Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Clayton, Buck (Wilbur)

The 1938 recordings by Count Basie's rhythm section are rightly celebrated in the annals of popular music for their stripped-down swing and pairing of singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young. But there is another equally extraordinary instrumental voice to be heard on these tracks: that of trumpeter Buck Clayton.

Wilbur “Buck” Clayton was born in the small railroad town of Parsons, Kansas, on November 12, 1911, and he was named for airplane inventor Wilbur Wright. His father, Simeon Oliver Clayton, had played cornet in Texas when he was young, and began teaching Buck on the instrument; and during Buck’s life, his father sang in a popular quartet that performed all over Kansas. His mother was also musical, playing piano; but she was interested in classical music. So, Buck grew up in a musical family.

But Buck recalled that his mother, a local crusader for civil rights, “used to say that jazz was for lowlife people.” Another aspect of his early exposure to music was that, like some other notable jazz and blues musicians, Buck got inspiration from the energy and rhythm of music played and sung in a “Holy Roller” church.

Buck was also fortunate to grow up in a literate and educated family. His mother was a teacher and his father was, for a while, the owner and editor of a newspaper, The Blade. It is not surprising then, that Buck eventually wrote an autobiography, albeit coauthored by Nancy Miller Elliott,Buck Clayton’s Jazz World. The memoir contains many interesting anecdotes and insights about the music's foundational figures and decisive moments.

His interest in popular music was initially spurred when the George E. Lee band visited Parsons, particularly after hearing and talking with their trumpet player, Bob Russell: he was “one cool cat and so sharp” in his attire, Clayton recalled.

One of his earliest gigs was over in Arkansas - and he and his partner were just happy to get out alive. It was in a big cavern in the mountains, one that supposedly had been used as a Jesse James hideout, and they “went down winding stairs about one hundred and fifty feet below ground” to the dance hall. Soon the place was filled with four or five hundred “Ozark hillbillies” who were drinking moonshine (this was 1928 or 1929). As the locals got more drunk, things got more tense, but with help from the manager, they were able to escape after playing a full set.

A while after graduating from high school, Clayton took the bus out to the Los Angeles area (he’d had a taste of California in an earlier four month stay). He played with several bands around L.A. At this early point he was most influenced on trumpet by Cootie Williams of Ellington’s band. He also met the significant early New Orleans cornet/trumpet player “Mutt” Carey, but Carey did not teach him on the trumpet, despite some later claims to that effect.

After he’d been in Los Angeles a while, he met Louis Armstrong at Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club. After this meeting and conversations with Armstrong, Buck began to study the older trumpeter's recordings more intensely.

One anecdote from Clayton's memoir offers a bittersweet insight into life for African-Americans in Los Angeles in the 1930s. When movie studio casting agents for the original King Kong movie went to Central Avenue, looking for extras to play island natives, Clayton went to the casting call, but they turned him down because he had gray-green eyes and wasn’t dark-skinned enough. Buck found it profoundly ironic: “Too light to be black and too black to be a white.”

Clayton joined a band formed by musician and entrepreneur Earl Dancer in 1934, and then was asked to take over the band, at age 23. Shortly thereafter, he met pianist Teddy Weatherford, who recruited him to form a band to take to Shanghai, China. Clayton spent nearly two years in China with a 14-piece band he called the "Harlem Gentlemen," who were the main attraction at the Canidrome, an entertainment complex favored by expatriates in Shanghai. In 1936, he returned to Los Angeles, where he got an offer to to join Willie Bryant's band in New York.

Heading east, Clayton drove to Kansas City. There, at the famous Reno Club, he met William "Count" Basie and band, and was greatly impressed with how they swung. He joined Basie's band in autumn 1936 instead of taking the promised job in New York.

“Swinging so much jazz with the Count was like a dream,” Clayton recalled in his memoir. Historian Dan Morgenstern notes how the addition of Clayton, a “sensitive and elegant stylist of classic swing trumpet,” helped cement the Basie band's sound chemistry, and its subsequent breakout success, at this time.

Also in 1936, record producer John Hammond took on the Basie band as his cause and spurred them to undertake a national tour and to start recording. From 1936 to 1943 when he was inducted into the Army, Clayton participated in many recordings by the Basie band and related groups, although his presence is overlooked by some since he missed the first four recordings of that period, including the much-lauded “Shoe Shine Boy” and Boogie Woogie,” due to a split lip.

One the earliest Basie-based recordings on which Clayton played was a special group session with Basie’s rhythm section but with Teddy Wilson on piano, Lester Young, and Benny Goodman complementing Billie Holiday’s singing on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm.” This January 1937 recording had a wonderfully catchy musical theme and was a delightful story about a sad man who tended his accounting books and was denigrated by his family and shunned by others because he simply had no rhythm.

A second gem from that recording session was “I Must Have That Man.” On both, Billie Holiday sings with just the right touch, her timing and phrasing on the latter being especially good, and her unique vocal style and intonation enabling her to beautifully convey meaning on both, and whimsy on the first and deep, yearning emotion on “I Must Have That Man.” Lester Young plays sublime additions and counterpoints to Billie’s singing, and Buck plays sparkling, lyrical and soulful lines in marvelously constructed solos, with power at perfect points, superbly complementing both Billie and Lester.

