John Clayton has lost track of how many years he’s been the artistic director of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.“It just shows how those kind of details are the ones I don’t pay attention to,” he said, calling from his home in Pasadena, Calif. “I’m so obsessed with the festival year-in and year-out looking at what kind of improvements we can make, looking at new spaces and talent we can bring to Moscow audiences, I kind of have blinders on.”
Here, Clayton answers questions on what it’s like to run such a big festival, as well as his knowledge of jazz, being that he’s played bass since he was a teen, studying under Ray Brown.
What are some of your duties as artistic director?
I’m responsible for presenting the festival artistically. Making sure that it stays on track with supplying world class artists to perform and also world class educators to help the participating students. That’s just a little bit of it. That’s so broad. My job description keeps changing, and I’m the one that’s changing it. I’m the one that put the program to restructure what happens during the festival week. We now give these students 90 minutes with the clinicians on Wednesday. We can’t do that with everybody. Along with that, we’ve chosen schools, which change every year, that are visited by me to give a personal workshop with them.
How do you work all the way from California?
All you need you is an airport. Sometimes I wished I could just pick up the phone and say “Hey, I’ll meet you on Main Street in an hour at lunch.” Instead, I say, “I’ll meet you tomorrow on Main Street.”
Describe your average day working at the jazz festival.
Wake up at 5:30 a.m. Meet with the clinicians who are going to be working with the students during the daytime and have a pep talk and review with them. Go back to my hotel. Prepare my materials for the sound checks that have to happen for the evening performances. After the sound checks, probably hear some students perform in the late afternoon. Go back in the early evening to prepare for more meet-and-greets of people that are very influential to the jazz festival. Be the master of ceremonies at the performances that evening. Go to the After Hours club to listen to music. Have a glass of wine. Back to my hotel about 1 or 2 a.m. Get up at 5:30 a.m. Repeat.
Looking back through the years, does a certain jazz festival concert or clinic stick out to you?
The first clinic that really blew my mind was the one that I did myself with Ray Brown … We met in the Administration Auditorium and gave a clinic to students. That was the first time I saw the hunger that was evident among the students. That was really cool, because you never know what to expect. Sometimes people are a little blas. Sometimes students are sitting there, because their band directors are forcing them to, but that wasn’t the case.
What is your most memorable collaboration as a musician?
I’m a man with an endless bucket list. I’m really lucky that I’ve (played with) a lot of people on that bucket list: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson. And then there are people that never were on the bucket list, but had I thought about them, they would have been: Queen Latifah, Paul McCartney, Gladys Night, Whitney Houston, Quincy Jones. I’m really lucky, because I’ve been able to work with all those people and I never thought about doing that. It just never occurred to me that I’d have that opportunity so I never put them on the list.
How has jazz evolved in the past few years and where do you see it headed?
I’ve seen it evolve as a music that is inclusive, which means that it’s including influences from other kinds of music. It’s including more and more people. The audiences, the face of the jazz audience, is changing. It’s been redefined. If you were to say “jazz” and pick 20 people and ask them to list names that define jazz in their minds and their experiences, you’d have a list of 20 different answers from each one of those people … Think of the list of different kinds of jazz that you can listen to, whether it’s be-bop, whether it’s swing, progressive … chamber, with hop hop influences, with bossa nova influences from Brazil, with Cuban influences, which started back in the ‘40s, by the way, it’s crazy. I think that jazz is expanding.
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