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"Cat Eyes"

Swing-era trumpeter Buck Clayton is best-known for his role in the early success of the Count Basie orchestra and sensitive accompaniments to Billie Holiday’s records of the 1930s.  His smooth, tasteful muted trumpet was an essential element of the Count Basie Orchestra’s innovative early hits like “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”; his first recorded solos  were on Basie’s 1937 “Swingin’ at the Daisy Chain.”


Clayton's tasteful use of cup-mute and burnished trumpet tone gave him a distinctive sound.  Combined with his subtle style and melodic improvising he was a popular soloist in the Swing era and a central figure of Mainstream Jazz through the 1940s and 50s.

Incidentally Clayton was known as one of the most handsome, best-dressed men of Jazz with striking blue-green eyes.  Billie Holiday famously called him, “the prettiest cat I ever saw.”  His striking blue-green eyes won him the nickname, 'Cat Eyes.' 

Born and raised in Kansas he was the son of a tuba-playing minister and had some Native-American blood, which was why his mother nicknamed him 'Buck.'

Widely respected by other musicians, Clayton was NOT a virtuoso soloist ala Louis Armstrong.  Compared to big trumpet stars of the Swing era his sound was smoother and gentler.  He was a skilled craftsman without the need to grandstand,  though he WAS reported to be more passionate and extroverted in live performance than on record.  His personal style featured a flowing and melodic approach to improvisation, refined and tasteful featuring subtle use of mutes, a great feel for the blues, fine technique and the ability to present an engaging musical personality.


New 9.2015

Featuring Buck Clayton 1A

Clayton 1A.mp3

SWINGIN’ AT THE DAISY CHAIN  --  Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1937
BUGLE BLUES  --  Count Basie and his All American Rhythm Section, 1942
RAMPAGE IN G MINOR  --  Buck Clayton and his Swing Band, 1988
EASY DOES IT  --  Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1940
AFTER THEATER JUMP  --  Kansas City Seven, 1944
AVENUE C  --  Buck Clayton and his Swing Band, 1988

Featuring Buck Clayton Pt. 1B

Clayton 1B.mp3

JAPANESE SANDMAN  --  Earl Hines all Star Quintet, Paris 1949
DICKIE’S DREAM  --  Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven, 1939
GOOD MORNING BLUES  --  Kansas City Five, 1938
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU (excerpt)  --  Billie Holiday and her Orch, 1938
HE’S FUNNY THAT WAY (excerpt)  --  Teddy Wilson and his Orch, 1937           
CAN’T HELP LOVIN’ DAT MAN  --  Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, 1937
DON’S BLUES  --  Buck Clayton Sextet, Paris, 1949
SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE  --  Buck Clayton Quintet, Paris, 1953
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME   --  Basie’s Bad Boys, 1939

New 9.2015

Featuring Buck Clayton Pt. 2A
Clayton 2A.mp3

JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE  --  Count Basie Orchestra, 1938
DESTINATION K.C.  --  Kansas City Seven, 1944
STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY  --  Teddy Wilson Sextet, 1945
THEM THERE EYES  --  Don Byas’ All Star Quintet, 1945
WHAT’LL IT BE  --  Benny Carter Chocolate Dandies, 1946
NANCY’S FANCY  --  Buck Clayton and his Swing Band, 1988
BLUES IN FIRST  --  Buck Clayton Sextet, Paris, 1949
RATTLE AND ROLL  --  Trummy Young and his Lucky Seven, 1945

Featuring Buck Clayton Pt. 2B
Clayton 2B.mp3

TOPSY  --  Buck Clayton and Ben Webster, Belgium, 1967
PATRICIA’S BLUES  --  Buck Clayton Sextet, Paris, 1949
WHAT’S THE USE  --  J.C. Heart Quintet, 1945
GROOVIN’ WITH J.C.  --  J.C. Heard Quintet, 1945
GOOD ‘N GROOVY  --  Trummy Young and his Lucky Seven, 1945
SCRAM!  --  Leonard Feather All Stars, 1944
CUP-MUTE CLAYTON  --  Ike Quebec Swing Seven, 1945

Early Years

Perhaps because there are no recordings of Buck Clayton during his 1933-34 stay in Los Angeles his colorful chapter there is often overlooked.  Barely out of high school Clayton started out trying to break into the music business in L.A. while he worked odd jobs in a barbershop, a garage and a pool hall.

