Jay Clayton is a pioneering Jazz singer who was an important early participant in the free jazz movement. Originally from the small town of Youngstown Ohio, Jay heard the standards of the day around the house, as her mother was an aspiring singer. In high school, Jay got a taste of performing live when she sat in with a band singing "Moonlight in Vermont" at a local downtown establishment. As a member of the high school choir, she went on a field trip to New York to sing in a few mid-town churches. In her college years, she was turned on to the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others, as she and her fellow student friends would spin jazz records at various get-togethers. One night Jay and her friends took a jaunt to Cincinnati to catch Coltrane perform in a small jazz club and after this experience, Jay knew she had to go back to New York where the jazz scene was really flourishing. Upon completion of her college education, she moved right to New York City. After getting settled, Jay started sitting in at open mics and networking herself with local musicians, Jay and her friend rented a loft where they could rehearse... in the area which was to become Soho. Other musicians followed suit and the loft movement was underway. It was a hot bed for free jazz and Jay was actively participating in it. Jay got a tip that a composer was looking for a singer who could read music, and he lived right around the corner. This turned out to be Steve Reich, who is now considered a very important 20th century American music figure. Jay would wind up recording on the Reich classics "Drumming", "Music for 18 Musicians", Tehillim", and others. She would also tour Europe with Reich and had a very long association with him. Jay would spend the next several years in New York City performing in a variety of jazz styles. In 1982, Jay embarked on a very successful 20 year teaching career at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. During this time, Jay was invited to Germany to perform as a jazz vocal improviser along with others and this led to forming a group called "Vocal Summit". They would wind up recording some very unique, trendsetting music together. Jay is still very active in teaching and performing in the New York City area and now makes her home in New Paltz. I recently caught up with Jay about her career.
R.V.B. - Hello Jay, Rob here... how are you?
J.C. - I'm pretty good.
R.V.B. - Did you guys get any snow up there?
J.C. - No snow in New Paltz. I was watching the tv about New York City, where I got out of Dodge.
R.V.B. - You got out in a nick of time. They got a lot of snow. Thank you very much for spending this time with me. Can you tell me what Youngstown Ohio was like when you were growing up?
J.C. - When you watch those movies about the 40's, with the little towns, and the little stores, and the little houses... that's what it was like. I grew up in the middle class.
R.V.B. - Small town USA?
J.C. - Yeah, I would say. You walked to school... and as a child, I walked one block to the grocery store. We would go out and play and we wouldn't see anybody until it got dark. Imagine that... that's how safe it was back then. My children grew up in New York City.
R.V.B. - Your mother was involved in music... right?
J.C. - She was. The pop music of her time was the standards. I heard them around the house. She didn't know what jazz was, but she sang all of those tunes. She did sing professionally for a while, but she couldn't follow her dreams. My great grandparents were from Italy. At that time, in order for her to sing she had to sing the floor shows... which were very late at night. Her father let her do it for a while but she didn't continue. I learned a lot of the tunes that I still do today from listening to her.
J.C. - "Everything Happens to Me", "All of Me", "When I fall in Love", and many other standards. It wasn't until I was around 17 that I discovered jazz as such, and it was more instrumental.
R.V.B. - Did you ever see your mom perform live?
J.C. - No... this was before she was married. When she got married that was it.
R.V.B. - When did you give singing a try.
J.C. - I remember that when I was in high school, and you went to a dance, they would be playing the standards. There would be live music, and I remember sitting in on "Moonlight in Vermont". It was my first real experience with a band... with a microphone. I just had the courage and I don't know why.
R.V.B. - Was this in school?
J.C. - No, this was at one of the clubs in Youngstown. I remember people were dancing and the band was up on the stage. I asked if I could sit, in and I did. I knew enough to say "I'll come back in at the bridge." (haha) I always tell my students that, because a lot of my teaching has to do with how a tune is put together... how do you "talk it down"... how do you communicate with the instrumental portion. That was probably around 1959.
R.V.B. - Did you participate in music in high school?
J.C. - Oh yes... triple trio. I was always in small ensembles... I was always in choir. We raised money and came to New York City in my junior year. That was my first experience with New York. We sang in some churches in midtown... I never even went downtown. I knew I was coming back. That was my first trip to New York City. When I truly discovered jazz, I knew I had to go to New York.
