Interview of John Clayton - Alumnus of the Basie Band

Date: May 12, 2007
Interviewer: Michael Pettersen
Location: Rosemont, Illinois USA

Bassist John Clayton performed with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1977 to 1979. In addition to Freddie Green, John has performed with jazz legends around the world. His serious pursuit of the double bass began at age 16 when he studied with the famed bassist, Ray Brown. At age 19, John completed his studies at Indiana University in 1975, graduating with a Bachelor of Music in Double Bass. In addition to his work in the jazz world, John held the principal bass position in the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra for more than five years, and served as the Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 through 2001.

John has written and arranged music for Diana Krall, DeeDee Bridgewater, Natalie Cole, Milt Jackson, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, George Benson, Dr. John, Regina Carter and others. He has written commissioned pieces for many ensembles, including the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, the American Jazz Philharmonic, the Iceland Symphony, the Metropole Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Big Band, the Richmond Symphony, the WDR Orchestra, and the Amsterdam Philharmonic. Also, John co-leads the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Clayton Brothers Quintet. He appears on over 100 recordings.

John's web site is:

My sincere gratitude to John, warm, intelligent, and gracious, for sharing his remembrances of Freddie.

Michael Pettersen
June 2007

Note: The text below is an edited version of the recorded interview and has been approved by John Clayton prior to posting on

Freddie the Guitarist

Freddie created little melodic lines when he played; he didn't just play chord voicings. I'd only hear one or two pitches, but it sounded like an entire chord because he was striking the other muted strings.

It's not that Freddie couldn't play "big" chords of four, five, or six notes; he could, but he chose not to. He opted to play chords with three or less notes because it sounded better within the context of the Basie band and these "smaller" chords were better at keeping the all-important rhythmic drive. Freddie would play big lush chords when appropriate, like for an introduction, but most of the time I would definitely hear only one or two notes from each of his quarter note pulses.

Freddie's part was the glue that held the rhythm section together. I remember playing a show where Freddie could not be there because of a family situation. If you think you can't hear Freddie Green, just hear the Basie band without him! That night, I realized that how critical his guitar was to the tapestry of the band. That was the strangest gig. We all felt the sonic hole, including felt wrong. Basie charts played without a guitar just feel wrong.

Freddie would play both an even four and a four with accents on beats two and beat four. It would vary depending on the chart. He would also vary the length of his quarter note, occasionally letting a chord ring for almost the entire beat length instead of muting it to the length of an eighth note. Sometimes he would slide up to a note or slide down to a note, a subtle glissando. He would often use this technique when he was shifting to a different register on the guitar.

Freddie liked to play dances because he would look for the dancers that had the best time, focus on them, and play for them all night. Freddie told this to drummer Jeff Hamilton. In retrospect, I can completely understand why Freddie loved doing this. It was all about time.

Freddie would say little things to me, like "You gotta keep that groove going when the saxes come in." For example, on "One O'Clock Jump", Basie would play the line that moves the tune from F major to Db major, and then the saxes would enter with the theme, often at a slightly slower tempo than Basie had set. I didn't know which tempo to follow until Freddie and Basie set me straight, "Don't go with the saxes. We gotta hold that tempo." This was the type of advice Freddie and Basie would give to me.

His guitar sound was big, fat, loud as hell... a totally big sound. And I have a theory about why Freddie rarely played on the guitar's low E string. When his right hand attacked the strings, the hand did not continue straight down; it did not contact the low E string. His right hand arced upward, away from the higher strings. It made me think of an oval-like motion, as if he were scooping chords out of the guitar with a spoon. With his guitar angled toward the horizontal, it was more work to hit the low E string but relatively easy to hit the middle strings...the ones he wanted to hit. I do not believe that he consciously thought about staying out of my bass register. He was an instinctive player with great ears. He heard what worked. He experimented with different ways of playing and discarded what didn't work. I think he heard that the low E string did not work well with the bass and therefore rarely voiced a note on the low E string.

I've heard that Freddie never told other players about his style of playing and I believe that he really didn't know how to explain what he was doing. He was mostly self-taught on the guitar, an intuitive player, a very musical player. When we would talk about music, he would never ask me about technical matters. I had to learn how to write chord changes for him and for Basie...what they liked to see. They didn't like more than one alteration to a chord and that alteration had to be something logical, like a flat fifth or flat ninth. I would never write a sharp eleventh chord, instead I would write flat five. Freddie didn't get beyond the basic jazz harmonies, the same for Basie.

