into Miles and Trane. I think that part of it hasn’t changed. Everything is bigger, and there’s more. There are more people on the planet, there are more kinds of music. When you were 17 years old, there weren’t as many styles of music and fewer still when I was 17 years old. So now a kid that is 17 years old has more extra options, more choices to make than we did. That part of it has a way of balancing out the fact that it’s easier to access. In the big band era, if you turned on the radio, how many different styles of music would you here? You wouldn’t hear any Latin jazz, you wouldn’t hear any rock ‘n roll. Now here we are, however many years later – 60, 70, 80 years later – and it’s a whole different scene.

When you’re teaching younger students privately or at clinics or workshops, do you learn what their interests are? What kind of balance do you try to strike musically do you focus more on what the kids want to learn or what you think they should be learning?

I focus on what it is they want to learn because that inspiration sparked that fire. It’s the key, it’s not so much the material. Sometimes it’s hard for just a one-day clinic, but if I spend some time with them and discover what they’re really interested in, I can mirror their excitement and help them to expand what it is they’re excited about. It’s the same concept. I’m one of these people who, even though I don’t own any Kenny G records, I totally support people that are into Kenny G because deep down in my soul I’m hoping that that person that buys that Kenny G record and goes to those concerts will eventually discover John Coltrane. Then I’m a happy guy.

Whenever you’re teaching somebody something by Kenny G, do you then offer them something else to learn?

You know what? I don’t believe in that way. Instead, I allow them to discover it. To me, that’s so much more natural and works a lot better and feels less manipulative. The things that we enjoy the most are the things that we discover for ourselves. We don’t mind if somebody shows us something, but when we find something on our own, that’s it. Somebody might play us the latest Stevie Wonder and this track that they are so incredibly impressed by, but then buried on that same CD is a track that nobody’s listening to that we discover and go, how could you have missed this?

Do you see the film Quartet? There is a really interesting scene where an opera teacher is explaining to some high school students that opera is about tragedy, and during a horrible moment like someone being stabbed, they are singing about their pain. Then a kid in the room talks about how rap is the same thing, except they’re rapping instead of singing.

I do that, too. One of the things I do at home when it’s Christmas is I always ask [my son] Gerald to give me a Christmas gift of things that I need to be checking out, so I can learn and discover that way. What I’m discovering about myself is when I hear this stuff and am really impressed by it, I’m loving it, I’m checking it out, but I don’t feel the urgent need to be have to be able to do that. That’s something new for me because when I was growing up, I’d hear something like a new Chick Corea tune, and it was awesome and I had to learn it. But now, I’m hearing stuff and impressed by it and moved by it and really like it, or not sometimes, but I never feel like I have to learn that. If I want to, of course I do, but I don’t feel an obligation to anymore.

Has playing with your son Gerald allowed you to teach each other things?

I think at this point I feel I’m learning a lot more from him than the other way around. That’s okay, it should be that way.

As far as your clinics and workshops versus private lessons, is there a difference in the approach and instructing people based on the student numbers?

The material may be the same, but the approach is different. I can get very personal with a one-on-one lesson and find out how that person’s schedule and personal life affects the music that they’re learning. It could be that somebody has a high school schedule or a college schedule that is really screwing up the amount of time to practice. So I know I need to sit down with that person and really help them with time management and figure out how much music we can really get together rather than overload them with a bunch of music that they can never get together within the timeframe that we have and it becomes a frustrating goal for them. I can do that one-on-one, but when I’m in a room full of 40 students that doesn’t work, so I have to focus on different things. There are always a few things that I try to remind people of or inspire them about, and the top of the list is following your heart. It has to do with everything – following your heart in terms of the people you want to study with, the music you want to play, the groups you want to play in, the people you want to play with. Follow your heart. Don’t think, “I’m only good enough to play with so-and-so” or, “It sure would be nice, but it ain’t going to happen.” By following your heart you clarify stuff, and then your path is much more focused.

clayton-3Arturo Sandoval told me that at the outset he’s less concerned about musical style than teaching people the basics. He feels that students have to learn the rudimentary stuff first, then develop a technique before they can determine what kind of style they really like or can play. Do you approach teaching the same way?

Some of those elements I absolutely embrace and do. Like he does, I don’t focus as much on style. I think it’s more about helping them to find a procedure to absorb music and to learn music. I talk a lot lately about learning “sound motion.” Instead of really thinking theoretically or trying to find a scale or a modal approach when you’re learning music, think about sound motion. If you sing a tone, and you pick anybody off the street to sing that tone with you and say, “Follow me” and start singing “Happy Birthday,” they can sing it with you. How can they do that? They’re not a musician like you. They don’t know what key you’re in or what time signature you have or what degree of the scale it starts on. They don’t know any of that stuff, yet they’re able to sing that. How can they sing that? Because they’ve learned sound motion. Basically what we’re doing as musicians is that, only on a larger scale and on a higher level. If you’re learning “Donna Lee” or whatever, it’s sound motion. It’s this note followed by that sound followed by that sound followed by that sound and so on. When you do that, you internalize music and allow it to flow in your veins.

Then when it’s time to play in a different key, you’re not transposing mentally. Along with the sound that you learn, you also learn the accompanying sound. So if you learn the melody note, the melody sound, you learn the bass note, the bass sound. That way when you transpose or do anything, you’re not having to do a mental process. That’s kind of my way of teaching, and then the way people get to that is that I encourage them to transcribe. Transcribe does not mean writing it out, it means just learning it note for note from the record and playing it along with the record. If you transcribe 25 solos, your ear will be bigger than a Cadillac. That’s the ticket, and this is along with everything else. Obviously we’re working on our reading skills and our theory and all that stuff, but I think it all needs balance. I find that too often there’s an imbalance, there’s too much focus on all the other stuff; the theoretical stuff and all the left brain stuff.

