Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Buck Clayton: A Brief Biography by George Hoefer

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Buck Clayton: has there ever been a better name for a Jazz musician?

Trumpeter Wilbur Dorsey "Buck" Clayton, 1911-1991, became synonymous with two forces in Jazz: the Count Basie Band which he left in 1943 and the Jam Session which he participated in at home and abroad until the end of his life.

Listening to Buck's style reveals an easy affinity for that of Louis Armstrong's, but then, few trumpet players of Buck's generation escaped Pops' influence, nor did Jazz vocalists like Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, among others.

George Hoefer was one of two Associate Editors for Down Beat magazine when he developed the following biography of Buck in 1961.

It’s important to remember “the old guys” who pioneered during the early years of the music because it helps us keep alive an awareness of Jazz’s traditions.

Can you imagine working a Jazz gig in Shanghai for two years during the mid-1930’s China?!

“Watching and listening to trumpeter Buck Clayton gives the feeling of being in the presence of the Rock of Gibraltar in a jazz group.

Clayton is a tall, handsome man with sensitive green eyes. He is always neatly and modishly dressed, and his firm stance seems to dominate the stand and denote solidity. This Clayton-effect seems as true musically as physically, for his trumpet sound is authoritative whether he is soloing, leading the ensemble with an incisive, clean open horn, or furnishing an exciting muted drive behind a blues vocalist.

Clayton is one of those musicians no one worries about. He'll fit into any concert, record date, or band. He frequently is taken for granted, and because of this, he probably has not received as much attention as his playing warrants.

A jazzman, especially one like Clayton, who has grown up with the music, is a creative person whose artistry strives to express not only his own personal emotions but also the feelings of his environment. There are extremes in jazz, but Buck's voice strikes a balance. He is a solo stylist who came out of the swing period after service with one of the greatest jazz bands of the period, Count Basic's.

Like many other solo stars whose musical voice became established in name swing bands, Clayton would not return to band work, even if the bands were plentiful. These stars — Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, to name a few— would feel confined or submerged musically if they were forced to play within the web of arrangements again. To a man, they prefer the small group, where the improvised solo scope is wide and the challenge is open. Nor is the "togetherness" of the modern-jazz chamber group appealing to them.

Fortunately for these titans, the music has attained enough acceptance for them to play it the way, for the most part, they prefer—on recording dates, jazz concerts, tours, a little television, and personal appearances with outlander groups. Their only requisite is headquarters in New York City.

When Clayton was asked if it bothered him to play in out-of-town night clubs in front of local bands, which in many cases are comparatively amateurish, he said, "No. If it's too bad, I just don't listen. The most trouble I've had of that sort has been right here in New York, where there are some bass players who think of themselves as drummers."

The jazz world makes colorful newspaper and magazine copy, but too often the more sensational  aspects of the musician's life are overemphasized. Clayton would not supply that sort of grist. He has his own home out in Jamaica,  N.  Y.,  where he lives with his wife, Patricia, and two young children, a boy and a girl. His hobbies include gardening, with emphasis on rose bushes, along with a deep interest in photography. He takes many color movies of his family and home-life activities. For the last five years he has filmed complete Christmas festivities involving his two children. He accepted a holiday job at George Wein's Storyville in Boston one year with the provision that he could be off Christmas eve to return to his home for a day.

Wilbur Clayton was born in Parsons, Kan., in 1911. His father, a minister, was also a musician and taught Buck piano. The father's instruments were trumpet and bass, but when Buck was high school age, he was given the family trumpet and told to play in the church orchestra. This permitted his father to concentrate on bass in the rhythm section, in which Mrs. Clayton played organ.

About 1927, the George E. Lee Orchestra from Kansas City, Mo., passed through Parsons on its way back from Oklahoma. This band had the late Julia Lee on piano and the great Kansas City drummer, Baby Lovett. Young Clayton, however, was fascinated by Bob Russell, who played five types of trumpet, ranging from a slide trumpet to a bugle. Russell talked to Buck and gave him pointers on the horn.

Buck and another youth left Parsons one day before they had finished high school and hoboed to California. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Buck's conscience began to bother him and he decided to return to Kansas and finish his schooling before settling down on the west coast. After he did, he soon was back in Los Angeles to start a music career.

He began playing in the Red Mill dance hall for taxi dances. Next he became a member of Earl Dancer's 14 Pieces from Harlem, a band made up of California musicians, none of whom ever had been in Harlem. When Dancer left one day, reportedly with the band's money, Clayton found himself with a 14-piece band of his own. They worked steadily on the coast from 1932 to 1934.

During 1932, Clayton had the opportunity to hear, for the first time, Louis Armstrong in front of Luis Russell's Band at Sebastian's Cotton club. Clayton recalls being especially taken with Armstrong's version of I'm Confessin'. He also was inspired by the late Joe Smith's horn when the latter turned up in California with McKinney's Cotton Pickers on a road tour.

When 1934 came, pianist and bandleader Teddy Weatherford, who had inspired Earl Hines back in Chicago, was in California to recruit a band for an engagement in Shanghai, China. He liked Clayton's group and offered them the job.

