John & Gerald Clayton: Serving the Music

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“I knew that I would be playing music, and that it would be part of my identity, the way that it’s part of my dad’s identity,” Gerald Clayton (right) said of his upbringing with his father, John.

(Photo: Paul Wellman)

Altadena, California, is nestled into the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, a companion-community to its better-known neighbor, Pasadena. Spacious roads lined with quaint homes carve neat gridlines through the fir trees, which tower over everything save the majestic cliff-walls to the north. It’s a few miles away, but a far cry, from Hollywood — no glitz or glamour, no high-rises, hardly any traffic. It would be a nice place to raise a family.

Bassist John Clayton would agree. After growing up in nearby Venice and spending five years of his early professional life on the road — first with Monty Alexander and then with the Count Basie Orchestra — and another five in the Netherlands as principal bassist for the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, he returned to Southern California in 1985 with his Dutch-born wife and two children in tow. His hometown of Venice was right on the Pacific Ocean, but not the best place for young children. “It was about people juggling chainsaws and G-strings,” the 69-year-old Clayton said, sitting in the spacious, sunlit A-frame studio he built behind the home he has lived in for 35 years. His brother, the late saxophonist Jeff Clayton (who passed away in 2020), knew a bit about real estate, and suggested Altadena as a good place to raise an interracial family. As one of the few areas that — despite Los Angeles’ shameful history of discriminatory “redlining” housing policies — didn’t restrict African Americans from applying and receiving mortgages, Altadena has been home to generations of Black families, including many prominent jazz musicians, some of whom Clayton recalled offhand: “Patrice Rushen; Billy Childs for a long time; Bennie Maupin lives on our street, a block away. Tootie Heath was here forever; John Levy, before he passed. Roy McCurdy, he was on the border of Pasadena; he’s still in Pasadena.”

Pianist Gerald Clayton was 1 year old when the family moved into this house. He sits opposite his father, on a bench facing away from the piano where the duo had just been playing “Blue Monk” while a photographer snapped some final pictures for this article. Some fathers and sons play catch; these two play tunes. They recently did so on the stage of the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. A video of the performance reveals the elder Clayton’s irrepressible smile while taking in the inventions his son conjured from the piano, those expressions mirrored in the face of the conjurer. “People will always say to me how happy I am when I play, smiling and everything,” John remarked. “They don’t understand that my introduction to jazz was watching these incredibly intense, serious players who were not only playing music on that high level, but they were smiling.”

The younger Clayton responded: “This whole narrative is also a good analogy for the evolution of the culture of Black expression in America. A lot of the freedoms and privileges I have are because of the struggles that came before me, directly from my dad but also throughout the history of America and the music.

“Maybe some people misinterpret the smile of gratitude and recognition of freedom and those that struggled before as an ignorance of that struggle. I’ve got the smile in me … but I don’t want to give you the sense that it’s all peachy keen … because part of what this music expresses is that struggle for peace, for equality, for better circumstances.”

This depth-charge of introspection is indicative of who Gerald Clayton, at 37, has become as he moves into the prime years of his life and career. His latest album, Bells On Sand (Blue Note), is a ruminative turn from his previous work. Happening: Live At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2020) was the buzzy arrival of a notable artist who, like so many others in jazz history, had been similarly crowned with a week’s run and live recording at the hallowed New York jazz club. Shortly after that release, the Vanguard, along with all of New York and the rest of the world, went into pandemic-induced isolation, giving Gerald many months to think about many things. “We’ve all had a good, long sit,” he mused. “I think that creating a piece of art [is] supposed to reflect some truth in whatever moment you’re in.”

The resultant music is an evocation of internal reckoning and reflection.

But does the somberness accurately depict his disposition? “I’m a lightswitch away from looking at everything as a farce,” Clayton said, rather jarringly. “It’s all not that serious to me. Maybe surfing helps me double down on that. You can jump in … and you’re just a little dot on the ocean. That keeps things light, and I don’t have to make everything a serious heartfelt statement on the evolution of injustice.”

Altadena is a considerable distance from the beach, yet Clayton’s affinity for the ocean compelled him to take up surfing as a youth. It eventually called him back to the West Coast after a decade in New York. He now makes his home in El Segundo, only minutes from LAX and even less time to the water.

