Jazz Monthly: It is my wonderful pleasure to finally welcome to JazzMonthly.com one of the premiere bass players on the planet. His music is something of iconic value and he is totally attached to the word Grammy. You cannot disassociate this cat with the Grammys. He has performed and worked with some of the most legendary musicians of all time. You can hear his music in any corner of the world. His latest project is Brother to Brother, Clayton Brothers Jazz Orchestra. Please welcome the totally iconic John Clayton. John, how you doing, my friend?
John Clayton (JC): Great. Good to be here, Smitty. Thank you.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed, and it’s just such a pleasure and an honor to talk with you. Now when I first heard your music, I just wanted to be in the same room, in the same studio, because we hear so much music in life and we come across music that just creates such a vibe and such a groove, and that was my feeling when I first heard your music, and I said to myself, if there was ever a description of real music, this is it. I must say that you have stayed so true to making great music and real music and it is just a pleasure to listen to your orchestra, to everyone that you’ve been associated with, and to see how you put your flavor so neatly blended into the music of other icons that are making music out there.
JC: Wow, well, thank you. You kind of hit the nail on the head when you talked about the groove and the vibe because that’s really what we talk about and what we actually focus on. We talk about the mood of the music, we talk about the vibe of the music, and that pretty much determines everything we do. It determines our presentation, it determines our compositions, it determines our arrangements. We’re always thinking about the mood. Okay, what is the mood of this song? What is the mood we’re trying to convey here? And once you have that clearly in your sights, everything else for me falls into place.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, those are such key elements, and I think when you put that kind of passion and that kind of dedication into music, you’re really making real music because what you just described is what real music is all about.
JC: I agree. That’s what I was taught by all of the masters directly and indirectly. I mean, hanging around and taking lessons with people like Ray Brown and hearing him play with everybody from Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald and Monty Alexander and you name it. I mean, on and on and on. Watching him play with all these people, it was always about some kind of mood, some kind of expression that allowed you to be a part of the joy, and when I would watch Ray especially—but everybody—when I’d watch all musicians play, they were serious. However, they were serious in a way that didn’t hide their joy and that, to me, the bandstand, the stage, is a sacred place for expression of joy, and I mean it could be a sad song, it could be a deep song, it could be anything, but if you don’t express that joy that all of musicians experience when we’re really in it, then you’ve missed the boat. So that’s always my focus, expressing the joy of the music.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and what you just said there really comes out in your music. You have very accurately and precisely conveyed that through your music, so you have hit all the buttons spot on. (Both laugh.)
JC: Good. That’s good to hear. Thank you.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. Now I just want to ask you, you and your brother Jeff.
Jazz Monthly: You cats, you’re like twins in that you can feel the vibe, the synergy of the vibe, when you’re playing, and when you talk about expression and joy, those are all feelings. Yet when most people think about music, they think about what they hear, but invariably they are feeling it.
JC: Yeah, that’s, you know, I think all of us are listeners. So all of us look for that whenever we’re listening. I mean, every professional musician is a listener. And we are all looking for the same thing. We want to feel someone express themselves when we go to a concert and when we’re on the bandstand with somebody. We want to feel people sharing the depth of whatever it is that’s inside of them with us.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
JC: And if you don’t understand that as a musician, then you can find yourself getting caught up in other things. Sometimes the technical aspects of the music or some nice looking person walking in front of the bandstand. It’s all stuff that you can kind of allow yourself to get into that’ll take you away from what your true purpose is of the moment.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
JC: And that is to be in the music. And frankly, the way I do that is, we talked about the vibe. The other thing is for me as an artist is to never really focus on myself. Most professional musicians that I’ve worked with and admired don’t focus on themselves. It’s almost as if you don’t listen to yourself. For me as a bass player, by only listening to the piano player and only listening to the drummer and only listening to the saxophone player and only listening to the trumpet player, everything I do takes care of itself because it is being driven and directed by the things that I’m allowing myself to take in that other people are contributing.
