Greg Clayton Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

Greg Clayton is a well renowned and respected working Jazz Guitar player and educator In Montreal, Quebec. In this Part one of a two part interview, Greg shares with us his thoughts on his early musical influences, his associations with Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney, and his views on life as a Jazz Guitarist. A very interesting read indeed.

Interview by Lyle Robinson in person 2005

“So it’s good to check the original melody. That’s another good reason to work with singers who are not necessarily Jazz musicians because they generally sing the legit melody and that’s where you find that “hey, this hip substitution doesn’t work” or it just doesn’t fit with the tune, so the more knowledge of the tune the better.”

JGL: Hi Greg and thanks for dropping by to speak with Jazz Guitar Life.

GC: My pleasure.

JGL: Let’s start off by talking a bit about your background. First off, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?

GC: I was born in 1951 so that would make me 54 now.

JGL: I have seen you on more than a few occasions around Montreal over the years and have always been impressed with your dedication and perseverance to the Jazz art form. What got you into Jazz Guitar and Jazz in general?

GC: Well, my mother would always have the radio on and as a kid in the early fifties I heard all the standards on the radio, all those tunes. I mean there were a lot of corny versions but none the less. And although I am of the age of the baby boomers and the rock generation and all of that, I was exposed to all this music on the radio so I knew all the Sinatra standards, and not the corny stuff of a later period, but all the hip stuff like the Nelson Riddle stuff and then Nat King Cole. All the stuff they played on the radio even though it was commercial in those days it wasn’t like commercial means today. I mean you’d get “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window” and an early Elvis tune or whatever, but you also got Sinatra singing “The Song Is You” or “Witchcraft”, you know what I mean?

JGL: Sure. And this was in Montreal?

GC: Yeah. I grew up in Lachine. So that’s how I think I got exposed to all that stuff. Later I found out when older musicians would ask me if I know such-and-such a tune I would say “I don’t think so”…then when I heard a few bars it would be like “oh yeah, I heard that tune before…” So that helped me a lot because when I thought I didn’t know them, they were there in the “soundtrack” of my early years somewhere in the back of my mind. So I was exposed to what would be Pop music but with good harmonies, nice arrangements, and a higher musical value that was the norm for my generation with Top 40 Radio as an example. Then my Parents were into stuff like the Metropolitan Opera which was always on Saturday all day. So I heard a lot of Opera music and my folks listened to a lot of Classical music so I heard that in the background. And then like any kid of my age I got into the whole Rock and Blues thing. And through the Blues of course, listening to guys like T Bone Walker, it was very close to Wes Montgomery.

So that’s how that all happened. So I don’t remember exactly when but I always liked it. However, I do remember one pivotal thing. I bought an early Wes Montgomery Riverside album and a Charlie Parker live album, “Bird on 52nd Street” or something like that, and it had “Star Eyes” on it and “This Time The Dreams On Me”. And I recognized the songs. I could hear the progressions and such from when I was a little kid you see? So I related to it even though I was more interested in the Blues tunes they were doing than the standards, even with Wes. I was in a record store and this guy says to me “You like Blues. You might like this guy, Wes Montgomery”…So I checked it out and I heard “Polka Dots and Moon Beams” and the other tunes and once again, I recognized the chord patterns and other stuff and it sparked something inside of me from when I was a kid. So that’s how I started to like this stuff.

JGL: Do you remember what age this was all happening for you?

GC: In my teens…my later teens actually.

JGL: Were you playing guitar at this point?

GC: Yeah. Like a lot of kids of my generation I played a little bit of guitar and I knew a few chords, open chords, that sort of thing. I was around during the Folk music “scare” of the 60’s (chuckles) so I learned a little Folk guitar. I remember this girl showing me how to fingerpick at some Coffee House and a few things like that although I was never serious about it. But I did play and as a kid in high school I was in a few bands playing school dances and stuff but that was all Top 40 stuff. And believe it or not I was the singer in those bands. I didn’t always play guitar…

JGL: Oh wow…

GC: Yeah…lol…

JGL: Do you have any tapes of those days…

GC: No! Thank God, no. I don’t know how I ever did it because I couldn’t do it today…lol…so that’s it. But I guess this is all to say that I began performing at a young age. I guess around 12, and I think that kind of helped in a way, you know, performing for people, but being young and not knowing that perhaps I should be nervous…lol…

JGL: So you bought the Wes and Parker albums…

GC: Yeah. That opened the floodgates. I don’t recall exactly when but I do remember it was right around the time that Coltrane died, maybe a year or so later. There was a Down Beat magazine that had Trane on the cover and I remember reading that. In those days it was hard to find out about Jazz so what I used to do when I got a record was to look at the personnel. Like on the Wes album for example, which had Tommy Flanagan, Pearcy Heath, and whoever else. Then when I went to the record store downtown I would look for their names on other records. That’s how I discovered the “Giant Steps” album. That was one of my first albums and I loved it right away. I just loved it. And I think because I heard the swing thing when I was younger I could relate to it right away. And even though I grew up in the Rock era, I was not really a Rock Guitar player. I was just a guy who knew a little Folk picking and could play a bit of Blues. But what really got me back into the guitar was listening to the Wes album and I remember that I had learned a bunch of things off this particular Wes album by ear and I didn’t trust that I was hearing it right because I didn’t know the names of chords. For example, some kid when I was younger showed me an augmented 9th chord and said “this is called D extended”. I mean this was the extent to which we knew theory. I mean you learned by watching and listening and we didn’t have the great information we have now unless you studied arranging with somebody but you know, we were just kids at the time.