R.V.B. - After high school, you went to Miami of Ohio.
J.C. - Yes, I had to go to a state school because it was inexpensive. Somebody came to my high school and talked about it. I'll be honest with you, I didn't even know what college was. In my generation, nobody went to college. Now, everybody goes. I went to a summer program first and I look piano lessons. My teacher was about $2.00 a half hour. I also had to take theory every Saturday. With the money that were paying, somehow I got to go to St Louis Institute of music after I graduated from high school... for 6 weeks. At the end of that 6 weeks, I went into a room and they made me do a C major scale... B minor scale... intervals... I never practiced so much in my life. When I went to college, I found out in my second semester that I could major in music because of that summer program. I eventually received my degree in music education.
R.V.B. - Was that the time period when you first saw John Coltrane?
J.C. - I did see him in my junior or senior year, when we went down to Cincinnati. Somebody had a car and I had a place to stay down there. I couldn't come back to the dormitory because we had certain hours. That was during his "My Favorite Things" period. He was at a little club in Cincinnati. I'll never forget that... there he was.
R.V.B. - How was that experience for you? How did you feel about seeing him?
R.V.B. - You went right to New York after you graduated?
J.C. - I did.
R.V.B. - What was your plans?
J.C. - I didn't have any. I had to find a place to stay and listen to the music. I didn't have a plan but by then I was singing. There was a trombonist on campus that had been in the service... John Watson. He died recently. He was from Chicago, and he ended up playing with Count Basie for a while. I played in his band. I already had a repertoire. I thought about California because I knew I wasn't going to stay in Ohio. Although, before I went to college... another coincidence... one of my girlfriends from junior high school married a jazz bass player, and I used to go sit in with him. These coincidences really worked out because, he really knew his stuff. There are several jazz musicians from Youngstown. There was a little scene there. I just knew I had to go to New York.
R.V.B. - Where did you set up shop? Did you find a job and find an apartment?
J.C. - I had one friend in junior high school that I knew was going to be one of the other ones to get out of Youngstown. She was an intellectual type. She was a reader and got into publishing. She moved there because her uncle had an apartment. She said if you come to New York you could stay with me for two weeks... which is what I did. I found out by word of mouth, that one other person from my college had an apartment by Columbus Circle on 58th... right across from Roosevelt Hospital. There were three girls and we paid $59 each... it was great. I knew I didn't want to teach high school. I wanted to get a job where I could hang out at night, so I did office temp work. There you go... $4 an hour... a college grad.
R.V.B. - You were all set. You got a fairly inexpensive apartment... you got some money coming in... and you can practice your craft. Did you go out and network yourself at local jam sessions?
J.C. - Where were they? How did I find them? Before I went to New York to live, I visited here in my junior year, and Steve Lacy was playing all month. These guys in my college knew more about jazz. We would play records at night. We went here to see Lacy and short story long... when I eventually moved to New York, I actually called up Steve Lacy. It was like calling up Miles Davis. He was 8 or 9 years older than me, but he was established. I called him up because I was so impressed, and he ended up being a mentor. I loved that he was so himself, and he was doing this good music which all "Monk" compositions. I wanted to know... where were the locals? I knew where to go. I went to the Five Spot... Mingus and Monk played there. The Half Note... where I saw Coltrane a lot. The Village Vanguard... Miles Davis, Bill Evans, etc... but I need some people my age to play with. Through his bass player, there was a concert and they invited me to sing with a trio. That people in the trio were my age, and we did sessions on the lower east side. One thing led to another... then I discovered the loft. In one of my office temp jobs there was a visual artist, and she invited me for dinner, and it was down on 7 Lispenard. This is before Soho... right below Canal. It was 1,000 square feet and there was only 4 lofts in that building. I thought "Wow, I could play late at night here". Sure enough, something came available for $80 a month... 1,000 square feet... and no heat. I ended up getting it with another roommate friend. That was the beginning of the loft scene. I ended up performing there. I started giving concerts in the loft. This was before Sam Rivers. Sam Rivers played there... Juini Booth... Bob Moses... Pete Yellin... Joanne Brackeen... a lot of people played in my loft. It was a buck and a half to get in. (haha) I made flyers and distributed them in neighborhood and also advertised in back of the Village Voice. Some concerts were free and we usually had a nice cozy crowd.