In L.A. during the 1930s Central Avenue was a jumping jazz district and Buck became acquainted with notable musicians there:
    * popular bandleader Paul Howard;
    * bassist Milt Hinton and bandleader Charlie Barnet,
    * and he worked for Lionel Hampton.
    * When the Ellington band came out to Hollywood to make the film, “Murder at the Vanities” he met Duke and most of his band.

It was also in Los Angeles where Clayton first met his inspiration, Louis Armstrong.  In that first meeting, after hearing Satchmo at the west coast Cotton Club, Louie showed Buck how to make a gliss, a smeared or bent note, on the trumpet . . . and introduced him to marijuana.

Clayton also became familiar with noted Hollywood celebrities and entertainers of the day:
    * gangster-film movie-star George Raft;
    * black character actor, Stepin Fetchit -- who traveled around town in his own caravan of five Cadillacs;
    * and a prominent boxer named Gorilla Jones, who used to stroll down Central Avenue with his lion cub on a leash, given him by Mae West.

Buck worked briefly in the movies as an extra in a few films and had brief encounters with the likes of Loretta Young and Ginger Rogers.  Duke Ellington even threw him a big wedding party.  Because Duke’s band played, it was attended by stars like Mae west, George Raft and the star of “Murder at the Vanities,” Carl Brisson.

Weeks later Buck was on his way to Shanghai, China where his band The Gentlemen of Harlem accompanied the orchestra of Teddy Weatherford for a lengthy residency during 1934-35  at the top nightclub there, the Canidrome.

Buck Clayton
Photo Archive

In recent years some fine and previously unpublished images of Clayton have become available, including several from an online Jazz Archive that seems to have since withdrawn them. 

I believe many in this series are from Switzerland around 1949. 

L to R: Clayton, possibly Glyn Paquet (alto sax), Merrel Stepter

Note the music stand letters BC, for Bill Coleman
who was running a band in 1949 at the popular Chikito Club

in Basel, Switzerland, recognizable in the photos.

Joining up with Basie
Though Clayton was born and raised in Kansas that’s not how he became part of the Kansas City music scene in Count Basie’s orchestra.  When he joined Basie in 1936 he’d already had considerable success on the West Coast and a lengthy gig in Shanghai.  Buck just happened to visit Kansas City right when Basie was in need of a trumpeter and he was hired practically on the spot.  

It was a perfect match up for the band and for Clayton, who said of the Basie crew, “they never let up.  They would swing you into bad health.” 

He found Basie to be “a nice congenial cat that knew all the answers,” adding in his memoir that, “I had never heard such swingin' music in my life . . . there were only nine of them, but that nine could out-swing anything that I’d ever heard.”

Though Clayton was shocked to be offered only $14 dollars a week to play at the Reno Club, he took it because he loved the band’s music so much.  And Buck was no fool -- he knew the band had upcoming gigs in Chicago and New York.  The timing did prove lucky for him as the Basie band was just about to move east and hit it big, and Clayton is heard on the band’s early signature hits.
Buck was an extremely valuable component in the Basie inner circle:  he was unofficial musical director of the band, and contributed musical arrangements and original tunes.  His vital role extended to the landmark catalog of Basie small-band recordings by the Kansas City five, Six and Seven.  He composed the fitting tune “Destination KC” that was recorded by the Kansas City Seven, featuring Buck, Lester Young and trombonist Dickie Wells in 1944.


The Basie sound was like no other: they could either blow other bands off the bandstand, or create dark and subtle moods with new sounds that had never been heard before in music.  Basie’s most distinctive soloists like Lester, Buck and trombonist Dickie Wells were often featured in the 1938 & 39 Basie small bands in remarkable discs like the mysterious “Dickie’s Dream,” which even though I’ve heard a hundred times always gives me chills.


                                             Arranger and Composer
Often overlooked are Clayton’s formidable chops as a composer and arranger, dating back to his key role in the Count Basie Orchestra. 

His arranging skills came notably to fruition during the 1980s in his Buck Clayton Swing Orchestra that performed in and around New York City.  It’s memorialized by the performances below.

Randy Sandke and the Buck Clayton Legacy, 1993-94
Randy Sandeke was featured trumpet soloist for the regular engagements of the Buck Clayton Swing Orchestra at Fat Tuesday’s Club in NYC, two European tours, and Clayton’s memorial in December 1991. 

Some of this band’s arrangements were Buck’s, and Sandke did his arranging based on years of experience working closely with him.  Other friends of Clayton here include tenor saxophonist Danny Moss and drummer Oliver Jackson, who was associated with him for over three decades.

New 9.2015

Randy Sandke and the Buck Clayton Legacy
Nagel-Heyer CD 006 and CD 018
Composed and arranged by Buck Clayton, except as noted.

Hamburg, Germany, Nov. 1993
Randy Sandke (trumpet)
Danny Moss & Harry Allen (tenor saxes)
Antti Sarpila (clarinet, soprano and alto saxes)
Jerry Tilitz (trombone)
Brian Dee (piano)
Len Skeat (bass)
Oliver Jackson (drums)

Last four tunes in this set composed by Clayton:

All the Cats Join In.mp3
Blue and Sentimental.mp3
Come Again.mp3
Top Brass.mp3
Toot Sweet.mp3
Professor Jazz.mp3

Hamburg, Germany, Nov. 1994

Add: Scott Robinson (baritone sax)
Sub: Butch Miles (drums)

Toot Sweet.mp3
Professor Jazz.mp3
Jumpin’ at the Woodside.mp3 (arr. Sandke)
All the Cats Join In.mp3 (arr. Sandke)

New 9.2015

The Buck Clayton Legacy Band, 2011
BBC Radio 3, BCLB001

From Alyn Shipton’s liner notes:
“In 1985, I met Buck Clayton when he had just finished the first draft of his autobiography, written with Nancy Miller Elliot, called Buck Clayton’s Jazz World.

Just after Buck died in 1991, Nancy contacted me, and handed over a box of his music, with a message from Buck saying, ‘You kept my memory alive with the book, maybe you can do the same with my music?’ 

It took a while, but in 2004, Matthias Seuffert and I launched the Buck Clayton Legacy Band at the Ascona Jazz Festival in Switzerland.” 
[That terrific presentation deeply impressed this listener! DR]. 

“The music – beautifully arranged by Matthias from a variety of original lead sheets, scores and parts – had a few more airings in public before we decided to set the band up on a regular basis, and to play as many times a year as it was possible to gather our musicians from the UK, Holland and Germany.

This session was recorded during our first British tour in the spring of 2011.  We had a great time bringing Buck’s music back to life – some of it written in the 1950s, some in the ‘60s, but most of it dating from the period of his Swing Band in the 1980s.”

Commentary by Peter Vacher, Jazz UK:
“The former Basie trumpeter gave co-leader Shipton a box of original music.  Revamped for this brilliant nonet by saxophonist, Matthias Seuffert, Clayton’s pieces lived again, emphasizing his composer’s gift for well-shaped, swinging structures, the playing as exuberant yet concise as any Basie-ite might wish.”

New 9.2015

Claytonia: The Buck Clayton Legacy Band
March, 2011 for BBC Radio:

Matthias Seuffert (tenor sax, clarinet, co-leader)
Alyn Shipton (bass, co-leader)
Menno Daams & Ian Smith (trumpets)
Alan Barnes (alto sax, clarinet)
Adrian Fry (trombone)
Martin Litton (piano)
Martin Wheatly (guitar)
Norman Emberson (drums)

Composition by Clayton, arrangements by Seuffert:

Horn of Plenty.mp3
I’ll Make Believe.mp3
Party Time.mp3

Billie Holiday

Among Clayton’s notable achievements was his thirty or so titles recorded with Billie Holiday between 1937-39, often alongside some of his buddies on loan from the Basie orchestra, most notably saxophonist Lester Young.

At one point during her brief stint as singer for the Basie orchestra Buck and Billie  became very close friends.  I suspect that at times they were more than just good friends: that they were lovers.  And Billie famously called him “the prettiest cat I ever saw.”


Buck Clayton on Billie Holiday, from his memoir:

"My first recording was with Teddy Wilson along with Billie Holiday, just about two weeks before Basie made his first recording with the band.  The first recording of my life was “Why Was I Born?” which happened to be the first song to be sung by Billie.

Billie and I immediately became friends and soon we were recording.  Such pleasure I had backing up Billie’s songs to her vocals.  When she would record I would watch her mouth and when I saw she was going to take a breath or something I knew it was time for me to play between her expressions.  It’s what we call 'filling up the windows.'

