John Clayton is as interesting to talk to as he is an artist of great talent and experience. The former has allowed him to interact with numerous major figures of his time as well as have long tenures performing with aggregations as diverse as Count Basie
's band and the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. The latter gives him interesting perspectives on topics such as drugs and building a career in jazz. His busy schedule made successfully speaking to him difficult, but what he had to say made it well worth the effort. All About Jazz:
You have a pending duo project with the late Mulgrew Miller
. How did it come about? When will it be released? John Clayton:
That is a long story. It came about because of Hank Jones
. I was at the Lionel Hampton Festival some years ago playing with Hank Jones. We were backstage, and I said to him, "You once made a record I'm really, really jealous of." He said, "Oh? What is that?" "You made a record with Charlie Haden
of Negro spirituals, and it is fantastic. I just love it." He said, "Thank you. Why are you jealous?" I said, "Because I wish it had been me." He laughed and said, "Well why don't we get together, and do something." I said, "Wow. It would be an honor." So, I planned for that. In New York, I found a time that would work for both of us, got the studio, the engineer and everything lined up. Just before the date, he was touring in Japan, became ill, and couldn't make it. So, I had the studio and engineer and no Hank.
Another of my dreams was to go into the studio with Mulgrew Miller. I got introduced to Mulgrew through James Williams
, also a good friend. Years before, James said to me, "I know we are having fun, but you have to hear Mulgrew Miller." I did, and the three of us became friends. I called Mulgrew and said, "What do you think of just going into the studio? I'll pay you whatever you need, and we will just play." He said, "It sounds great. Let's do it." Mulgrew and I decided to do at least one or two numbers by James Williams, and [then] recorded whatever we felt like recording, enough to make a CD.
I had the second day, and I called up my son Gerald and said, "Hey would you like to go into the studio, and just play for a bit?" He said, "Yeah. It sounds like fun." So, Gerald and I made a recording in one day, just playing whatever we wanted. I don't know how many months or a year went by, and Hank Jones called and said, "I'm coming to Los Angeles. I've got a concert on this date. Would you join me on the concert?" I said, "I'd love to. Would this be a good time to revisit the idea of getting together to do something in the studio?" He said "Sure. Let's do it." So, I was in Los Angeles, booked Capitol Studios, got my engineer, [and] we went in.
Hank came actually with notes and titles of spiritual songs that he had done with Charlie Hayden. He remembered that conversation, which was more than two years before, that I loved that album. He didn't have any written music, but he had all the titles, so we ended up just doing our version of Negro spirituals. It was fascinating to do that with him and see how he put the whole thing together. There were actually Baptist church songs that I had grown up with that he didn't know. So, I taught him my repertoire, and we did that Negro Spirituals album. I wanted to release the Hank Jones record first, because that was the whole idea of this project. Then Hank died. It felt like bad timing to release an album soon after his death. I didn't want people to think I was taking commercial advantage of his passing. So, I ended up releasing the one with Gerald and me first. Then I was going to release the Mulgrew Miller recording, and Mulgrew died. That was a shock and another huge loss. I ended up waiting a bit more, and then releasing the Hank Jones album.
Now after all these years, I am excited to release the Mulgrew recordings, which had us playing duos, having fun. We are going to release it within the next year or two. A couple of other people are doing some Mulgrew projects, and on the one hand, I love all this attention that Mulgrew is getting. On the other hand, I don't want to compete with them. I'd rather find a good time to release the Mulgrew recording that isn't especially feeling that I am competing with my friends. On the other hand, it doesn't matter. The more Mulgrew, the better. It will come out. AAJ:
Since you mentioned several great artists passing, I wanted to ask about Chet Baker's death. You had lived in Amsterdam, and there are lingering doubts about his death there. Did any of your Dutch musician friends say anything to you about it? JC:
The people I talked to believe he just fell out of the window. They don't think he was pushed. I knew two of the big drug pushers, so I think I know probably who was dealing the drugs to him, unfortunately. Ugh, that was a sad situation, not only for him, but for other people. Like so many musicians, I've got a lot of drug stories. I remember [while] living in Holland, doing a gig in Belgium with the great saxophonist Sal Nistico
. He was hooked on heroin. The concert was great, [but] there was a snow storm. I was going to give him a ride back to Amsterdam after the gig, [but] I said, "We should stick around, get a hotel." He wouldn't have it. He stressed on me the importance of getting to Amsterdam. I had to drive from Belgium, so that Sal, who was nodding off in my car, could get his supply of drugs.