And that’s something I’ve really admired about great jazz musicians all along. It’s just how they become sort of these little conduits of kind of expressive activity, if you will. When I would hear—well, again, we’ll go back to Ray Brown—when I hear Ray Brown play in a duo or play in a trio, so many times I heard him, for instance, playing with his trio, and when the piano player’s taking a solo, he’s there at that piano player’s left hand and the drummer’s right there to the right of Ray Brown. I mean, it’s a close knit trio community, and Ray never focused on himself. His eyes were always focused on the piano player, focused on the drummer, and there was my lesson. If I do that, then I too can experience what it feels like to let the music that’s in me be driven by these external forces and the bass playing takes care of itself.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, yes, and it becomes such a wonderful combination of great music because of that approach. Yeah, I love that. You and your brother have been around music most of your life.
Jazz Monthly: At what point did you two decide “Hey, let’s form a band and do our thing”?
JC: You know, I don’t think there was—it’s funny. We really never discussed it. (Both laugh.) It just sort of happened, just fell into place, sort of “Hey, should we do a record? Yeah, sure, why not?” It was kind of like that. I remember it was in the 70s and I had already graduated from Indiana University and my brother was already working or out a lot around Los Angeles and performing live and playing in studios and all that. We’d do some gigs together and have some fun together and said “Hey, should we do a record? Yeah.” And Ray Brown—again we go back to him—he was very close to the president of Concord Records, who then offered us a chance to record.
Jazz Monthly: Nice.
JC: And we did so, and that’s really how the Clayton Brothers were born.
Jazz Monthly: Wow.
JC: Playing a bit before but then the record date on Concord Records was the thing that solidified “Hey, yeah, this is fun. We should continue this.” And it grew from those days. We had a quintet on that record. It was saxophone, piano, bass, drums, and guitar, and it sort of then for some years remained a quartet, and then, I don’t know, the last however many years—six, seven years, not sure—we’ve added a trumpet, which is Terrell Stafford, and that’s one of the best moves that we’ve ever made because my brother and Terrell are like one.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, they are. Now, before I forget, I must make mention of one particular project because you’ve been involved with so many great projects from Diana Krall to Natalie Cole, Nina Simone, Queen Latifah. I could go on and on. We’d be here all day. But there’s one in particular that I just fell in love with and talk to people about all the time, and that is the great Gladys Knight record Before Me.
JC: Oh yeah.
Jazz Monthly: And I had a conversation with her and when we got on the subject of you, it was just on!
JC: Oh, that’s sweet. Well, I’ve been a fan of hers since I was a kid growing up, singing all of her songs with the recordings. So I was a huge Gladys Knight fan, and when Tommy LiPuma asked me to be a part of the project, my response was basically “How much will it cost me? You don’t have to pay me for this one, oh my Gosh.” But I did get paid. (Both laugh.) And she is, as you know, since you talked to her, she’s just an amazing sweetheart.
Jazz Monthly: Oh my goodness, yes.
JC: She’s just one of the kindest human beings on this planet.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and before my conversation with her, she and I had never talked before. And it’s funny you just made that statement because whenever her name comes up in a conversation, I tell people that I had not talked to her before that and it was as though we had been friends for years and we were just sitting around reminiscing. It was just the most delightful conversation.
JC: Wow, that’s great.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and you’re right. She’s so true blue.
JC: Yeah, and she’s so down home.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah! I couldn’t have said it better.
JC: I flew to Las Vegas to go to her home and discuss the project with her and pick songs and keys and all that, and it was like an older sister who just said “Welcome home,” you know? “Put you feet up.” It was wonderful and that’s the way she was the whole time.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, well, she just dotes over you and says having you on that project, she said she was just blown away.
JC: Oh, that’s sweet, that’s sweet.
Jazz Monthly: Well, that’s so true and I just wanted to make mention of that.
JC: I appreciate that.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. So now, brother to brother. You cats had once again thought through this whole concept, which I think is great. You really carried a theme of, you know, a lot of brothers who have done some great things with their music, respectively and you cats wanted to recognize that. And you did that so well.