A birthday celebration
Jay Clayton celebrates her 80th birthday with a concert celebration at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro.

A birthday celebration

VJC celebrates vocal legend and renowned jazz educator Jay Clayton in a live performance with the Ray Gallon Trio

BRATTLEBORO — Vocalist Jay Clayton will appear live at the Vermont Jazz Center on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m., as part of a tour celebrating her 80th birthday. She will be accompanied by the Ray Gallon Trio, with Ray Gallon on piano, Jay Leonhart on acoustic bass, and Billy Drummond on drums.

An adventurous singer whose training and repertoire are deeply rooted in jazz standards, Clayton's dozens of recordings as a leader reveal a comfort with the Great American Songbook and an ability to swing like crazy.

But when interpreting those standards, Clayton, a creative artist of the highest level, raises the bar. Her playful spirit and love of improvisation continually lead her on a quest to devise unique arrangements that feature her work in bold new settings that are filled with surprises.

Clayton enhances her performances with wordless vocals, electronic loopers, and the use of free, open forms. She sometimes uses her voice like an instrument as she demonstrates in Wayne Shorter's “Footprints” (found on Beautiful Love, her duo album with Fred Hersch), preserving its essence but re-envisioning its sonic possibilities through the lens of her sound and imagination.

She is quick to mention that horn players were important influences in her development.

In an interview with Jazzitalia, she reminisced: “We listened seriously to jazz. I saw [John] Coltrane at a tiny bar in Cincinnati. The way he connected every note - taking the melody and changing it ever so slightly, amplifying it or simplifying it - amazed me. And what Miles [Davis] was doing was singing through the horn - it was the horn players who got inside my soul.”

She moved to New York City after completing her music degree at Miami University in Ohio. In the city, she experienced free jazz as it flourished, listening voraciously to live performances of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins when they were at their creative fulcrum.

With these experiences, Clayton was thus exposed to powerful forces that helped her foster her own voice and sanctioned a new way for her to think about creating music. They served as a bridge that gave her a vehicle to bring together her love for jazz standards with her desire to explore new sounds.

Clayton and her former husband, drummer Frank Clayton, held sessions at their loft on Lispenard Street in lower Manhattan, welcoming kindred-spirit musical seekers like Joanne Brackeen, Sam Rivers, Dave Liebman, Bob Moses, and Cecil McBee to explore the fruits of thinking out of the box.

The young Clayton formed deep relationships with these spirited musicians, and her reputation flourished; she was soon asked by free jazz pioneers Muhal Richard Abrams and Rashied Ali to join their groups.

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Clayton arrived in New York as a young woman with a college degree in classical music; she could read music and understood chords and jazz theory, and she also was well-versed in the Great American Songbook world. Once she joined the groups of Abrams and Ali, she also became known as a singer willing to stretch the boundaries of cabaret-style singing and embrace the new directions that the music was heading.

She is a team player and an eager collaborator. When it came time for her to present her own concepts as a leader, her talents, abilities, and musical choices attracted the attention of top-level musicians who enthusiastically joined her visionary projects.

A few of the many notable musicians who have appeared on her recordings include Fred Hersch, Jane Ira Bloom, Gary Peacock, George Cables, Gary Thomas, Abrams, Stanley Cowell, Houston Person, Lee Konitz, Bobby McFerrin, and Norma Winstone.

In a review of Clayton's 2010 album In and Out of Love, Raul d'Gama Rose claims that Clayton is one of “a handful of women vocalists alive today who continue to inhabit the rarefied space of imaginative storytellers while continuing to be unbridled innovators.”

“An inimitable presence, Clayton's technique is flawless,” he wrote.

Clayton's tone, abilities, and creative spirit were also appreciated by contemporary classical composers, who realized that her training, infallible sense of time, and spot-on intonation served their own musical aspirations.

Legendary composers Steve Reich and John Cage both consistently included Clayton in their ensembles; she can be heard on several of their recordings. To this day, she continues to explore new territory.

One of her most recent releases is Alone Together, a 2020 voice-and-drum duo record (no piano, no guitar, no bass), with the remarkable drummer Jerry Granelli. This album demonstrates Clayton's delight in embracing risky, musical challenges and reinforces the unexpected pleasures that ensue when chances are endeavored.

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One other feature that characterizes Jay Clayton is her penchant for poetry. In the faculty concerts for the VJC Summer Jazz Workshop, she always performs two contrasting selections: one tune a jazz standard from the familiar canon, and one that includes spoken word.