In May and June 1937, Buck and Lester recorded three other gems with Billie, “Mean to Me,” “I’ll Get By,” and “A Sailboat in the Moonlight.”Clayton recorded other notable tracks with Billie Holiday, including a few without Lester Young such as the marvelous November 1937 recording, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” where a fine trumpet break by Buck complements Billie’s superb rhythmic timing and phrasing.

While Holiday's appreciation for Lester Young's playing is legendary, she apparently appreciated not only Clayton's playing, but his looks as well. Indeed, when the handsome, popular singer Billy Eckstine once said to Billie, “Ain’t I pretty?,” Billie replied, “…you ain’t the prettiest. Buck Clayton is the prettiest man who ever lived.”

In a July 1937 session the Basie boys recorded their theme song, “One O’Clock Jump.” As Driggs and Haddix say in their book on Kansas City Jazz, this recording “fully realizes the relaxed hard-swinging style Basie and[musician-arranger Eddie Durham had cooked up” in K.C., and so it “ushered in the Basie band’s golden age.”

“One O’Clock Jump” became a hit, and solos by Clayton, Young and two others over the band’s locomotive rhythm work presented a jazz style which became a preeminent force in the popular music of the next decade. The tune had been simply a “head arrangement” of an opening riff, but after the recording, Clayton prepared an arrangement. Buck wrote a number of other songs and arrangements for the Basie band, and later, for others.

At the beginning and end of 1938, Clayton appeared in two landmark concerts at Carnegie Hall. The first, in January, was with Benny Goodman and others in an all star jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose” during Goodman’s historic concert (though they didn’t gel as an ensemble as well as hoped). The second was even more historic: the famous From Spirituals to Swing Concert on December 23. Buck played three tunes with the full Basie band, then three with the “Kansas City Five” small group from the band. Clayton was especially effective (using a mute) on “Don’t Be That Way,” with Buck and Lester weaving around each other in a marvelous duet of tenor sax and trumpet at the end.

From 1938 through the early 1940s, Clayton and the Basie band made many more recordings, including a series of gems, and played in most of the key jazz venues on the East Coast. But in November 1943, he was inducted into the Army. He was fortunate, however, in that he was only stationed in the U.S. and mostly just played with military bands (he also did some arranging work for Benny Goodman and others on the side in that period).

Buck also managed to make a few recordings while in Army. One of the more interesting of those sessions was on September 4, 1945, was with Sir Charles Thompson on piano, Charlie Parker on alto, 22 year old Dexter Gordon on tenor sax, and guitar, bass and drums. Two of the four sides recorded were quite interesting, with Clayton standing out on “Takin’ Off,” and Charlie and Buck vigorously and creatively trading licks on “Street Beat;” Clayton was primarily a swing-style trumpet man, but those tracks show he could stand toe to toe with Bird and blow.

After the Army, Clayton played in the first national tour of promoter Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic enterprise in late 1946. In the years thereafter, he led small groups and played with others in Café Society and other key clubs in New York and elsewhere. In the Fall of 1949 he made the first of what would be eventually trips to Europe for tours and festival appearances. His trips to Europe earned him the nickname “Monsieur la Trompette” in France.

In 1955, Clayton appeared alongside Goodman in the movie, “The Benny Goodman Story.” In Brussels in 1958, he worked with Sidney Bechet at the World’s Fair Concerts. 1959 through the early ‘60s he played and toured with Eddie Condon’s band, including a tour of Japan, Australia and elsewhere.

Among the many recordings Clayton made in these years, a few of the more notable were with Jimmy Rushing and the Buck Clayton All Stars (mostly blues) in 1959 and 1960; a number of recordings in Europe, especially in Paris (mostly with European musicians), including one joined by singer Big Joe Turner in 1965 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, with the Zagreb Jazz Quartet, illustrating the wide appeal of jazz; a series of “Buck Clayton Jam Sessions” in the mid-‘50s, variously including such notables as Coleman Hawkins, Trummy Young, Dickie Wells, Jo Jones, etc., and others in the mid- to late-1970s (after a few years of not playing due to lip and teeth problems) under that title or simply, “Jam Session.”

Lip surgery in 1969 sidelined Clayton for several years, but he returned to performing in 1977 for a U.S. State Department tour of Africa. From 1975 into the 1980s, he taught at the City University of New York's Hunter College.

In 1986, the same year his autobiography was published, he debuted a new big band in a gala at the Brooklyn Museum. Clayton contributed more than a hundred compositions and arrangements to the band's book, and toured internationally with the group before he died in his sleep in 1991.

Select Discography

As sideman in Basie band and related recordings:

One O’Clock Jump: The Very Best of Count Basie (Columbia-Legacy)

Count Basie – The Complete Decca Recordings (3 CD set, GRP recordings, GRD-3-611).

Covers 1937, 1938 & 1939; includes original recording of “One O’Clock Jump.”

This is Jazz 26: Lester Young (Columbia-Legacy CK 65042)

Includes the best of Young with Basie and Billie Holiday, with Buck Clayton on most tracks, from early 1937 to late 1940 including “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” and “I Must Have That Man.”

This is Jazz 15: Billie Holiday (Columbia-Legacy CK 64622)

Includes 5 tracks on which Clayton accompanies Holiday, including “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” and “Mean To Me.”

Takin’ Off – Sir Charles Thompson (Delmark)

Clayton plays with Thompson, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon, on tracks which include “Takin’ Off” and “Street Beat.”

Contributor: Dean Alger