That was a sad period in the life of jazz artists, but, sure, people still have drug problems. It is nowhere near the problem that it was then, even in the '80s and '90s when the cocaine thing was really, really popular. I remember, this must have been in the '80s, going to the Parisian Room, a jazz club in Los Angeles, and I heard some famous musicians playing. Ray Brown
was also in the band. During the break, they all went into the back room to just laugh, tell lies and all that stuff. We were sitting around in almost a circle talking and laughing. Then somebody passed out a plate of cocaine, and all these musicians would do a line. When that plate got to me, Ray Brown reached around, grabbed the plate and said, "No. He doesn't do that." I don't mind telling that story, not because of the sadness of musicians that were hooked on cocaine, but just the fatherly protection that Ray Brown provided me, and once again, that support you find in the jazz community. It's so deep, and it is something that most people don't know about. They see jazz musicians on stage having a good time playing great, laughing it up, all that kind of thing; most don't realize how deep the connection musicians can have to each other. AAJ:
Is there any film, novel or story that you feel truly captures the life of a musician? JC:
I haven't seen one film that makes me think, "That's it. They really captured it," unless it is a documentary. To me, too many of the books, biographies and autobiographies, try to spice things up where there wasn't any spice for the sake of the product. The thing is, having said that, those books and films often have moments that are really reflective of what the musician is feeling or thinking, or what the life is like. So, I'm not saying across the board, that they are no good. Some gems can come out of them.
Thank goodness somebody recorded Count Basie; I think it might be on that The Last of the Blue Devils movie. It focused on Kansas City jazz and Count Basie. I remember somebody asked Count Basie what he hoped people would say about him after he had gone. He said, "That I was a nice guy." That doesn't seem like a big deal, unless you knew Count Basie. He was a nice guy. He didn't like confrontation, and didn't like [people] going away with the impression that he was anything [but] happy and loving. People would say to me, "What's he really like?" I would always say, "Exactly the way you see him, that is the way he is." It was true.
Count Basie is another big chapter in my life, because so many things happened with us. When I was standing at his left hand, where I always stood, I was not only able to witness him musically, watch his left hand and all that, but I could see his mind working. We were playing a concert, and some guy was stumbling over drunk. Somehow, he got on stage and started toward Count Basie. Remember, we're playing a song. Immediately, a security guy comes from the wings to get this guy. Count Basie waved off the guard. The guy kind of stumbled up to Count Basie and rested his elbow on the piano so he didn't fall and reached out to shake Count Basie's hand. Count Basie looked up at him, smiled a huge smile, and shook his hand. Then the guy left. The security guard helped him off. Count Basie saw that there was no threat there. I saw so many things like that. He was otherworldly in a natural, low key, nothing to see here, kind of way. AAJ:
Do you have any career souvenirs people visiting you can see? JC:
I keep photographs of my heroes, friends, concerts, events, recordings, and things like that. I have the obligatory awards hanging on the wall. A visitor would see my instruments. Frankly, those are living monuments. After Ray Brown died, his wife, who was like a mother to me, said, "I'm keeping Pop's bass for you if you want to buy it." I couldn't do it immediately after he died. It was too emotional. But, after a couple of years, I did buy his bass. So, that is like a holy grail. Whenever I play it, I realize, "You know this bass played with Oscar Peterson, Ella, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and on and on and on.
There is another bass I have had since 1973. People will see me play, and they know about me having the Ray Brown bass. and will ask, "Is that Ray Brown's bass?" And I tell them, "Well actually ...," because when I was at Indiana University going to school, I didn't have an instrument. I borrowed instruments. During the summer of my first year at Indiana University, I went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey big band with Jeff Hamilton
and a bunch of other young musicians under the direction of Murray McEachern
, a great trombonist.
