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Seeking Souls with John Clayton’s Jazz in Mesa

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Last night's Clayton Brothers Jazz Quintet at Mesa Arts Center (MaC) was the culminating performance of renowned jazz bassist John Clayton's brief trip to the East Valley. In and around his jazz clinic Tuesday at Red Mountain High, the show sound check, and the jazz extravaganza on the Piper stage at the MaC, he took time to talk about how his jazz has given him opportunities to touch souls.

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“I’m hearing a past connection, a memory of a family experience, more than a melody or a music line,” Clayton described. He was referring to how what he would hear at last night’s concert might have different meaning than what the audience would experience.

But the audience last night could see it on his face, on the glances and grins between brothers and fathers and sons and friends. As the sparkling jazz riffs danced and swirled, the deep bass crooned, the stories flowed.

The Grammy nominated Clayton Brothers Quintet currently includes John on bass, brother Jeff on sax and winds, Terell Stafford on trumpet, son Gerald on keys and Obed Calvaire on drums. He said the band’s 30-year evolution has been “very organic,” right up to the recent addition of his wildly gifted and accomplished pianist son, Gerald. Their musicianship and commitment to excellence are above reproach.

“As a group, we are so eager to share,” Clayton beamed before the concert. “We can’t wait to spotlight each individual’s recent music journey, but always we each are a member of the ensemble.” And the sharing shone. As melodies and moods passed back and forth between the band, the audience couldn’t help feel like they were a part of the happy conversations.

“I didn’t want to put on any pressure or let Gerald think he wouldn’t meet some expectation when I asked if he’d like to become a permanent member of the group,” Clayton recalls. A memory crystalized, a soul exposed, when his son returned, “It’s always been my dream.”

“I was shocked that he had held that aspiration,” Clayton said almost to himself.

The concert came on the heels of souls soaring at Mesa’s Red Mountain High School during an Artist in Residence program in which Clayton is the clinician. The workshop is possible because the MaC, Arizona State University School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, and Jazz at Lincoln Center have teamed up to bring the Jazz from A to Z program to the East Valley.

“The joy of going deep – getting to stay awhile, to connect and find out who they are,” is part of why Clayton celebrates these residencies. “I suppose it’s selfish on my part, really. I find out about, and then get to expound on their kind of music. I get to let the student’s curiosity drive the workshop. It makes it easier and more fun for me to help push their music to the next level. Pontificating doesn’t work. Meeting them where they are at that moment is what makes better music.”

He pauses, “THEY let me go deeper.”

A Grand Canyon smile spreads across his face as he suddenly stops the young jazz band during the workshop. “Geez! I love you guys. I wish you could stand here and feel the effect your music has!”

But the high school kids already know. Their souls have been showing. It wasn’t just their sound and ensemble sense that had steadily improved over the previous hour. The students’ proud postures, their knowing expressions, their lively foot taps, their unfettered joy, was exposed and glowing.

A warm-hearted, quiet-spoken man, Clayton has been sharing his own inner-flame and considered reflections with jazz greats for decades. Though Paul McCartney, Natalie Cole, Michael Buble, Queen Latifah, and Yo Yo Ma are among his recording friends, and he has a Grammy on the shelf, those are not the kind of accomplishments he seems to focus on or cherish most.

“Talking has sparked a realization,” he says thoughtfully as the conversation concludes. “Whether it’s the most accomplished musicians in their fields or whether it’s young musicians just learning to polish their craft…ALWAYS, the music they make is a reflection of who they are as people.”

“That’s why my life is so full. Music is an extension of who they are as people. I get to touch their souls.”

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