R.V.B. - Can you describe your loft to me?
J.C. - It was a pretty open space. I ended up marrying Frank Clayton... the drummer. He did carpentry and we ended up living there. I even had my kids there. I had a piano... drums... sound system. It had windows. the front windows were French windows. They were pretty old and later got replaced. It had a commercial bathroom and we had to put a regular sink in it. We had to add a kitchen. at first it didn't have heat. We ended up buying a space heater for 50 bucks. At that time, that's what you did. There were big black and white squares on the floor. It was pretty big. We kept it pretty open and it was big enough to get people in there for a concert.
J.C. - If you looked up and saw a plant in the window, you could tell people were living there. The first thing that happened to make Soho was on Broome Street... The Broome Street bar. When it opened up we thought "Who is going to go there?". There weren't any stores. You had to walk over to Little Italy. Sure enough, that was the beginning of Soho. Pretty soon people with money would move in. We didn't have any garbage pickup. Eventually, when people got wind of it, the rents went up and then we had to move further south to Leonard... and that eventually became Tribeca. It didn't have a name, but as soon as it got one, the rents went up. I ended up in Brooklyn... with the 3rd loft... which is now Dumbo (Down under the Manhattan/Brooklyn overpass). That was scary, but it was a huge loft and I used to teach there, and we could play there. It's the 1st stop in Brooklyn on the F train, down by the water. It was inexpensive but we had to install everything in it.
R.V.B. - So you spent the 60's networking yourself and playing with a whole bunch of different musicians, and you taught on the side also?
J.C. - I started to teach in the 70's. This was also the beginning of "Free Jazz". Some of the sessions were tunes, but a lot of the sessions... especially on Lispenard Street... was totally free. It was me, and the only other singer was Jeanne Lee. Perry Robinson, Mark White, and other musicians played there. In other words, I was doing a lot of free style singing. That's what was good about the sessions in the loft. I was known for it, but the 1st album under my name was called "Jay Clayton All Out". I had recorded with Bob Mover... I recorded with Unity... a band out of DC. Even many years later musicians didn't know that I did standards. Before I was married... when I was Jay Colantone... I did record some material that never came out. Bill Dixon produced it, and It was all standards. It was with Cecil Macbee, Hal Galper, and my ex-husband Frank Clayton. When you look at the big picture, that would have been my 1st album. I didn't even scat. It exists someplace. I did become known more in the avant-garde genre. Now my sets are mixed. A lot of people that were doing "Free", stopped doing "Free", but I never did. I can only do it with certain people. It influences everything that I do.
R.V.B. - How did you get involved with Steve Reich?
J.C. - I had a student Joan Labarbara, who is now well known as a new music singer. She does "minimal" music. She told me that he was writing "Drumming". He would write and then rehearse what he was writing. He asked her if she knew any jazz singers who could read. He really didn't want a classical sound. He lived two blocks away on Broadway and Canal. I went over there and the rest is history.
R.V.B. - It's quite an honor to be associated with those important songs in American history. Did you enjoy using your voice to sound like an instrument?
J.C. - Yes. I found out when all of this free stuff was happening... singers would come up to me and ask me "Do you teach?". So I started these workshops and these workshops were for the free style. When Steve Reich came along, I wanted to know what the voice could actually do. It was challenging... I was doubling clarinet's and the percussionists were fantastic. There was no improvisation, and I'm an improviser. When it was really happening... you're part of a whole. I got that. At first it was hard, because they were almost like vamps. You had these repeated patterns... over and over. I could really "Woo hoo" do a nice solo, but then I got it... it was more like gamelan music. I was interested in what the voice could do, other than sing a song.
R.V.B. - How was the recording process? Did you have to record it all at once or did you do it piecemeal?
J.C. - "Drumming" was piecemeal. There were a lot of sections. You did it over until it was right. I'm on 4 or 5 of his pieces.