Anyways, so I would try and pick off those lines from Wes and then Mickey Baker’s book came out a couple of years later, and I saw the raised and flat nine terminology in one of his lines, or something like that, but I finally understood, it was like “wow, that’s what Wes was playing, I must be playing this right ‘cause it fits!” So that’s how I started to learn and being the kind of person I am I got interested in theory so I went out and bought a little harmony book “The Basis of Music” that dealt with intervals and what-not because there were no Jazz programs when I started out at least not in Canada. So I taught myself the basics and then learnt it from then on. The difference we had in my day was that you had clubs like Rockheads and The Hotel de Province and others. So there were a few clubs around and there was an older generation of musicians like Charlie Biddles (Bassist), Nelson and Ivan Symonds, two of Montreal’s notable Jazz Guitarists and quite a few American Black musicians who had relocated here. So there was a scene, a Jazz scene in Montreal…

JGL: A very healthy Jazz scene…

GC: Yeah. But I wasn’t around in the heyday of the Forties and early Fifties and all of that, but even when I was coming up there was still a lot of these guys around who were still pretty much in their forties, so we could learn from them. They were very generous in answering questions. I can remember playing one time with Ivan’s (Symonds) rhythm section and there was this bass player by the name of Nick Aldrich. Nick was actually a pianist who played at the Cotton Club when Duke Ellington was there and he was in that movie “Stormy Weather”. Anyway, he later moved here as a Fender bass player (electric bass) and he was a great “two” player. He played a fantastic two all night and was really swinging his ass off. Plus, he knew all the tunes and I could remember him telling me things so you could learn from some of these guys which is something that is less available today. Although it kind of balances out. Nowadays you have all this fantastic information but in those days you had less people going after it but there were the elders up there playing…

JGL: Guys on the bandstand that you could latch onto?

GC: Exactly right. And later I met Andre White’s father Keith (local players) and Art Roberts (local and legendary Jazz pianist) and they were very helpful too so it wasn’t just the Black musicians. But there was this connection with the American scene at that time, or the tail end of it anyway.

JGL: I remember when I was coming up back in the early 80’s there was a club called “The Rising Sun” which used to always have the name cats playing every week. Guys like Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Larry Corryell…

GC: Yeah, yeah…Dexter Gordon. Actually, Dexter would show up with his whole band, not just a local pick-up group, which is fine as well, but you got to see a stage full of top professional players and they’d be there for six nights and you could talk to them and hang out a bit. I used to sit on the drummer’s side all the time and watch the drummers play at the The Rising Sun, it was great. I often tell my students that we used to have at least one celebrity Jazz club and that helped a lot. Now you just have the Montreal Jazz festival and that’s pretty much it. Unless you check out the guys playing in town, and there are a lot of good things happening in Montreal at the local level but I’m talking about being able to see the icons of Jazz…

JGL: Exactly. I remember seeing Tal Farlow…

GC: At the “Jazz Bar”?

JGL: Exactly. And as I mention in my “interview” it was great to see him but there was only like six people in the club. But that could have been due to the fact that it was the first night…

GC: Right, because I went to see him after a gig one night on a Saturday and the place was packed so you probably saw him on that Thursday…

JGL: Yeah. Well I’m glad to hear that the place was packed because I was a little disappointed that hardly anyone showed up…and he played wonderfully, regardless of the poor turn out. Anyway, getting back to you, so basically you consider yourself self-taught?

GC: Yeah, I’m self taught, except that I did take a summer semester at Berklee in the early seventies. But at the time I couldn’t afford to go and stay, and in those days you couldn’t get grants or loans to study outside of the country unless it was graduate work. And since there was no undergraduate degree for electric guitar, or Jazz music or plectrum guitar in Canada, I was caught in a “Catch 22” I must say I did learn there , did meet some people and I played some gigs and I did learn some arranging stuff and things like that. This kind of information is of course widely available today I’m primarily self taught for better or for worse.

JGL: Cool. And as we talked about on the phone a few days ago, that’s where you met Steve Carter, who I have interviewed on Jazz Guitar Life…

GC: Yeah, exactly right. Steve was my teacher in my summer semester at Berklee and was a great guy and very helpful in my figuring some things out, very helpful. And I later found out, I think you told me, that it was his first year there and I was one of his first crop of students. Interestingly enough, he was very much steeped in the Leavitt method which of course was his job description at the time and it was good for me because I already knew how to do stuff and I knew what I wanted to do. So it was good to have that discipline. Actually I remember that he taught me how to read quarter note triplets…you know, things like that…things that we take for granted…especially when you’re self taught, an ear player…things that could get harder to learn when you’re older. So I remember that from Steve and a lot of players have gone through studying with him I’m sure…

JGL: Yeah, I would imagine a great many players owe a lot to Steve. So getting back to the early years, you were working around Montreal at the time. Have you always worked as a Jazz player or did you have day jobs…

GC: Well, it was a little easier in the 70’s and 80’s, as well as I was younger and didn’t have a family so there was less money to make but it seemed like it was easier because there were less Jazz musicians so I suppose there wasn’t that much more work, just less players around. And I always did a little teaching on the side. There was always someone asking for lessons. I went through quite a few of those years where I just made it by music. But again, not all those gigs were Jazz.

