Playing by ear: John Clayton’s passion fuels youth instruction at Vail Jazz Workshop for 25 years |

Playing by ear: John Clayton’s passion fuels youth instruction at Vail Jazz Workshop for 25 years

By Fred W. Frailey
Vail Jazz Foundation

John Clayton doesn’t just play the contrabass. Wearing his ever-present smile, he seems to take total possession of this big instrument, the musical notes cascading from it full and round. It’s consistent with what he teaches kids each August at the Vail Jazz Workshop: Know your instrument.

“If you’re going to play challenging music,” he said, “you don’t want to be thinking about where your fingers need to go.”

Clayton, 68, has directed the Workshop since its inception in 1996, when it became the educational arm of the Vail Jazz Festival. He and five other professional jazz musicians tutor a dozen exceptionally gifted high school students night and day for ten days. With so few students, the workshop is able to maintain a student-teacher ratio of 2:1 and offer an intensity that dwarfs what other music camps offer.

“Nowhere, in any other workshop that I’ve done, have the students covered so much music,” said Clayton.

Bassist John Clayton jokes with student Joey Ranieri at the 2019 Vail Jazz Workshop, which Clayton has directed since its inception in 1996.
Steven Pope

Never during the workshop will the young musicians see sheet music, either. Instead, Clayton says “listen to me,” and then sings four bars of a song he is composing in his head.

“Now sing it with me.”

When Clayton is satisfied that they know this snippet of melody, he sings the next four bars of the theme and so on until they know the piece. Only then do people pick up their instruments and begin performing the song.

“Written music makes some things easier,” said Clayton. “But it doesn’t make ear development easier. We need these young players to be balanced musicians, so they need to read music. But they also need to have the kinds of ears that professional musicians have. When you’re on a stage and a vocalist turns around and says, ‘Let’s play “I’ve Got Rhythm” in the key of G,’ you’ve got to immediately be able to know how to do that without looking at a piece of paper.”

Another Clayton idea: Each day begins with a story—one of the instructors taking an hour to talk about his upbringing, his musical development and the ups and downs of the jazz life. It might be trumpeter Terell Stafford explaining that he played classical music exclusively until jazz caught his ear during college, causing a 180-degree turn in his career plans. Or it might be Clayton, raised near Los Angeles, relating how Ray Brown came into his life.

Just before beginning private lessons on the bass at age 16, Clayton heard legendary jazz bassist Brown on a recording with pianist Oscar Peterson, and it blew his mind.

“Do you know Ray Brown?” he asked his new instructor. Oh yes, the man said, showing Clayton a letter he’d gotten from Brown announcing a course in jazz bass he was about to launch at UCLA.

“I saved $65 and enrolled in Ray’s extension course,” said Clayton. After the semester ended, Brown let Clayton accompany him to club gigs, recording sessions and movie sound studios. Thus began an almost father-son relationship that lasted until Brown’s death in 2002.

Brown taught Clayton not just how to play the bass but also how to live a useful life. He takes that with him to the Vail Jazz Workshop, which he’s been instructing each August for a quarter-century.

“I say to the students, we’re helping you because someone once helped us, and somewhere down the line you’re going to help somebody else,” he said. “We should never forget we once were where these kids now are. That you didn’t know what the hell you were doing, you’re embarrassing yourself, the music doesn’t sound great. Then someone pulls you aside and says, ‘Listen kid, here’s what you’ve got to do.’”

The workshop got put to the test last August, when it convened using Zoom video conferencing software. One imaginative exercise was to divide the students into two sextets and have each group record a song serially. The first musician taped his or her ensemble part and improvisation and emailed it to the second, who recorded over the first participant, and so on until each sextet had a finished song that sounded as if it was created in the moment.

“I think we did okay this year,” said Clayton. “But the workshop was not better done remotely, in any way.”

Clayton looks for two specific qualities in the young men and women invited to the workshop: drive and commitment, more than skill or even talent.

“The drive, the passion is what’s going to get you to all the bases,” he said.

A related piece of advice he gives young musicians: Commit to something, give it everything and don’t have a Plan B in your pocket, because when the going gets tough, you’ll fall back on Plan B.

Clayton has followed that advice, too. His professional career began at age 19, working on a television series produced by composer Henry Mancini. He has belonged to bands large (the Count Basie Orchestra) and small (Monty Alexander and singer-pianist Diana Krall) and led both small and large bands with his late brother Jeff, an alto saxophonist. For five years he was principal bassist for the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in the Netherlands and along the way has composed and arranged music for Basie, Krall, Whitney Houston, Nancy Wilson, Natalie Cole and The Tonight Show Orchestra. Clayton won a 2007 Grammy for his arrangement of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” by Queen Latifah.

To employ his own words, John Clayton has touched a lot of bases.

Fred W. Frailey is a member of the Vail Jazz Board of Directors and a professional writer.

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