R.V.B. - Where did you do these recordings. What was the studio like?
J.C. - He would always get a beautiful studio that had ambiance. There was a lot of nice woodwork.
R.V.B. - How was the experience of touring with Steve Reich?
J.C. - My 1st experience touring was with him, and it was good. That was in the 70's, and I had never been to Europe before. It was a trip. We're talking about 12 to 18 musicians and it became like a family. Some of it was rough, but Steve Reich did the right thing and he became well known.
R.V.B. - What kind of venues did you play?
J.C. - We did museums and things. He brought his own sound system. He would manage to get grant money. We wouldn't get big money but it was a gig and a good deal to go to Europe. I learned a lot about Europe in those years... just getting around on the train.
J.C. - It was the First one in New York. Cobi Narita put it on with the Universal Jazz Coalition.
R.V.B. - What was your involvement with that?
J.C. - I helped her organize it... I called up everybody. I wanted it to be all inclusive. There were a lot more women in jazz than we thought. We decided to do it in 'Birdland', which by that time had been closed... the real one on Broadway. It was a disco by then. We thought it would be very historical to rent it for 4 nights. We had at least 3 to 4 groups a night. The first night was good... people came. On the second night they locked us out. (haha) They wanted more money, but we already had a deal with them.
R.V.B. - That wasn't right.
J.C. - They had a big ole' lock on their door. That was the night I was supposed to perform with my band. I remember it was with Jane Ira Bloom, Harvie Swartz, and Frank. So we got electricity and played in the street, and they eventually let us in. There was an article that I think was in The Post, and there we were playing in the street. They got the message. It was a success. Cobi did so much promotion for jazz. I was still working as an office temp, and I was opening mail for my boss... and there was this "Universal Jazz" on something, and that's how I met her. It's interesting how things just happen. I called her up and asked "What is this Universal Jazz Coalition?". It was a good relationship with her. She did a lot for up and coming artists.
R.V.B. - In the 80's you packed up and moved. It was time for a career change?
J.C. - Just before that, I was invited by Colin Wolcott to teach and perform at Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado. The group "Oregon"... with Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, and Colin... was in residence. They used to teach there and I knew all of them. They had a wonderful program there. It was very open and it was for 5 weeks. I taught there 3 summers in a row. That's where I met Jerry Granelli... the drummer that is on a lot of my CD's. I did a duo CD with him. He was a music director there. I didn't know about Cornish College at the time. He had told me that they were looking for a vocal jazz teacher, because somebody was leaving. They offered me a job. I had taught for 2 years at City College because Sheila Jordan had a great program there. I was subbing for her. Anyway they called me and I thought "What... move away from New York?".
I couldn't even imagine - to be honest with you. I went out to do a workshop for 10 days. The faculty at that time was Gary Peacock, Julian Priester, Jerry Granelli, Art Lande... "Hey, not a bad group". There was also a wonderful trumpet player Jim Knapp. In the middle of that I thought "Maybe I could live here". The weather wasn't that bad at that time. It hardly even snowed. It was always green and beautiful. My kids were 9 and 10. I was married at the time and I came back and sure enough, (haha) they said "Let's go". So we did it... we left the loft. I stayed for 20 years, but I always came back. That was the beginning of "Vocal Summit". That was a vocal group with Bobby Mcferrin, Urszula Dudziak, Lauren Newton, and Jeanne Lee.
R.V.B. - I wanted to ask you about that because I'm curious on how that worked with all that talent?