I remember one year I worked with a drummer and an accordion player and we had a gig every Saturday night playing for a Golden Age club “Age D’or” and that plus an afternoon of teaching a week paid all my expenses for the month so I was free to practice, go to sessions, play Jazz gigs, stay out until five in the morning, you know what I mean? You just can’t do that today, it’s just not affordable. But then it was easier to do plus I would spend some time teaching in music stores and since 1988 I have been teaching at McGill (Montreal University). Plus I have been rather fortunate to be playing six nights a week for the past ten years and before that, in general, a couple of nights a week. But it’s tough to just get by playing Jazz.

JGL: So you found that you needed to supplement your income by teaching at McGill?

GC: Yeah. In my case I haven’t played a Jazz club in a long time with the exception of going to Toronto occasionally and playing the Senator ,The Smithsonian Jazz café in Washington DC things like that, but, I’m playing restaurants. I have a singer and while I love working with singers, don’t get me wrong, I’m also not out there blowing on sixty choruses of “I Got Rhythm” or playing “Impressions” or stuff like that. But I get to play a lot of great tunes and I’m working every night. But even that’s a compromise in a way. Although for me it works great because I get home early, I get to see my kids , and stuff like that.

JGL: True…

GC: I found actually by meeting both Tal and Jimmy Raney and getting to know them that it’s not quite what it seems…

JGL: Really?

GC: Oh yeah man. Tal used to tell me “man, you’re lucky to have so much work”.

JGL: Wow…really!?

GC: Yeah! But again, he was in his seventies at the time…

JGL: But he also had a second career as well with his sign painting…

GC: Yeah…I honestly wonder to what degree he did that as a living…I never asked him…

JGL: Well didn’t he take some time off from his career playing to devote to his other passions?

GC: Well that’s what the story is. To be honest I don’t know that much about it. There are probably others who knew him well during that time. A guy like Dan Axelrod would be someone to get in touch with to talk about Tal because he was a close friend of Tal’s for many, many years. He’d be able to fill in all the gaps because there are so many myths and legends about Tal Farlow.

JGL: I guess we only know what we read…

GC: That’s right…and what you hear word of mouth. You know how stories get thrown around…

JGL: Oh yeah! Since we are on the topic of Tal, would you mind talking briefly about your relationship with Tal?

GC: I met Tal through a friend, Randy Cole [who was a friend of mine at the time] who was also interested in writing. He had done a fantastic interview with Chuck Wayne for Cadence Magazine which ran over two issues, a really good oral history, and he had asked me who I thought he should do next. And since he was a guitar player he wanted to start with a few guitar players and he had plans to eventually do a book of these interviews. So I said, “why don’t you call Tal?” I had Tal’s number, I forget why I had Tal’s number, but anyway I gave him Tal’s number and Tal agreed so my friend said “why don’t you come down with me?” So I ended up going down to meet Tal and I spent the day at his place and we played all day and eventually I asked Tal if he would give me a lesson and he said “sure, anytime, just call me”. So to make a long story short I made a few trips down to “study” with him which really meant just hanging out with him and playing all day long…

JGL: Man that must have been great!

GC: Yeah it was great, especially watching him play these amazing chord melody things which unfortunately, were never really documented. Near the end of his life, well you know his heyday of a line player had sort of passed because he wasn’t keeping that active, but he had continued to do chord stuff that was very inventive and unique. He should have recorded a record or two of just him playing but that never happened. So anyways, we got friendly and we booked a CBC “Jazz Beat” show together which unfortunately didn’t happen because Tal became ill and then passed away.

JGL: Wow. Those are some memories I’m sure that you never want to forget.

GC: That’s right.

JGL: Ok, so you have been working in Montreal for a long time playing and that you have had to make a compromise in a sense playing I guess more…

GC: A little more commercially palatable music. I have a singer and I mean we are not going to play “The Way We Were”. I mean the audience knows that it’s a jazz oriented gig so we play some good standards that people know and a lot that people don’t know. Now I am not talking about playing commercially because we have a vocalist, although that definitely helps because more people will relate to the words of a song than they will relate to how you have reharmonized the bridge to a particular tune…

JGL: Or how you phrase the melody…

GC: Right! Exactly…and you can still get to do a lot of nice things in that context…

JGL: And this is with a Bass player as well?

GC: Yes. Generally it’s Guitar and Bass with the Vocals, and drums when the budget can afford it. As a matter of fact at Modavie on Saturday we do add a drummer, which caps the week off nicely because we can sort off kick it up a notch. You know, in keeping with the theme of your site, as to how to keep working in this day and age and make a living, you have to decide what it is you want to do. I went through periods of playing only straight ahead Jazz doing two weeks here and then being off for two weeks and then having nothing for three weeks and then getting two single night gigs here and there. I mean let’s face it, working in a town that has only a few Jazz clubs, they don’t want to see you every week. So there’s a limited amount of work that you can do just playing instrumentally. I tried that and it was great and I got a lot out of it. But then, when I found myself playing with singers a little more, I found that I was also working a little more and I thought “hey, this is good too”. And even though I wasn’t blowing over sixteen choruses of “Cherokee”..lol…I realized that I was playing more choruses in a week than if I played every third week at some Jazz club. Then there’s teaching. As I’m sure you know, just about everybody teaches today, even a lot of the well known guys, the New York guys, they have to…

