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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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…

GC: [Laughs]

TJG: …around the framework of those institutions—or maybe it’s just that you haven’t been ready to do that yet.

GC: Right.

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.

TJG: Do you feel artists who study music, visual art, philosophy, science, literature—at that level—have found a more truthful way to learn, without maybe quantifying that learning?

GC: Yeah… It’s more the, “Let’s put a test on it; let’s put a grade on it,” that seems false. If there is to be a curriculum, it should be a personalized curriculum. It should be, “Johnny can only hear a 4th. He can’t hear a 5th. So, until he hears a 5th, we can’t move on. And it took us six weeks, and he still hasn’t heard it. He can’t hear a 5th so we’re not ready for an augmented 5th—even though the semester’s over.”

TJG: K-12 education has been getting into fully-customized curricula that treats each student as an individual learner. I wonder if that model will find its way into music curriculum writing for higher education.

GC: Maybe. It’s also about being honest with what it is and what it’s not. I’m fine with having an institution where we try to teach a whole group of 20 kids how to hear an augmented 5th over the course of two months. But this idea that, because of the pedigree of the institution, parents can feel safe that coming out of these two months, their child will be a successful musician. It’s so… gimme a break. That’s just not what it is. Maybe it means we shouldn’t be charging money for that—information should just be free. There’s that side of it that just feels a bit false.

Another frustrating thing about the system of art education and putting it into an institution is the idea that there is a “way” to understand art, to receive it: “If you wanna call yourself a professional musician, you better know solfege,” or “You have to think of this tune as chord progressions. Since we’re in the key of C, that’s I and that means that D minor is ii.” And I understand the need for coming up with some kind of shared language so that we can get to the music and create together. But a lot of times, you get a whole group of people who think and sound the same afterwards. There are friends of mine who have synesthesia, like Taylor Eigsti. The way they process music is very personal, and has to do with colors. I wonder if putting them in an institution would even damage whatever that spark is instead of cultivating it into a fire.

TJG: The system begs the question: Whose perspectives are “valid?” Whose are included, whose are excluded from the decision-making?

GC: Yeah, and it’s funny. A lot of the people in those institutions with the job of [generating curriculum] have an understanding of their limited perspective. They sort of view their job as, “Let me do the best I can, and even pull the coattails of the students to say, ‘Hey, just so you know, you gotta go home and develop your own personal understanding of all this, your own personal relationship or connection to the music.’” That was something Jason Moran said to a masterclass I took at USC: “You all need to develop your own personal relationship and connection to the music that you’re listening to.” I think that’s where the artistry exists. There are technical things that you can guide a whole classroom through that usually have to do with craft, playing scales and arpeggios. But the artistry side—how someone personalizes or understands the sounds of that scale and the feeling of heartbreak—just doesn’t work in an institution. So the paper was coming from a bratty place, partially.

TJG: Rebellious.

GC: Maybe rebellious. There’s plenty to applaud and champion about education as it exists today. There are just some things that you’re not going to be able to get to. So it felt very frustrating, especially in the latter part of those four-and-a-half years. I sort of felt like I was being held there like a prisoner finishing up his sentence, you know, “Gimme a break. I’m rehabilitated. I understand. It’s time.” I had already received some interest from Roy Hargrove during my last semester of school. And here I was still having to walk through that whole system. That’s where that frustration was.

TJG: Let’s talk about that call. Roy was driven to empower young apprentices by showing them what to do and telling them, often harshly, what not to do. Different kind of education. I’m hoping you would share one of those early stories in your development when you were playing with Roy?

GC: I was real lucky. I consider myself blessed to have been able to learn from Roy, to spend three years playing with him. He did have his own way of communicating. In general. Whether it was to teach you something or, just socially—communicating with the world—he was sometimes a little cryptic or just mysterious. He was comical. He wasn’t gonna lay it all out. He was probably going to leave you with his small emotional reaction to something and let you decide for yourself if there were more layers for you to take away from that. But his vision in the music was so clear. He knew what everything could be—or should be; when it didn’t rise to that [level], you could see him expressing that in his body language. Most of the time, he led through example. He’d just play and not comment. But, when he wouldn’t be able to stand the rub anymore, he just had to tell you.

My first gig with him was at The Jazz Gallery on Hudson and Spring. It was with Ron Blake on tenor saxophone, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Dwayne Burno on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. And I was just so excited and honored and nervous—all the feelings that come along with getting a call like that.

TJG: Was that your first gig at the Gallery?