We were in Toronto one day. I had a little time free and went to a music shop and saw some basses that weren't of great quality. I asked the man, "Do you have any other basses?" He said, "We have one really good one in for repair that the owner is thinking of selling." I played an open D string and went, "WOW!" I said, "How much is he asking for it?" He said, "I think $1,000." Now $1,000 in 1972 or '73 for a student at a university was like $10,000. I didn't have that kind of money. I thanked him and left. I told Ray Brown about it. Ray Brown flew from Los Angeles to Toronto, and paid for that bass. So, when people ask me, "Is that the Ray Brown bass? I tell them, "Yes." When I share that with younger people, I tell them, "This is the music family that you are now a part of. This is how we work. This is how we function. This is how we support each other."
When I was with Count Basie, each Christmas he would give something to the band. One Christmas he gave the band a silver money clip with a twenty or two twenties folded into the clip. I still have that money clip with that twenty-dollar bill that Count Basie gave me. That is something that people coming to my house wouldn't see. AAJ:
I live in New Jersey, has anything of importance in your career taken place here? JC:
Well, the kinds of friendships you build in this music world are so deep and precious. I remember situations that allowed my friendships to deepen. Milt Jackson
lived in Teaneck, as did Rufus Reid
. I remember Milt Jackson saying to me, "Are you going to be in New York on such and such a date?" I said, "I don't think so. Why?" He said, "Oh if you were, I was going to have you on this record of bebop tunes I'm going to do with Jon Faddis
, Jimmy Heath
, J.J. Johnson
, Cedar Walton
, and Mickey Roker
." I said, "Wait a minute. If I can get there, do you think they will pay me to stay at a hotel? You don't even have to pay me to be on the record. I just want to be a part of that." He said, "Of course we will pay you, and why don't you stay with me?" So, I stayed at Milt's house. I had met Sandy, his wife before, because she and Cecelia Brown, Ray Brown's wife are still best buds. I got shown so much love and hospitality staying with Milt Jackson and Sandy, I can't put in words how heartwarming that whole experience was.
On another occasion I was supposed to meet Sandy Jackson. I took a train to Teaneck, and I couldn't reach Sandy. She wasn't answering her phone. I didn't know what to do, or where to go. I called Rufus Reid. Rufus Reid got in his car, hurried over and picked me up, and took me to his house. He and I were good friends then, but it [was] just a deepening bond created by that gesture. He and his wife Doris just took me in, and we just hung out until Sandy Jackson came home. Those things sound kind of small, but if I think of New Jersey, I immediately think of those really important happenings in my life. AAJ:
Who are the most memorable characters that you have worked with? JC:
Memorable characters? Let's see: Monty Alexander
is an important memorable character in my life. He was, and still is, almost a Type-A personality, which is having him almost bounce off the walls all the time; very quirky. I don't mean that in a negative way. I can laugh at this now, but in the two years I played with Monty Alexander, with the exception of TV and radio things, we never started on time. I mean, we would be there ready to go, and then we would never start on time. I had to go from that, to joining Count Basie, which was like flicking a switch, because if the Basie bus was leaving at 8:30 and you weren't on at 8:30, you found your own way to the airport.
Jeff Hamilton would be on that list. He is my best friend. He's got a personality that is loving and giving. You talk to any of his students that have stuck by him, and you will hear the same stories that he was always so giving to them. Deep friendships like ours are like marriages. There are times we are not in agreement about how to handle a situation, but we're wise enough to know when to give the other person more space. It was fascinating to see Paul McCartney
function in a kind of intimate studio setting. I'm the bassist, and bass players are always in the middle. I'm the guy that divides the trumpet ego from the drum ego, or the piano ego from the drum ego. So, I see both sides. I remember we were trying to put together a quick arrangement, and Paul McCartney went to the piano. He played a chord, and said to Diana Krall
, Anthony Wilson
and me, "You know I don't know what you call this, but this is the sound I'm looking for." I thought, "How about that. This guy is 70 years old. He is comfortable enough in his skin that he can basically admit to his musician friends that, "Here is this chord. I don't know what this chord is called." That is a humility that most people don't understand. That is opening up in a way that most people can't.