JGL: It’s unfortunate that they have to some thing apart from just playing to make a living. I mean it’s not a bad thing necessarily but…

GC: Well yeah, but it’s also part of the social contract today. It’s part of teaching the younger players what you know and passing it on. It’s a different way of passing it on. When I was a young man starting out I went to Nelson Symonds, I went to Ivan Symonds, I went to a pianist named Stan Patrick as well as friends my age. You sought these people out for what they could show you and they taught you this really hard music and it was great. I remember Andre White’s father Keith, for example, had written all these tunes, sort of like Tristano (piano player) lines based on standard progressions. And these were really tough pieces played fast and I killed myself learning these things but I’m glad I did. It was a great experience and from a player twice my age who had played with some heavy people.

So this had always been the tradition in Jazz, the social contract. Now this is taking place in Universities and all the kids are not networking in clubs they are networking in schools and they are meeting the older, established players in their community in schools rather than in the clubs. And it’s just the way it is and we have to deal with it. I don’ think it’s necessarily unfortunate, it’s just different. It is unfortunate in that the culture of live entertainment is hurting in our society. But I guess there’s not much we can do about it…

JGL: Not until there’s a great wind of change in this city as well as other places around the globe. One thing that I have been trying to do, which is also why Jazz Guitar Life exists, is to bring the likes of yourself, Joe Finn, Steve Carter, Larry Camp, and all the other wonderful, yet unknown, Jazz Guitarists existing today, to the people. To create an awareness of the huge talent that is out there. And in the end, hopefully drive some support to these artists through a representation of print, as well as live and recorded music. To have an audience that accepts the artist and the music he or she wants to perform with a willingness of support and participation. To be honest, I find it to be a daunting task and a difficult thing to think of…but you never know.

GC: Yeah and that’s great, but you have to remember that the music business is a business and that’s what I try and tell the kids. I’m not trying to be cynical but you have to remember that it’s no accident that during Jazz Festival season every Jazz magazine has got the same people on the cover, the same articles inside, the same record companies releasing the same records…it’s a business. And that same industry has a vested interest in telling you that last year’s thing is no longer hip, it’s no longer modern, and it’s no longer any good because they want to sell this year’s thing. At the same time they keep the reissue thing going which is a whole other side of the coin, you know what I mean?

I remember one year Clifford Jordan (saxophonist) came to McGill to give a clinic and he said “listen, I hate reissues. I never got paid for those sessions, or got paid peanuts. I don’t own the masters, and when people go into a store today what are they going to buy? My old reissue which is nine bucks because the company paid it off in 1957 and it’s got Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones, and whoever else is on the record. Or are they going to buy my great new record which I do happen to own, with a great rhythm section of players from Europe which you have never heard of?” So the reissues are kicking the asses of guys today…at the same time…and it’s interesting, you’ll notice… a few people when the CD boom exploded…you’ll notice that a few artists suddenly didn’t have all of their back catalog reissued, notably Miles Davis and notably Dizzy. Both guys who had good business acumen, were with good companies, and the companies said “hey, were not going to shoot ourselves in the foot with their current material. We’ll let their old material come out slowly.” Meanwhile everybody else was in trouble with cheap reissues competing with their recent stuff. So I tell the kids, “look, it’s a business.” So don’t let them tell you what to like. You decide what to like. It’s in their best interest to tell you that each year, “THIS” whatever it is, is the new greatest thing.

JGL: It gets to me as well. Especially in this day of…

GC: Uber-marketing?

JGL: Precisely…

GC: We all know this…the readers of your site know this. The question then is how to get your music out there. I don’t know. Maybe only the greatest innovators, and how many are there each century, should only be the ones to do this for a living. I don’t know what the answer to that is. Maybe what were doing, those of us who play Jazz, in whatever form, 60’s Miles quintet style, or 40’s Bird and Diz style, or 50’s Clifford Jordan style, it’s all still music from forty or fifty years ago or even thirty years ago. What’s the difference if your playing Return To Forever from the 70’s or Miles Quintet, it’s all a long time ago and my belief is that this is our folk music and should be honored as such. There’s room for everybody to participate. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be as popular, as famous, or even as good as say Wayne Shorter but how many people are?

I remember, having had a little bit of a relationship with Jimmy Raney, I tried to get him to come to Montreal to do a clinic one year and we were also going to book a concert for him. He couldn’t make it though because he had this problem, Menieres disease, with his ear. I ended up going to Louisville where he was living at the time to do a record with Kevin Dean, back in the mid 90’s but unfortunately Jimmy had passed away the year before which was sort of ironic for me because he was one of my heroes and I wanted to meet him as well but sadly never did. But I did end up having quite a number of interesting and lengthy conversations with him and he was saying that “maybe only Bird will be remembered or maybe only Louis Armstrong and Bird will be remembered in this century”. But we don’t know because we’re still in it. We’re still in Armstrong’s era historically speaking. Whether it’s Armstrong, or Scott Hamilton (saxophonist), or Wayne Shorter, or Henry Threadgill, or Trumpeter Dave Douglas, we’re all in the same era.

JGL: At the end of the day I think it just comes down to you like what you like and you do what you do. If people dig it they dig it, and if they don’t they don’t. That’s the way it is and I’m sorry, but I am not going to play what you want to hear unless you want to hear what I got to say.

