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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Gerald Clayton

Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

In part 2 (check out part 1 here) of Gerald Clayton’s interview with The Jazz Gallery, the pianist-composer takes a hard look at the confines of his development — artistic and professional, and how an East Coast awakening from his days at MSM continues to influence his musical relationships. 

The Jazz Gallery: Since you brought up Los Angeles—sort of—let’s talk about your upbringing. There’s a preconception about familial legacy within the music, that artists have an easier time navigating the scene and creating sustainable careers for themselves as touring leaders if they’re a part of that legacy. 

Gerald Clayton: Mm. 

TJG: And to a degree, I’m sure that’s true. But I suspect certain people might be surprised to learn about all the pick-up gigs and weekly restaurant sets you played in New York and in LA back in the early 2000s, and how the different coasts helped shape your artistic trajectory. 

GC: I have my own honest feelings about the ways in which my playing is lacking. I know all the things I could be doing better. And if somebody hears that in my playing, I don’t deny that any of that is there. I know the ways I’m lazy about x, y, z. And maybe doors continue opening to me for reasons outside the music, and people are saying, “Well he sucks, but he’s a Clayton.” 

TJG: I don’t know that anyone’s actually saying that. 

GC: Well, I’m sure people can poke holes in how I’m playing. I don’t think I’m worthy of any kind of praise, but I have put in time just like everybody else. From my perspective, the benefits of being the son of John Clayton are mostly of exposure, resources. I am really lucky to have been able to shake Ray Brown’s hand and he immediately had love for me because he had love for my dad. There’s that community introduction that’s very welcoming and loving—and that’s amazing.

And if I was ever trying to learn a song, my dad was there to hip me to recordings, or pull my coattail on something I was doing wrong. For all those reasons, I am super lucky, and was probably given a head start—and, in some ways, probably still am. But, when it comes down to playing gigs with people, it is what it is. You can’t be bullshitting on somebody’s music and keep the gig just because you have a loving relationship with the scene. The music has its own very harsh truth. I think that goes for anybody. And there’s a whole bunch of us who have been introduced to the music through our familial relationships. 

So yeah, I had to learn how to play over tunes for crowds of people who weren’t listening. I did restaurant gigs, usually once a week, sometimes twice. I had a restaurant gig where we would play four background music sets; we’d play an hour and then take a 20-minute break and play again. I did that for years in LA. When I was in New York, I dragged a keyboard and an amp from Harlem to midtown to play for another group of people who weren’t listening.

I’ve done brunch gigs. I’ve done wedding gigs. I’ve taken every opportunity to play, just like everybody else. That’s part of the deal. And getting to the “next level”—being able to say “no” to those gigs, and getting called for gigs that are maybe on a different tier—I’d like to think I got there because I was tryna get better as a musician and not because someone associated me with my dad. In some cases, maybe it was.

But even then, there’s a harsh truth. The music is what it is. If you come incorrect or only sound so good, then it only sounds so good. That’s reflected in the music. Everybody’ll be able to hear that. I think that same [litmus] test is there for anybody, regardless of how they’re introduced to the music, or whether they “inherit” the opportunities they receive. But yeah, I’ve definitely “paid some dues” I guess you could say. 

There’s another thing that’s maybe not always obvious. Yes, you receive all kind of benefits from having a connection to your father, to a musician. But there’s also the challenge of being funneled into a preset mold. There’s a certain freedom that some artists have to write a story from scratch—even in terms of the way they dress—is it a comedy or is it a thriller? In some ways I feel like I only have so much control—whether you’re supposed to or not, I don’t know—of what my image or “brand” can be to the world. And in some ways, just being a “jazz musician” on this scene, we’re all funneled into a brand — a perception of what our identity is, artistically. There’s something being a jazz musician looks like when you scroll through the photos of “jazz musician” on Facebook that pop stars aren’t subject to in the same way we are. 

We’re branded a certain way. And maybe, with all the canned assumptions about the purpose of our music—our art—in the first place, it’s a bit preset. To break out of that mold takes real effort. And there are plenty [of artists] who obviously have. There are cats we can point to who really have paved their own way and created their own image and brand. But I think that relates to the familial thing in a way, too. I have a certain brand that’s preset. Maybe it’s that rebellion that anybody goes through in tryna find their own identity like, “Whatever Dad! I’m not you!” 

TJG: It is like the music is your parent—for you. 

GC: Mm.

TJG: You go through these rebellious phases pushing back against the music and everything it represents, but ultimately you love the music and want to have that strong relationship with it. 

GC: Yeah! 

TJG: That complex relationship is compounded by the fact this is an oral tradition. It’s a folkloric tradition that is passed down. It’s a Black tradition. It’s a tradition of all these components that do celebrate an actual familial connection between one generation and the next. You have all that with you when you’re standing there with a handful of keys wondering what you’re gonna do with them. 

GC: Yeah. And in some ways, part of what makes you return to some humility about all of this is the truth that what you’re even attempting to do—on the piano in this music—is really hard. And you’re probably not gonna do it that good anyway [laughs]. John Coltrane was a person. He’s real; he’s not a myth. So this thing of, “Well I want to have my own brand, and for people to know me as me…” Yeah, but you can go head and come on back to the fact that you should be happy just to be part of a community of people who are trying to do their best to understand this music. Maybe the better, more balanced thinking is that of humility and selflessness and no desire even to be rebellious and find your own individuality. 