GC: I think I had a gig at the Gallery when I was at Manhattan School of Music two years before then. But it was my first time playing with Roy. And I just tried to play as best I could, as one does. Try to hit, try to hang. But there was definitely a bit of starstruck energy to be playing with these giants, in my eyes. I was really like, “Oh my god, what the hell am I doing here?” So I’m playing, and I’m comping behind Roy’s solo. And, he wasn’t ever smiling while he was playing, he always had sort of a serious look, but I noticed he was a little more tense in his eyebrows maybe. A little more frustration, you could see it building, bubbling inside. And at some point, he took his horn out of his mouth very dramatically—and I don’t mean that in the sense that it was uncalled for; I just mean, visibly, you could translate his emotions.

That was one of the hippest things about Roy, just the way he would walk towards the mic when he would start to play. There was a speed to it that was like, “Whoa, geez!” He just walks up and plays. I don’t really see anybody doing that. If they’re doing it, they’re probably trying to do it. Roy did it. He was that energy, that desire: “I wanna hit, like—now.” And it’s “Ooh, I’m gonna go. Ooh! I’m going.” There wasn’t gonna be a solo break and that moment where everyone’s like, “Who wants to solo?” That wasn’t Roy. He already knew. Here comes the solo break—and he just hit. All that to say, he was very outward with his expression.

At some point, it was all bubbling up and frustrating—and I’m just playing, thinking, “I guess this is cool, I don’t know.” He took the trumpet out of his mouth and, without looking at me but turning a bit towards me, yelled kind of at the ground, very forcefully, “Listen to the drummer, man!” And I jumped. It was really scary. And I’m freaked out, thinking, “Oh my gosh—I guess, yeah, I wasn’t listening to the drummer.”

In that nervous energy, you sort of overplay. You don’t do that thing where you take your hands off the keys, listen openly and ask the music what it needs. Clearly, I wasn’t listening to the drummer. That was one of those Roy lessons he imparted the way he did. And it’s a lesson that can be formalized, back to education methodology: If we’re swinging in 4/4, is the release on the and of 4, or is the release on 1? Those are two different arcs or dances, rhythmically, that a band might be playing with. And if it’s the and of 4, there’s another subsequent release on the following beat 4; or, if it’s on 1, then maybe there’s like an and of 3 that leads up to that 1. So you could break that down in a nice clear package, but the real impact comes when your hero Roy Hargrove just yells at the floor towards you.

TJG: Since then you’ve always listened to the drummer.

GC: Always. Number one.

TJG: What does the current younger generation stand to lose as these old school champions of tough love pass on?

GC: There’s something kind of sad about a cultural tradition that, through the passing years, loses the idea that there is a way to do this. When the architects of this music set the blueprint for us, they did it in a way that may not be easily transcribed—that may not be understood without being inside of it. We’re losing some of that essence, and a big thing is that this music has always been taught on the bandstand.

You think of Art Blakey, who was his own institution before there were institutions. People worked really hard and pushed themselves even to be able to get the call to be on stage with Art Blakey. The essence of those leaders’ blueprints for the music were passed on from the experience of people playing with them. And sure enough, all the people who have played with Art Blakey became leaders, and passed on great wisdom and knowledge about the music to the young people they hired to play with them. That model is not there the way it used to be; there aren’t as many Art Blakeys and Betty Carters. There’s more of a culture of: Do your own thing, write your own music—individualism—find your voice, and hope it gets some kind of love so you can just keep riding your own wave. I don’t necessarily think that’s all bad. But the love that we have for that music that we listen to, it’s sad that, in some ways, the essence of that fades over time.

We still have some elders left, thankfully, to learn from—even if you don’t get to play with them, just to hear them, be in the room with them. It’s not completely gone. And maybe there’s something natural and beautiful about that, too. Some of that essence isn’t meant to be there forever; it’s meant to be there for a time, and then a piece of it goes on to the next generation.

TJG: I’d like to bring you back to the centerpiece of that question, which is the loss of that tough love component of bandstand mentoring. When you consider Blakey’s legacy—and Roy’s legacy—anyone who received the opportunity to play with either of those figures, I can’t imagine would show up to the gig unprepared. Or underprepared. If someone did, I presume that artist, at best, wouldn’t get that second call.

GC: Mm.

TJG: In the past, you’ve called much younger players who have showed up to your sets without having learned the music.

GC: Yeah.

