JOHN CLAYTON: Bassist, Educator, Entrepreneur, Bandleader
Project Jumpstart recently sat down with jazz bassist and IU alumnus John Clayton to discuss his time at IU, his career and how its many facets have changed over time, and his advice to musicians in today’s musical climate.
The artist is a natural born multitasker. As a composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator, and yes, extraordinary bassist, he constantly pursues a number of challenging assignments and commissions. With a Grammy on his shelf and eight additional nominations, artists such as Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gladys Knight, Queen Latifah, and Charles Aznavour vie for a spot on his crowded calendar.
These stories are from our conversation with him.
The IU Legacy
John Clayton moved to Indiana in 1971 to study classical bass at the School of Music. He had been studying with world-renowned jazz bassist Ray Brown since age sixteen and was regularly gigging in his home of Los Angeles. His classical bassist teacher, Abe Luboff, insisted that he was gigging too much and needed to go off to school in order to study in a more focused environment. Clayton described Bloomington as an “oasis,” full of open-minded, curious people who enjoyed playing music.
“I was the perfect student,” he said. “I did what I was told.” Clayton trusted everything that his teachers asked of him, even when he didn’t understand why, and eventually it paid off. While he was a student at Indiana University (IU), his teacher instructed him to practice long tones for fifteen minutes every day. Years later, while as the principal bassist in the Amsterdam Philharmonic, Clayton realized that despite his lack of experience in symphonic repertoire, his colleagues were running out of bow much more quickly than he was. His smooth bow technique made much of the repertoire they were playing easier for him. It was seven years after he had left IU, but he finally understood why his professor had emphasized the importance of long tones.
Although he was a classical bass major at IU, Clayton’s love for jazz was still very strong. He would come home from a day of classes and rehearsals, put on records of his favorite jazz musicians, and play along. Listening to Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and others allowed him to maintain his jazz chops and supplemented his classwork.
Clayton anticipated graduating in May of 1975, but failed Music History and decided to leave without retaking it in order to go on tour with pianist Monty Alexander. After several years of touring, he made the decision to return to school for one summer, retake Music History, and complete his degree.
The Writing Bug
It was when John Clayton joined the Count Basie Orchestra that he “got the writing bug.” He had never taken composition or arranging classes, but had written small tunes here and there and knew how to transpose for the different instruments in the band. He asked Mr. Basie if he could write a piece for the band and Basie agreed. When the band first played the finished composition, Clayton hated it. Frustrated, but still motivated, he went home and put on a recording of one of the bands most famous tunes: Splanky. He wrote out everything he could hear, from the lead trumpet down to the lowest trombone and so on. It was through transcribing the chart by ear that he learned orchestration – not from reading textbooks or hearing it from a teacher. Learning about writing in this natural way taught him how to arrange; he used Splanky as the model for his next composition and his writing continued to develop.
With the Basie band more or less at his disposal, Clayton began bringing small excerpts of music to rehearsal. His colleagues in the band willingly played the music for him and offered feedback. If he wanted to hear a saxophone soli, the sax section would come to his hotel room and play through whatever he had written. If he had twelve bars of a brass feature, the brass section would come a few minutes early to sound check to play through the excerpt. “Jazz musicians – we’re so supportive of each other,” he says. “Nobody has ever said no to me when I asked for help or knowledge.”
Moving to Europe
After leaving the Basie band and moving to Holland, Clayton began writing for the Metropol Orchestra. Metropol had a group called the Skymasters that played at a jazz club in Holland every week as well as a big band that frequently performed on the radio. He began writing new material for them every single week, which was an incredible learning experience. He could finish a piece and hear it on the radio just days later. He described the process by saying, the more you write, the stronger your craft becomes. It takes on a life of its own if you just keep doing it; there is no magic formula. “The doors of opportunity open to you based on the strength of your art,” he said.
With so much writing for different genres and ensembles, Project Jumpstart asked if John Clayton had ever struggled with getting his work published or if he primarily wrote commissions for specific groups. “I didn’t write solely for the sake of having my work published,” he responded. When he was first looking to get his work published, his name was not well-known enough to get him in the door with big publishing companies. He began to self-publish, but it was incredibly time-consuming to copy all of the parts, tape them, and mail everything to the person that ordered it. It became too much, so he stopped in the mid-80s. Now, in the 21st century, there are many more ways to get your name out there and distribute your work, he observes.
On Being Professional
“You’re not students; you’re young professionals,” insisted Clayton. What musicians do is not networking. That might work for accountants or bankers, but music is far too personal for that. All of your connections now reflect relationship building, not networking. You shouldn’t be contacting people for gigs. Instead, get to know them as an artist and express how you appreciate their craft. It’s never about networking because you can’t network with your friends. You have to connect with people from a sincere, heartfelt place – not using them as a stepping stone for your career. “I’ve never met one person who has ever succeeded with an elevator pitch.” If you are in an elevator with Quincy Jones and you have fifteen seconds to make an impression, express the way you love his music and thank him for everything he has done. Once you connect with someone on a human level, they will remember you.
The Upside of the Music Industry
When asked about his thoughts regarding the ongoing changes in the music industry, Clayton said that when he was young, there were not same the opportunities to put one’s own music out there. Record companies have a different way of relating to artists now in comparison with how they operated in the past. Previously, record companies would offer to cover musician’s fees, booking recording studios, and distribution of the records in exchange for a small royalty once they recouped their investment. Clayton feels that artists suffered under this system, because record companies would rarely break even, and once they did, the royalties rewarded to artists were below ten percent at best. Now, artists have much greater freedom to self-produce. The crowdfunding platform ArtistShare allows artists to produce their work independently of a major record label. As a result, record companies are now having a hard time. Most have been bought out by major motion picture companies which have little to do with music, such as Time, Warner, etc. “I love where the music business is right now in that regard because you can totally own, produce and move your music without major corporations getting involved.”