James Clay is a name new to many modern-day jazz listeners. But Clay's earliest fame came in the late 1950s when the young woodwind expert arrived on the Los Angeles jazz scene as a contemporary of this fellow Texan Ornette Coleman. Never an avant-garde experimenter like Coleman, Clay was immediately heard by his peers as a gifted mainstream player with ears open to a wide harmonic range. Clay went into obscurity for nearly 30 years before making a comeback.
A fine tenor saxophonist who was part of the long tradition of Texas tenors, Clay was born in Dallas. Although early on he mostly played r&b and blues-oriented music, he was an early associate of Ornette Coleman and was open to playing in freer settings. He spent ten years in the Ray Charles band. He moved up North in the mid-1950s and recorded with drummer Larance Marable in 1956.
In 1960, Clay made his greatest impact, leading two excellent albums for Riverside. “The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces,” teams him with David “Fathead” Newman (another Texas tenor), pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Arthur Taylor. The two tenors battle it out on a variety of tunes and the results are a tie for the saxophonists and a victory for the listeners. “A Double Dose of Soul,” has Clay utilizing Cannonball Adderley’s sidemen (cornetist Nat Adderley, vibraphonist Victor Feldman, Sam Jones, and drummer Louis Hayes) plus pianist Gene Harris in a bop-based program that features Clay doubling on flute.
Rather than building on this promising start, James Clay decided to move back to Texas and become an educator. Very little was heard from him on the national scene until cornetist Don Cherry persuaded Clay to record on his 1988 album “Art Deco.”
He recorded “Cookin’ at the Continental,” for Antilles in 1992 with an all star lineup of David Newman, Roy Hargrove, Kirk Lightsey, Christian McBride, and Winard Harper. On this date he is in fine form and his lighter sound blends well with Newman.
James Clay was still actively performing prior to his 1995 death.