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Terell Stafford Remembers Jeff Clayton

The trumpeter pays tribute to the saxophonist and Clayton Brother (2/16/55 – 12/16/20)

Jeff Clayton
Jeff Clayton

I met Jeff over 20 years ago because [his brother] John had heard me perform at the IAJE conference. He asked me to join the faculty in Vail, [Colorado,] for the Vail Jazz Workshop. I joined, and the first faculty concert we had was, I think, the very first day. Jeff and I played together, and our sounds connected instantly. That was the beginning of a great relationship.

From that point on, we continued to do the Vail Jazz Workshop together every summer and travel with the Clayton Brothers. I loved making music with him because our sounds fit so well together, and our phrasing was always as one. We had a relationship where if we played something and he didn’t like the way I phrased it—or vice versa—we could talk about it. That’s important, to have really good communication skills, far and above musician skills.

He was a great writer. The really cool thing was that he always wrote for every person in the band—very similar to Duke Ellington and all these great composers. It wouldn’t just say “trumpet,” but it would have your name on the card, so you would know who he wrote it for. I felt that in every composition he wrote since I joined the band, there was a part for me and how I played.

Jeff was super-funny. He had a great memory. He could remember lyrics to everything, he had a knack for remembering tons of melodies, he could remember so many details about who you were as a person. There was a point that he felt he wanted to write a tune for everybody in the band as a gift for them. Not necessarily a tune that the Clayton Brothers played, just a tune for them. He would always make sweet gestures in that way: call, check up on you, see how you were doing. He was great at remodeling homes, financing, refinancing, etc., etc. You could always call him and say, “Hey, I’m thinking of buying this home. What do you think?” and he’d do research and look it up for you. Once you got it, he’d give you advice on how to fix it up.

Of course, he spoke about music all the time. His influence was Cannonball, and my influence was Freddie Hubbard—he would always tell me Freddie Hubbard stories. Jeff and I would laugh constantly. His laugh was extremely infectious. There was something we’d get on and start talking about, and it’d snowball and snowball. It was great to be around him because of his joy and compassion for life and people.

Pretty much any record he’s done [can be a gateway], but the joy I found especially were all the Clayton Brothers records. I don’t think there’s one in particular that I can point out, but you can hear the joy in his sound. His personality was huge, and his sound was huge.

This [anecdote] has always stuck with me. Every musician wants to find their own voice, you know? You listen to Charlie Parker, Miles, whomever, and then you spend a lifetime as a musician transcribing other people. I said to Jeff one day, “You know, man, you spend a lifetime transcribing all these people; when do you branch off to sound like yourself? Is this important?” He said, “At some point, I think it’s important. But what’s really important is to remember that it’s better to sound like someone than no one.”

He was a model of forgiveness. I saw things that had happened in his life—people doing things to him—that I thought were unforgivable. And he found a way to forgive. That’s really important now. Grace is so important. Nobody’s perfect; everybody’s trying to do the best they can. He always realized that. Sometimes I’d get so upset about a scenario, I’d come to him to talk about it, and he’d say, “You’ve just got to let it go.” Everybody goes through their time. He taught me how to be a better father, musician, human being, and bandmate. He taught me many lessons, and I’ll always love him for it.

[as told to Morgan Enos]

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats