Buck Clayton


Wilbur Dorsey "Buck" Clayton (November 12, 1911 – December 8, 1991) was an American jazz trumpeter who was a member of Count Basie's orchestra. His principal influence was Louis Armstrong, first hearing the record "Confessin' That I Love You" as he passed by a shop window.

Clayton learned to play the piano from the age of six.[2] His father was an amateur musician associated with the family's local church, who was responsible for teaching his son the scales on a trumpet which he did not take up until his teens.[3] From the age of seventeen, Clayton was taught the trumpet by Bob Russell, a member of George E. Lee's band. In his early twenties he was based in California, and was briefly a member of Duke Ellington's Orchestra and worked with other leaders. Clayton was also taught at this time by trumpeter Mutt Carey, who later emerged as a prominent west-coast revivalist in the 1940s. He also met Louis Armstrong while Armstrong was performing at Sebastian's Cotton Club, who taught him how to glissando on his trumpet.[4] After high school, he moved to Los Angeles. He later formed a band named “14 Gentlemen from Harlem” in which he was the leader of the 14-member orchestra.[5]

From there, there are multiple sources claiming different ways in which Clayton ended up in Shanghai. Some claimed that Clayton was picked by Teddy Weatherford for a job at the Canidrome ballroom in the French Concession in Shanghai.[5] Others claimed he escaped the US temporarily to avoid racism.

From 1934 or 1935 (depending on the sources), he was a leader of the "Harlem Gentlemen" in Shanghai. Some of the bureaucratic social groups he was with included Chiang Kai-shek's wife Soong Mei-ling and her sister Ai-ling, who were regulars at the Canidrome.[6] Clayton would play a number of songs that were composed by Li Jinhui, while adopting the Chinese music scale into the American scale. Li learned a great deal from the American jazz influence brought over by Clayton.[6] A 1935 guidebook in Shanghai listed Clayton and Teddy Weatherford as the main jazz attraction at the Canidrome. He would eventually leave Shanghai before the 1937 Second Sino-Japanese War.[6] Clayton is credited for helping to close the gap between traditional Chinese music and shidaiqu/mandopop. Li is mostly remembered in China as a casualty of the Cultural Revolution.

After his honorable discharge in 1946 he prepared arrangements for Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Harry James and became a member of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic package, appearing in April in a concert with Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, and in October participated in JATPs first national tour of the United States. He also recorded at this time for the H.R.S. label. In 1947, he was back in New York, and had a residency at the Café Society, Downtown, and the following year had a reunion with Jimmy Rushing, his fellow Basie alumnus, at the Savoy Ballroom. Clayton and Rushing worked together occasionally into the 1960s.

From September 1949, Clayton was in Europe for nine months, leading his own band in France. Clayton recorded intermittently over the next few years for the French Vogue label, under his own name, that of clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow and for one session, with pianist Earl Hines. In 1953, he was again in Europe, touring with Mezzrow; in Italy, the group was joined by Frank Sinatra.

Shortly after appearing at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1969, Clayton underwent lip surgery, and had to give up playing the trumpet in 1972. He was able to resume playing in 1977 for a State Department sponsored tour of Africa, but had to permanently stop playing in 1979, though he still worked as an arranger. He began to teach at Hunter College, CUNY from 1975–80 and again in the early eighties.

The semi-autobiography Buck Clayton’s Jazz World, co-authored by Nancy Miller Elliott, first appeared in 1986. In the same year, his new Big Band debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and Clayton toured internationally with it, contributing 100 compositions to the band book.

Buck Clayton died quietly in his sleep in 1991.