Angela Allen

Gerald Clayton says he was a “normal kid” growing up in Los Angeles pursuing ordinary things like soccer, skateboarding, school. What was extraordinary was his family. His father, John Clayton, is a renowned bassist and band leader, and his uncle, Jeff Clayton, a saxophonist supreme.

With such blue jazz blood, Gerald Clayton fell into music as predictably as Ravi Coltrane, the son of John and Alice Coltrane, or Natalie Cole, daughter of Nat King Cole.  A career in music “just felt natural, growing up around the lifestyle, seeing the love,” Clayton said this spring from his New York City apartment. And now, at 32, the younger Clayton plays piano in the Clayton Brothers Quintet.

But Gerald Clayton, who returns to Portland at 7:30 p.m. May 3 to play the Old Church, is not coasting on his family’s coattails. He has carved out a musical space all his own. Finishing second in the Thelonious  Monk Institute of Jazz Piano contest in 2006, his keyboard technical virtuosity and nuanced touch have led him to produce albums since 2009, to draw Grammy nominations, and to side for such musicians as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Avishai Cohen, Dianne Reeves and Gretchen Parlato – to name a few.

Clayton likes Portland. He accompanied Charles Lloyd (aside from playing the piano, he helped the aging saxophonist on and off the stage) at the 2016 PDX Jazz Festival, and teamed up more recently with Kneebody’s sax star Ben Wendel at the Old Church.

Clayton’s jazz family extends beyond his relatives. He studied with Billy Childs at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, and later, with pianist Kenny Barron at Manhattan School of Music, where he took “a year abroad” from USC. Childs taught him some of the art of composition and how to put together a big piece. Barron encouraged him to master rhythm and “live the music,” which Clayton translates, in part, as “being in the moment.”

“Musicians have an internal clock,” he explains. “Sometimes the music might excite you and you start pushing the time. Tempos should end up where they started off, but we’re not robots. Kenny (Barron) is a master of tempo, yet he expresses himself with truth and integrity and honesty without losing control of the time. He’s like a Zen master. Very peaceful, in the moment. His playing is beautiful and creative and not swept up by nervous energy.”

Clayton has learned from his mentors, says Portland pianist Grant Richards, who worked with him when Clayton visited Berklee College of Music in Boston a few years ago to help with a CD release by drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington. Richards was a student and playing background keyboards on Carrington’s project. Not only was Clayton “a nice approachable guy,” Richards said from Japan where he’s working and gigging, “he is super versatile. He is so deeply informed by the whole tradition of jazz, yet he finds a way to perform and compose in a way that is so refreshing and new, and always, slick and polished.”

Promoting his fourth album, Tributary Tales, released this spring, Clayton’s trio compatriots this time will be Kendrick Scott on drums and bassist Joe Sanders, whom Clayton met when he was a teen-ager in the Grammy Band. (Young jazz musicians can’t nail a better gig than the Grammy Band, composed of the cream of talented high schoolers cherry-picked from across the country to play at the Grammy Awards.) Though unlike his dad and uncle, he’s not related to his bandmates, “we’re all family members,” says Clayton, who often plays with old friends like Sanders and drummer Justin Brown, musicians he knew during his years at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

“There’s a close bond, a like-mindedness,” Clayton says. “It helps keep the trust. When you play an improvised art form, it’s a vulnerable experience. It exposes your deep emotions. It brings you closer together than the average workers (working on the same project).  It’s not like sharing an office cubicle. You have to be fully open to the experience, together.”