It sounds like you’re teaching people to use their ears as much as their eyes when learning music. That it’s not just about what’s on the staff in front of them.

Yes, and understanding that those notes on the paper are important and have their place. I do that every day, but it’s about balance. If you don’t have the right balance, then you’re going to be a person who can’t make as many choices. So if you can only play by ear, you can’t make that choice of reading and vice versa.

You’ve been playing with your brother Jeff for over three decades. When did you two decide to play music and to support each other’s musical formats, and how did that evolve?

We didn’t play a lot together as kids. We played in church. I played bass, and my brother was playing clarinet and moved to saxophone. My mom wouldn’t let him play saxophone in church because it was like this heathen instrument. She eventually changed her tune, but at that time he was singing in the choir and I was playing bass. Along that same period, I was playing in a high school jazz big band. That’s how it all happened. In our college days, after a year or two in L.A., I transferred to Indiana University, so I wasn’t really with him for three years. I’d come back and we’d play a gig here or there, but we really didn’t have an established Clayton Brothers group. When I went with [the Count] Basie [Orchestra], that’s when we decided to make our first Clayton Brothers record. We were enjoying playing together when we could and thought it might be fun to do a record together, and Ray Brown, who of course was my mentor, was very close to Carl Jefferson and Concord Records. He told him about us and helped organize that record session. That’s really how it started.

Over the years, you guys have done a lot of different stuff together.

Over the years we’ve played more and more and had more and more fun together actually.

What have you learned from Jeff over the years?

I really learned about melody from him and what goes into playing a wind instrument – how to phrase, how to breathe, what they have to do to make a sound, to extend a phrase, what’s their natural way of tapering at the end of a phrase. I learned all that stuff from him.

What do you think he has learned from you?

Nothing. [Laughs] Nothing he’ll admit to.

When did your son Gerald start playing with the Clayton Brothers quintet?

He did a couple of gigs with us while he was in college, and after he left I told him, “I don’t want to force you or push you or motivate you in this direction at all, but we would love to have you play in the Clayton Brothers if you’re interested.” He said, “Are you kidding? That’s been one of my goals in life.” Which I never knew until that time. So that was very cool. That’s something every father wants to hear.

It sounds like you have a family synergy.

It’s true. People talk about that, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that that is definitely real. There are things that I can do on my instrument that Gerald has heard all of his life, and he knows my tendencies. He knows if I play a certain line that I may have a tendency to rush that line. The same thing with my brother. If my brother plays something, the audience hears it as a musical statement. I hear that as, when we were kids we used to hear that in church. There is something about the whole family thing.

Ray Brown was a big influence on you and was your mentor. How did his approach to teaching and playing influence you, and how important was that for you?

It was super important because he was the guy who told me that first of all I had to learn how to play the bass from here to here – he touched the top of the bass and touched the bottom of the bass – and then said, “Get your butt out there and make some music.” He was telling me this because at that time I was dreaming about being a studio musician, and he just went crazy. “Are you out of your mind? You don’t even know how to play the bass.” That’s when he said I first have to learn how to play from here to here and get out, make some music. He was a mentor in that way, in terms of helping me and insisting that I learn how to play the instrument, but he is also the guy that introduced me to the understanding of what I say is the credo that we musicians live by. I was thanking him profusely for all he was doing for me, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m doing this for you because somebody did it for me, and you are going to do it for somebody else down the line.” That’s the rule. You don’t do it out of necessity to follow the rules, you do it out of a humble sincerity.

Is there certain advice that you give to students about this business and what they need to do?

Sure, it’s easy. It’s so easy that a lot of people don’t get it, and that’s fine because those that do will. That is that the doors of opportunity will open to you based on the level of your art. Period. The end. We want to so easily blame the scene, the lack of jobs, and all the statistics.

We might look to ourselves and go, “Okay, I auditioned, that other person got the gig, and they’re actually not even better than I am.” No, no, no. Instead you’ve got to go, “What do I need to add to my music to allow that door of opportunity to open for me, as well?” If everybody does it, it keeps you focused on the right stuff instead of networking and dissing the business and saying it sucks. No man, it’s on you. You don’t have what it takes in terms of your artistry to allow doors to open for you, so get busy. Shut up.


I think there’s an element of networking involved.

No, no, no, I still disagree because you can get your foot in the door based on who you know and who you hang out with the first time, but if you ain’t playing s*** they’re not going to call you back. If you focus on your music and get that to a high level, you end up creating a buzz about yourself, and you don’t have to network. It’ll happen naturally. You can’t hide away in some log cabin – I’m not talking about that – but assuming you’re playing your music and you’re just sharing it at every opportunity, I promise you that people talk about you. There’s just no way around it. You reap what you sow. If you sow mediocrity, what are you going to get? It’s really about looking in a mirror and going, “Okay, you know you don’t really know that melody. You know you don’t really know the chord changes. You know you’re actually rushing or dragging that tempo.” We should be honest with ourselves.

What are the biggest life lessons that you’ve learned?

The big lessons that I’ve learned sound like clichés, and that’s unfortunate because then people don’t feel that they’re profound. That’s fine – I don’t care whether they find it profound or not, but it’s not going to be something that they haven’t heard before. Do what you do with honesty. I want to go and hear an honest concert. I don’t want to hear somebody playing music that they think is going to get the audience riled up. I don’t want to see a movie that the producers and director think will win the audience over by doing certain things. I don’t want to eat food that is prepared by somebody who’s throwing stuff in that they think people will love. I want honesty. I think focusing on that, playing music from an honest place – and that has to be defined by the individual – is something that always wins. I don’t want people to be doing a gig that their heart and soul are not into because they’re not honest with themselves. Then you die.

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