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Jazz Bassist John Clayton Evolves as a Composer

August 01, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

John Clayton remembers clearly when he was bitten by the writing bug.

"I was playing with Count Basie in 1977, and I kept getting goose bumps when we played," said Clayton, the bassist, chief composer, arranger and co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with his saxophone-playing brother Jeff, and drummer Jeff Hamilton.

"In six weeks, I had the Basie band's book memorized, so I could really listen to what was going on. Then I got up the nerve to write a chart."

Clayton said that first effort bombed. "It sounded rotten," he said with a chuckle.

Undaunted, Clayton kept at it. Eventually, he crafted hundreds of arrangements, which are played by his orchestra and, through publication, by many others.

The Clayton-Hamilton ensemble performs a free concert this afternoon at the Central Court of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Are his charts any better these days? "I never feel really good about a piece of music," said Clayton, 41, a Los Angeles native who grew up in Venice and lives with his wife, Tineke, and their two children in Altadena. "All I have to do is listen to something by Duke Ellington or Thad Jones or Gil Evans, my primary influences," and Clayton said he knows where he stands. "But at least when I step on myself now, it's on a professional level."

Ruth Price, proprietor of the Jazz Bakery, who has hired the Clayton-Hamilton orchestra on numerous occasions, said Clayton was being too self-effacing.

"The remarkable thing about John's arrangements is that they draw that fine line between what is admired musically and what is accessible to an audience," Price said.

Clayton said he was heavily influenced since his teen-age years by Ellington.

To a large degree, Ellington achieved his individuality by writing works specifically for his unique and personal sidemen, and Clayton does the same when composing a piece for his orchestra.

"I write for the strengths of the musicians," he said. "For example, I won't force my love of atonal music on someone like Snooky Young," he said, referring to the grand swing-oriented trumpeter, who has played the lead chair with Jimmy Lunceford, Basie, Gerald Wilson, the Frank Capp Juggernaut and Clayton-Hamilton.

Heard on its latest Capri Records release, "Heart and Soul," the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra reveals a profound affection for the swinging yet assuredly musical approach of both Ellington and Basie. There are a lot of blues numbers because, Clayton said, "I love the blues." But there are also other numbers that range from the ever-so-slow title track to a crisp-tempoed version of Benny Carter's "Easy Money."

Would Clayton care to characterize the band's style? "I'd rather that people pigeonhole it," he said. "If I do, then that's that. But I really don't have any parameters. Right now we're working on some very experimental pieces."

One of his new experimental works, "Devotion," is based on the devotional part of the service in the Baptist church. Clayton hopes to air it this afternoon at LACMA, or perhaps at the band's performance at the Pasadena Jazz Festival at Ambassador Auditorium on Aug. 8.

Other numbers expected to be premiered today include "Max," a Jeff Hamilton tune arranged by Clayton that he said "is done in a medium swing with a Bo Diddley beat," and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which he described as "swing with surprises," and which features the trombone section of Ira Nepus, Thurman Green, George Bohanon and Maurice Spears.

John Clayton as well as Jeff Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, both 39, organized their band in 1985, when all three were living in Los Angeles for the first time.

Hamilton, the drum great who is a native of Richmond, Ind., and John Clayton had met while they were students at Indiana University in the early 1970s.

During the intervening years, Hamilton played with pianist Monty Alexander's trio. He performs with trios led by bassist Ray Brown and with pianist Oscar Peterson, who is now recovering from a stroke.

John Clayton also played with Alexander in the late '70s and was for five years the principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic. These days he does occasional studio calls and often writes arrangements for other artists. His versions of "Too Close for Comfort" and "It's Sand, Man" can be heard on Natalie Cole's recent "Take a Look" album. He is co-leader of a quartet also with his brother.

Jeff Clayton, a Cal State Northridge graduate, was active in studio work for many years. These days he mainly finds employment as a jazz free-lancer.


The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra appears at 1:30 today at Times Mirror Central Court, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Free. Call (213) 857-6000 or (213) 857-6115.

The orchestra also performs at 2 p.m. Aug. 8 on a bill with singer Diane Schuur at the Pasadena Jazz Festival, Ambassador Auditorium, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena. $24.50 to $27.50. Call (800) 266-2378.

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