One of the amazing benefits of sailing on The Jazz Cruise (or any of the Jazz Cruises sailings for that matter) is the opportunity to build or renew long-term relationships with like-minded people. That’s true not only of our guests, but also of the musicians, many of whom form friendships and collaborations on board that later end up as bands or recordings. Or some of whom simply reconnect with musical partners who go back years or even decades.
One such case is the unique bond of John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, who have known each other for, yes, 50 years. They met at Indiana University where Jeff was already enrolled. “In 1972 I was in the second band at IU and he waltzed in,” Jeff remembers. “Ray Brown had sent him to Indiana to get his classical chops together. David Baker was thrilled with him because he was the star of the jazz program at the time. Everybody went to the rehearsals to hear John Clayton. I just walked up to him after a couple of weeks and said, ‘You know, I have a quartet that I’m in and the bass player is busy on the weekends, and it’s standards, and we’ve got a singer,’ who was the third-string quarterback on the IU football team. We did five nights a week for the whole year at this resort, playing standards. John did the gig and we connected. I talked to him about my own direction. I said, ‘You’ve got so much experience, what do you think I should do?’ That was the beginning of us planning the rest of my life, as far as who I wanted to play with. He seemed like a wise old sage, even though he was just one year older than me.”
After graduation, the two ended up together as the rhythm section for pianist Monty Alexander for about two years of touring and recording, including the iconic 1976 Montreux Alexander album, the cover of which features the three bandmembers with long “natural” hair about which friends and fans have teased them for many years. “Well, it was definitely a contest because we were on the road 50 weeks a year for two years and we didn’t trust anybody to cut our hair,” says Jeff, laughing. “I’d wait until we’d get a break and come home and have the guy cut my hair there. They just kept growing over time.”
But their time together with Monty enabled them to formulate the idea of a joint project based on their mutual affinity for big bands. “When we were with Monty on the road, everything was location work, so we’d set up an apartment for a couple of weeks,” Jeff explains. “We carried a portable turntable with us. We’d be listening to Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Quincy and Basie, and Ellington. The bug hit us. I was a natural big band drummer from growing up and he wanted to explore the writing. We left Monty about a month apart. I went with Woody and John went with Basie. He stayed a couple of years and ended up in Holland. When he lived there he started writing and experimenting. He’d have student bands play his material and he’d send cassettes to me, asking me ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Yea, it’s sounding good, let’s start our own band.’ In 1985 he came back to LA and we started the big band, along with his brother Jeffrey.” The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra was born.
Given the large number of personnel, it wasn’t easy to make a big band work economically, but like the contemporary jazz big bands in NYC, they stuck close to home and built from there. “We started out by saying, ‘We want to play this music with people who love to play it and let’s see where it goes.’ That was the only thing we were thinking about. Jeff Clayton, who had been living in LA, knew all the personnel that we should get. We were like minds on the personnel. When you start with Snooky Young as your lead trumpet player, you can’t lose. Our first gig was the Hyatt on Sunset and we had 19 pieces in the band and we outnumbered the audience on our opening night.”
Undaunted, the orchestra’s popularity grew locally and nationally until 1998 when they were made the house band for the Hollywood Bowl’s summer jazz series, which featured guests such as Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Take 6 and many others. “The nice part is that John would write one piece that would be new to the guest artist and we would play it on the concert,” says Jeff. “That’s jazz: Come in, learn it and do it. It was a great experience. It ended after three years, but it goes to show you where you can go: From a band that plays for 15 people on its opening night to one that plays for 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl.”
The band went on to record eight albums and nab numerous Grammy nominations. The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra remains a gold standard for large jazz ensembles, which is no surprise given the big band chops of Mr. Hamilton and the arranging skills of Mr. Clayton who performed that role with everyone from Count Basie to Natalie Cole.
Both John and Jeff would also go on to form their own groups—The Jeff Hamilton Trio and The Clayton Brothers—both of which have become mainstays of the international jazz scene as well as regulars on The Jazz Cruise. Yet John says that when the two do play together the communication is just as likely to be nonverbal, such as years ago when the two were performing in a trio with John’s son Gerald. “At one point as we started racing through the music, Jeff leaned back as he was playing,” John recalls. “He was signaling us that we were rushing a little bit. He didn’t have to say a word.”
Gerald is just one of the many artists that the two have mentored in the ensuing years, paying to forward as Basie, Brown and Peterson did with them. Diana Krall was just 19 years old when Jeff saw her perform at Port Townsend’s jazz program, one that John is now the artistic director for. A devout student of the music, Diana had loved the Montreux Alexander album and wanted to learn the inner workings of that trio. “I talked to her about it,” Jeff says. “I later heard her play, but I didn’t know it was her. It was a dark room and I was in the back. I heard her play ‘My Foolish Heart.’ I thought it was George Cables, the pianist who was teaching at the camp. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes and I applauded involuntarily. I heard this shriek from the other end of the room. I reached for the light switch and it was her. I said to her, ‘Come here and sit down. You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What do you want to be?’ She said, ‘I want to be a jazz piano player.’ She had dabbled in singing, but I didn’t know it at the time. I said, ‘Who do you want to study with?’ She said, ‘Jimmy Rowles.’ I said, ‘He’s in Los Angeles, how serious are you?’ I told John about her and he was tighter with Jimmy and I introduced her to Ray Brown. I brought that whole thing together with her interest in what was going on with that trio. She moved to Los Angeles and she house-sat for my wife and me when we’d go on vacation. She baby-sat for Gerald and Gina Clayton and lived with the Claytons for a while. Ray said, ‘I want you to train her as a trio piano player and I’ll produce the record, but Jeff, this is your project.’
That led to Krall’s debut album Steppin’ Out and the rest is history. A star was born, mid-wifed by two of the music’s most influential and important artists. We’re thrilled to have John and Jeff be part of The Jazz Cruise family and look forward to yet another reunion at sea. During The Jazz Cruise, John will lead Anita’s Big Band and Jeff will perform with his trio, but you can count on the two playing together and renewing those personal and musical bonds, especially with their old boss Monty Alexander on board.
This article was written by Jazz Cruises contributor Lee Mergner. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org