John Clayton: Band On & Off the Hill

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John Clayton
By John Reeves
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John Clayton
By John Reeves
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John Clayton
By Jack Vartoogian

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John Clayton was going about his respectable business a couple of years ago, nicely maintaining his reputation as a dedicated and formidable big band leader and bassist of considerable chops. The big band he led with drummer Jeff Hamilton, with his saxist/flutist brother, Jeff Clayton, in tow, was known as the pride of the West Coast, and a new recording, Explosive!—with Milt Jackson in his last recording before he died—was leaving its impressive mark on the jazz scene. Things looked up enough for a highly gifted trooper in the trenches.

Then came the call. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s then-executive director Willem Wijnbergen wondered if Clayton would be interested in a little “house band” gig, as resident ensemble during the summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. Jaws dropped, contracts were signed, and Los Angeles suddenly had a highly visible forum for jazz, with audiences in the outdoor Bowl setting creeping up towards the 10,000 mark.

For the past two years, Clayton’s musical ship enterprise has soared to new heights in terms of bringing jazz to the surface of Los Angeles culture.

Of course, such things can be fragile, as well. Wijnbergen left his job before the Clayton-Hamilton band’s first set at the Bowl, and Philharmonic relations have been in transition since then. But hope springs eternal, and healthy box office receipts help the cause.

The last two Wednesday night jazz spectaculars during the 2000 Bowl season illustrated the varied agenda of Clayton’s series. One week, a Mel Tormé tribute brought out guests like Cleo Laine and Maureen McGovern, while the finale was, aptly enough, an obligatory tribute to Louis Armstrong in this, the acknowledged centennial. Trumpeters the likes of Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, and Jon Faddis explored corners of the trumpet tradition passed down from Pops; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band served up period piece charms; and the Clayton-Hamilton band showed its shiny wares. Clayton himself led the band out front, picking up his bass for an occasional arco solo. All was well under the September stars.

During an interview backstage before the Bowl season finale, Clayton was necessarily up to multitasking tricks. In the background, a speaker projected a feed from the stage, where a sound check was going on. “I need to leave it up a little bit in case there’s a fire I need to put out,” he explained. At one point, Clayton was summoned out of his dressing room to shake hands with a representative from Lexus, a corporate sponsor of the jazz series at the Bowl. It all comes with the territory of running a big band operation in a high profile landscape. “That’s part of what I have to do,” he comments after his corporate encounter. “My feeling is that, anything necessary to keep the opportunities for jazz alive—anything that’s not demeaning—I can do it.”

If the band has now become associated with their high-flown house band gig, Clayton wants to ensure that there is life beyond the Bowl. “Even now, if somebody offers us something and it’s below the standard that the guys have set, we discuss it. We say, ‘Do we want to play here, although it’s for less money?’ Otherwise, we’ll only play for the L.A. Philharmonic, and I don’t want us to do that. I don’t want us to become some sort of band up on the hill.” Still, he says, “I know how blessed we are, because some people don’t get this in a lifetime, a chance to be a resident jazz orchestra for a large organization that puts on concerts as often as they do.”

Two new albums by Clayton et al. reveal different sides of his musical life at present. Siblingity, on Qwest, is a ripe quintet affair with admitted nods to the influence of the Adderley Brothers. With the addition of trumpeter Terrell Stafford, the quartet grew into a logical extension of the Clayton brothers’ long-standing quartet. Clayton comments, “My brother and I are both such Cannonball Adderley fans that when we want to visit that kind of sound that they created, we have a chance to do that now. Having that extra horn gives us a lot more color possibilities.”

Color possibilities are exponentially larger on the new album Shout Me Out!, from the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, released on the Fable label as a document of the Orchestra’s first season at the Bowl. It’s a big and vibrant vehicle of a recording, opening with a friendly bang with the title track, recalling the jubilance of Neal Hefti charts, which Clayton played nightly during his two-year stint in the Count Basie band. Recalling the genesis of the tune, Clayton remembers hearing his friend and mentor Ray Brown at Catalina’s Bar and Grill in Hollywood. “They played something that was so dirty and so swinging. It was a slow groove. I had that vibe swimming in my head and just went home and wrote that tune, with the band in mind.