Gerald Clayton inherited the tall, athletic build of his father. John intimated that his son was a competitive soccer player growing up, only to give it up in high school for Gerald’s first love: music. He remembers young Gerald playing in the sandbox, singing along to the birds, to the ice cream truck — everything was music to his son’s ears. One would assume that a prominent musician — having discovered, early on, an exceptional musical aptitude — would seek to nurture and develop that gift. Not true. The 6-year-old Gerald and his 7-year-old sister Gina initiated the request for piano lessons, and Gerald took it further. “My wife and I really wanted Gerald to pursue music the way he wanted to,” John explained, noting that he would consciously refrain from sharing his own likes or dislikes with his son for fear of prejudicing him away from his own path.

At what point did John Clayton think his son had a chance to become a successful musician? “I never thought that,” he said softly. “Never. Like any parent, you just want them to be following a path that makes them feel good. I love hearing him play, and I love playing with him … [But] if he said, ‘I think I want to go into this [other] field, or just be a full-time surfer and not do music anymore,’ I’d miss it, but … I’m cool.”

There’s little chance of that happening. “I knew that I would be playing music, and that it would be part of my identity, the way that it’s part of my dad’s identity,” said Gerald. “But that really does speak to my parents’ approach in how to think about music and how to view your choices in life — that success is, ‘You like music and you’re doing it, and you continue to investigate it thoroughly and with passion.’ It’s not like, ‘OK, you’re really into it, I bet you could pay rent doing it.’

“That truly is the way they raised me and my sister,” he continued. “When I’m talking to other students or hungry young musicians — all the questions that start to get away from the focus of the music — it’s like, ‘Come on back. Serve the music the best you can, and let the rest take care of itself.’”

Gerald Clayton describes his dad to others as a “resiliently positive person.” His father agrees with that assessment, stating, “I’m really upset when we create a ‘fear-based’ education for our students, where we tell them there’s not enough work out there, it’s really competitive. I want them to really focus on the music like Gerald was saying. That is going to be the door-opener.”

Gerald’s playing helped convince his father to open a door for him 14 years ago on an album they made with uncle Jeff called Brother To Brother (ArtistShare, 2008). On that recording, the young pianist sounds confident and polished, but the ensuing years would produce an astounding metamorphosis as Gerald relocated to New York and discovered a whole new community of brilliant jazz artists, including drummer Justin Brown, who has become like a brother to him. He also acquired some new mentors along the way, namely Roy Hargrove and Charles Lloyd. It is no surprise that Clayton pays tribute to those who helped him along the way, on a record that examines that very path. Lloyd, the master saxophonist, plays on one track with Gerald, the two of them sketching a mysterious tableau of sound-thought. “It’s as much about what he’s playing as it is about the spirit with which he plays it,” Gerald said of his mentor. Brown has been a steady presence in Clayton’s life and career, appearing on all but one of the pianist’s solo projects, and he

provides groove and textural support on “That Roy,” a hip-hop-influenced homage to Hargrove, and he is subtly ubiquitous on the album, allowing Clayton to expand the original concept of solos and duets to formats slightly larger but no less intimate. For example, Clayton features Maro, a 27-year-old Portuguese singer and musician who, as an internet sensation, has amassed millions of viewers on social media.

The album also features his father. In asking John to play on the recording, Gerald essentially flipped the dynamic. He is now known less as his father’s son and more as one of the great pianists of this generation, who happens to also have a famous father. How famous? For starters, who can say their dad was responsible for a multi-platinum-selling arrangement of the national anthem that Whitney Houston sang at the Super Bowl?

There are relatively few instances in jazz where this has happened. The Marsalis family certainly comes to mind, as does Ravi Coltrane, son of another John. Here in Los Angeles, the renowned bandleader Gerald Wilson’s son Anthony became an exceptional guitarist and would go on to play with Diana Krall (courtesy of her then-music director John Clayton). Anthony Wilson remembers bonding with his father over their shared love of jazz, too. “It was very warm, but there was always the sense that … you have to be serious. That is part of the tradition, that you’ve got to hold this thing with a really great respect,” he said by phone from Rochester, New York, where he was rehearsing with Krall in preparation for a five-week tour. Wilson felt the same fatherly mentorship from John Clayton, having played with him first in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (which Clayton founded with drummer Jeff Hamilton), and then, more personally, with both Clayton and Hamilton after they added Wilson to the rhythm section for Krall, where they played together for three years.

It was a constant lesson for him to be watching and hearing what John did on the bandstand. “If there would be something — a chord or some harmonic thing that I wasn’t getting,” Wilson remembered, “usually without words, on the bass, he would just show me where I needed to be. And I would learn.”