GC: Which brings us back to your question of how we get over that hurdle. It’s not really about getting over, it’s not about being famous, it’s about being able to work, being able to do what you love, what you want to do. The whole idea about getting a “reputation” in the business is not so that people can say “oh hey, there goes Joe Blow. He can play 2-5’s in minor thirds all day long”. It’s about opportunity to do more. We are all confronted by this massive era of self promotion and gotta do this…or you’re supposed to do this, you know what I mean? And that’s why I say “well, maybe it’s a folk music, maybe the process is what you should be into. Learning to play, learning to play better, then networking with the people around you however far out that circle goes. And just staying with it, doing what you want to do and doing what you have to do to survive will doing it.

There was a great article by Jimmy Raney on the Net, I haven’t seen it in a while and I think it might have been taken down, anyway, the title of it was “Things Down Beat Never Told Me” and he tells his experiences as a kid in Louisville reading about his heroes in the Jazz world and then finally getting there himself as the epitome of the hip New York Jazz musician and he basically debunked the whole myth. There were no chauffeurs and he went on and on. It’s all relative I guess. I tell my students at McGill to learn as much as they can, to check out all the styles, to check out all the players, because there is going to become a time when you have less time to do this and also, if you are fortunate to start working in music people are going to call you for what they perceive you do well, not necessarily what you think you do well. They’ll call you for what they want you to do and once you start doing that now in a way you are stuck with it. People will say “yeah, call him or her for this and that”. So you have to be careful in what you do. A lot of guys say “yeah, I’d rather play in a Heavy Metal band than have to teach because at least I’m playing.” And I always say “yeah, that’s fine, that’s very cool. But just remember that you are going to get known as a Heavy Metal player and you may never make it back as the “Celtic” Jazz player you always wanted to be…lol.

It’s the same thing for teaching. I made the commitment to teaching, by myself, after I went through a little period of playing some Top 40 in the 70’s. I began to realize that first of all I was being unfair to the musicians I was with because they were into it as much as I was into my Hank Mobley records. I mean these guys were going home, and this was during the Disco period, and checking out the R&B stuff and I love it, but I didn’t check it out like they did. I just got by playing it because I am a musician and I have a certain amount of skill and you listen to the record and do what has to be done. So anyway, I began to feel that this was disingenuous because these people are passionate about it and I’m not. At least not as much. Secondly, I started losing my Jazz chops because I’m playing a small body guitar, skinny strings, I’m bending notes and for my kind of Jazz I wouldn’t be doing that. And more importantly I would get called for a nice Jazz gig and I couldn’t make it because I was part of a “band” playing a steady Top 40 gig. So you have to make choices in life and all these things factor into how you and others define yourself and are things young musicians should be made aware of. But at first you should do everything. You have to try it all, find out what your aptitudes are, what you are good at and more importantly what you are not good at, what you love, what you don’t hear, what you do hear more naturally, you know what I’m saying?

JGL: Most definitely, and I totally agree. Getting way off topic for just a second, who are you listening to now?

GC: Well to be honest with you I really don’t do it much. I want to get to know more classical stuff Oh yeah and the seven CD Art Tatumn solo masterpieces fantastic!! The last stuff I bought, and of course I always buy some of my old favorites like if a Mosaic box set comes out or something like that of course I’ll get it. I recently bought the “Tal Farlow Complete on Mosaic” even though I had all the records over the years anyway but it’s nice to have it all in one place, you know…will I actually go back and listen to it? Maybe when I retire because I just don’t have the time now. I will listen though if I need to learn a tune or sometimes I’ll buy some of the vocal records because I want to fill in the gaps to some of my collection, like the Capital Sinatra stuff which I got over the past ten or fifteen years, you know, stuff like that. For me now it’s more for repertoire or just to hear tunes played differently.

A bass player I used to work with who I learned a lot from, his name is Roy Eastman and he was a monster talent, a gifted musician. With Roy, and Christ this is going back like twenty five years ago now, he was an older guy and I learned a lot from him by playing with him, just listening to his line, I really learned to hear the bass line much, much better by playing with this guy. And he would follow you anywhere. Sometimes if you began to slip and slide he would follow then we would be both somewhere else and he would say “you started it”…lol. But this guy hipped me, while traveling to long distance gigs in his car, listening to easy listening radio late late at night and hearing these syrupy versions of “Night and Day” or whatever. But he’d say “listen to the string line here” or “listen to the bass line” and you’d notice that they had gone through the whole tune with a climbing chromatic bass line and then after the first chorus it would chromatically descend all the way back down. So you know, good stuff can be found anywhere.

So basically I’ll listen to anything I hear. If I’m playing the car radio I still love to hear good R&B tunes[ in fact they kill me] or whatever. But in terms of the kind of listening I think you are asking about, I really don’t do that much of it anymore although I still have all the same old favorites. I’m a very big fan of Hank Mobley and Barry Harris I like a lot. I also really like the Hard Bop period, you know, the Blue Note Jazz period and my friends and I played a lot of those tunes many years ago and really learned a lot of that stuff. You know, the Blue Note Wayne Shorter stuff. It’s not necessarily guitar music but it’s a big part of the whole thing. And of course I listen to all the Bird and Diz and anything of that ilk. But in terms of Guitar players, man I like them all. You listen to someone like Lenny Breau and his early career stuff and you’re amazed by it or any of these guy today. Like we were talking about Jack Wilkins before…man…he needs to put out an album of chord melody arrangements. So there’s lots of great stuff to check out.