We made several more dates with Billie after that, in fact whenever Basie would be in town we were sure to be called to play with the Lady.  They turned out to be very successful, especially down South where the people really dug the blues.

Billie had joined the Basie band.  She was great to work with as she was game to do anything that we would do.  She would shoot dice with us, joke with us and, in general, do everything that we would do.  We all liked Billie.  Sometimes on the bus at night, when everybody else would be sleeping, Billie and I would talk. 

Sometimes, when we were in New York, she would take me by her mother’s restaurant and I’d have some ham hocks and turnip greens and other soul goodies.  When we first met Billie Holiday she made it her business to take Lester and myself all around Harlem.  We’d go t all the joints in Harlem.  We three were always pretty tight together."

Life After Basie
Aside from his fame backing Billie and in the Basie orchestra Clayton also had a very successful career recording and performing as a star soloist in many remarkable bands.

It's little appreciated that Clayton was a pretty fair arranger and composer.  He was unofficial musical director for Basie, and went on to write and arrange for Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and others.

During W.W.II Buck was briefly in the army playing music under the leadership of Sy Oliver and Mercer Ellington, and he won an Esquire Gold Award for “Best Musician in the armed forces.”  Quite fortunately, he was stationed in New Jersey close enough to New York to continue jamming and recording with his civilian buddies.

His career flourished working or recording with Coleman Hawkins, singer Jimmy Rushing, tenor saxist Don Byas, Mezz Mezzrow, Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet, Jazz at the Philharmonic, and he was a valued star soloist for studio sessions, in numerous jam session recordings, and on the festival circuit.

In the 1950s Clayton appeared in the film “The Benny Goodman Story”;  at the 30th anniversary concert of John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing”; and was a popular star soloist touring Europe, Australia & Japan through the 1950s & 60s.

Beginning in 1949 Buck made several tours of Europe with extended stays in France.  Unlike many of his jazz colleagues who lived or worked there, he easily learned the french language.  In Paris 1949 he recorded with his Buck Clayton sextet.

In the early and mid-1960s Buck was invited by British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton to join him touring England and making records.  At this time Lyttelton was playing in the Count Basie style. 

The 1965 tour was a Kansas City Jazz Show, a K.C. Swing revival starring Clayton, Ben Webster (tenor sax), Vic Dickenson (trombone) and singers Big Joe Turner or Jimmy Rushing.

Clayton and Lyttelton (left) were very good friends.  Buck dedicated an entire chapter of his memoir to his years with Humph, asked him to write the foreword, and called Lyttelton one of his “trumpet brothers.”  Over the course of several tours they had, “a ball blowing together,” and racing through the rolling English countryside in Humphrey’s sports car, stopping at roadside pubs for meat pies and ale.

Respected, Flexible and Talented

Few trumpeters who matured before 1940 were able to make a successful transition to the musical directions jazz took after W.W.II, but Clayton did better than most addressing Modern Jazz and Bebop.  Though he never made a full transition to the revolutionary sounds of Dizzy, Bird, Monk or Mingus, he did succeed at finding a comfortable stance all his own between swing and modern jazz that came to be known as ‘Mainstream Jazz.’  

His early willingness to embrace the new sensibilities in bop-influenced swing music can be heard in some surprisingly progressive recordings he made in the mid-1930s with trombonist Trummy Young, and composer/pianist, Leonard Feather.




Buck had a rough period in the 1970s when he had dental problems and could no longer play trumpet, though he did tour Africa for the US State Department in 1977.  In the ‘80s he did a great deal of writing and arranging music, published a memoir and fronted his own big band for a few years starting in 1988.  Buck Clayton died about a month after his 80th birthday in 1991.

Farewell to a well dressed cat
Trumpeter Buck Clayton first gained recognition as a  key component and soloist in the early Basie Orchestra and small-bands; and for his sensitive backing of Billie Holiday on 30 titles between 1937-39.  Clayton had many other skills as a bandleader, music director, tune smith and arranger for Swing and Big Band.  And his contemporaries recalled him for his good looks, grand sartorial style and blue-green eyes that won him the name “Cat Eyes.”



Buck Clayton’s autobiographical memoir:
BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD, by Buck Clayton, Oxford University Press, 1986