Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2009: George Colligan

Gerald Clayton: Born Under a Good Sign

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Gerald Clayton is one of those fortunate few musicians who come from jazz royalty. If there is such a thing as an American griot, Gerald would be one: his musicality reaches back generations, and that allows him to speak with such a deep knowledge and sensitivity to the tradition.

It’s hard to talk about Gerald without talking about his father, John, one of the world’s finest bass players and a protégé of Ray Brown—with these guys you’re touching on the top studio musicians in LA, some of the top musicians in the world. John was also the conductor of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, the president of the International Society of Bass Players, and is one of the most sought-after clinicians in the world. His brother Jeff is a first-call jazz saxophonist, and their father before them was an accomplished musician as well.

The point is that Gerald, growing up, has had access to tons of street education in this art form, and tons of formal education as well. Whereas some children of famous artists never quite establish themselves in their own right, that isn’t the case with Gerald: he’s the spitting image of his father, except that he sits at a piano.

You can hear the influence of Gerald’s upbringing in his playing. He has a confident and well-produced hard bop sound, with lots of blues inflections. Afro-Cuban and Brazilian stylings are part of his lexicon as well. He was a kid when Wynton Marsalis became a big star, so he can call on the more modern avant-garde language. Because he’s young, he also has rhythmic elements of the hip hop world too. He can call on all those elements, and move through them in ways that are unique and compelling. He’s playing with a lot of important musicians right now—from Houston Person to Roy Hargrove to the Mingus Big Band. Everybody’s got their arms open for this young player, and he goes where he wants, not because of his heritage, but because he’s an important voice in jazz piano.

A couple of seasons ago, Gerald Clayton shared the stage with his dad and his uncle Jeff, and Winnipeg audiences heard in him a mature player, an accomplished composer, and a charming performer. Don’t miss him when he returns this fall. He’s on a fast trajectory—straight up!

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