“Usually, when you write an arrangement, you start with an intro, and then the melody, and then players spill their heart out in the solo section, which builds to the climax of the shout chorus. Then you take it out some kind of way. What I’ve done is to eliminate all that garbage that comes up front, and go straight to the shout chorus. We play the shout chorus and let somebody spill their heart out, and then we go back to the shout chorus, and we keep doing that ad nauseum. Eventually, it ends.”

Musical careers can be lined with winding paths and surprising turns, but Clayton’s bio suggests a fairly logical and linear growth pattern. Clayton’s long involvement in jazz goes back to his childhood days in Venice, Calif., where the jazz bug bit him and his brother early. Important touchstones include early classical training (hence, his arco acumen), an inspirational encounter with Ray Brown, studies at Indiana University, successive stints with the Monty Alexander Trio, the Count Basie band, the Amsterdam Philharmonic, and finally, coming home to form the big band back in 1985.

After playing with Alexander, Clayton asked Ray Brown if he could recommend him to Basie. “The next day,” Clayton remembers, “I was subbing for Count Basie. It just so happened that his bass player was leaving two weeks later.”

He picked up ideas and inspirations for his future big band while with Basie, but through osmosis. “Every night, I heard these sounds, and I just wanted to do that. I knew how to transpose for various instruments, but I had never taken any arranging or composing lessons. I tried writing something for the Basie band, and it bombed. They hated rehearsing, anyway. This thing just sounded terrible. Everybody in the band was saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got the right idea. Don’t stop now.’ But I knew that it stank.

“I went home on one of the breaks and took out a Neal Hefti record of ‘Splanky,’ which we played almost every night. I loved that shout chorus. I loved that. So I transcribed it and analyzed the transcription I made, and I learned some really important writing techniques from that, for that kind of sound. Then I wrote a song based on some of those things, called ‘Blues for Stephanie.’ The band rehearsed it. At the end of it, Basie looked at me and he said those famous words, ‘Let’s do that one more time.’

“I thought I was on my way, and that’s when I really started to go downhill, because I was a little too confident, and boy, I had a long way to go. I kept writing for the band and kept trying things. They were so great, because you could do a saxophone section—they would all come to a hotel room and read through things for me. Or they’d play backstage. They were just so supportive. That’s a school anybody would be thrilled about.”

He emigrated to Holland to be with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, and ended up as principal bassist in the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years. On the side, he remained active as a writer-arranger, creating charts for a radio big band. “I would play in the orchestra and late at night, make arrangements for the radio big band. I got to hear my work every week on the radio. It was a beautiful training ground.”

Moving back to Los Angeles in the ’80s, the first order was to start a big band, for love rather than money. He had committed allies in his brother and Hamilton. “It was my brother’s job to call guys who were at a level that we wanted. Jeff Hamilton’s job was to handle the finances, so he didn’t have much to do for a long time,” he laughs. “And I was responsible for the music. It was really my job and I consciously thought, ‘OK, these guys hate to rehearse. I know that. So I’ve got to make sure there’s music here that they’ll want to come back for.”

There are always musicians eager to play in big bands, especially in a town like Los Angeles, teeming with good players whose day jobs don’t usually allow them to stretch out, jazz-wise. “However,” Clayton asserts, “there really is a high level that we wanted to have. It’s not just that somebody can play louder and faster and higher. That’s not what I mean by a level.

“This band is a 100 percent jazz band. You can have bands where you have one or two or three people who play very good jazz solos and the rest are reading their parts, but that’s not this band. All of my favorite bands—Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and more—consisted of players who were improvisers. That’s a criterion. You can’t be in this band if you don’t improvise.”