I also saw that he was able to analyze a strange situation, like Count Basie. We were recording, and trying different things. If you know Jeff Hamilton like I do, you know that in a recording situation like that, he is going to verbally contribute when he feels comfortable. Primarily, he is going to do his best, giving everybody what they need. I remember Jeff grappling with himself, "Should I, shouldn't I?" Finally, he got the guts up to say to Paul McCartney, "I know you are looking for something. Do you want me to try brushes on this?" Paul McCartney said, "No, I think I want to keep it sticks," and Jeff said, "Okay, no problem," in a kind of hurried fashion.
What Paul McCartney didn't understand, but I think he then deduced is Jeff wants to be there for everybody and aims to please. It took quite a bit for him to throw that idea into the mix. When Paul McCartney said, "No I want to go with this," basically Jeff was throwing up his hands, and backing out of the way. I know how much Jeff wants to please, and make sure it's the right thing. Paul McCartney didn't know that, but I watched as Jeff was saying, "No problem." I could see that Paul McCartney understood what was going on. Most artists that I've worked with, if that same thing had happened, they wouldn't have understood. Paul McCartney got Jeff Hamilton. That was fascinating, so I would have to put him on the list. Nina Simone
. That was an experience, doing a recording project with her. Of course, I knew about the artistry, and the really important things that she did, during the civil rights movement, etc. But this was later in her career. I also knew that she had issues: she was mentally unstable etc. So, recording with her was an honor, because of just who she was, but I got to see that mental side of her that made me go, "Wow! I think I just want to step away from the scene." Ella Fitzgerald
would be on the list for complete opposite reasons. I remember witnessing the great Ella Fitzgerald act so much like a timid little girl, so insecure and so concerned that she would say, "You think they liked me? Do you think that was okay? Do you think that people liked it?" I thought, "Oh my God! You are Ella Fitzgerald!" But she was extremely insecure, and so kind. She called everybody "Baby," "Honey," and "Sweetheart." She taught me that singers actually paid attention to lyrics. Oddly enough, I had never given that much thought. I was making a record with her and Count Basie. The arrangements were by Benny Carter, and one song was "Organ Grinder Swing." It was great. The band was swinging. She was amazing, but I had my headphones on, and before we recorded the song, I could hear her musing to herself, "Boy these sure are some dumb lyrics." I thought to myself, "Wow, singers think about lyrics." How obvious that is, and how stupid I felt. Here I am in my twenties and I had never given it much thought that the story of the song is the most important thing. Ella taught me that. AAJ:
You spent five years as principal bassist with the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Did you notice any difference in the cultures of those European musicians and American musicians? JC:
In terms of culture, yes. In terms of the music, less. In other words, if it was time to swing, they could really swing. But there might have been other culture related details that weren't realized. For instance, if I say to someone here in the states, "We're going to play this song, and it should conger up thoughts of fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread, and sweet potato pie on the side." That is something we can envision, and that can kick our taste buds into gear. But, if I say that to someone who has grown up in Europe, they might understand what those foods are, but it won't be something that's in their culture. That backdrop is a part of the music. It would be missing from that European's experience.
It works the other way around too. There are things that they would do in a true Viennese waltz, for instance. In the orchestras I played in growing up, we didn't have the same flair, the understanding of the groove, to a Viennese waltz that people from Austria had experienced. So, it's kind of like that. There are always some things in our cultures that prevent us from fully understanding, even if it is sort of an innate understanding, of someone else's culture. AAJ:
How were you treated by the rest of the orchestra? JC:
I can think of a few European countries that are that easy, but Holland is definitely one of the most open and borderless thinking countries that you can find. They have always been that way, and they remain that way. So, it was open arms, all the way. I sat next to a Dutch guy who became one of my best friends. He was the assistant principal, and he was so wonderful. He played beautifully. He knew this music in and out. I was a newbie. I obviously had done an audition well enough for them to offer me the job, but I really didn't know this music.