J.C. - Initially it wasn't a group. We were invited individually as vocal jazz improvisers to Baden Baden Germany. Joachim Berendt... who used to run the Berlin jazz festival and write about jazz... he was very prolific... he had a festival every year. Every year would be a different thing. Maybe all clarinetist's... maybe all bass players... He'd invite about 4 or 5 players of the instrument... commission people to write music for it... record all week... and then do a concert. This time the thing was vocal improvisers. Bobby was invited... I was invited... Jeanne Lee... Urszula Duduziak... and Lauren Newton who lives in Germany. it wasn't initially intended to be a vocal group. They wrote different pieces of music for the 5 of us. During the week we would get together. I had already been doing a kind of vocal improve ensemble in New York in the 70's, so we would try it... go into the studio and go "Can we do something acapella?". Towards the end of the week we said "Can we do the whole 1st half of the concert acapella?". Eventually they let us do it. It's on record and it's called "Vocal Summit". Not too many people in the United States knows about it because we only toured Europe. We didn't have a lot of time to rehearse... it was a lot of "free" stuff. At the end we did have instruments on it. There was Bar Phillips... Joe Chambers... it was a whole sextet. Some of it had instruments, but the whole first half of the concert was acapella. It was so successful that we got invited back to do Donaueschingen, which is a new music festival in Germany. Stockhausen, Hindemith, Schoenberg, and people like that used to do it. By that time, Bobby was already getting famous with his solo performances, so he couldn't continue on. He's on the first CD "Sorrow is Not Forever - Love is". It's one of the songs with the band that Michal Urbaniac wrote. When we started to tour, it wasn't always the same people. Urszula and I were always in it. The last Vocal Summit that toured and recorded was myself, Urszula, Norman Winston, and Michele Hendricks. That recording is called "Conference of the Birds". Again, it's all a-capella. My 75th birthday is coming in the fall and I believe we should record, and there should be a reunion. We did one concert in Boulder, and nobody knows about it.
R.V.B. - You played in some prestigious venues. Can you tell me about your performance at the Kennedy Center?
J.C. - I actually did it twice. I have a CD called "Circle Dancing". I love all my CD's but this one covers everything. I do a solo piece on it... it's a sextet... I do three of my own. It's on Sunnyside Records. The 1st CD on Sunnyside is a duo with Fred Hirsch. My 1st live jazz standards CD was called "Live at Jazz Alley"... with Stanley Cowell, Peacock, and Priester. I was invited to the Kennedy Center with "Circle Dancing". It was great... it's a half hour. There was three different groups. This little yellow light comes on to tell you that you have 3 to 4 minutes. We did a good set... I have a little cassette of it. 2 or 3 years ago, Sheila Jordan and I collaborated. We have a group called Bebop to Freebop. It really does cover the gamut, and we did the Kennedy Center. It was a celebration on Mary Lou Williams. It was a woman's festival. It's been going on for quite a while and it's great.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy sharing your knowledge that you've accumulated through the years in master classes and workshops.
J.C. - I've always loved teaching. For a while it was more teaching than performing. Then I got invited to Cornish College in Seattle Washington, where I taught for 20 years... from 1982 to 2002. Then I moved back to New York City. I then taught at Peabody in Baltimore but I stopped last year. Now I am teaching freelance. I thought I was going to teach until I started performing more... and then quit teaching. About 10 years ago I got it... I will never stop teaching. It's really very fulfilling. I love doing the jazz camps and master classes... I'm freelancing now. You learn a lot when you teach, and it's very rewarding. I've taught singers all over this world. There's many parts that I've been to. I love it. A lot of the pieces in "Vocal Summit" that I structured... came out of the workshops.
J.C. - I have so many collaborations and one of them is with a master tap dancer Brenda Bufalino. Brenda is a master because she was with Honi Coles, and also had a jazz school. We met years ago through the college. Short story long,... she used to go to Seattle a lot when I lived out there. I knew there was something about her. She uses tap... she improvises... she really swings. I thought we had something in common. I said "You're tap and I'm voice", and she said "I'm writing a tap opera". We ended up writing a piece together with just tap dancing and vocal. We did it in Seattle and then later on at a dance theater workshop in New York. She has a place in New York, and she has a house up here in the country. I would take a bus, and she would pick me up, and we would rehearse there. When I decided to move back to New York City, I was like "Where am I going to find something in the city?". There are these condos here in New Paltz and I thought "It's only an hour and a half north of the city". I had to make a decision very fast because I sold my condo in Seattle. I go to her place in the city a couple of days a week. I love it up here, and there's a lot of artists up in the Hudson Valley.