I think there is a small group recording where Freddie plays a few single-note solos ("Memories Ad Lib", Roulette R-52021, 1958). I can see Basie sitting there during the session and pointing a finger at Freddie. That meant, "Take a solo."

Once while doing a record, I could clearly hear Freddie grunt quietly while playing..."uhhh, uhhhh." Then I started listening to when we played live and I could hear Freddie doing the same thing. He and Basie were two of the many musicians from whom I discovered the importance of clearly formulating the music inside and then transferring it through the instrument. Singing, humming, breathing, grunting, growling, whatever works as an exhaust mechanism to make this happen. I remind my students that the instrument only functions as an amplifier for the music that is inside of them.

Freddie talked a lot about Lester Young. When Lester and Freddie were coming up, a portion of the presentation was about showmanship. It could be something cocky that you did on stage, or holding your horn a different way, like Lester. For bassists, it was slapping the instrument. A player would do anything that added "show" to a performance. If a musician had a chance to do a film short, a "soundie," he couldn't just sit there and pretend to play. He had to sell the performance; he had to add visual interest. And the way Freddie held his guitar was certainly interesting.

I'd like to see an instructional book about Freddie's guitar technique that assists the reader in discovering what Freddie was doing instead of telling the reader what Freddie was doing. Let the reader experience the joy of discovering what Freddie unearthed during his own learning experience. Rather than simply providing the "answers", the book would provide hints and suggestions to the reader about the role of rhythm guitar in a big band. The book should lead the reader to the answers. Also, the book should have a demonstration recording with it. Music is sound, not words.

Freddie the Band Member

I had heard the Basie band live but I did not meet Freddie until I joined the band in 1977. As a kid, I loved Basie and would play along with his records for hours. So, though I had never played live with Freddie before joining the band, I felt like I had played with him for years.

Freddie was so quiet, so personal, so introverted. I wasn't afraid of him but he was not easy to talk with at first. I sat across the aisle from him on the band bus. The band was based in New York and we always met after time off at the President Hotel. From the hotel we would take the bus to the airport or to the gig. My first gig with the band was in the Washington DC area. I sat down early on the bus with my bass behind me. Freddie Green walked on, sat down, and sort of grunted at me. I said "Hello, Mr. Green." And he grunts again, "Uhh." Now he wasn't unkind, it was just his way as I would learn. He didn't smile; he didn't frown. Now I'm the new kid on the block, thinking, "Wow. That's Freddie Green sitting there!" Soon, Basie walks on the bus and says to me, "How you doing, youngster?" "Fine, Mr. Basie," I replied. "Good," he said. Then Basie turned to Freddie and started talking, but Freddie didn't look at Basie. He just kept looking out the window. And Basie didn't look at Freddie; he just talked in Freddie's direction. Then Basie asks, "Did you remember so and so?" Freddie said, "Yeah." Basie asked, "Whatever happened to him?" Freddie answered, "I heard him playing. He was playing a whole lot of notes." To which Basie says, "Yeah, dog that shit fast, don't shit long." And I thought, "Wow, this is just day one. Man, I have to write this stuff down. It's going to be quite a journey."

When Freddie was on the bus, he almost always crossed his legs at the knees, like when he played. He would look out the window and have his chin resting on his hand. He was always an early bird, on time or early. I never remember Freddie being late.

It took about 6 to 8 months for Freddie to finally warm up to me. I've been told that was pretty quick! I think he finally sensed that I was not another guy that just wanted a gig with Basie. I used to hate it when someone would say to me, "Oh, you got the 'Basie gig'." That comment would anger me. It wasn't a gig to me. A gig is playing a wedding or party and you get $30. The Basie band was a family way of life and an American tradition. It was an education for me. Freddie sensed that I was serious about the band.

We did a show in Montreux. By then, Freddie and I were friends. I asked him, "I want to get some of the early recordings you did with Basie. Would you advise me on what to buy?" And he did. He said, "You need to check out the arrangements of Eddie Durham and Buck Clayton", no relation to me though I did get to meet him. Freddie told me what early Basie collection to buy and I still have it.

