Jay Clayton's career as a singer defies easy classification. True, she most often sings jazz, but she's also collaborated with two of the most prominent modern composers of art musicSteve Reich and John Cage. Even when it comes to jazz, her palette is nothing if not diverse; she is as comfortable with free improvisation and electronic music as with standards. After performing for more than two decades in New York, Clayton moved to Seattle in 1982 to head up a vocal jazz program at Cornish College of the Arts. She moved back to New York in 2001 and quickly reestablished her home base there.
Clayton spoke from her home in New Paltz with All About Jazz-New York's Suzanne Lorge about her ongoing musical exploration and current projects.
All About Jazz: What prompted your return to New York and what's been happening for you here since you left Seattle?
Jay Clayton: I had been coming back to New York to perform for all the years I lived in Seattle, but I decided to return because most of my collaborators are here and it's closer to Europe. I go to Europe a lot and it's easier to fly to Europe from New York than from Seattle. And it was just time to get back to this energy. I wasn't here very long before The New School started sending me students, and then Gary Thomasa wonderful tenor playeroffered to have me come down to the Peabody Institute [at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore] and start a vocal jazz program there. So I go down there every two or three weeks, and I have my freelance teaching and that's my basic thing. With that I can focus on performing.
AAJ: Has your career focus changed since you've returned?
JC: My focus is the same, it's just that there are a lot more artists here that I can work with. It's easier to be a more visible presence in New York, even though you can't work in New York itself too much. I work here every few months, but nobody makes their living performing in New York. Still, I love it here because it's very diverseI don't think there's any place like it. It's just got all kinds of music and so many jazz artists. As you know from listening to my music, I'm eclectic in my jazz formsI'll go from standards to free jazz to working with a tap dancer, Brenda Bufalinoand that's the way it's always been. For years I questioned that, but now I understand that it's really my thing. On a sextet or quintet CD you'll hear all of it, from poetry to â""How Deep Is the Ocean." And I love thatI find that you need to explore all of that.
AAJ: Given the broad scope of your work, how do you approach your material?
JC: It's hard to explain music. I just get drawn to a certain kind of material. I have so much repertoire and I keep finding new material. Repertoire is the keysometimes there'll be more standards and fewer originals and sometimes the other way, but there'll always be everything. I'm an improviser, so I'm looking for different vehicles for that. The music has to changesometimes in an angular way, sometimes harmonic and sometimes melodic. And I also choose to work with different musicians, those who have the same taste as I do. But they get to be themselvesthey aren't going to be just accompanying me.
AAJ: What would you say is the most important aspect of a singer's performance?
JC: The message is really it. It could be a verbal or nonverbal message, but if there's a word you have to believe in that word. It's the message that evokes phrasing, the style and dynamics. Sometimes I do nonverbal things, but there is still some kind of message or feeling, and you have to believe what you're trying to say. This is true for instrumentalists, too. They may do a lot of beautiful things, but the ones we love have some sort of emotional connection to whatever they're doing. As singers we get to have a word, so we have to be literal. We might love a song's melody and harmony, but if weâ're not sure about the lyric, I think you just canâ't sing that song. It's important to be true to the story that we're telling. You canâ't do a song if you don't connect to it. The big word is connection.
AAJ: You've worked with lots of prominent instrumentalists. What did you learn from them?
JC: It's true that I've been lucky to know a lot of instrumentalists. My mentors are Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. My God, they wrote beautiful music. In my listening and my discovery of jazz I listened to more horn players and have been more influenced by them. I learned jazz feel and to improvise by listening to them. The singers inspired me to be myself, though. It's interestingwhen you hear someone's voice you can almost tell who they've listened toor haven't. I listen to singers for emotional inspiration.
AAJ: Speaking of singers, you have a long-standing friendship with singer Sheila Jordan. Can you speak about it?
JC: Sheila has been both a mentor and a friend. I first read about her in Down Beat in the '60s, and when I came to New York I sought her out. That was in the '70s. We just hit it off and she's been the best supporter of my music and she's somebody I look up to. She's a decade ahead of me, you see. We have performed together and we teach together and have every intention to record in the future. Wouldn't that be great? We're so different but the same. Now she's one of my best friends. I live in New Paltz and she lives near Albany and we share her apartment in the city, so I go in every week. I share an apartment in the city with Sheila Jordanhow lucky am I? Sheâ's the best!