Jeff Clayton, Versatile Saxophonist and Flutist, and Devoted Jazz Educator, Has Died at 65
Jeff Clayton, an alto saxophonist and flutist who cut a wide swath as a sideman, and who stood front and center in the Clayton Brothers Quintet and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, died on Thursday in Los Angeles.
The cause of death was complications from kidney cancer, said his longtime manager, Gail Boyd. His brother, bassist John Clayton, said in a statement that he was “sad but buoyed by Jeff’s spirit, by recalling six decades of growth together, by the music we shared, and the knowledge that he wants us to move on, embracing and celebrating life.”
Jeff Clayton was an expressive and hyperliterate musician whose professional portfolio reflected his broad capabilities. He spent three years in Stevie Wonder’s band, subsequently logging time with everyone from B.B. King to Gladys Knight to Nina Simone. His saxophone playing was prominently featured on Madonna’s 1990 release I’m Breathless (Music From and Inspired by the Film Dicky Tracy); among his many other pop credits is Justin Timberlake’s 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds.
As Clayton told WBGO’s own Sheila Anderson, for her 2019 book How to Grow as a Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed, jazz provided the foundation for his adaptability as a musician. “It is the art of being a chameleon,” he said. “It is so special, it prepares you to do any music.”
In jazz circles, he is best known for the soulful and exacting work he did alongside his brother, John. They formed the Clayton Brothers Quartet in 1977, and a few years later released their first album, It’s All in the Family, for Concord. The band — which eventually expanded to five pieces and came to include John’s son, Gerald Clayton, on piano — belongs to a line of buoyant post-bop fraternities like the Heath Brothers, the Marsalis Family and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.
“This is jazz that does not go toward the darkness,” observed Ben Ratliff in his New York Times review of the 2008 album Brother to Brother. “It’s articulately swung and proud of its clarity. On anything above midtempo, it pushes a little faster than you expect, and it finds its jazz-language virtuosity sometimes in the same places that it’s finding a sense of humor.” For a sense of what he means, consult the robustly wailing alto solo on the title track, which kicks in at 1:22.
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra was formed in the mid-’80s by Jeff and John Clayton with drummer Jeff Hamilton. A fixture on the Los Angeles scene and an international draw, the band received a Grammy nomination for its first album, Groove Shop, released in 1990.
In addition to its own body of albums, the orchestra served as a house band on many high-profile jazz-pop productions, like John Pizzarelli’s Dear Mr. Sinatra, Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs and Charles Aznavour & the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
Jeff Clayton was more a section leader than the express focus of the band, but when called upon to take the lead, he was more than qualified. For a fine example of this dynamic at play, see the band’s arrangement of “Emily,” set up to feature his brother on arco bass. When Jeff enters at 7:38, his tone and phrasing suggest the lightest touch of syrup, à la Johnny Hodges, without tipping into sentimentality.
Jeffery Clayton was born in Venice, Calif. on Feb. 16, 1955. His mother was the choir conductor and pianist of a Baptist church, which constituted his earliest musical influence. While John gravitated to the bass, Jeff took up reeds: clarinet and saxophone, along with flute. His primary teacher was Bill Green, a Los Angeles session ace who had played with seemingly every big band.
Clayton studied oboe and English Horn at California State University, Northridge, where he completed more than three years before dropping out to hit the road with Stevie Wonder. He would credit his experience in Wonder’s band with helping to teach him concision and adaptability — qualities he would carry into other gigs, notably with vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.
He also worked in the Count Basie Orchestra, during Basie’s final years and later under the direction of Thad Jones. An almost lifelong acquaintance of bassist Ray Brown, a mentor to his brother, Clayton was also selected for the Phillip Morris Superband, an all-star affair led by Brown and pianist Gene Harris.
As an educator, Clayton worked at various jazz camps and summer programs along with the University of California Los Angeles (from 1998 to 2002) and the University of Southern California (2000 to 2004).
One measure of Clayton’s investment in the Clayton Brothers and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: he only got around to releasing his first solo album last year. Titled Listen Through the Looking Glass, it puts an extroverted foot forward, with guest vocals by Valerie “Mz. Val” Geason, a former Raelette. On “Blues Got Me Swinging,” Clayton also interpolates a cheering crowd, in a way that feels less self-aggrandizing than like an act of inclusion.
A previous edition of this obituary misspelled Jeff Clayton's first name as “Jeffrey.”