Karin Plato talks to Jay Clayton

May 21, 2005

Internationally known jazz vocalist Jay Clayton is highly acclaimed for her perceptive jazz improvisations and vocal explorations. In 1963 she began her career performing the standards on the vibrant New York music scene. However, she quickly became a prominent part of the free jazz movement. Her work in these two worlds led to the development of a highly personal, wordless vocabulary later enhanced by her innovative use of vocal electronics.

I interviewed Jay following a two-day jazz vocal workshop that she led in Vancouver. On Sunday May 22nd she performed a duo concert with pianist Miles Black at The Cellar in Vancouver. - Karin Plato

Was jazz always a part of your life? Did you grow up listening to jazz?

My mother sang standards and those songs happened to be the pop music of the day. Frank Sinatra would have been one singer that I heard. When I was about 17 or 18 years old my cousin, a visual artist, gave me three jazz records: Mile Davis, Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis. The Miles Davis record might have been "Live at The Blackhawk". I loved it (the music) right away. I didn't know what it was. I instantly loved it; the feel, the time. I joined Columbia Records and starting ordering jazz records and listening to jazz music a lot.

Later I went to College first to major in elementary education. That was a big deal. I was the first member of my family to attend college. My roommate was a classical singer and she encouraged me to talk to the department head about switching to a music major once she realized I was a singer and that I was passionate about music. I had studied piano and theory. So in the second semester I did switch to music education. There were two musicians there who also played jazz. My cousin gave me a fake book and I started learning a repertoire. I started playing with the musicians there who could play jazz.

Do you have some memories about your first delving into the world of improvised music?

When I went to New York in the early 60's I heard Miles. People were starting to abandon the changes and modal playing was happening. I worked up the courage to phone Steve Lacy and told him that I was green and that I really wanted to know some places where I could go and hear the music and also find people I might play with. He took me to "The Five Spot" and was very helpful and supportive. Steve was a big mentor to me. I later lived in a loft and put on concerts and played with people like Bob Moses,

Mark Whitecage, Perry Robinson and others.  I was also a part of a group called Essence.

For your free jazz explorations are there things that you look and listen for in everyday life in coming up with new vocal sounds and palettes to use?

I don't think everyday things influence my sound choices. Maybe they do. I think it is more the instruments and the instrumentalists that you play with that inspire new sounds. It depends on the collaborations and the players.

In singing for Vocal Summit and for other voice dominated ensembles are there any different skills that you thing a vocalist must have in contrast with being a vocalist performing with an instrumental ensemble?

I think different skills are required and I think it is a different experience. Independence is required. You are "it". You need time, clarity and accuracy. You need the same skills that a composer needs to be a good improviser. You need excellent technique, you need to understand form and you need to learn when to sing and when not to sing.

Do you equally enjoy singing standards and other songs and free jazz? Do you see the two disciplines as being one in the same or are they in fact two separate entities?

They were separate for me for a long time. I would have these loft concerts and one night would be completely free and the next night would be standards. At some point they came together for me and now I don't separate the two in my performance. It is all a part of me now and I freely move from one to the other within the same performance.

What do you find the most satisfying about teaching and sharing your wisdom with other jazz musicians?

I have always liked teaching. I have this thing about sharing, helping people figure out what to do next, nurturing. I learn from teaching too. Practice what you preach. I get very moved by it and excited by how everyone wants to know more about it (jazz, improvised music), I see growth in myself and in others. I used to think that I would just teach for awhile while I got my performing thing together but now I would never stop teaching because I enjoy it so much.

Who might you put in your Dream Improvising Group if you had the opportunity to create such a group?

I have them already: Jerry Granelli, Jane Ira Bloom, Gary Thomas. Also Muhal Richard Abrams is someone that I have played with.

Do you think Jazz and improvised music is alive and well in 2005?

I do. I know it doesn't have the appreciation that it deserves but jazz and improvised music will never go away. There are people like myself that keep it alive. There are young people who are really into it. Perhaps jazz education is helping? I don't know. More and more people are getting into it around the world.

Of the cities/countries that you have performed and taught in, which are the most supportive of free jazz in your opinion?

Europe for sure. Austria is wonderful. I'd like to do something in Toronto. There are singers all around the world now who love free jazz.

Besides jazz are there other genres of music that you enjoy listening to?

Classical. I like Bartok. I like some of the other minimalist composers. I also have listened to some world music, Indian music, though not so very much. Perhaps I have some of that in my performing by osmosis.

What about making a living? Did you ever want to give up your art?

My art didn't pay for me for a long time. It still doesn't. I always managed to get gigs.

I worked in an office from 1963-1980. I took a temp job. I never wanted to have a full time job in case I needed to go on the road.

Your team teaching with Sheila Jordan is well known internationally. Why do you think the two of you work so well together?

I think we both teach the same way we learned. I can't really say that I really "teach".

I keep finding things to work on. Sheila and I share the same basic concepts. We both just followed the music. We had the same experience as instrumentalists. Sheila's definitely my mentor. She's more experienced. She's patient and honest.

(Note from Karin: Having studied with Jay several times I can say that she definitely teaches and teaches particularly well. She is like a guide and has suggestions and solutions for each individual. She always has something logical, helpful and practical to help a musician further down the path of musical growth and awareness. She wants everyone to succeed and realizes that everyone is on his or her own personal path in the music.)

Do you remember when you first taught and performed with Sheila?

It was probably in 1996 in Banff or in Port Townsend. I knew Sheila by then. In New York she performed with bassist Cameron Brown and I did as well. For one gig I had Cameron booked for a gig and then Sheila had called him for a gig on the same night. He had to tell her he was already booked with me. I made Cameron take me down to her gig after ours so that I could meet her in person. Eventually over time Sheila recommended me for a teaching position at City College in New York. She was very supportive.

Of the elements required to be a good jazz musician which 3 or 4 things do you consider to be vitally important?

Really know jazz music. Listen to it a lot. Follow your own concept. Be as honest as possible, do what you love, do the music you love.

Any suggestions for jazz musicians new to free jazz who would like to delve in?

No specific suggestions. Follow the music. Pete Yellin, a bebop saxophonist that had never played free jazz was playing with me and at one point I just said "play anything". That was his time doing that kind of thing and now a few years later he loves free jazz. Perhaps I am a catalyst for it and influence people to go that way. You either love it or not. Just follow the music, let it go…

Photo of Jay Clayton by Karin Plato

Karin Plato web site

Jay Clayton web site