Clayton’s conception of running a big band involves tailoring the music to the musicians involved, and this band’s personnel has remained surprisingly constant since its formation. “We don’t fire anybody,” Clayton says. “People leave or they die. Three guys in the band have passed away—Bobby Bryant, Bill Greene, who was my brother’s teacher, and Thurman Greene. It’s really like a family.”

And he knows how to play up the family character traits. “The Ellington band sounds like the Ellington band, because when Duke Ellington wrote them, he didn’t write for an alto saxophone. He didn’t write for a trumpet or trombone. He wrote for Johnny Hodges’ sound, for Harry Carney’s sound, for Lawrence Brown’s sound. I find that when I write or anyone within the band writes for the band, they know what the band’s strengths and sounds are like. I write for that. I’m not going to put anyone in an uncomfortable position. I’m going to try to challenge them with the music sometimes, but never frustratingly so.

“An interesting thing happened last week, for instance, where we had the Mel Tormé tribute concert. That was necessary, and a good concert. It needs to be done. I’m glad we did it, but I learned a big lesson. From now on, I have to be in control of the music. Can you imagine the Duke Ellington band having to do the book of Glenn Miller? It wouldn’t be Duke’s band anymore. The sound of the band would not be there.

“So last week, we had Cleo Laine and Maureen McGovern, and they brought in their book. It was really interesting for me to sit there and listen. Our band didn’t sound like our band anymore. It sounded like a bunch of competent back-up musicians. It was amazing. So I learned my lesson. I said, ‘This can’t happen again.’ God bless Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s band.

“I should have known this, frankly, because when I was with Basie’s band, sometimes people would bring in charts, get rid of the Basie band rhythm section and just use the Basie band horns. It never sounded like the Basie band. At that point, something was drastically different, and that guy with that wonderful sound that you recognized in the Basie band didn’t have it like that.”

It’s fair to say that the Clayton-Hamilton’s pact with the Los Angeles Philharmonic follows a general trend in which classical organizations, with their usually solid infrastructure, are co-opting jazz into their program. It is, in a sense, L.A.’s parallel to the activities of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, albeit in the more general public light of the Hollywood Bowl season.

The merging of classical and jazz, at least from an institutional standpoint, seems to someone like Clayton—with experience in both worlds—like an idea whose time is overdue. “I’m finding that to be the case more and more all over the world, and it’s not a bad thing at all. We’re breaking down those borders that separate and segregate. ‘Let’s keep the classical music over here…’ That’s going away, slowly but surely.”

Of course, even entrenched cultural organizations like the L.A. Philharmonic need love and funding, too, and Clayton is happy to participate in efforts to keep the Philharmonic alive and kicking. “I’d like to help them there, with whatever doors I need to knock on. But I’m selfish. I want to help jazz,” he laughs. “I want to help jazz and put jazz in the community and work with jazz education, and jazz concerts, and us. If I’m going to knock on some doors, I don’t want whatever I do to assist them to go into some big pot that gets diffused. That may be talking out of class here, but that’s how I feel.”

In other words, Clayton is an ambitious figure who wants to build and maintain energy in his own literal and cultural neighborhood. At this juncture, he seems to be doing all the right things.

Listening Pleasures

Duke Ellington—anything—for composing/arranging colors, command of ensemble writing, swing, joy.

Milt Jackson That’s the Way It Is on Impulse!—for a complete set of swinging, introspective, pat-your-foot drive. Features Ray Brown, Monty Alexander, Teddy Edwards, Dick Berk.

Anything featuring bassists Peter Washington, Edgar Meyer, Larry Grenadier, Dave Holland, Christian McBride.

Gearbox

Clayton’s bass is “of unknown European origin, approximately 200 years old.” He uses an ElectroVoice RE20 microphone (no bridge pick-up), and D’Addario Hybrid or Thomastik Superflexible strings.

Originally published in December 2000

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