JGL: Definitely, and not enough time to hear everything…lol. Now speaking of CD’s and checking people out, let’s talk a bit about your CD “Live at Boomers”.

GC: Oh yeah…that’s the only CD I have done under my own name. This was done with Jerry Fuller (drums) and Dave Young (bass) and we recorded live over a couple of nights in a local club here back in ’97. The producers wanted to put me with someone like Dave Young who is sort of known among guitar fans as a guitarists’ bass player who had recorded with Lenny Breau and had an association with Oscar Peterson and had recorded with Pass and others. Jerry Fuller of course was thought of, and he’s no longer with us, as Canada’s Bop drummer, you know a straight ahead, cooking, Hard Bop kind of drummer. So it was great to have him on the date. Jerry and I became real tight and worked together quite a bit after that date. So essentially, we just showed up at the gig, played, and they recorded us. That would be the benefit I would say because we’re stretching out and there’s a lot of great Dave Young on it.

JGL: Cool. Of course you know I have listened to it a lot and I find it to a marvelous performance from all concerned. If people want to check it out where can they get it?

GC: If anybody’s interested they can get it off my web site at www.gregclayton.com directly through Pay Pal. More recently there’s one CD I did with John Labelle called “Too Close For Comfort” and that’s one I’m a little bit proud of because …well lets just say that most of us can’t listen to our own playing and I never sit around listening to my own playing. But there are a few things on that CD when we listened back to it in the studio that I was sort of happy about and thought that stuff came off ok. And again, it’s a guitar trio behind John’s vocals. Which is nice, because it frees you up from playing the melody and you get to do some nice chordal things in the background.

We also have a new one coming out and I’m not sure what the title is but there will be a new coming out with John Labelle and the Greg Clayton Trio and we are also doing another one that was recorded back in around 2000 up in Toronto with Neil Swainson and Jerry Fuller. From that session there’s some duo stuff John and I did together. This was after the session was over and after the guys left. It was just for the the fun of it and it actually came out really well. I think that’s coming out this year as well and that should be called “Love Should Swing” so watch for that one. And I did an album with Richard Parris here in Montreal. Richard is a fantastic Tenor Saxophone player and I worked with him and his group and Richard was also on one of my gigs and we worked that together for a couple of years, so we had an association together. Actually, he was another guy who I learned things from late in my life just by standing next to him. He’s the closest thing Montreal or another city has ever had to Sonny Stitt (sax player) and he’s known by the cat’s state side as well. His contemporary Jimmy Heath wrote a suite for him called “The Upper Neighbor Suite”. Richard is one of the unsung heroes. And that CD I’m on is a live concert called “Body and Soul.

And then I’m on another couple of CD’s by the singer George Evans and the first record I did which many people have told me it’s the one they like the most is the one I did with Kevin Dean on Jamey Aeborsold’s record label called Double Time Jazz down in Louisville Kentucky, and it’s called “Kevin’s Heaven” because it has Hank Marr on it, a master of the B3 . Hank has got his own style. He reminds me of a miniature Basie band on organ. In fact we did a week at the Senator with him a year after we did the recording and by the end of the week man we were barking…Hank was just taking us all to Church…it was just amazing. We should have recorded that week I tell you.

I also should mention a record I did with Dorothy Berryman. Dorothy is a very well known Quebecois actress and vedette and she’s been nominated for an Academy Award. She’s very well known in the Francophone world. She’s also been a Cabaret singer and she’s been trying her hand at Jazz and did her first record which was very well received and then she put together a different band for her second record which I was on and that was a very pleasant experience because she is a really amazing person, a beautiful person. So it was fun doing that and that is also out and it’s called “PS I Love You”. So that’s pretty much what I have done recording wise.

JGL: Cool. I look forward to hearing those CD’s. I’m curious, off the top of your head, how many tunes do you know?

GC: Oh boy…I honestly don’t know…John says that we have over 500 tunes in our working book, John being the vocalist John Labelle who works with me and I with him for the past ten years or so. Now this is not a book of arrangements, but tunes that are less known, tunes that a bass player might not know right off if you just called it. Plus there are a lot of tunes that have not yet made it into the book. There are many that we just haven’t gotten to yet, written down, or that we don’t need to write down because most of the guys will know the tune or if they don’t we will just pick something else that night. Actually, that’s another benefit of working a lot because you get to know a lot of tunes. And that’s really important, playing them in different keys too…

JGL: That’s one thing I wanted to ask you Greg. How do you go about learning tunes?

GC: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I am fortunate that I know what a lot of these sound like and of course because I have been doing this for a very long time, but what I strongly stress in my students, apart from transcribing and copying their heroes and learning the vernacular that way which is the time honored way, is that from the beginning, no matter how rudimentary, is to do your own chord melody solos either by ear if you know the song or if not, take a lead sheet if you are not sure how the melody goes. And let me tell you something, professionals often want the lead sheet too, because we know some recordings are really a paraphrase of a paraphrase of a paraphrase. So it’s good to check the original melody. That’s another good reason to work with singers who are not necessarily Jazz musicians because they generally sing the legit melody and that’s where you find that “hey, this hip substitution doesn’t work” or it just doesn’t fit with the tune, so the more knowledge of the tune the better.