She has recorded two albums based on poetry, including a tribute to Emily Dickinson, Unraveling Emily, where she and pianist Kirk Nurock composed and arranged and layered Dickinson's lyrics over a tapestry of sound.

Another Clayton-produced, poetry-centric album, The Peace of Wild Things: Singing and Saving the Poets, received high praise, including this excerpt from a JazzTimes review: “Clayton concocts a cunning elixir of etherealness and diamond-sharp, linen-crisp clarity as she shapes angular tone poems and then, like beds of rose petals and thorns, slides them beneath the poetry of e. e. cummings, Wendell Berry and her own, haiku-like lyrics.”

Clayton applies this affinity for poetry to her work as a jazz artist: her delivery of lyrics is enhanced by a deep understanding of the meaning and intention of words, this enables her to imbue enhanced significance to a lyric through deliberate phrasing choices and subtle tonal gestures.

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Clayton gravitated towards teaching as a way to complement her calling as a performer.

She has taught at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle for 20 years, and at Princeton University and the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University as well. She is on the faculty of numerous workshops in the United States and abroad.

Clayton's book, Sing Your Story: A Practical Guide for Learning and Teaching the Art of Jazz Singing, was published by Advance Music in 2001.

She has influenced hundreds if not thousands of emerging vocalists.

When asked in the interview with Jazzitalia what message she wants her students to retain, Clayton responded that “listening is not optional.”

“Listening is the most important thing,” she continued. “I give you a lot of things to do when I teach, but it won't work without the listening. You learn this music by osmosis. And the people who are less experienced learn from the people who are more experienced. And we all have somebody more experienced in our lives to learn from.”

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Joining Jay Clayton in this celebration of her 80th birthday is the Ray Gallon Trio.

Pianist Ray Gallon and Clayton have been essential members of the Jazz Center's summer workshop for over a decade. Both were invited to the workshop at the recommendation of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Sheila Jordan, who has run the program's jazz vocal workshop since 1997.

Gallon has performed, recorded, and toured the world with many of the leading artists of jazz, including Ron Carter, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, T.S. Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Wycliffe Gordon, Les Paul, Benny Golson, Frank Wess, Lew Tabackin, George Adams, and the Mingus Big Band.

The great pianist Kenny Barron says, “I've always considered Ray Gallon to be one of the top pianists around. He's an excellent soloist and is the perfect accompanist.”

Gallon has performed at most of the major jazz festivals and venues throughout North and South America, Europe, and Japan and has appeared in gala concerts at the White House and the Kennedy Center.

Gallon has also accompanied many vocal greats, including Jon Hendricks, Chaka Khan, Sheila Jordan, Grady Tate, Nnenna Freelon, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Staton, Joe Williams, and Jane Monheit.

A full-time jazz faculty member of the City College of New York, Gallon also leads his own trio and performs solo concerts. His compositions have been recorded by T.S. Monk, the Harper Brothers, and George Adams.

The bassist for the performance is Jay Leonhart, who has been called by JazzTimes “the Fred Astaire of jazz - a craftsman so seamlessly smooth that casual observers often fail to grasp the immensity of his talent.”

Between 1975 and 1995, he was named most valuable bassist in the recording industry three times by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Leonhart has recorded many solo albums and has performed a one-man show, The Bass Lesson, about his life in the music business.

The trio's drummer is Billy Drummond, who has been called “One of the hippest band leaders now at work” by Downbeat magazine. Also a former member of the VJC Summer Jazz Workshop faculty, Drummond was a touring and recording member of Horace Silver, J.J. Johnson, and Sonny Rollins' working groups, and many of the world's greatest jazz artists have called upon him to tour or record with them.

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Come to the Jazz Center on Oct. 23 to find out why All Music Guide calls Jay Clayton “one of the most phenomenal vocalists in creative improvised music.” This concert will be a special, limited experience with many of Clayton's students in attendance. Aficionados of the Great American Songbook and bebop will be blown away by the group's repertoire and the burning, yet sensitive, rhythm section.

The VJC will welcome a 50-percent reduced-capacity audience (120 people) in person at 72 Cotton Mill Hill, #222, with tickets charged on a sliding scale from $20 to $40, available at vtjazz.org or by email at [email protected]. Proof of vaccination and ID cards will be checked, and masking and social distancing will be also be required.

For those unable to attend in person, the concert will also be live streamed free (donations welcomed) on Vermont Jazz Center's website (vtjazz.org) and at facebook.com/VermontJazzCenter/live.

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