He was always helping me, instructing me, and I finally said, "You're so good. Why don't you have this chair?" He just smiled and said, "Nah, I don't want the pressure." I didn't mind the pressure. I was learning a lot. I'd get my butt kicked, go home, and do the homework, so as not to embarrass myself in that way the following day. I'd have to find another way to embarrass myself, which I did. That meant more homework. That is really how I did it for a few years until I had played enough of the music, knew how to breathe and move and help the section with my body language and gestures, and what to demand from them, etc. I had to learn all that, and this guy taught me. So, they were completely accepting, welcoming and helpful.
I remember the first rehearsal, before we played the first note, the conductor made a couple of announcements, and then said, "We also want to welcome our new principal bassist, John Clayton." The orchestra applauded. Great. Then we started whatever symphony we were going to play. Well, in jazz, when a conductor moves his or her hands, that's a real strict indication of where you are supposed to play the beat. It's not always that way in classical music. So, the conductor gave a clear downbeat, no one played on that downbeat except me. That was my first day; a small example of what I had to do, and what I experienced in the orchestra. AAJ:
What were you suppose to do on that downbeat? JC:
Well, it depends on a few things: the composer of the piece, and the mood of the music, the tempo of the piece. So, if you are playing a piece that is sad and dramatic, and it is written by Beethoven, for instance, then, when the conductor gives the downbeat, you are supposed to wait until the appropriate amount of seconds, nano-seconds, whatever, breathe as one, and then play. It is almost as if you don't dare to be the first to play. Now if you are playing a piece by George Gershwin
, or by Wynton Marsalis
, the orchestra looks at who the composer is, and they calculate, "Oh, okay a more modern composer. Let's assume that when the conductor gives that downbeat, we are all supposed to play on that downbeat." AAJ:
When and how did music really become so important in your life? JC:
It did start with my mother. She played piano and organ, and conducted the church choir, so we heard her playing. We had to be in a very musical Baptist church every Sunday since my mom was the choir director. It also meant sometimes listening to rehearsals, definitely being there morning, noon and night on Sundays. It was music filled. I remember when we would go to other churches, fellowship churches, I always looked forward to their musical presentations, and I was always bored by the sermons. I just wanted more music. I was just naturally drawn to the music. I enjoyed it. I heard it there and my mother playing at home, but also, we listened to the radio a lot. That is where I heard all the Motown, R&B, and soul that I grew up with. Not jazz. My mom would always turn on the religious stations, but we listened to the soul and R&B. When I got to high school is when I really started playing jazz. AAJ:
How important was the music program in public schools to your development? JC:
It was crucial. Being the oldest of seven, in basically a single parent household, we didn't have the money to pay for music lessons, rent instruments and all that. Actually, my mother found a way to make it happen when she saw that we were interested in music. She found a piano teacher that she could afford. I remember in elementary school, being interested in clarinet and they offered music lessons at that school, but we couldn't afford to rent that clarinet, so I took some lessons, and then had to stop.
In Mark Twain Junior High School, I walked into the band room at 13 years old. The band director said, "What would you like to play?" I looked around, and I saw this tuba hanging on the wall. I said, "Can I play that big thing over there?" He said, "Sure," and wrote "tuba" after it. As I left, I saw these four gorgeous brown things standing in the corner, and said, "Can I play that instead?" The band director crossed off tuba, and wrote down my destiny. That happened in junior high school. They had a program, instruments, and they gave instructions.