Freddie did express dissatisfaction when the drum chair was not played with respect. He once said to me, "Drummers always shine in this band no matter how bad they play." I clearly remember that observation. Freddie had very specific ideas of how the drum chair should be played. A good big band drummer will "feather" the bass drum, play it very lightly, softly. This helps the bass sound bigger and fatter as the bass drum resonance fills out the timbre of the bass. Basie always wanted his drums to play four on the bass drum, but lightly. He wanted a "dancer's touch" on the bass drum. If the bass drum is noticed, it's being played too loud.

I never saw Freddie mark a chart with a pencil or pen. He had memorized the entire book. The only time Basie or Freddie would put on eyeglasses was when the band was reading a new chart.

Think of the things that Freddie and the other guys went through, starting in the late 1930s. All those years of travel and one-nighters had to be tough. Freddie told me that it was he that found Charlie Fowlkes body on the band bus. That was like losing a family member.

Performing with the Basie Band and Freddie

I played with the Basie band for two years, from 1977 until 1979. I was "John The Third". The Johns before me that played bass in the band were John Heard and John Dukes. There was an untitled chart in the Basie book at the time. Bobby Plater, who wrote the chart, decided to name it "John III" after I joined the band.

I didn't audition for the Basie band; I was recommended. If a new player didn't work out, they would tell you good-bye. That's how it has always been with the Basie band. And I do the same for new players joining the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Players either quit the band or die; we don't fire them once they are in.

Freddie is the main reason that I learned to turn down my amplifier. I always loved the Basie band sound and before I joined the band I had some, but not a lot, of big band experience. So when I joined Basie, I set up as I always had: plugged in my bass and turned the amp up to "5" so that I could be heard. Now the Basie band is famous for sudden dramatic changes in dynamics, from very loud to very soft within one beat. It's very exciting. So the new boy, me, joins the band and though I blend during the loud sections, I am too loud during the soft sections because of my amplifier. I take note that Freddie plays without an amp and that Basie hates microphones on his piano. On multiple occasions, I would see Basie take the mic out of the piano. So to blend better, I set my amp to a much lower volume setting. When the trumpet section would ask me to turn up so they could hear me better, I'd pretend to turn it up and ask, "Is that better?" "Oh yeah, man, that's much better," they'd say. Haa! Not that trumpet players are easy to fool! Little by little, the band became used to a lower volume level from the bass, more like a true acoustic level. I loved being a part of that famous acoustic sound from the Basie rhythm section. It was the sound that I loved. To this day, I have never heard a band play softer than the Basie organization. On "Li'l Darlin'", it was so beautiful, so soft. I wish that today's pros and students could have heard that tune played softly. If I tell someone to play softer, he'll do it because I'm telling him to do it. He wouldn't dig playing soft like we did... loving it. If others could have shared in the experience of making music with that much intensity and beauty, at such a whispering dynamic level, they'd be hooked. I just don't hear bands today playing soft like that, enjoying the sonic texture of playing soft. Without saying anything, Freddie Green taught me how to play soft, how to blend with his guitar and with Basie's piano.

Neither Freddie nor Basie would ever say specific things about my playing. If they said anything, it was about the music. I had just left Monty Alexander's trio and that was an energetic trio. I was young, in my twenties, with lots of energy. During my second week with the Basie band, we were playing a chart. I was standing to Basie's left. He didn't look at me, he just slightly leaned his body back away from the piano about six inches...and I laid back on the groove. He didn't say a word. Basie and Freddie were like that; they sort of talked in parables. Their sentences were not always complete, but I'd always understand what they were saying.

I had to get used to the physical distance between Freddie and me. We could each be heard loud and clear, but we were separated by the width of a grand piano. At fast tempos (or slow ones!), that distance could be a problem. Since he was strumming numerous strings, like a "muted arpeggio", and not picking a single string, I could place a bass note within the "muted arpeggio" and our instruments locked together even with the time delay caused by the separation. This was never a problem in the recording studio because we used headphones and there was no time delay.

The first arrangement I wrote for the Basie band sucked. It was terrible. I had never seriously written for big band before. I knew how to transpose for the horns, but I didn't know how to write things that worked for a big band. About three months after I started, I left my book of charts backstage but didn't notice until the curtain was rising. I had to play from memory. That's when I realized I had memorized the book. So after that I never opened the book, but did keep it on my music stand. Playing from memory allowed me to really hear what was happening in the arrangements. So I decided to write an arrangement. Now, the band hated to rehearse, probably still does, but they tried my chart and were encouraging. But I knew it sucked and they didn't fool me. Though frustrated, I decided to research writing for big band during my time off.

