Grammy-nominated bassist, composer and conductor John Clayton is not only much in demand as a top shelf player, he also co-leads the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, teaches at USC and is Artistic Director at various jazz festivals and workshops in the United States. In Washington to serve as Music Director for Benny Golson’s 80th birthday bash at the Kennedy Center, Clayton took time to listen to some of his mentors, peers and colleagues.
1. Slam Stewart & Major Holley
“Undecided” (from Shut Yo’ Mouth, Delos). Stewart, Holley, bass; Dick Hyman, piano; Oliver Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1981.
Before: [laughter] I know what this is. I have this recording, Major Holley gave it to me. I knew them both but I really knew Major. They exemplify to me what all musicians strive for, that is to become one with your instrument. They are role models for us, a reminder that the music has to be clear in you before you can get it out through your instrument. I always say you have to think of your instrument as an amplifier for the the music that’s inside of you. The barometer that we use to make sure that that’s on track is singing. So many of the greats did it instinctively, and you can hear them singing, humming, growling, tasting, breathing everything they play. And that’s what we try to do, that’s our goal to express ourselves with clarity.
What do you think of the sound they got with the bow?
Too many people think if you put the bow on the string and move it back and forth you’re gonna get what you’re looking for. That’s not where the sound is. The sound is in you. If you don’t know the sound that you want to come out of the bass, you won’t know what kind of adjustments you need to make. Sometimes you have to move the bow faster, sometimes you need to change the the position of the bow or add more arm weight. These guys studied but they also knew and discovered these things and it became second nature to them. They had a sound in their ear that their body had to find. Major Holley’s sound was mimicked by his voice and it had a raspy quality to it. Slam Stewart’s sound was also mimicked by his voice but it had a much smoother quality to it. And he sang an octave higher than his playing. Major Holley sang pretty much at pitch and would go into falsetto when he would play a G harmonic [demonstrates it]. By the time I met him I had already studied at Indiana University so I could not only fall in love with his playing but I could analyze it and say a-ha, that’s his bow placement, a-ha that’s what’s he’s doing with his left hand. I could figure it all out that way.