Gerald Clayton

Gerald Clayton - A Portrait

One step back, but looking forwards: The pianist joins the generations and styles between the groove of nu jazz and classically-inspired chamber music.

When we think of California and music, we think of the Beach Boys, maybe of The Mamas & The Papas, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the West coast rappers led by Snoop Dogg. But jazz musicians? Even connoisseurs may find themselves scratching their brows here. Yet the brilliant jazz bassist Charles Mingus grew up in Los Angeles, as did sax players Eric Dolphy and Kamasi Washington, who came to fame 50 years later. And then we get to the Clayton family. Brothers John and Jeff were born in the fifties in Venice Beach, just a baseball throw away from the beach. Jeff became a sought-after saxophonist, while John turned into a respected bass player who was soon making a name for himself as an arranger for pop stars. And his son was later to feel the same calling. His name was Gerald Clayton. The pianist suggested 7a.m. Pacific Daylight Time as a time for the interview. The early hour has nothing to do with a full diary: »I just wanted to go surfing in the morning and not have to take a break for the interview«.

Gerald Clayton
Gerald Clayton © Blue Note

Clayton, who was born in 1984 while his father was spending some time in the Dutch city of Utrecht, has been living back by the Pacific for a few years now. His house is in El Segundo, not far from the ocean and south of LAX, the huge Los Angeles airport. He graduated with a BA in piano in the »City of the Angels« before he moved to New York in 2007. The undisputed world capital of jazz is somewhere that every young musician longs to go to, albeit a place with really tough rules: nowhere else do even experienced professionals appear for a fee of 50 dollars. Clayton held his own. He studied with Kenny Barron at the Manhattan School of Music, and gradually garnered respect in the jazz scene. But he didn't enjoy success until, like his father before him, he started to think beyond the bounds of jazz. His lyrical playing attracted the attention of successful crossover artists, so that Gerald Clayton was soon appearing alongside Diana Krall and Michael Bublé.

Open to new things

However, there was one thing that was even more important to him: his close cooperation with a trumpeter who died a premature death in 2018, and understood like no one else how to combine virtuoso hard bop with funk, R&B and hip-hop: Roy Hargrove. »Roy never forgot a song once he had learnt it, not even 20 years later,« Clayton recalls. »He had huge ears! And he expected everyone who played with him to keep up with his tempo. I’m gonna play it once – open your ears! That's how Roy was – and I had the chance to share this level of musicality for three years. Roy lived according to the principle: Just imagine this is going to be your last show.«

Gerald Clayton was very open to different genres, which also brought him together with another big jazz name: He has been a regular sideman with saxophonist Charles Lloyd since 2013, and he already appeared at the Elbphilharmonie last year alongside with this icon of the Woodstock generation. »Some musicians don't attach importance to swapping solos to and fro,« Clayton comments on the cooperation with his 84-year-old mentor. »It's much more of a shared dance. After every show with him I walk off stage and ask myself: What the heck just happened there? I feel as if I'm in a trance, I have no idea what actually went on.«

Charles Lloyd mit Gerald Clayton

Charles Lloyd now makes a guest appearance on Clayton's latest album »Bells on Sand«. The Californian pianist sees the bells of the title as a metaphor for life, and the sand as a symbol for an environment that is in constant motion. »Everything around us, including our songs and stories, is subject to constant change. If you're searching for network connections, it's best to take a step back and look at things from that perspective. To take the lessons into account that the past teaches us, in  order to live the present in a way that serves the future.«

Young musicians like Portuguese singer Maro and drummer Justin Brown certainly stand for the future, while the present and the past are represented on Clayton's new album by his father John, who contributes his characteristic bowing on the double bass to three songs. »I've been playing together with my father since early childhood, and  I had to invite him to join the session for both musical and personal reasons. It's no big thing that he appears on the album – yet somehow it is.«

Gerald Clayton plays »My Ideal 1« from his album »Bells On Sand«

»Bells on Sand« is a surprisingly reserved statement – the self-assured, minimalistic programme of a musician who hasn't had anything to prove for a long time. Clayton demonstrated his affinity for pop back in 2013 on »Life Forum«, while the quintet record that followed, »Tributary Tales«, is a hard-bop album. In 2022 Gerald Clayton ventures on to new ground with classical pieces by the Catalonian composer Frederic Mompou (1893–1987), to which he adds meditative duo songs, solo pieces and nu-jazz groove as a trio. »When I write songs,«the pianist says, »I don't have the feeling that I can control the process. I don't plan how to play, it's more like: here is the music, let me serve it as best I can.«

In jazz heaven

At the end of »Bells on Sand« comes another nod to the past: »There Is Music Where You’re Going, My Friends« was written by Clayton's uncle Jeff, who died in 2020. There is a video online of a gig from 1996 that the saxophonist dedicated to all the jazzmen who had died over the years. In the video, Jeff Clayton says that he believes in a jazz heaven with a jazz club where jam sessions are played for eternity. His nephew plays this ballad now as a piano solo with plenty of gospel overtones: a simple statement free of flourishes or virtuoso affectation.

Whether he plays as a soloist or as part of the trio that he is appearing with in Hamburg in March 2023: this is a pianist with a talent for free improvisation. In an attempt to explain what is such an essential skill in jazz, Gerald Clayton has recourse to a metaphor that is inseparably linked to his old stamping ground of California: »Playing the piano is like surfing: you take off in the hope of catching a few waves«.

Author: Jan Paersch, last updated: 15. Feb. 2023
English translation: Clive Williams

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