J.C. - One of the reasons that I went to Seattle was the drummer Jerry Granelli... we were really so compatible... musically only. At that time, he was using a drum machine. He's a great improviser... standards... free... everything. The first effect I got was a chorus pedal that guitarists use. I would use that effect when I was soloing. Then I started borrowing digital delay's. First the delay was 2 seconds, and then it was 4 seconds. I eventually got one. It's sort of an extension of the "free" stuff. I just got one and started using it. Then I wrote my first solo piece with it. That was in the late 90's.
R.V.B. - What was the name of that piece?
J.C. - It's called "Sometimes" and it's also on "Circle Dancing". I have a whole solo CD called "The Piece of Wild Things". It's just me, poetry, and my electronics. I also started memorizing poems. I don't use it that often, but I always have it with me. My sets have both. I may do more standards than "free" but there will always be some "free". I'm still pretty eclectic. Electronics became a part of my vocabulary. I don't have a lot of stuff that makes my voice sound weird... it's just a delay. People think I'm overdubbing on "Sometimes". I'm not overdubbing... it's live.
R.V.B. - I see that you worked with Kirk Nurock a lot. How would you describe your musical relationship with him?
J.C. - We don't work a lot now but it's funny that you should mention him. I've known him since the 70's. He has this project called "Natural Sounds". He had people who weren't singers, and he would compose things for them to sing. Like Brenda, I thought we had something in common. I didn't know that he played piano because all I heard was this voices stuff. I went to his loft and we just improvised and the rest was history. We did work a lot together in the 70's. We performed in his loft on 8th Avenue. We also had a trio with Harvie Swartz. I would be a soloist with that natural sound stuff. We had a lot of stuff in the can but nothing came out. Then I moved away and we've always been in touch. Right now, as we speak, we're working on a project on Emily Dickenson. It's been 8 years in the can (haha) I'm hoping it's going to come out... I got my fingers crossed. He writes beautiful compositions but he's also a "free" player. I believe that it will come out on "Sunnyside". He wrote some songs to Emily's poems but a lot of it is just improvisation. Me and Kirk are currently working to get this thing out.
R.V.B. - You've accomplished so much in your career and you've made yourself very well known in certain jazz circles. Are you happy with the way your career went? Would you have done anything different?
J.C. - I think the only thing that I might done differently... at time it was difficult to record, and when you record, you reach more people. The first time I recorded under my name was 1980. I would like to have recorded more. I followed my dream, but my only regret is that I don't have more money. (haha) I'm not poor but I still have to think about it. I really did the starving artist thing. I like money, but it never was a priority because the kind of music I chose to do... It sort of chose me... That's the way it is. That's what I tell my students "Everybody has a different story". The main thing is, I made a lot of things up. In the 70's, there was a place called "Prescotts" in the Village. Every Tuesday night I would go there, and you have to sing to learn. I'm doing more of the same... I have projects. I'm not a household name... I'm not a Bobby McFerrin... I'm glad you know me. (hahaha) Bobby McFerrin knows me. I get many of my gigs through ex-students. Occasionally, I get the real big gig and I make a tour around it. I wouldn't do anything different and I'm still learning all of the time.
R.V.B. - One thing for sure is that nobody can ever take your creativity away and what you've accomplished with your originality.
J.C. - Absolutely not. What I tell my students is "You might have to support your art for a while". I didn't like typing in an office. I got a grant in 1980 for a composition and that got me out of the office for a while. Up until I moved to Seattle, I was still doing office work. As long as you keep the balance. I never switched my music when I was younger... it doesn't work that way. Your artistic voice develops naturally if you keep at it. Your absolutely right... they can't take that away! Just be who you are and do it. Teaching is not a "how to"... it's a what to do to get better.
R.V.B. - To nurture your own style and your own path.
J.C. - It will happen naturally if you keep doing it. It isn't easy... nobody said it was. There's no ad's in the paper "Looking for Jazz Singers" believe me. BUT! I have students who are out there doing it. You stick to your thing and you find a way to make a living. That's all I can say. There's been many times that I have been down. I wrote a book called "Sing Your Story" I teaches you the basics...How to learn a tune... Sitting in... Hanging out. In my outro, I talk about what do you do when you get down? Because you're gonna... it's not easy. Then you just learn another tune... go to the music.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for spending this time with me.
J.C. - Thank you for your interest. It's very encouraging to me.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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