Jay Clayton, Vocal Innovator in Jazz and Beyond, Is Dead at 82

Jay Clayton, Vocal Innovator in Jazz and Beyond, Is Dead at 82

Jay Clayton, a singer whose six-decade career encompassed freewheeling improvisation, lyrical songs and poetry, and the prescient use of electronics, died on Dec. 31 at her home in New Paltz, N.Y. She was 82.

Her daughter, Dejha Colantuono, said the cause was small-cell lung cancer.

Ms. Clayton established herself as an innovator in the 1970s and ’80s, sparring with instrumentalists in avant-garde settings and using electronics to alter and extend her vocal palette well before the practice became common. She worked frequently with other singers — she formed an especially close bond with Sheila Jordan, an early mentor — and she sang in playfully aerobatic vocal groups with peers like Jeanne Lee, Ursula Dudziak, Norma Winstone and Bobby McFerrin.

“She works in the familiar avant-garde terrain of wordless, spontaneous improvisations in duo and group settings,” the critic Jon Garelick wrote of her work in The Boston Phoenix in 1990. “But Clayton is also a warm, gracious interpreter of lyric standards, and this lyricism pervades all her work.”

Ms. Clayton in 1969. She fell in with the downtown jazz scene after moving to New York in 1963.Credit…via Clayton family

She performed for a decade with the composer Steve Reich, participating in the development and recording of breakthrough pieces like “Drumming,” “Music for 18 Musicians” and “Tehillim.” She also worked closely with dancers and choreographers early in her career, and she maintained an enduring collaboration with the tap dancer Brenda Bufalino.

A prominent and influential teacher, Ms. Clayton held positions at the City College of New York, the Peabody Institute and Princeton University. She developed a vocal program for the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada, where she taught with Ms. Jordan. The two further collaborated in training programs in Massachusetts and Vermont and ran a celebrated retreat for singers at Willow Lane Farm in Berne, N.Y., near Albany.

Prominent among Ms. Clayton’s students are the composer Karen Goldfeder and the protean vocal improviser Theo Bleckmann. But through her widespread pedagogy — including a book, “Sing Your Story: A Practical Guide for Learning and Teaching the Art of Jazz Singing,” published in 2001 — her progeny are legion.

She was born Judith Theresa Colantone on Oct. 28, 1941, in Youngstown, Ohio. Her father, William Colantone, was a carpenter and construction worker; her mother, Josephine (Armeni) Colantone, had sung professionally during the big-band era.

Ms. Clayton took up the accordion and later had several years of piano lessons. After high school, she attended a summer program at the St. Louis Institute of Music and then enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she received a bachelor’s degree in music education in 1963. Since jazz courses were not available, she studied classical repertoire while quietly polishing her improvisational skills on weekend dates with a local trombonist.

After moving to New York City in 1963, Ms. Clayton fell in with the downtown jazz scene and formed an early association with the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Through him, she met the drummer Frank Clayton, with whom she began a relationship in 1965. In 1967, the couple started a concert series, “Jazz at the Loft,” in their home on Lispenard Street, in the neighborhood later called TriBeCa, presenting performances by the saxophonist Sam Rivers, the pianist Joanne Brackeen and others. They married in 1968.

Not long afterward, Ms. Clayton was introduced to Mr. Reich by the singer Joan La Barbara, who was her student. What he sought, he said in a phone interview, was a “modern-day equivalent” of Ella Fitzgerald: someone who could perform his music with spontaneity as well as precision.

Ms. Clayton fit the bill. “Her pitch was dead-on, and her rhythm was a lift to the spirit,” Mr. Reich said. “She grasped what had to be done, and she did it to perfection.”

Flourishing among her fellow innovators and iconoclasts, Ms. Clayton led educational workshops with Jeanne Lee and performed with the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams at the Public Theater in 1979. That same year, she consulted on the first Women in Jazz festival, produced by Cobi Narita (who died in November).

In 1981, Ms. Clayton released her first album, “All-Out,” a wide-ranging statement with an ensemble that included Mr. Clayton, the pianist Larry Karush, the saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, the vocalist Shelley Hirsch and others. On several tracks Ms. Clayton sang swooping, soaring lines in tandem with Ms. Bloom, a recent arrival from New Haven, Conn., whom Ms. Clayton had taken under her wing.

“From the minute she and I met, we had this linear synchronicity,” Ms. Bloom said in an interview. “There’s something about the combination of her sound and my sound: We played lines together, and it was like this other instrument.” They collaborated for decades.

In 1982, Ms. Clayton, her husband and their two children moved to Seattle, where she taught at the Cornish School, now Cornish College of the Arts. When she and Mr. Clayton divorced in 1984, she remained in Seattle, developing a new circle of collaborators that included the drummer Jerry Granelli, the trombonist Julian Priester, the bassist Gary Peacock and the saxophonist Briggan Krauss.

She recorded works by the experimental composer John Cage in the late 1980s and returned to Mr. Reich’s music on occasion. Her jazz recordings from those years include “Beautiful Love,” a 1995 album devoted to vintage popular standards with the pianist Fred Hersch.

“I always think that doing standard material lets you know where somebody’s coming from,” Mr. Hersch said in an interview, likening the practice to a painter rendering a still life or a nude. “In Jay’s case, a lot of it is very hauntingly beautiful, and pretty fierce in terms of improvising.”

Ms. Clayton moved back to New York in 2002, re-establishing a local presence both alone and in collaboration with Ms. Jordan. She made a stream of recordings for the Sunnyside label, ranging from a lyrical tribute to the songwriter Harry Warren to an adventurous electronic fantasia involving poetry by Emily Dickinson, made with the composer and pianist Kirk Nurock.

She was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer in December 2022. Her final recording, “Voices in Flight,” a collaboration with the singer Judy Niemack, was released in June.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Clayton is survived by her brother, William Colantone Jr.; her son, Dov Clayton; and two grandchildren.

To the end, Ms. Clayton remained devoted to her students. “She was always just exactly herself, personally and musically,” Ms. Goldfeder wrote in a Facebook post; “it’s one of the many ways she was a great teacher.”

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