At that time, Buck was courting Gladys Henderson, an attractive chorus girl at the Cotton club. The chorus line was doubling in the movies, working with Duke Ellington's band in its first film, Check and Double Check. Gladys wanted to go with Clayton. They decided to marry.

Word got around at Paramount, and they stopped making the movie long enough to bring the romance to marriage. Buck, even so, was not so sure this was what he wanted and had not made a definite decision up to the scheduled hour of the marriage. He stood out in front, he recalls, leaning against a telephone pole, trying to decide. The ceremony was held up two hours before they could find Buck. When he was finally escorted inside, the Ellington band started the wedding march, and Clayton recalled the thrill of Cootie Williams' growling trumpet during the procession and the newsreel cameras turning. The Mills Brothers sang during the ceremony, and George Raft, who was featured in the movie, beamed. He had been partially responsible for setting it all up.

The Claytons went to China, where they spent 1934-36, except for 10 days in Japan, working with Weatherford at an English dance hall in Shanghai known as the Canidrome. It was good experience for Clayton, for the band was required to play for tea dances, nightly  dancing, and some concert music such as Rhapsody in Blue.

When Clayton returned to the United States, the band broke up, along with his hasty marriage. Buck had been sending arrangements to Willie Bryant, who had the band at New York City's Ubangi club, and hoped to take his 14 pieces east with him to play under Bryant. The band refused to go so Clayton took off by himself. He got as far as Kansas City.

Oran (Hot Lips) Page wanted to leave the Basie crew, then playing the Reno club, so Clayton moved in to replace Page. The manager refused to pay when Clayton took over the trumpet spot. The rest of the band, some of whom were playing horns held together by rubber bands, pooled their money so Buck could get $2 a night for his efforts.

Shortly after Clayton became a regular member of the Basie group, jazz connoisseur John Hammond arrived in town, and the rest is Basie band history. Buck laughs now when he thinks of how Basie and the boys, including himself, dreamed of the days they would be making the stupendous sum of $100 a week a man. They had been making $18 a week, except for Buck, who got $14.

On their last night in Kansas City, the Basie band fought a battle of bands against Duke Ellington in the Paseo ballroom. Clayton remembers that Basie's men were cocky and their spirit won the battle, even though they played out of tune.

The Basie band's first engagement out of KC saw them follow the great Fletcher Henderson Band into Chicago's Grand Terrace. The band laid an egg there. But Buck and other Basie-ites had a chance to hear Roy Eldridge and Zutty Singleton's jam band in the Three Deuces. The next seven years held many kicks for Basie's bandsmen. They made many records (starting with their ill-fated arrangement with Decca that deprived them of royalties), including many small-group sessions, like the Teddy Wilson sides with Billie Holiday, on which Clayton's accompanying horn is outstanding.

On the Basie bandstand, after the Grand Terrace bomb, Clayton recalled the unique relationship between saxophonists Herschel Evans and Lester Young. Clayton said they admired each other's playing but were not particularly friendly. They sometimes traded choruses while sitting back to back on the stand, their styles miles apart. The night that Evans was taken to a hospital, the band was playing a battle of bands in Connecticut, and Herschel played wonderfully, Clayton said, as though he had a premonition that it would be his last chance. He was taken to New York in an ambulance after the session and never returned to the band. But the story that there was an empty chair on the bandstand for a long time after Evans' death is the product of some writer's imagination.

Clayton left Basie in 1943 to go into the army for three years. He never went back to a regular job with a big band after coming out of the service. After several seasons as a featured soloist with Jazz at the Philharmonic, he settled down in New York City and has operated on a freelance basis since.

He is in demand in many different corners of the jazz world. His work has included many Dixieland concerts, and he credits the New Orleans clarinetist, Tony Parenti, for teaching him Dixie techniques — as well as showing him how to make spaghetti sauce. Buck's favorite Dixieland trumpeters are Charlie Teagarden and Wild Bill Davison. For six months in the last year, Clayton was the featured horn at Eddie Condon's club in New York.

Clayton has made several tours in Europe. In France, he has been under the sponsorship of both Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassie, who represent opposite poles of jazz tastes. They are good friends of Buck's, but dislike each other, which amuses Clayton. He was not amused, however, when on one concert date for Panassie, the followers of Delaunay cut the wires to the microphones from under the stage.

Trumpeter Clayton recorded for many years under an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, but recently has been making records with various companies as a freelancer. Early in the fall he was the featured horn man on a Kansas City-style date organized by Tom Gwaltney, a former Bobby Hackett and Billy Butterfield clarinetist. A record company executive remarked as he listened to Buck's horn solo on K.C. Ballad, “That Buck — he couldn't play badly if he tried."

The trumpet-playing Kansan is looking forward to a one-month tour of Switzerland, Germany, and France during January, 1961, for the Harold Davison booking office of London.

Clayton will take his favorite musicians on the trip: Emmett Berry, trumpet; Dickie Wells, trombone; Buddy Tate, tenor saxophone; Earl Warren, alto saxophone, and Gene Ramey, bass. He still has to locate a pianist and drummer and also is working on getting either Big Joe Turner or Jimmy Witherspoon to go along and sing the blues.”

Ah, the Jazz world in 1961.

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