Jazz pianist and composer Gerald Clayton has known his life's calling since a third-grade talent show. The Grammy-nominated artist played a little boogie-woogie piece he had worked on with his father, noted jazz bassist John Clayton. Music was already a constant in his life, but this performance was the first time he felt its power as a creator.
"That rush of playing for a group of people who are enjoying the music, that first buzz hit, and everything felt right," he says.
While he went on to skateboarding and soccer, and got "really passionate about surfing," music "always felt like home base."
The comfort shows. The 28-year-old plays with a sophisticated reassurance that belies his youth, a vibrancy that proclaims his joy.
"The Claytons are smilers, trying to emit joy before anything else," he says. "If you do this for the right reason, for the love of the music, the rest will take care of itself."
He's maintained that musically nurturing environment into adulthood, living in the same Harlem apartment building as the other original members of his trio, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown. The group will perform at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on April 6, as part of the Isthmus Jazz Series.
Clayton has already had quite a year, with three new entries in his discography. Life Forum, released this week, features five additional close friends, including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, an Isthmus Jazz Series alumnus. The Clayton Brothers Quintet, led by his dad and his uncle, flutist and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, issued The Gathering, a straight-ahead jazz album on which he plays piano. And on Terri Lyne Carrington's 50th-anniversary homage to Duke Ellington's Money Jungle, he took over for Ellington himself.
It's no surprise that Clayton has found so much success, especially if you consider his resume. While a student at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, he was in the Grammy Foundation's jazz ensemble, providing music for pre-telecast events. In 2002, he received a Music for Youth Foundation scholarship and performed at Steinway Hall. That fall, he enrolled in the USC School of Music, where his father was a senior lecturer. Then in 2007, after graduation and a second-place finish in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Piano Competition, he moved to New York City.
"There just aren't a lot of pianists who have so much organized at such a young age," New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff declared at the time, while reviewing Clayton's performance at a Soho club.
By then Clayton had recorded and toured extensively with trumpeter Roy Hargrove's quintet, but he hadn't made a solo album. He struck out on his own two years later, and the Grammy nominations started rolling in. He landed on the ballot three times between 2009 and 2011.
Clayton isn't sure how he's grown over the last few years, but he's continually "humbled by the music."
"The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn," he says.