There are some great books out now with some good lead sheets, stuff like the Frank Mantooth books and I heard these legit “Real Books” are really good but I haven’t seen one yet. So if you don’t know the tune start by getting the lead sheet and matching up the chord group that you know with the melody and start trying to put things together. The more you do it the more sophisticated you’ll get and the more you will begin to hear. And even if this is not the way you normally play try and emulate a piano player. You know, the guy who plays in a piano bar and goes through a ton of tunes rubato or maybe a little bit in time. You don’t have to be an imitation of Joe Pass and do it all finger-style with walking bass lines and all that…although that’s great to do if you can. I was sort of into that style at one time and did some gigs like that but for me personally it got boring because I didn’t have anybody to play with and to play off of. So I got tired of hearing myself real fast and the other thing that bugged me about it was if you play the guitar and you play finger-style and you play in time and play Bebop you’re going to sound like Joe. And I used to play tunes and people would come up to me and say “that’s Joe Pass’s arrangement” and it wasn’t, I was just playing the song. I got so fed up with that and this is not to take anything away from Joe because he’s the master of that way of playing and was an amazing character…

JGL: But for your own identity…

GC: Right! So I had to let that slide and I also had to admit that I have really bad nails as you can see and I have to use those acrylic nails from the nail salon. I mean I like the facility with the fingers, you can do more stuff with your left hand, and I still do a bit of it. But I like the sound with a pick too. So anyway, whatever your style you don’t have to be like Joe or Lenny Breau. I’m talking about…you can play the most rudimentary style with your pick “clanging” off the strings…which by the way is great too, especially when you hear some of those amazing pick practitioners and what they can do with solo stuff too is amazing. So try and learn in that style because you learn so much. It makes you learn about the bass line, it makes you learn about the inner voices and the melody, how things match up, the whys and wherefores of substitutions, it’s all in there. All of your stuff for blowing, the way the guitar works as a machine, it’s all in there in the way the chords move and so I highly stress that. Some young musicians don’t see the value in it at first, I mean of course there are some who are really into it, but for the most that are not I try and get them into it, because for me that’s exactly how I learned. I took tunes apart and tried to figure out ways to play them by myself not to perform them, although I would use some of that in intros and whatever, but more importantly it was to just do it for the fun of playing it to learn how the tune works.

And another thing I would stress and I am only coming to terms with this after forty years as a player, is that every instrument has an identity, it works a certain way. I’ve spent the last thirty-nine years and nine months trying to go the other way, trying to fit a square peg in a round whole…lol…trying to do everything but the guitaristic way. I have finally come to accept the instrument and doing guitaristic things and you know what, it works. You can grab it quick, it doesn’t muck up the flow of things, and besides, if you want to play saxophone lines get a sax! Now I’m not saying it’s not great to study other stuff, because you really need to check out all music, but on your instrument sometimes you get hung up by thinking “wow…if only I could play what a Tenor player does” or “if only I could do what a piano player does with voicings”. Well you can’t. You’re just giving yourself a world of hurt for nothing.

JGL: Exactly…lol…

GC: What I wanted to really say here was, and I’m not the first to say this, actually it was mentioned by Joe Pass in his old orange book, explore the chromatic and symmetrical nature of the guitar because that is what makes the guitar what it is as a machine. The fact that you can easily move stuff around…I used to look at that as a cop-out and think that it wasn’t good enough…but that’s what actually gives the instrument its identity. Use it. Explore it. It’s got some of the most powerful chordal effects by just moving the same thing around. And actually thinking that way, thinking chromatically and symmetrically, is a natural way to approach this machine, you know what I mean? So that’s another piece of advice I would give young cats, try to see the geometry of the board. Although it’s a pretty daunting task as you can imagine.

JGL: Most definitely. And thank you for bringing up the idea of playing guitar like a guitar. That’s been a pet peeve of mine for many years. If you love guitar then play guitar, don’t be a frustrated sax player or piano player on guitar…

GC: That’s right. It doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from other instruments, and in fact you should if you want to play swing feel/lines you gotta check out the masters of sax and trumpet, but first learn what the guitar can do or sound like naturally…

JGL: Exactly. Anyway, I’m very glad that you brought that up. So moving right along…what guitars are you currently playing and what do have in the way of guitars?

GC: Oh God…lol…the reason why I say that is because over the years I have had a bunch of guitars like an ES125, different types of guitars, non-cutaway ones, solid bodies, the occasional Telecaster, folk guitars, and more. I guess my first pro Jazz guitar was an ES295 which was P90 (pickups) model from the 50’s that I wish I still had. It was a great axe and your natural ES175 reminds me of it. Anyway, when Michel Cusson of UZEB fame (Quebec fusion band) wanted to buy his first guitar synth he had a Super 400, a late 60’s Super 400 CES electric, 2 pick ups, for sale. And I’m sure he regrets selling it now but he wanted to finance his guitar synth and anyway now he’s famous so he didn’t get hurt by it and it actually worked for him.

