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James Clay: Texas Tenor, Second Generation

David Perrine By

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The term "Texas tenor" was originally coined to describe the sound and style of such swing era players as Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Budd Johnson, Arnett Cobb and others, and has subsequently been applied to second generation players from Texas that included James Clay, David "Fathead" Newman and Marchel Ivery. What these players had in common was a big sound and a feeling for the blues. Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, in the notes to an album by Clay and Newman, described the Texas sound as "a moan inside the tone."

Texas tenor John Hardee achieved some prominence in the late '40s in New York where he made a number of recordings as a sideman and several under his own name for Regal/Savoy and Blue Note. He was in Count Basie's band for a while and often appeared with Tiny Grimes but eventually tired of the scene and returned to Texas where he taught at several high schools. While teaching and playing in Dallas, Hardee had a big impact on a teenage James Clay, who always cited Hardee as a primary influence, telling David Ritz that "I never knew anyone who played and knew so much tenor." (The best examples of Hardee's playing can be found on an album called A Little Blue recorded in France in 1975.)

Clay cut his teeth at a series of "legendary" jam sessions that took place at Woodman's Hall in South Dallas on Sunday afternoon. Many of the participants ended up in the Ray Charles Orchestra including saxophonists David Newman, Leroy Cooper, Eugene Haltom, Claude Johnson, and Clay as well as drummer John Bryant and others. Clay, who's talents developed early, was looked up to by the other players at Woodman's and acquired the nickname, "Heavy."

In 1956 Clay moved to Los Angeles and began sitting in with the locals. His first chance to record came on July 25, 1956 at one of the Chet Baker sessions for the Chet and Crew album. When Phil Urso lost the charts on the way to the session, the producers decided to record several numbers featuring various players present. Clay chose "In a Sentimental Mood." This was issued on a Pacific Jazz compilation called Solo Flight and also appears on some reissues of Tenor Man. The rhythm section is Bobby Timmons, Jimmy Bond, and Peter Littman. In this early recording, the 20 year old saxophonist exhibits many elements of his mature style, notably a refined lyricism. A long blues featuring all of the participants was also recorded but never issued.

Meanwhile, drummer Larance Marable had a record date coming up and was looking for a tenor player with an especially soulful sound. Despite the bounty of great tenor players in the area at that time, he was having trouble finding the sound he was looking for until someone told him to check out a kid from Dallas who had been sitting in at a local club. The result was the classic Tenor Man album which has been reissued many times, sometimes with bonus cuts. Recorded on August 4, 1956 the album features Clay with Sonny Clark, Jimmy Bond and Marable. There are excellent originals by Clark and Herb Geller as well as a good selection of standards. Despite his youth, it's one of the best albums of Clay's career.

During that same month, Gene Norman recorded five numbers with Frank Morgan, Jack Sheldon, Clay, Timmons, Bond and Marable at his Crescendo club after it had closed for the evening. These came out on a cd reissue of an album called Frank Morgan on the GNP Crescendo label. It's a nice little session although the audio is a bit dull.

After playing with Marable's band for a few months, and then Jack Millman's, Clay joined Red Mitchell's quartet. This was a remarkable collection of young talent with Lorraine Geller, and Billy Higgins joining Clay and Mitchell. The band was taped for the Stars of Jazz TV show, with Frank Capp subbing for Higgins, on February 18 1957. Five numbers were recorded with Clay sitting out on two that featured vocalist Toni Harper. The session came out on LP on the Calliope label and parts of it appeared on CD reissues of Tenor Man.

On March 27th of that year the quartet (with Higgins) recorded the superb Presenting Red Mitchell album. On this album, as well as the TV show and the Frank Morgan session, Clay is heard on flute as well as tenor.

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