Six Questions for John Clayton
The 2010 Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival runs Feb. 24-27 and specially-priced tickets for faculty and staff are available through the Ticket Office.
Below is an interview with the festival’s Artistic Director John Clayton, who earned a Grammy Award this week for his performance on “Yo-Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace” in the Best Classical Crossover Album category.
Q: This is your fourth year as artistic director of the festival; what’s brought you the most satisfaction?
A: I think the thing that has brought me the most satisfaction is the same thing that the festival is all about, and that’s education. I watch the evolution of the students from day one of the festival through the end of the day or the end of the week – and from year to year, as well – and I see the improvements the students are making and the enthusiasm they have for the festival. It was explained to me by the great Ray Brown, that he helped me with the understanding that I would help others, and that’s happening right here. I get to witness that, and that’s the most fulfilling part of the festival for me.
Q: This year, the Friday night concert is gospel and blues night. What is the connection between jazz and gospel and the blues?
A: First of all, don’t forget that when slavery was around, really the only way slaves could find to express themselves with the African roots that they had, was through this music that eventually became known as Negro spirituals. If you focus on that as the beginnings of black American music, then that evolved into blues. As it’s been said so many times, and rightly so, without blues there is no jazz. You can think of jazz as sitting on the pillars of gospel music, or as it was termed then, Negro spirituals, and blues. That is the natural line, the evolution, of the music we now recognize as jazz. The Friday night concert lets us recognize all of that.
Q: In a college town like Moscow, an event like the jazz festival has a huge impact. What do you see as the campus and communities role in shaping a festival like this?
A: I think it’s the festival’s role to involve the campus and the community. I think the community is there for us and the campus is there for us, and it’s our job to engage them. I don’t think it’s the other way around. I don’t think the community should be responsible for somehow connecting itself to us. I think we have to see to it that they connect themselves to us.
Q: I want to know – how many basses do you own?
A: I actually only own two basses – no, three basses, two of which are playable. The first bass that I ever owned I paid $50 for – or maybe $100 – when I was 16 or 17. I didn’t know it at the time, but I bought it from a junkie – from a drug addict who needed to get a fix – and he was a bass player. That bass, that plywood bass, was sitting in my mom’s garage forever and I finally took it back. It’s not playable. The front has caved in and the scroll is broken.
So I actually only have two basses that I play. One I have played since 1975 and the other one I recently acquired, it’s the one Ray Brown used to own and play.
Q: Could you recommend some music people should be listening to now in preparation for the festival?
A: Oh, I think people should find some of the most recent recordings of John Pizzarelli. They should also look at the recording that my son, Gerald Clayton, made, since he has a set on the festival. His recording was recently nominated for a Grammy and I think it’s a really cool record. I was saying earlier, it’s not music to wash dishes by – there are some cool groves on there, too, but it’s really such deep, wonderful music. I think also Taj Mahal – any record Taj Mahal has made. Dee Daniels is a favorite and she has a lot of recordings out. And the most-recent Clayton Brothers recording, “Brother to Brother,” give you an idea of our flavor and what we’re going to be doing. I’m happy to say that Gerald’s record, which is called “two-shade,” and the Clayton Brothers recording were both nominated for Grammy’s this year.
Q: Congratulations. Final question: If you could make a movie or write a book about jazz, what story would you tell?
A: I think it would be about joy and outreach. The joy that playing this music gives, and the joy it brings people. I think that would be the message I’d try my best to explain on film or in print. I’d also show or talk about the importance of outreach, of sharing. It not just that we should play this wonderful music for ourselves and our limited jazz-loving audience; it’s such phenomenal music, it is such a good time – we need to reach out and touch more and more people and share with other people what you and I know is incredible music.