Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.
Air traffic wanes over Gerald Clayton’s breezy one bedroom across from LAX. Surfboards hang unwaxed on the wall. Since California Governor Gavin Newsom closed the beaches in March, the pianist-composer’s been spending different hours at his Yamaha—waking hours, meditative and intimate.
“It’s probably too early to say what I’ve discovered from it,” says Clayton, reflecting on a forced change in routine as a result of the pandemic. “I know I’ve been withholding parts of myself from people.”
The bicoastal artist spent the better part of 10 years in New York, before returning home to Los Angeles in 2017. But he’s out more than he’s not. And though he’s lost dates and money and opportunities, the quarantine has offered the multi-GRAMMY nominee a surreal moment to inhale, exhale, repeat.
As part of The Jazz Gallery’s spring interview series, Clayton sat down (via socially distant satellite) to discuss signing with Blue Note, music school trauma, Roy Hargrove’s legacy and the evolution of his artistry through the sound of the bass.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been appointed MD for the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. That’s a new post for you.
Gerald Clayton: Yeah, I’m excited about that. It was a real honor to get that call. Tim Jackson from the Monterey Jazz Festival has been really loving and supportive throughout the years. I kind of started my connection with Monterey as a high schooler when I was competing in what was then the Monterey Jazz Festival high school competition, which is now the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. I think they thought it would be nice to have somebody who came through the program.
The position has me at the head of big band of really talented high school musicians from the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra competition. They sort of take the best out of all the schools and put them together, and they get to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ll get the chance to rehearse the band on some material [they’ll] present at the festival, probably do some touring the following summer.
I definitely have a connection and an interest in education—the part of being a musician that, I was always taught, comes along with the territory. You have to pass the torch onward. The generosity that you always see from elder musicians is not just because they’re nice guys but because they understand that part of the deal is, “Somebody gave this to me, and now I have to give it to somebody else.” That’s just the deal. So I’ve always wanted to find a way to be part of that, but I still feel pretty young at heart. I still feel like that college kid who wrote his thesis paper titled “The Crisis in Jazz Education in America Today,” [laughs], very melodramatically. So I don’t know if I’ve felt that excited to jump in to being on a faculty somewhere. That would probably trigger some trauma that I have from being a student [laughs] through those institutions. Or maybe it’s not quite time for me to do that yet.
So I’m excited that this is my chance to get a foothold in the education world and pass the torch to some really great musicians. And also, it gives me a chance and a deadline and an excuse to tackle parts of the music that I’ve probably been avoiding like—you know—arranging for big band. I did an arrangement for Roy Hargrove’s big band on the Emergence record, but really, I’ve just been scared and avoided that because it’s such a daunting task. But I have one of the greatest resources around for that in my dad. He gave me a stack of books—Henry Mancini’s scores. Just from growing up hearing that sound so much, and feeling very connected to that, I feel like it’s time to dig into that and this gives me the opportunity.
TJG: I would like to jump back for a second. You said you’ve been reluctant to enter the field because being on a faculty might trigger some past trauma…
TJG: …around the framework of those institutions—or maybe it’s just that you haven’t been ready to do that yet.
TJG: Those are two very different scenarios.
GC: Both of them probably are true.
TJG: So that response would indicate there may come a time in the future when you’d consider joining a faculty department.
GC: You know, with Covid-19, the gigs have dried up [laughs].
TJG: That’s the real reason [laughs].
GC: That’s always the reason. The gigs don’t come anymore. You’re past your prime. It’s time to teach. No.
I’ve always felt that the time commitment makes it tricky to freelance—to have your schedule open to say “yes” to whatever comes gig-wise and tour-wise. Those institutions aren’t really going anywhere. I can be patient about entering that world, and thankful that I’m even considered for it at all. I hope that doesn’t go away. Not that I’m getting a whole bunch of calls from colleges to work there [laughs, but that I would be considered now, maybe—hopefully—means that could be an option later, and I can focus on other things right now.
But yeah, that other side—the trauma. Do you want me to speak on that?
TJG: Maybe you could start with what your thesis claims were.
GC: It was a pretty bad paper. I feel like I got three-fourths of it written and realized, “Okay, this’ll get me the grade I need to pass the class.”
TJG: You didn’t finish it?
GC: Nah, I finished it, but like, poorly. I was going through a whole lot of drama from being in an institution that I was frustrated being in. I look back on my time there, and see I had like a bratty teenager perspective about things. I could have had a different perspective on my situation and maybe taken advantage of that time. It probably would have made me a better person in different ways today. But at the time, it was just frustration.
Part of the thesis was that the concept of a degree in the arts is a false contract. They’re selling us the idea that, if you do four years here and pay all this money, you’ll get a piece of paper that says that you’re qualified to work in the field. And you may be qualified, but that doesn’t guarantee you a job in the field. And even then, the question of whether you’re “qualified,” if we look at it with some nuance, there’s a lot of people who pass their classes who have no business being on bandstands.
Part of it is education methodology. It’s the idea that we have to have a syllabus and tests, and that’s how we show the people who have zero understanding of art and improvised music, that’s how we show them, “Check it out—we took these 20 kids and we made them better at this.” And when you’re dealing with something like aural skills, which is the number-one important [part] of being an improvising musician, the concept that you can teach an entire class how to hear the same thing at the same time? [Shakes his head] “Week one, we’re gonna study an augmented 5th. Okay, you guys passed the test; now we’re ready to hear a dominant 7th.” It’s bogus. That’s just not the way it is.