Then in Venice High School they had an even stronger program with a jazz band, a symphony orchestra, choir, marching band, concert band and music courses in theory. It was just phenomenal. So, the music programs in public schools were essential, and, by and large, the major catapult that helped musicians to move forward with music. That's gone now. [That] high school either doesn't have a music program or for a while they didn't have a music program. I think they have started it up again, but it is fledgling, hanging by a thread. AAJ:
How did you get to study with Ray Brown? JC:
When I was in high school, one of my bass buddies, Vern Verona, said, "You've got to hear this record I've found at the Venice Library." We went to the library, and listened to a record of Oscar Peterson with Ed Thigpen on drums, and Ray Brown on bass. The song was "Billy Boy." I'd never heard a bass played like that in my life. I was floored. My high school band director had earlier seen that I was really interested in this music and said, "We need to get you a teacher." So, he found a classical teacher for me, and I studied with him for some months. In my next lesson after hearing the Ray Brown record, I asked the teacher, "Have you ever heard of Ray Brown?" He said, "Sure. He's a friend of mine." Then he got a letter from Ray saying, "Dear Mr. Siegel, Would you please tell your students about a class I'm teaching called 'Workshop in Jazz Bass' at UCLA." That was my last classical lesson with that guy.
I saved $65 dollars, and I enrolled in the class that Ray Brown was teaching. It was an extension course that met every other week and, even though I was still in high school, I could take the course, so I did. That is how that relationship began. Of course, after it finished, Ray Brown said, "We need to get you back studying with another classical teacher." He found another for me, and I was also playing electric bass at that time, so he also organized electric bass lessons for me with the great electric bassist, Carol Kaye
. That is how I met Ray Brown and how he started helping me. That continued until the day he died. AAJ:
Did he give you any career advice that you pass on to your students? JC:
It is easy for me to say that most of the advice I give my students stems from what he gave me, including that fact that I am giving them that information. Ray Brown said to me, after me thanking him profusely so many times, and saying to him, "You've got to be tired of me always saying thank you. You have helped me so much." And he said, "No. I'm doing this because somebody did it for me, and you are going to do it for somebody else down the line." That's the rule, the credo, the law that we musicians live by. AAJ:
How did Quincy Jones
become a mentor? JC:
First I heard his music, of course, as I was discovering jazz. Then, after the class with Ray Brown had ended at UCLA, I continued to follow Ray around to recording sessions, live club performances, to anything he would allow me to join him on, I was there. At that time, that was in the early 70's, Ray Brown was a business partner with Quincy Jones. So, I got to go to some recording sessions that [he] was doing with Quincy Jones and meet Quincy Jones. And Quincy, being Quincy Jones just, with open arms, welcomed me. He said, "why don't you come by the house sometime?" So, I'd go, and he would talk with me, and play music for me. So, that is how that connection came about, through Ray Brown, again. AAJ:
How did your mother react to your decision to make jazz your career? JC:
My mom said, "I only want two things from all of my children," in terms of life career choices. "One, that you finish school." By that she meant college. "Number two, that you do something that's legal." [Her] whole thing was, "Chose what you want to do, don't get into trouble, and finish school." There were so many minorities and poor people that weren't finishing school in the 50's and 60's. Too many. They were immediately going to work. My mom was working at least two jobs. She eventually went from a teacher at a school for children with disabilities, which didn't pay much money at all, to finally getting a "good job," a mail carrier at the post office. Back in the late 60's, that was a huge deal, especially for minorities. It was a government job, well paid, benefits, pension, etc.
I remember I had a gig in one of my first years of college, I think it paid $75, which was huge money back then. The next day, my mom said, "So you played last night. How did it go?" I said, "Oh, fine." "They paid you?" "Yeah, they paid me. I made $75." She just froze. Then she said, "$75 in one night? Do you know how long it takes me to make $75?" From around that point on, she never questioned what I was doing, because it was legal, I was enjoying it, and I was bringing in pretty damn good money. AAJ:
Please tell us about playing at the White House. JC:
I played the White House with Diana Krall. I got an e-mail from Diana's office, and the subject line said, "Are you available December such and such, dinner with the POTUS?" Barack Obama was president then. I just froze, then wrote back, "Are you kidding?" [Then] I called her and said, "I got this e-mail..." She said, "Can you make it?" I said, "Yes. That's incredible." She said, "I'm so excited. It's the White House senior staff Christmas dinner." I said, "Great." Diana uses different musicians from time to time, so I didn't know who else was going to be in the band. I said, "Well who else is playing with us, Jeff Hamilton, Anthony Wilson?" She said, "Nope. It is just a duo, you and me."