John Clayton described almost the same type of lesson he once received from Count Basie. “During the concert, [Basie] might get my attention,” he explained, “but he wouldn’t look at me, and he’d be playing, and while I’m watching him, he’d lean back about three or four inches. He was teaching me, you know. Relax the tempo.”

Both Basie and Ray Brown inform John Clayton’s undeniable, paradisiacal time-feel, but what he does on Gerald’s album departs from the swinging rendition of Paul Chambers’ “Tale Of The Fingers” and a classical piece they performed together at SFJAZZ. On those works, the elder Clayton produces from his bow an otherworldly beam of vibrating energy that locks in perfect harmony and time with his son. One of those pieces is by 20th century Catalonian-French composer Frederic Mompou, a favorite of Gerald Clayton and many of his jazz pianist contemporaries. Both father and son are well-versed in classical music; the former having an emphasis on it for his performance degree at Indiana University (ultimately put to good use in the Amsterdam Philharmonic). “Classical music has always been important to what I do, but not more or less important than say, jazz,” he explained. “It’s all about love. If you love whatever it is as fully as you can … that’s what’s going to allow you to bring it to the higher level. So, I’m not the kind of player who thinks classical music is [only] great for my technique, and then makes me play jazz stronger.”

Gerald Clayton concurred. “I think it’s because my dad and [I both] have an open-minded policy toward music in general, that you welcome anything — no matter what part of the record store it’s coming from — as valid and worth checking out,” he said

The younger Clayton’s open-mindedness is exemplified by two solo renditions of the standard “My Ideal” on Bells On Sand. Captured on different days at different studios, each take is completely its own. Gerald didn’t intend for both takes to be included. “My dad sort of encouraged it more than anyone else did, but it actually fits very well with the themes,” he said. “It’s really very true to that narrative of you sit down to play today, and you sit down to play even five minutes later, it’s something different.”

One could argue the entire history of the piano is encapsulated in his playing, melting into a new creation altogether. John Clayton recalled how Ray Brown pointed a finger in his face one day and said, “Play your shit,” in other words, to be himself. “I think that Gerald’s got that,” he said. “I hear different influences and different people … [but] I end up hearing that he’s Gerald when he plays. And by saying that, I also encourage anybody to [not] be afraid to put your feet in the shoes of the people that really inspire you … that only helps to lay more foundation for you to find all these other things that frankly, people recognize as your own voice, because you don’t recognize your own voice.”

Gerald Clayton continued the thought. “And that’s why I think it’s important to not offer judgement. ‘Hey man, you need to stop sounding like Herbie,’ or whatever. That I find dangerous because [those thoughts] damage the soul and make people feel very self-conscious of what they are doing,” he said.

Gerald Clayton now finds himself, as his father before him, in a position to mentor students of this music. Should they be more concerned with learning the music and methods of the past? “I’m wary of the word ‘should.’ I try not to include any ‘shoulds’ when I’m talking to other students or people who are curious about the music.” He clarified, “I think the more effective way to do that is not through any sort of shaming or ‘should-ing,’ but hopefully enticing. ‘Yo, Monk is killing, have you checked out Monk? Listen to this!’”

Asked if he could see a common thread between his father and his mentors afterward, Gerald thought for a moment, and answered, “A real commitment to serving the music. They all view themselves not as more important than the music, that we’re all in service of the music. Charles Lloyd says it exactly the same way. Roy was a living example of that. There’s a selflessness about all of them in that way.”

Anthony Wilson recognizes something else in John Clayton that he saw in his own father: “The sense of how the person is both in life and music — and the kind of merging of that into one being — ends up being the lesson.” Wilson is also part of a trio with Gerald Clayton and Lloyd, with a new album to be released in a few months. “We feel like his children, too,” Wilson said of Lloyd. “There’s that whole tradition in jazz of bandleaders who raise up the younger generation … and I think [Charles Lloyd] looked up to my dad, in that way, as a mentor.

“The ripples and effects go ever outward.”

John Clayton has served both the music and its keepers. He considers it a responsibility of the highest order. “If you think of mentorship as parenting, then its importance is clear,” he said. “As a parent, you own the responsibility of raising your children. As a mentor, you have to own the responsibility of guiding, encouraging, feeding the people who are coming to you for that. It’s kind of that simple to me.”

Gerald Clayton acknowledges inviting his father onto this record was spurred in part from gratitude. “It could just be the fact that he plays so good, and I want to have somebody good on my record,” he hedged. “But, yeah, there is a bit of feeling … and thinking about all of what led me to today and wanting to honor what helped me get there.” DB



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