When pianist Gerald Clayton talks about jazz, he distills it down to its most basic components. “It’s the same 12 notes for everyone,” he says. “It’s a different language or a different vocabulary, but the same expression and the same journey.”
This weekend, the journey brings 33-year-old Clayton back to the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he performs as the artist-in-residence alongside his father, bassist and composer John Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton. It’s the first time in MJF’s 60-year history that a father and son have been chosen as artists-in-residence, but the Clayton family has been here before: John Clayton and Hamilton were artists-in-residence in 2003, along with John’s brother, Jeff Clayton, as the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. (That group will be performing this year’s commision piece, Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration.)
Gerald Clayton has also made the rounds at MJF before, starting in 2000 and 2001 when he was a student at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and won the soloist award at the Next Generation Jazz Festival. He also remembers being a little kid and seeing his dad onstage. “It’s nice to be able to reflect when you’re there on the stage, compared to the times you were in the audience looking at the musicians,” he says. “The appreciation for jazz really has a lasting effect. It’s about putting good music in the ears of young kids.”
Part of his musical education was the Next Gen Jazz Festival, which he views as indispensable to learning to trust your ears and be confident enough to break the rules. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what is useful for high school students,” he says. “Too often it seems like students focus on learning music charts instead feeling the music themselves.”
Clayton started studying music at age 6, with classical piano, and grew up listening to jazz at home with his dad.
“We’re products of the music we’re exposed to,” he says. “I identified with music – like jazz – that deals with the freedom of improvisation.”
Clayton says MJF provides a place where he can concentrate on creating an honest sound, while honoring the lineage of great musicians who came before him.
“I think the purists want to preserve what they know as they know it, but what I want to do is expand their mind,” he says.
He explores that consciousness with a concerted, but cool intensity: “I try to have a very relaxed headspace, which allows me to experience different levels of the music.”
He’s been playing with the other musicians in his group off and on for about 10 years, which allows them to know how each person voices themselves.
“The trio allows for a lot of communication, like having an intimate conversation,” Clayton says. “We’re expressing the entire range of how we’re feeling.”
John Clayton concurs. “Art is always a platform for experimenting,” he says. “As times goes on and more styles of music show themselves, there is more to learn.”
That includes learning from his son. “I’m intrigued by his musical vocabulary. His approach is different,” John says.
When it comes to performing together, John says it’s a neutral relationship. “It’s only afterward that I think, ‘Oh yeah, he’s my kid,’” John says. “When we’re playing, it’s just another great piano player.”
In 2009, Clayton received a Grammy nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo for his debut album as a leader entitled Two Shade. Two years later, he picked up a second Grammy nod for Best Jazz Instrumental Composition and a another nod for his second album Bond: The Paris Sessions for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.
Clayton says his influences come from far and wide. He’s been listening to rapper Kendrick Lamar, Spanish pianist Frederico Mompou and blues from the Appalachian foothills.
For Clayton, he’s not a jazz musician, but simply a musician who explores that world accordingly:
“I like what Duke Ellington says: There is only good music and bad music.”