John Clayton has been a member of The Jazz Cruise family from the start. For as long as we can remember, John and his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, anchored the Clayton Brothers Quintet, the Clayton–Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and numerous other configurations. They have been staples of The Gospel Hour and participants in almost every Welcome Show and Hall of Fame show The Jazz Cruise has ever produced. They were inducted into The Jazz Cruise Hall of Fame in 2012 — and, for the past several sailings, John has been the Director of Anita’s Big Band, taking that program to new heights.
We all mourn the passing of Jeff and every performance involving John conjures up his memory, his legacy and his contribution to the world of jazz and our cruise program.
Universally beloved and respected, John is simply the epitome of grace, professionalism and dignity. He continues to be at the top of his craft and continues to share those skills with the next generation of players. John Clayton is a gift, one that The Jazz Cruise cherishes every day.
Recently, Executive Director Michael Lazaroff had the opportunity to pose some questions to John. Here is a transcript of their discussion.
Lazaroff: John, we have corresponded frequently over the past few months, but it has been over a year since we have seen each other. How are you doing?
Clayton: I’m doing much better, thanks. After brother Jeff passed away, part of me was “not here.” Witnessing his last breath and holding him as he took it, affected me like nothing ever has. Until that time, I, along with his wife, other family members and friends who were like family, had been working to get him to turn a health corner. Obviously, he ended up not getting better and it has taken me nearly 4 months to really feel like my feet are on solid ground again. That was the long answer. Short answer: I’m loving life, family, music and feel back in the game.
Lazaroff: I cannot imagine you sitting on the sidelines during the pandemic. Can you share with us what your musical activities included in the past few months?
Clayton: Ha!!! Well, when things shut down in March 2020, I flew home and, like everyone else, thought “OK, here we are. I guess I’ll just roll with it.” I allowed myself to not add an artistic self-inflicted wound to the situation. I went from chillin’ to eventually being LAZY. A lot good was going on during that time, too. Time with my then 3-month-old granddaughter (she’s 14 months now), nursing my garden on a daily basis, connecting with family, etc. It wasn’t ALL bad! I just hate that so many hundreds of thousands in the U.S. have had to die to allow this to happen. I eventually started practicing again, composing and arranging — a bit more of the things that normally consume my life. It feels good.
Lazaroff: Can we talk a bit about Jeff? Having performed with him for so many years, I cannot imagine how you must feel walking onto the bandstand and seeing someone else with the saxophone.
Clayton: Some years ago, on a jazz cruise, I was backstage with Randy Brecker. He told me how lucky I was to be able to play with my brother and that, although he truly misses his brother, he misses PLAYING with him in ways that most people cannot empathize with. Now I get it. I’m getting used to not having him physically here. I don’t know how long, if ever, it will take to get used to not playing with him. That being said, I never compare anyone’s playing to his. Never. Each individual will bring their voice to the bandstand and I get to be a part of who they are.
Lazaroff: Your contribution to Anita’s Big Band has been amazing. We hope that you enjoy leading that band as much as we enjoy watching you do it.
Clayton: OF COURSE I do! And thank you. I view myself as a team member, another component of the machine that is tasked with uplifting the music and presenting it to the listeners. Therefore, I have to reflect the mood and energy of the music. I’m focused on my bandmates. I want to help them to remember the dynamics, the groove, the joy, when they have to start playing, how long a note needs to be, etc. THAT is where my focus is. Together, we present that TO the audience. When I perform, I’m concentrating on the music, not the audience. To be sure, audiences absolutely make a difference! Their energy combines with ours to make the whole experience a scintillating one. But I never choose a song to perform simply because I think the audience might like it. Music is too transparent. If we don’t love the music we’re playing, EVERYONE knows it! Am I right? If someone makes a request and I think, “Actually, yeah. That would be nice to play,” then I’ll play it. There are times that we have to play things that would not be my choice. Aside from those moments, I really do my best to keep my performances honest.
Lazaroff: You have been a part of The Jazz Cruise since 2001. Any special memories or feelings come to mind?
Clayton: Keter Betts, telling jokes, surrounded by an audience of musicians. Alonzo Bodden making me laugh until it hurt. Being forced to sit at the roulette table with a “well oiled” Martin Pizzarelli as he and John encouraged me to keep betting. Houston Person’s soul. Running into really rough seas and trying to play and remain upright! Interviewing Dianne Reeves, not to mention just hearing her sing. Hearing so much good music — I mean CRAZY-GOOD music!
Lazaroff: We will assume that the rest of 2021 will be as close to “back to normal” as possible. What projects are in store for master bassist John Clayton?
Clayton: I’m hoping to write a piece for cello ensemble that will include a poet/narrator who will read the Amanda Gorman inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb.” When safe, Jeff Hamilton and I want to fire up the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra again. I’m writing for them and we’ve got some concerts in the future. I’m always looking for opportunities to play with my son, Gerald. I want to make some instructional videos to help (primarily young) bass players that will focus on things they can do as they begin playing jazz repertoire. The videos need to expose them early on to a level of quality bass lines, creative thinking, etc. I will be writing music for The Jazz Cruise’s Anita Berry Big Band. I know. You think I had to mention that! But it’s true. There is so much music that it takes me months to prepare.
Lazaroff: One last question, what is your favorite aspect of being at sea on The Jazz Cruise?
Clayton: The camaraderie. Being with my musician family and our music-loving family represents the complete and perfect community. It’s where I belong.