First Bass

Between performing with his big group (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra), his small group (the Clayton Brothers, with brother Jeff and son Gerald), directing jazz festivals, recording with Diana Krall or Yo-Yo Ma, making the cover of Jazz Times this spring, and teaching at USC, John Clayton somehow will find time to serve as artist-in-residence for the 30th anniversary of the Detroit International Jazz Festival Sept. 4-7.

“I love doing the 10 things I’m involved in equally,” Clayton says.

Then again, bass players demonstrate a knack for keeping it all together. “I think it’s because the bassist sits between the personalities and egos of drummers and pianists,” says festival artistic director Terri Pontremoli, who recruited bassist Christian McBride last year. “He has to make things work. [Clayton] is brilliant, he’s kind, he’s got an inclusive nature that really makes people feel good.”

The 56-year-old Los Angeles native and Grammy-winning bassist and composer has made at least six visits to Detroit this year on behalf of the Labor Day weekend tradition. “My goal is to connect with Detroit,” says Clayton, who was hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most technically imposing bassists in jazz.”

“I want to be a part of Detroit, of the music scene,” Clayton says. “I also want to present a piece at the festival that is a righteous statement of what I feel about Detroit and how I’m impressed by it.”

Clayton was commissioned to compose an original work saluting Detroit’s Guardian Building and our first family of jazz: Thad, Elvin, and Hank Jones. When festival organizers asked him for a sample a few months ago, however, he shrugged. “I told them I was working on it,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to think I was blowing smoke here.”

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