Jay Clayton photo courtesy of the artist
BY PAUL RAUCH
Internationally acclaimed jazz vocal master, educator, and longtime Seattle resident Jay Clayton passed on December 31, 2023, at age 82. Born Judith Colantone in Youngstown, Ohio, on October 28, 1941, Clayton became a major innovator of the free jazz movement and loft scene in New York City. She notably traversed the territory between traditional and free jazz and bridged the gap between those forms and minimalism. Her diverse body of recordings and live performances throughout her career revealed an artist of great depth and innovation, whose work will continue to inspire listeners for generations to come. A groundbreaking approach to jazz and minimalist vocals, utilizing lines with and without lyrics, marked her as a musician with a pioneering spirit whose instrument was the human voice. She was one of the first artists to incorporate poetry and electronics into her personal vocal style.
Clayton studied classical music at Miami University (in Ohio) before moving to New York City in 1963. There, she entered a mentorship with Steve Lacy, who greatly influenced her vocal technique and introduced her to the New York scene, including her future husband, drummer and bassist Frank Clayton. Beginning in 1967, Clayton and her husband hosted a loft concert series in their home that featured Joanne Brackeen, Cecil McBee, and Sam Rivers, to name a few. It was one of the first sessions that formed the loft jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s in New York. Relationships formed there would lead to extensive live and studio work with notable avant-garde jazz and minimalist artists such as Steve Reich, Muhal Richard Abrams, Gary Bartz, Jane Ira Bloom, John Cage, and future teaching colleague Julian Priester.
As an established artist with two children, Clayton then moved to Seattle in 1982 to teach at Cornish College of the Arts, joining a staff that included Priester, as well as Gary Peacock, Chuck Deardorf, and Jerry Granelli, among others. She was head of the jazz vocal program there for twenty years, establishing herself as an international presence in jazz education. Her book, Sing Your Story, published in 2001, has served as a source of inspiration in the jazz vocal community.
With children grown and on their own, Clayton returned to New York City in 2001 to fully pursue her career as a singer and composer. Her vocal retreats, which ranged from the United States to Italy and Greece, were groundbreaking for generations of artists.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2022 and was cared for by her children and devoted friends in hospice.
She is survived by her brother, William Colantone, Jr., son Dov Clayton, daughter Dejha Colantuono, and grandchildren Nyah Savoy and Miles Jay Clayton.