TJG: And you don’t have that tough love aspect to your professional expression. Many of your peers don’t brandish that particular intensity either. With exceptions—I’m thinking of some right now, silent shoutout—it’s not part of your generation, culturally, as it was maybe 50, 60 years ago.

GC: Yup.

TJG: So you have this older generation that didn’t really let you guys slide, and now these very, very young artists who are getting this pass that you guys never got. Do you feel as though that’s already shaping the direction of the music, the feeling—the sound?

GC: I was teaching at a camp, and I had a combo group of students. On day one, I said, “You guys need to learn this because we’re performing in five days. Do something.” By day three, they still were slacking on the job. Whenever I reach that point of: Now’s the time an older cat would give it to them, or somebody who’s a little more raw would make them get scared, instead of whipping them, I just tell them that they would be whipped.

TJG: [Laughs]

GC: I’m like, “Hey, just so you know, if it were somebody else, you guys would be yelled at. Like seriously.” Especially these days, when there’s somebody older yelling at somebody younger—a millennial, or whatever—out of that same passion of, “You need to take this seriously!” and “How do you not see that this is really important and you’re damaging yourself and it’s frustrating me a lot?” I find the reaction from the young person to be, “Ugh, why is this old guy being so aggro?”

There’s this response, “I’m always innocent because—because I’m innocent. I don’t mean to be bad, so that means that I can’t be bad, right?” So, knowing that, I usually change my plan of attack: Lemme be their buddy. And when we’re all having a good time, I’ll still be thinking about tryna drop knowledge on them, tryna tell them what’s really what. My dad is the king of those diplomatic—I don’t wanna say mind games, but one of the JC classics is, “Hey guys, what would it sound like if…?” or “Let’s try…” when he’s really saying, “Motherfucker, do this.”

TJG: He’s been engaged in this “study” for years, so we do have some intel on whether it works.

GC: I think he’d agree that when people feel loved and comfortable and safe, then maybe you can skip a step to get to what we’re tryna get to. Maybe you don’t have to deal with the emotional part of “Ugh, this guy’s old and aggro.” And they sit on it for like a week and then finally realize, “Oh but he was actually saying something that I really needed to hear.”

But then there are also plenty of lessons I’ve received that have felt like part of the lesson was: “You’re ignorant. You don’t know.” Accompanying the lesson was this notion of, “You better be scared at the fact that you ain’t ready for this. Don’t think you’re all good. You’re not.” But I just feel like, if I consider myself also just a student who is tryna figure this out, then maybe it’s like me talking to a teammate rather than me being coach. I also have a bit of empathy for them because so much of the essence of this music has been diluted over the years. How can I expect them to take this thing seriously when they have no connection to taking it seriously?

TJG: And I imagine you as Gerald Clayton don’t expect to receive the same degree of respect that that same kid would have given to Roy. I’m sure for you, it’s hard to get your head around commanding the same kind of respect Roy commanded.

GC: I definitely don’t like being called Mr. Clayton. That feels weird to me. As soon as that happened at Smalls, I was like, great—now I can’t go to Smalls anymore. But maybe the lesson isn’t, “Step up to the fact that you’re playing with a larger figure,” but “Step up to the message that this figure has to spread.” This gem of the music that Roy imparted on me, I have that same gem to impart on somebody. That’s what they should be anxious to step up to as humbly and seriously as possible. Not the fact that it’s me giving the gem, but the gem itself.

And maybe that’s why, like you said, I don’t trip on them. I’m not anybody, I don’t care. If somebody doesn’t wanna learn my music, whatever. I don’t like my music anyway [laughs]. We could just play a blues. But, in the event that I wanna put together some music, then I know from past experience, this person didn’t really check it out. So, I’ll probably put them lower on the list.

TJG: Come on, just say you’re not gonna call them again.

GC: [Laughs] Unfortunately, these days, I probably am. There really is a list. And we have lost that communal agreement on, “If you don’t come correct, you should be embarrassed for it.” I guess it’s a spectrum because that energy still exists, even though it’s not nearly as fierce as it was 20 years ago—50, 60 years ago even more. Back in those days, you’d probably get stabbed for messing certain things up as opposed to just getting yelled at on the bandstand. But New York still has that, compared to… pretty much everywhere else. If you think cats are getting over easy on Jazz Gallery gigs, oh man. Go anywhere else. I’m not even gonna shame the city that I love, that I live in, but let’s just say anywhere else, you’re dealing with another level of—it’s delusion. It’s cats really not knowing what they’re meant to know.