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Vail Jazz launches fund honoring Jeff Clayton

By Sarah Valente
Special to the Daily
Vail Jazz launched an educational fund to honor the late Jeff Clayton, a fixture of the Vail Jazz Workshop for two dozen years. To donate, go to VailJazz.org and click on "Support."
Vail Jazz, Special to the Daily

Multi-talented musician. Exceptional educator. Extraordinary human being. When alto saxophonist Jeffrey Leland Clayton died of cancer last December at age 65, he left a hole in the jazz world and in the Vail community as well. The Vail Jazz Foundation intends to partially fill that gap with the newly launched Jeff Clayton Educational Fund.

The fund honoring Clayton’s memory will help secure the future of the numerous education programs that Vail Jazz provides every year. The goal is to raise $60,000 by April 30, with half the money coming from a matching grant by an anonymous donor. Donations can be made by calling Vail Jazz at 970-479-6146 or by visiting Vailjazz.org (click on “Support”).

When the Vail Jazz Workshop, the foundation’s flagship program, began in 1996, Clayton became a founding faculty member, along with his brother John, a bassist. The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts a dozen of the most promising high school musicians from across the nation and pairs them with six professional jazz artists for 10 days of intense instruction. More than music is learned. The teachers guide students on the realities of a career in music and reflect on their own personal experiences.



Clayton was a cherished Vail Jazz Workshop teacher, remembered fondly by his students long after they launched their own jazz careers. Trumpeter Curtis Taylor, a 2001 alum, recalls trying to learn by ear the last, frantic eight bars of a Dizzy Gillespie tune, “Ow!”

“I just wasn’t getting it,” Taylor said. “Then we broke for lunch, but Jeff stayed behind. He saw I was struggling and worked with me until I got it.”



“He was such a warm human being, a one-of-a-kind musician, and deeply dedicated to educating others,” said drummer Jimmy Macbride, a 2008 graduate and an early contributor to the fund.

Clayton’s career was expansive. Raised in Los Angeles, he cut his college education short to join Stevie Wonder’s touring band. He toured or recorded with B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and Madonna among many others.

In the late 1970s, Jeff and John Clayton formed the Clayton Brothers, which recorded three albums and performed with the Count Basie Orchestra in the twilight years of Basie’s career. In 1986 the brothers joined forces with drummer Jeff Hamilton, forming the 17-piece Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which has nine albums to its credit. Clayton also had a storied teaching career, touching the lives of young musicians at UCLA, USC and Cal State.

Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone was moved by Clayton’s way with young people.

“Jeff had an openness and warmth that was captivating,” Stone said. “His caring, selfless nature came through when he taught. And his willingness to share his knowledge, wisdom and passion for the music inspired so many great young players.”

Stone intends for the Jeff Clayton Educational fund to continue that legacy. Contributions to the fund will help defray tuition costs for the Vail Jazz Workshop, with students receiving scholarships based on financial need.

In addition, the fund will ensure the continuation of Vail Jazz Goes to School. The program, now in its 23rd year, introduces fourth- and fifth-grade students in Eagle County to the fundamentals of jazz. Stone hopes to eventually expand the initiative beyond its current annual reach of 1,500 children.

Other education offerings that would be partially supported by the fund include the annual Colorado Band Showcase, which provides aspiring jazz musicians the chance to perform onstage during the Vail Jazz Festival; Jammin’ Jazz Kids, which introduces the basics of rhythm and 12-bar blues to young children on summer Sundays in Vail Village; and various multi-media performances that look at jazz history through the lens of iconic jazz musicians.

For more information about Vail Jazz, visit vailjazz.org.


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