Long story short, we get to the White House, and she and Elvis Costello
, her husband] had dinner upstairs with them. I was downstairs, and had dinner with a couple of other people. I didn't mind. I'm in the White House. I got to go into different rooms, and was actually in a small library by myself with these amazing books from the 1700's. It was fantastic. I was telling somebody, "I was actually in a room by myself. Yeah, by myself. Wink! Wink!" The gentleman, who worked in the White House said, "Nope. You were by yourself. There are no hidden cameras in this part of the White House." That was pretty wonderful and eerie.
So anyway, we went upstairs, I got my bass, and it was a very short stage, about a foot off the ground, a small step. I put my bass down, and put the end pin in the bottom. I pick up my bass, and the end pin ends up catching on this gold mesh decoration for this Christmas tree. I go, "Oh my God." I put the bass down untangle it; pick it up, the same thing happens again, When I put it down the second time, Michelle Obama stands up to walk over to say, "Can I help you?" I say, "Oh, ah, ah, no that's okay. Thank you, thank you." Michelle Obama to the rescue.
Anyway, we played. At the end of the performance, Barak Obama walks on the stage and says, [In a good imitation of the president.] "Okay everybody. Thanks for comin.' Have a great Christmas. We'll see you after the holidays. Okay, goodbye" Then he turned to Diana and me and said, "Hey guys, let's go get some pictures taken." I thought, "Oh my God. The president of the United States just gave me an order." He and Diana, Elvis and Michelle Obama started walking out. I put my bass down to start following them, and I bumped into Susan Rice. And Susan Rice went, "Oh, you are a hero of mine." I went, "Ah, ah, I'm your hero? I love what you do." And then I saw the president, Diana and Elvis going into a room down the hall. I said to Susan Rice, "I'm sorry," I wanted to talk to her all night. "I have to run."
I walked into the room, and they were already taking pictures. Barack Obama said to me, "Hey John, come on in and get in the picture." I just thought, "He knows my name." I walked in, and I'm in the middle, Michelle Obama on my left, and Diana on my right. We took pictures, and then it was over. I'm standing next to Michelle Obama. I said, "You know, now that I am meeting you in person, I'm at a loss for words. But I just have to say thank you so much for all that you do for our people, our country, our families." She said, "Yes, it is really about families. Isn't it?" We had this brief talk about the importance of family, and I felt what I heard everybody say about her personality and her power. It was palpable, right there in my face, literally. Then other people from Diana's crew walked in, and Barack Obama says, "Hey guys, come on, get in the picture." Now I've had my day in the sun, so I went to the end of the line, to be part of the picture, but not in the middle anymore. Barack Obama leaned over from the other side of this string of people and says, "Hey John, come over here. Stand next to me." Okay, if you want to kill me now, it's quite okay. No problem. I stood next to Barack Obama, and we had these pictures taken. That day, or the day before, he had just come back from Sandy Hook. He had been dealing with the families, talking and consoling them. I said to him, "I really feel for all that you are going through. This is a really heavy, heavy time for you." He said, "Yeah. It is." I said, "I know you have a lot to deal with, but I want you to know that I'm responsible for you being here, because I voted for you." He laughed. That was an event that I will never ever forget.
I've also met George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. My meeting with George W. was a handshake and a few sentences. Bill Clinton, I met also via Diana Krall. He was there for a fundraiser to help fight cancer. Diana's mother died of cancer, and I was very close to their family. After the performance, Bill Clinton spoke to me, and I was excited to meet him. The first thing he said to me, "Boy, I sure do love your music. I'm a big fan. When you play, it really reminds me of all those years I used to go hear Ray Brown." I was floored. We just stood and talked about jazz and Ray Brown. It was exactly what people had said, when you talk to Bill Clinton, it is as if the rest of the world was on hold. He was completely focused on what we were engaged in, in that moment. I'm a pretty lucky guy.