Jay Clayton

Clayton, who recorded All Out 20 years ago, is still one of the most innovative jazz singers. She’s a master in wordless improvisation and can also distend and find new meanings in popular songs’ lyrics and melodies. Jay Clayton, The Village Voice July 14, 2004, Francis Davis is an internationally recognized vocalist, composer, educator, and musician whose work bravely crosses the boundaries between jazz and new musicality. Clayton’s vocal explorations were a pioneer in free jazz and the loft scene of the 1970s. She was one of the first to include poetry and electronic music into her improvisations. Steve Reich, a renowned minimalist composer, was her long-term partner. Clayton is a recording artist with more than 40 albums to her name. She has performed alongside Muhal Richard Abrams and Kirk Nurock, Stanley Cowell and Lee Konitz, Fred Hersch and Fred Hersch as well as fellow singers Jeanne Lee and Norma Winstone and Urszula Dziak. Clayton is currently recording for Sunnyside. Her most recent album Brooklyn 2000 received enthusiastic praise. Her accomplishments include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Meet the Composer. She has worked with thousands students across the United States as well as around the world. Clayton was a teacher at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, Washington for twenty years. She recently returned to New York City, where she packed her bags and many, many boxes. She says, “I was walking and had an epiphany.” “My children were grown. I could travel and teach master classes, rather than keeping the full professorship. “I really missed New York’s energy.” Her current task is to revive the many collaborations that have helped her career thrive and create new ones. Clayton takes cues from Eric Dolphy, a great saxophonist who understood the importance of performing with many musicians. Her amazing band mates provide a great source of inspiration. Clayton’s performance dates are listed under the Jay Clayton Project. She also names her work with other acclaimed vocalists Different Voices. Outskirts is her trio with Jerry Granelli, drummer, and Jane Ira Bloom (saxophonist), who are both pioneers in electronic music. These friendships have been ongoing for over 30 years. Clayton can be seen performing in many settings, including duos with Jack Wilkins and Armen Donelian. Other frequent collaborators include guitarists Jack Wilkins, George Cables, and Fritz Pauer. She is also a saxophonist with Gary Thomas. Mike Formanek, trombonist Ed Neumeister and Brenda Bufalino, an acclaimed tap dancer. Clayton enjoys singing solo concerts and relishes the challenges. Jay Clayton, a second-generation Italian American, was born Judith Colantone, Youngstown, Ohio, in 1941. Clayton says that Clayton’s mother was a frustrated big band jazz singer. “She sang professionally as a young singer, but it was not possible for a married mother with children to pursue a career.” Judy started to learn the accordion and began to listen to the songs. After a few years, she switched to piano and continued her studies. She was encouraged by her high school director to attend music school. After graduation, she spent the summer at the St. Louis Institute of Music. Clayton, the first member of her family to go to college, enrolled in the music program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Education was her final major, which she considered a safe career choice for women. As was the case with many schools of the time, classical training was the only option. Clayton, however, was listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane behind the scenes. She explains, “We listened carefully to jazz.” Coltrane was a small bar in Cincinnati that I saw. I was amazed at the way he connected each note, taking the melody and altering it ever so slightly, amplifying or simplifying it. And Miles was singing through the Horn–it was the players of the horn who got into my soul.” Clayton’s training was a blessing when Clayton arrived in New York City in 1963. It was a time of unparalleled experimentation. Clayton was able to support herself by working in an office, and she explored the exhilarating new scene after work. Paul Bain, a master of classical technique and folk singer, continued her voice studies. They worked together for five years. She developed a mentorship relationship with Steve Lacy, a saxophonist. Clayton learned from him that she didn’t have to choose between standard music and free music and that she could still be influenced and not bound by tradition. Lacy helped Clayton connect with her peers. Through Louis Worell, Clayton met Marc Levin, trumpeter, and