Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Gerald Clayton

Released July 10, 2020

Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Instrumental Album 2021

JazzTimes Top 10 New Jazz Releases of 2020






More than a music venue, New York’s Village Vanguard serves as a meeting place for past and present expression. Red double doors at the corner of 7th Avenue South and Perry Street swing open to reveal the transformation of a lineage through time. Historic sets from Miles, Coltrane, Carmen McRae, Monk and Horace Silver haunt the bandstand. And the artists who perform weeklong bookings work to honor the legacy of those spirits.

From this vantage point Gerald Clayton releases his Blue Note debut Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard, recorded over six nights at the legendary spot in April 2019. “It’s such a special, sacred place for the music,” says Clayton. “You really can feel the presence of what’s occurred in the room.”

Occurrences, what Clayton calls “happenings,” reflect the level of trust artists have in one another to hit “record” outside the studio. His quintet, featuring longtime collaborators Logan Richardson on alto, Walter Smith III on tenor, Joe Sanders on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, can’t help but capture the raw realness of what happens in that sacred space. “Only a fraction of the magic in the room can exist outside of the moment,” says Clayton. “All recordings are a filtered version of that live experience. Thank goodness we are able to hold on to even a piece of that magic.”

Mindful of the Vanguard’s legacy, Clayton winnowed down 12 sets to seven tracks that comprise recorded originals, new selections and enduring tunes. Happening spotlights his layered identity as a leader, co-navigating his own “Patience Patients,” “A Light,” “Rejuvenation Agenda” and “Envisionings,” as well as Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane,” with equally intuitive, terminally receptive fellow artists. Trio takes of Bud Powell’s “Celia” and the standard “Body and Soul” cast a mood that lingers long after the record ends.

Clayton’s repertoire, in part, reveals his long-held reverence for venue matriarch, the late Lorraine Gordon – known to chide artists who failed to play any standards during their set. “She had that sharp New York energy,” says Clayton. “She’d sit in the back, and she would voice her opinions pretty strongly. If you came off of that set and didn’t play a standard, she was going to let you know about it.”

A Los Angeles native, Clayton came up inside the lineage with the encouragement of his father, legendary bass player John Clayton. As a child, he idolized his dad and would accompany him to rehearsals, soundchecks and live shows. Clayton remembers witnessing the camaraderie among his father and the other artists who’d perform together. “I’d see these grown men and women just laughing, telling jokes and giving each other hugs. It was a really loving environment,” says Clayton. “Those were my first steps into music. I feel really lucky to have had my dad as a guide.”

By adolescence, Clayton had spent long hours internalizing standards and studying his father’s record collection. He attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he encountered like-minded artists and received opportunities to travel and perform – and meet future collaborators including Sanders and Gilmore.

After high school, Clayton studied at USC before moving to Harlem to continue studying under legendary pianist-composer Kenny Barron at Manhattan School of Music. He spent 10 years in New York, performing with such similar individualists as Kendrick Scott, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gretchen Parlato and Ambrose Akinmusire before moving back to LA. The four-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist is the latest in a long line of second generation LA natives who came up under a father’s tutelage. “LA is sort of having a moment—all these cats I grew up seeing in my early years, hanging and playing with at jam sessions,” say Clayton. “The degrees of separation have always been just one or two handshakes away. It’s inspiring and heartwarming to see that we’re all still doing the same thing we always were—pushing the music forward, spreading love around the world.”

Happening marks Clayton’s first release on Blue Note Records. “Gerald Clayton is one of the most accomplished, distinctive and innovative pianists performing today,” says Blue Note President Don Was. “He’s recorded and performed with an array of jazz legends ranging from Roy Hargrove to Charles Lloyd. His solo work is characterized by his imaginative curiosity and harmonic mastery. We are thrilled to welcome him to the Blue Note family.” Clayton has been a fan of the label for years, in part because of its tight-knit community and storied legacy. He’s equally excited to release his fifth album as a leader. “I think the live setting is the most honest testament to what it is we do all year round,” Clayton says. “I called it Happening to highlight the fact that this music is living, that we have a whole lot of happenings throughout the year, and performances at the Village Vanguard are some of the most special of those happenings.” To Clayton, the album’s poised impact has shifted in light of the global pandemic. “The idea of having a recording of a live concert takes on a new meaning now that we’re unable to actually gather anymore” he says. “I would hope that, when we do return to some kind of normalcy, people are more inspired than ever to recognize that this music is happening, that it’s a living art form. We need to actually go to those shows. We need to be in those rooms and be part of that experience. I hope this album can offer people a little bit of an escape from this isolation, that it transports them back to the time when we were all able to congregate and celebrate our shared love.”

Track Listing:

1. Patience Patients (Gerald Clayton) 10:59

2. A Light (Gerald Clayton) 09:21

3. Celia (Bud Powell) 10:34

(Gerald Clayton, Grammy Nominee for Best Improvised Jazz Solo 2021)

4. Rejuvenation Agenda (Gerald Clayton) 07:21

5. Envisionings (Gerald Clayton) 11:03

6. Body and Soul (Johnny Green / Edward Heyman / Robert Sour) 11:47

7. Take the Coltrane (Duke Ellington) 14:01


Gerald Clayton: piano

Walter Smith III: tenos saxophone

Logan Richardson: alto saxophone

Joe Sanders: bass

Marcus Gilmore: drums

Recorded Live April 2019, at the Village Vanguard, New York

Producer: Gerald Clayton

Recorded by Tyler McDiarmid

Mixing: Jeremy Lucas

Mastering: Dave Darlington


If you have not heard Gerald Clayton live, especially if you have not heard him live with Charles Lloyd, you may wonder what all the buzz is about. It’s not that Clayton’s records have been weak; four have received Grammy nominations. But he has never made an album that fully renders the revelation of hearing him in person on a good night.

Until now. Happening represents two firsts: Clayton’s Blue Note debut and his only recording at the Village Vanguard. It is not piano-centric; the band is a world-class two-saxophone quintet featuring Logan Richardson (alto), Walter Smith III (tenor), Joe Sanders (bass), and Marcus Gilmore (drums). But Clayton’s piano contributions, in their wild, free-spilling, lyrical aspiration, are consistently stunning.

The hallowed confines of the Vanguard inspire musicians to outdo themselves. There is a livid intensity to this album, captured in the excellent recorded sound of specialist Vanguard engineers Tyler McDiarmid and Geoff Countryman. Even moody pieces like “Envisionings” quickly find turbulence. Richardson is one of the lethal stealth altos in jazz, and on “Envisionings” his keenings become an overwhelming catharsis. Smith III is a more orderly improviser, but not always. Together, on “A Light,” they raise living hell.

There are two pieces by the rhythm section only. They are the first places people should go if they still doubt that Clayton is a badass. Bud Powell’s “Celia” is a 10-minute onslaught of virtuoso pianism. So is “Body and Soul,” although it is somewhat quieter and more devotional. It overflows with digressions, spontaneous compositions derived from the song. The interpretations of repertoire like this, as well as Billy Strayhorn’s F blues “Take the Coltrane,” reveal that these players, who function on the very leading edge of where jazz is right now, respect their history.

Thomas Conrad (JazzTimes)