But anyway, so I bought that guitar and I worked with it for many, many years and it’s a fantastic axe with a killer electric sound from the bottom to the top. Interestingly enough a lot of players don’t like the Gibson’s from the 60’s because they have a slimmer nut width the 1 and 9/16th’s and this has that I feel I made the transition pretty easily having gone from the wide nut with a shorter scale to the slimmer nut with a longer scale. I was a little concerned that things might be a little wider apart but by the time I got used to it I hadn’t really even noticed that it had a slimmer neck and I played it for 25 years or so until I finally started wanting a back-up guitar. You know, the back of the Super 400’s finish was coming off from me playing it so long and I had sold some of my other gear so I had some bread saved up and I felt it was time for another nice guitar. So then I started looking and had gone through half a dozen L5’s never finding one that I really liked and so on. Actually what I have here with me is a 60’s Johnny Smith. I go between a 17inch Gibson with humbuckers or the floating pick-up Johnny Smith. There both great guitars and they both have their good and bad points.

JGL: I did an interview with master luthier Michael Greenfield, who by the way mentioned your name as we spoke “off air” and I was just curious if you would ever go that route? Have one built for you?

GC: Actually I know Michael, he’s excellent and I did have one built for me a while back by a luthier named Brian Monty who is a great artist, and a great builder too. Essentially I am an arch-top guy and I’ve played some great luthier guitars, but I find that most of the time, for performing live, I need a routed pick-up. Especially when you are playing with drums and all the other instruments in a group. With this Johnny Smith I can get away with it. For some reason this is a great sounding Johnny Smith pick-up.

JGL: It sure is. What are you using to drive this baby?

GC: I’m using the Claris and Razors Edge and I think it’s killer…it’s really great although basically I’m a tube amp guy with my favorite amp being a brown Fender Deluxe from 1960, but the Claris is just so compact and is just a great amp. When I recorded the last record with it, Andre White, the engineer on the session said “man, that amp records very well” so you know what works, works.

JGL: In addition to yourself Canada has many wonderful jazz guitarists like Ed Bickert, Lorne Lofsky, Reg Schwagger, and the list goes on. What do think of the Canadian jazz guitar scene in general and is there a different mentality or approach that Canadian artists offer?

GC: Im not sure there is another mentality as we are all North Americans but each area has its players and I guess we all reflect our locations somewhat. In my case as I said my guitar models were the usual suspects and Id certainly include Ed Bickert in the group with Wes, Raney, et al. More local influences were mainly Nelson Symonds and Ivan Symonds around Montreal, then a bit later Peter Leitch and Sonny Greenwich although I was pretty well on my path by the time I heard and or met Sonny and Peter. These guys were all encouraging as were the more well known guys I met such as Joe Pass, Tal Farlow , Jimmy Raney and I try to be a cheering section for the young people coming up and in fact I feel its part of the social contract for us to pass information on to the next generation. This is very strong in the larger jazz artist community as well and as I said I’m in full accord with the idea.

JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)

GC: I love harmony so solo guitar is fun to do on my own but its not something I go after because for me the joy is playing with others. I do prefer to be the only chord instrument as its free harmonically but I can dig any situation where the players are working together and listening to each other.

JGL: Do you think that improvisation can be taught or is it an intrinsic thing?

GC: Music comes from the soul and the heart so I guess its intrinsic but of course we all learn and techniques can be taught and learned. I know its spiritual energy though.

JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?

GC: Leaving out the worst Ive been lucky to work with quite a number of wonderful artists[most not famous] and I’m open to learning from them all. Most recently was a gig with Shelia Jordan which was mind blowing for reasons too numerous to go into but suffice to say Shelia is a deep, soulful artist. Some others that have had a positive effect have been Fred Henke (a longtime friend), Hank Marr, Billy Higgins, Richard Parris and in fact just about any of my musical confreres here. The whole name game thing never gives the real picture as its a technique more related to business and publicity/credibility rather than music.

JGL: Getting a little personal, you have been very fortunate in your chosen career you work practically every night, you teach at an internationally recognized University (McGill), you have recorded both as a leader and sideman, and you have played with and been associated with some major players. Do you feel that you have reached the pinnacle of your career and are satisfied with your current situation as a player or is there something that you still feel the need to reach out for?

GC: Just to play better and perhaps get some better work. I tell my students to forget fame then see if you really want to continue. I think if you asked most jazz players the question re recognition they would all pretty much agree that whether in the NYC big time or locally, recognition is just a tool to get more work. And, if one wants to continue in music, one must work.

JGL: Have you written any original material and if so, do you plan on ever getting those tunes out on record?

GC: I recorded an original called Misdemeanor on my trio CD Live at Boomers and back in the 80s performed some original material at Place Des Arts during the Montreal Jazz Festival. A few years back I did a set of my tunes for a TV pilot which was never released.

JGL: Do you have any plans to follow-up Live at Boomers?

GC: Yes. I have a colleague here who says he wants to produce a new CD for me this summer and if it pans out I will include some of my own things on it. Id like to do it and am keeping my fingers crossed!

JGL: You played at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. How did the gig come about and what was the experience like?

GC: John Labelle and I have been friends with Leslie Whipkey for quite a few years now and John and I had both worked in Washington DC separately but ended up having a gig together in DC so the Smithsonian offered us the gig since we were to be in town. Randall Kremer is a great guy and a real supporter of jazz guitar and I hope to go back and fill an invitation to play there with my trio in the not too distant future.

JGL: Thanks Greg for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life.

GC: My pleasure Lyle. I love the site.

To learn more about Greg, check out his website at www.gregclayton.com

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*