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Jeff Clayton 1955–2020

Cancer claims the saxophonist and co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra

Jeff Clayton
Jeff Clayton

Jeff Clayton, an alto saxophonist and multi-reedist who was co-bandleader (and co-namesake) of both the Clayton Brothers quintet and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, died in the late hours of December 16 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 65.

His death was announced by his elder brother John Clayton, also a musician and co-bandleader with his brother. The younger Clayton had been battling kidney cancer for the past two years. “His wife and I were with him the moment he passed on,” John Clayton wrote on his Facebook page.

A veteran of Stevie Wonder’s touring band, Clayton also logged time in the Count Basie Orchestra and with bassist Ray Brown, working as a journeyman reeds player in both touring and studio ensembles. He and John, a bassist, founded the Clayton Brothers in 1977; eight years later, the brothers joined forces with drummer Jeff Hamilton to establish the 20-piece eponymous Jazz Orchestra. The band has for 35 years been among the leading lights of West Coast jazz, and Clayton along with it as one of the Orchestra’s star soloists.

He was also a noted educator, teaching at the University of California – Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, Cal State Long Beach, and Cal State Los Angeles as well as conducting myriad jazz camps, clinics, and master classes throughout the U.S. and the wider world.

Friends and colleagues of Clayton’s paid heartfelt tribute to him on social media. “He was a formidable force on the saxophone as a soloist whose playing revealed a beauty, a pain, a mischievousness, and a constant searching,” pianist Billy Childs wrote on Facebook. “Jeff was not only a brilliant saxophonist and musician, but was also an extraordinary human being.”

“We lost a wonderful man last night,” fellow L.A. bandleader Gordon Goodwin added. “He always had it—a visceral connection with music and a big beautiful sound and feel.”

Jeffrey Leland Clayton was born February 16, 1955 in Venice, California and grew up in Los Angeles. His mother was a church pianist and organist and encouraged her children to pursue music. Growing up on this gospel diet, as well as Motown and other soul and R&B records of the time, Clayton began playing saxophone at an early age but didn’t become a jazz fan until he joined his high-school jazz band and found his ideas about music reoriented.

Enrolling at California State University – Northridge in 1973, Clayton studied oboe and English horn; one semester short of graduation, he was invited to join Stevie Wonder’s band. Clayton would remain a recording and touring member of the band for three years. After leaving Wonder, Clayton returned to Los Angeles and became a session musician, working with Gladys Knight, Michael Jackson, and Madonna (with whom he was nominated for a Grammy), among others. He also toured with Ray Charles and B.B. King, and sustained a lengthy association with Frank Sinatra, both on the road and in the studio.

In 1977, Jeff and John Clayton established their own quartet, recording two albums together in 1978 and 1980. (They also played together in the Count Basie Orchestra, both under Basie and, in the days after Basie’s death, Thad Jones.) That quartet would later expand to a quintet. In 1985, the brothers, together with Hamilton, the quartet’s drummer, founded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Its three-way leadership was a unique machinery: Hamilton was the floor leader; John Clayton wrote the arrangements; and Jeff was the featured soloist. It gave the band a distinctive, virtuoso vision that has continued ever since.

Clayton remained a busy freelancer, and in 1998 became an educator when he took on an adjunct professorship at UCLA. This was followed by his stints at USC and CSU Long Beach and Los Angeles, which ended in 2007. Afterward he dedicated himself to performing in his own quartet, with the CHJO, and with his brother in their quintet until his illness prevented him from traveling.

Memorial details are forthcoming, according to a statement by Clayton’s longtime manager Gail Boyd.

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“I am sad,” John Clayton said in a statement, “but buoyed by Jeff’s spirit, by recalling six decades of growth together, by the music we shared, and the knowledge that he wants us to move on, embracing and celebrating life.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.