Frank Clayton, drummer. Levin’s Songs, Dances, and Prayers contains her earliest recorded improvisations. Lofts were important showcases for artists as the jazz scene in clubs declined with the rise of rock’n’roll. Clayton and Frank started Jazz at the Loft, a series of loft concerts, in 1967. Among the performers were: Sam Rivers (with Cecil McBee), JoAnne Brackeen and Dave Liebman), Hal Galper, Jeanne Lee; Bob Moses; Jiunie Booth; John Gilmore and Jane Getz. Clayton began to build her reputation as an avant-garde performer and developed her own wordless vocabulary. Clayton started leading workshops on vocal improvisation, exploration, and sound and movement with Michelle Berne, Jeanne Lee, and in 1971. Muhal Richard Abrams performed at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. This project was recorded as Spihumonesty (19Black Saint 1979), and included John Fischer’s Interface and Byron Morris’s Unity. Clayton, an independent artist who was already comfortable creating her own events in the past, served as the artistic director of the first Women in Jazz Festival, which was produced by Cobi Narita in 1978. As a consultant to ABC Cable’s Women in Jazz series, she compiled the footage. All Out was her first album as an artist and leader. It featured Harvie Swartz (Jane Ira Bloom), Larry Karush, Frank Clayton, and Larry Karush. Clayton was also a rising star on the new music scene while her jazz career blossomed. Steve Reich, a minimalist composer, was searching for a jazz singer who could read music well. Clayton, whose loft was conveniently located around the corner of Reich’s, was the right choice. He recorded several seminal works, including Drumming, Music for Eighteen Musicians and Tehillim. Many of these recordings were recently reissued by Nonesuch. Clayton has been touring with Steve Reich and Musicians more than ten times and continues to perform with the group. Clayton’s versatility led her to record some of John Cage’s vocal music. Cage wasn’t interested in his works being recorded, but he did hear Clayton sing She’s Asleep. Heiner Stadler, the producer, would produce it. Clayton, her family, and her parents left New York in 1982 to start her professorship at Cornish College, Seattle. She also established the vocal jazz program. Clayton was not from the east coast jazz capital but found willing collaborators among her new faculty peers. Quartett was formed by Julian Priester, Gary Peacock, drummer Jerry Granelli and trombonist Julian Priester. Paul de Barros, a journalist, wrote about the group, “They push instantaneous ensemble improvisation to the level that it has always aspired too–mature and sonorous and interactive and driven by an understanding both logically and intuitive of form.” Clayton, who had trained vocal improvisers for many years, also envisioned an ensemble of master vocalists. She was invited to Germany’s Vocal Jazz Forum in 1982 by Joachim-Ernst Berendt to show what improvising voices can do. Vocal Summit was born from this meeting. Its members included Urszula Diziak, Michele Hendricks and Jeanne Lee. Bobby McFerrin was also a member. Lauren Newton, Norma Winston and Bob Stoloff were also part of the group at different times. Clayton believes there is potential for a revival of the group with Dudziak and Hendricks as well as Winstone, who were part of their Conference of the Birds recording personnel. Jay Clayton has recorded and performed throughout Europe, the United States and Canada over the course of her career. She has released many recordings, including Live at Jazz Alley (1995), Beautiful Love (1995), a duo recording with Fred Hersch; Circle Dancing (1797), and Brooklyn 2000 (2001). At such prestigious venues, she has performed at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center and Town Hall, Jazz Alley and Sweet Rhythm. She also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major European jazz festivals, including Montmartre, North Sea and Donaueschingen. Clayton is a master teacher and creates an environment where students can experience musical freedom. This gives them the ability to create their own sound vocabulary. Jay has been a teacher at many master classes and workshops, including New York’s City College, Universitat fur Musik, Graz, Austria and the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop. Sheila Jordan, a fellow singer, taught at the Banff Centre. She currently serves on the jazz faculty of Peabody Institute for Music. Advance Music published her book Sing Your Story: A Practical guide for learning and teaching the art of jazz singing in 2001.

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