It leads back to being an unprepared musician at somebody else’s gig. And I think it also leads to that mentality—and maybe that’s why I have empathy for those young millennials who think an old guy yelling at them for not learning his music is just him being aggro—of, “Well yeah but dude, whatever. You never really loved me or let me be me anyway.” 

TJG: In addition to the brand the music has created for itself, there’s a related, maybe more malignant brand that exists. It seems the people who are creating this other brand for you guys don’t understand much about the music: “We don’t understand it. We don’t really know what it is. We don’t listen to it—yet we know this is what it’s supposed to be, how it’s supposed to look,” which has always been part of the framework of racism. 

GC: Mmhm. 

TJG: That also has to be very frustrating.  

GC: Yeah, I think that probably feeds that desire for individualism. I definitely have said before that I do try to avoid using the word “jazz” altogether because of the conversation that I feel needs to be had in order to progress with using that word: the assumption that we’re even talking about the same thing; what your perception of it is; and whether folks are woke to the racism element of some of those assumptions or stereotypes of “what it must be,” and maybe that some of the people you’re talking to who would use the word, don’t consider their own ignorance in approaching a discussion about it. They wanna skip to the part where they say, “Yeah it’s just not for me.” 

TJG: I was at a party when someone really confidently announced he didn’t like jazz. I calmly asked, as I do, “Well what’s jazz?” Suddenly, he was on his feet calling me an abrasive bitch. 

GC: Methinks he doth protest too much. 

TJG: To request—not even insist or demand—that people take a bit of a closer look at their own confidence in their ability to discuss that topic—is a minefield. 

GC: Totally. And there’s always the end-of-the-day thing where the music is what it is. It’s just a meal, go head and taste it. Let’s let it do what it does. Let’s let the music tell people’s ears that they’re ignorant to the language, as opposed to the chef and the waiter saying, “You should probably have some understanding of these spices before you taste this meal.” 

I think exposure is important, but it is frustrating and it is sad that we have to abandon the word in favor of the description and nuance of it. And there is something to celebrate, that you have this community—that you’re just a humble servant of this greater thing, that it’s not only about your individualism. 

TJG: As long as we’re belaboring the topic of legacy, I did want to ask you about a specific kind of influence. You’ve been speaking about your dad and his influence. 

GC: Mm. 

TJG: Because of your musical relationship with your father, you developed a solemn respect for the power of the bass at a very young age. Consequently, as an adult leader, over the years you’ve partnered with some extraordinary and pioneering bass players. How has your relationship with the bass evolved over time, as your sound has evolved, and what do you currently look for in a bass player when you’re putting together a new project?

GC: Hm. I don’t know how I would answer that with regards to how my sound has evolved. I mean I guess I’ve evolved, but I don’t think of myself as a drastically different musician than I was 10, 15 years ago really. 

TJG: You told me, when you came to New York, you only knew standard progressions and blues licks. 

GC: That’s true for sure [laughs]. Growing up, my bread and butter for music, aesthetically, was a strong bass. It was the driving force of the music—of the rhythm section, definitely. It’s your Ray Brown example, basically: You don’t really need anything other than Ray walking. Everything else could come along for the ride. I’ve always been drawn to that [aesthetic]. It’s very present—not insensitive or overpowering—just strong. When I hear that, it makes my stoke bubble up, musically. It makes feel like, “Ooh yeah, I wanna go along for that ride.” 

When I came to New York, I was exposed to a whole lot of other sounds and musicians and approaches—tensions—all of those elements of the music that I wasn’t exposed to early on. All that became really intriguing to me. There’s a whole lot of musicians who spend their lives devoted to that one way of approaching the music—that Ray Brown sound. And I totally respect that. But I also have the challenge of not being as excited or stimulated musically by that sound or that experience, as I may have been when it was still fresh and new to me.

Also, taking into account all these musicians’ sounds where that wasn’t as important to their philosophy and approach, I actually felt—in a lot of ways, I still do—that there was more life in the music that I was hearing in New York that was new and foreign and different to me. I had more of a desire to figure out how to exist in those scenarios than to force the music down that familiar path for me. So maybe that’s the evolution. Now there’s a wider palette of approaches and textures and sounds that I’m open to and excited by and I wanna explore. 

But the strength of the bass that I grew up with, that is my foundation—it’s like water. You’re not ever gonna be like, “Yeah I’m just done drinking water.” No. If I don’t have it, then I do end up kinda  missing it. And I love musicians that are as open to things that aren’t a part of their foundation, as I feel like I was when I first got to New York. If somebody is coming out of a very different aesthetic on the bass than what I grew up with, I’m totally down with that. But as soon as it crosses the line into, “…and therefore, fuck all that [Ray] shit,” or “I don’t respect it,” then I’ve lost a connection with them. 

TJG: You have a much harder time making music with them. 

GC: Yeah, I just think they’re lesser humans [laughs]. No, I think it’s to their own detriment. I would feel disappointed in myself if I had some kind of emotional reaction to something that was new to me, and then went straight to the judgment of it. That’s as ignorant as those people who have the blanket statement that “jazz” isn’t for them. I definitely consider that my lack of exposure to something means that I’m not totally ready [for it]. All that to say, I like a lot of different kinds of bass players now, but I think I’m always kind of connected to that initial foundational thing. It gives me that stoke more than anything else.