One of the tunes we played every night was "Splanky", with that great shout chorus. I'd get goose bumps every time we played it. So I transcribed the arrangement from the record, doing the best I could as I could not hear everything. I wrote out the notes and I wrote a description of what I heard happening. I discovered that the lead trumpet, lead trombone, and lead alto were all playing the same notes. I had uncovered the concept of a triple lead line. Using that concept and others, I wrote "Blues For Stephanie." The band rehearsed it and Basie said, "Let's do that one more time." His famous words! So we did it again and the band added it to the book. I think that was a turning point for Freddie because he saw me writing for the band, in the style of the band, and at some point he came to me and said, "I want you to do an arrangement on one of my tunes." That was really big for me. So I wrote the arrangement and ask Freddie, "What's is called?" He answered, "I Don't Know Yet." Hence, that was the name of the chart and it also was added to the book.

I cracked up the first time I heard the 1950s recording of "Cute" where the band chants, "What you say last night 'bout Freddie Green?" I had never heard that before. So I played it for Snooky Young once, and he hadn't heard the recording either. I asked him, "Do remember this from when you were with Basie?" "Oh yeah..." Snooky replied as the memory returned. Frank Foster and Frank Wess are probably the only guys still with us that played on that recording.

Basie called him Freddie or Pep, but I always called him Freddie. I would often see Basie and Freddie have little side conferences. During a recording session, Basie was humming while playing a solo and Freddie tells him, "Hey! Quiet back there. Stop humming."

Whenever the band would read a new chart, Basie would lay out, look at the chart, and listen. During one such reading, Basie looked at me and said, "I'm listenin' for those holes." Listen to the Basie records; he didn't comp when the band was playing. No need to... everything was covered. I learned from the masters. Even today, I don't write piano parts when the band is playing. I don't want the piano comping when the band is blowing. I might ask the piano to double the melody or play a counter-melody, but no comping. I learned this from Basie. It's OK for the piano player to sit there and not do much, like playing second alto. Second alto doesn't play every beat and every chorus.

On a recent panel of jazz educators, I commented that I was tired of sterile, perfect sounding records. And much to my surprise, the audience broke into applause. I still listen to the great Basie recordings of the 1950s and the Sinatra recordings of the early 1960s. Everyone was in the same studio, no isolation booths, minimal miking. Everyone can be heard on these recordings, even the rhythm guitar. An arrangement would be played three or four times, and the best complete take selected for the record. I still record frequently in Hollywood at Capitol Records Studio "A". There is a vocal mic there, in an old funky box, that is labeled "Frank." It's the same mic used by Sinatra for the recordings done there, and the same mic is still in use today. For my current band recordings, I insist that direct boxes not be used at all. I want only microphones in order to capture the acoustic sounds of the instruments. I really dislike the sound of a bass recorded directly into the mixing board. Before I joined Basie, I had experienced all types of bad miking techniques for my bass. So I would never let an engineer record by bass direct into the board. No engineer ever challenged me on this because they knew I would complain to Basie and Basie would side with me. So all my recording with Basie are done with a microphone on the bass.

Freddie the Man

I never heard Freddie tell a joke.... never.

I believe Freddie was always reticent to share his innermost thoughts and feelings. It was his nature to be quiet. Freddie was always a man of few words, but he clearly expressed himself with his facial expressions and his guitar.

I didn't know details about Freddie's life, but we were close and he would talk to me about anything. But I didn't pry into his personal life. He liked to talk about baseball but not to me because I was not a fan.

I did a record entitled "Super Bass" with Ray Brown and Freddie in the early 1980s. Ray and Freddie were tight. They both loved to play golf. A bit of trivia: on the Sammy Davis Jr. and Basie record, Ray Brown is on bass, though he is not listed on the album cover.

Freddie always wore a cap as did Basie. Freddie once said to me, "Where's your hat? Don't you know that 80% of your body heat leaves from the top of your head?" Just this year I started wearing a hat and Freddie was right!

Freddie would never say anything bad about a person. It's not that he didn't have opinions. He would just scrunch up his nose if he didn't like something or someone. Or he would just say, "Ahhhh." That would be all he would do or say. He wouldn't spend time "bagging" people.

Freddie was completely dedicated to the band and to Basie. He was a sweetheart and I owe him so much. May God bless him.

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