John Clayton is too modest a musician to boast about his considerable accomplishments. The bassist has seven Grammy nods in various categories. In 2007, he won for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist for his work with Queen Latifah. And he's likewise handled arranging for the likes of Whitney Houston, Nancy Wilson and Diana Krall. That's just a taste of Clayton's credentials as a sideman.
As a leader, his track record is equally stellar. He co-founded the critically acclaimed Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra (likened to the band of Lionel Hampton for swing and to Oliver Nelson's for showcasing its constituent voices) and the Clayton Brothers quintet with his alto saxophonist brother Jeff (comparisons to the band of Adderly brothers "Cannonball" and Nat). The comparisons are fitting.
But getting the 54-year-old to discuss such accomplishments is like trying to extract a German shepherd's molars. At the Inn on Ferry, a bed-and-breakfast in Detroit's Cultural Center where he's staying on a visit to our city, he turns the tables, asking his interviewer questions about his family, his education and his involvement in jazz.
And even when he's guided back to talking about himself, what he has to say is mainly prologue for his meeting with his great musical hero and mentor, the bassist Ray Brown. With the elegant and soothing voice of a seasoned orator, Clayton makes you want to just kick off your shoes and listen to the yarn.
Speaking of his youth in Los Angeles, Clayton recalls, "Jazz wasn't big in our house. We were listening to gospel, and a lot of the music played in the Baptist church. As kids, we were listening to Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Temptations." His mother, in fact, was a church pianist and organist. And at age 7, Clayton, the eldest of seven, took up the clarinet in school.
At 13, Clayton's interest in music changed big-time. His middle school music teacher signed him up to play the bass. Clayton says his musical destiny was set.
Later he auditioned and made the cut for his L.A. high school jazz big band. Around the same time, he fortuitously went to live with his grandmother while the family home was under renovation. An uncle just returned from the Army with all his jazz discs was there too.
"Here I was in high school playing in a jazz band, and now I was living in a house with all these jazz albums so the timing was perfect," Clayton says.
Among the standouts: discs by pianist Oscar Peterson featuring the big-sound bassist Ray Brown. By chance, Clayton discovered Ray Brown was living in Los Angeles, and had started teaching a jazz bass workshop at UCLA.
"I asked my teacher if he had heard Brown play before. He said Ray was his good friend. Then he showed me a letter from Brown informing him that he was teaching a workshop."
Clayton did odd jobs to scrape up $65 for the workshop, and once there, Clayton and Brown bonded immediately. Brown became a father figure, doing everything in his power to help Clayton succeed. He bought him his first bass, paid his way into the musician's local, and helped him get a steady gig on the Henry Mancini television show.
Brown also had a hand in getting Clayton a high-profile gig with pianist Monty Alexander (another Brown protégé, oft-times compared to Oscar Peterson) and a sort of two-year apprenticeship in the legendary Count Basie Orchestra. With Basie, he got a look under the hood of a great band and some great advice: In rejecting Clayton's arrangements, the Count suggested he save them for his own band — a thought Clatyon had never before entertained.
Chairs with the Amsterdam Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic followed. When Clayton formed the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra in 1986, he was credited with putting jazz back on California's cultural landscape. And in the late '90s, Clayton even had the good fortune to join forces with Brown and bassist Christian McBride, another Brown protégé, in the aptly named Super Bass.
Then in 2002 [corrected per the reader comment below], Clayton received heartbreaking news: "I was at home in L.A. The phone rang. It went to voicemail. My friend said, 'Pick up the phone. Ray Brown just died.' It was as if somebody had punched me in the gut.
"I was sitting there on the couch crying. My wife and my son were next to me. I drove from my home to Ray's house. I was crying all the way there. I remember walking up those stairs to his house. It felt like my feet were made of lead. I fell apart again. I remember his wife holding me up."
As Clayton recounts that episode, he mists up: "I have to fight back the tears now that I think about it. It was a strange thing. Ray's wife was comforting me. She had just lost her husband. My father passed away two years later, and oddly enough it wasn't as devastating as when Ray passed way."
After Brown died, Brown's wife told Clayton she wanted him to have Brown's bass — when he was emotionally ready. It took several years for him to feel comfortable buying his mentor's instrument.
"It was the bass that I first saw him with when I was 16 and he walked through the doors of the music room at UCLA. He carried it on his back. Ray played that bass on Duke Ellington's last album. He played that bass with Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. It was the bass that Ray did all that stuff with."
To Clayton, Brown was more than just a great musician. He was an educator who was selfless in helping young jazz musicians find their way. Clayton says he feels obligated to continue Brown's legacy, and many budding jazz musicians have benefited (including Clayton's son Gerald Clayton, a rising star). Most recently, Detroit pianist and bandleader Scott Gwinnell, who leads the highly praised Scott Gwinnell Orchestra, studied with Clayton in California as part of mentorship sponsored by the Detroit International Jazz Festival.
Next month, the two will close the Detroit International Jazz Festival with a piece commissioned from Clayton.
Clayton says Gwinnell has everything he looks for in students, including a hunger for improvement.
"What Scott has to offer Detroit is unlimited. Just think about it: Many places and venues have not discovered his sound. All kinds of music students have yet to discover him. Scott has a fire and he has passion," Clayton says.
Gwinnell says the time he spent picking Clayton's brain was invaluable:
"He's one of the most grounded people I know. I like the way he handles everything around him. As a mentor, he was kind. He was able to get at some serious issues I needed to work out. I learned a lot watching him in the studio handling the 16 musicians and the other people who were present. He was definitely the man calling the shots, but in a nice way, not with an iron fist."
The Scott Gwinnell Orchestra and the Clayton Brothers Quintet, perform John Clayton's commissioned "work in progress" at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at Cliff Bell's, 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543. The two groups are scheduled to share the stage and close out the Detroit International Jazz Festival, starting at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, on the amphitheatre main stage of Hart Plaza.Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]