By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Each time he approached some level of recognition outside his small realm of jazz musicians, James Clay retreated to Dallas--to his home, his family, a life he refused to sacrifice to fame or money. He was among the greatest jazz musicians ever to come from Texas, and yet when he died January 6 of a stroke--and years of unrelenting back pain--at St. Paul's Hospital, the 59-year-old James Earl Clay passed from this world an unheralded unknown outside of his tiny world of admiring colleagues and adoring fans. Had he stayed with Ornette Coleman or Ray Charles or any number of other greats who requested his services, Clay might have been a saxophone colossus, as his hero Sonny Rollins liked to refer to himself. Now, he is relegated to a footnote in the jazz history books, if that.
Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he began recording again--with David "Fathead" Newman and Ellis Marsalis on Return to the Wide Open Spaces, with Don Cherry on Art Deco, and on his own I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and Cookin' at the Continental--Clay was largely anonymous in his hometown. He belonged, with Newman and Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb and Herchel Evans, to that elite club known as the Texas Tenors, whose sound Clay described, on the liner notes to Cherry's Art Deco, as "raunchy...straight-forward, with lots of emotion and few frills."
He performed at Sambuca with the likes of Marchel Ivery, Roger Boykin, Claude Johnson, Eugene "Worm" Haltom, and so many others--all the same musicians he met and gigged with at South Dallas' American Woodmans Hall more than three decades ago--but few knew of his lengthy resume: of the experimentation with Ornette Coleman, of the on-and-off decade spent with Ray Charles, of the associations with guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Red Garland. He was something of a distant mentor to a few of the younger musicians, a friend to some of the older guys, but an enigma to most--a giant question mark: "Why did you stay in Dallas?"
In an interview with the Observer in February 1992, Clay explained it as simply a matter of taking care of his family, putting his kids through school and remaining close to his wife. He would only go on the road for extremely rare and short bursts, and only if it was for something "substantial."
"Speculating," he said, "don't pay no bills."
During that interview--conducted in his Oak Cliff home, in a den filled with a few tour posters and old photos from the Woodmans Hall--Clay recounted his story in short clips, explaining in only a few sentences what it had taken almost 60 hard years to live.
When he was a kid growing up in Oak Cliff, he began taking piano lessons, but his friends would taunt him, calling him "a faggot," as he recalled; soon after, he stopped the lessons. But he still wanted to play an instrument, and he began noticing the flashy uniforms and huge horns of the Lincoln High School marching band members who would wait outside his elementary school to catch the bus.
"I said, 'Yeah, that's the way I got to make my situation because this little gray piano book ain't makin' it,'" he said, laughing. Soon after, he picked up the alto saxophone.
When he got to Lincoln, he immediately joined the marching band, performing a repertoire that consisted of the works of John Philip Sousa and the occasional big-band swing tunes like "Jumpin' at the Woodside." He switched to the tenor sax in high school because the tenor players were getting all the good songs, all the solos, and, he said with a grin, "all the chicks."
Upon graduation he received a music scholarship to Tennessee State University, but chose to attend Huston-Tillotson in Austin because "they had a whippersnapper big band." After graduation in the mid-'50s, he returned to Dallas and began working at a lead smelter for one year; then, in 1956, he got the itch to move to where the action was--Los Angeles or New York. The decision to move west came when he flipped a coin.
Shortly after moving to L.A., Clay--who, by then, had started "foolin' around" with the flute--hooked up with avant trumpet player Don Cherry and Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman, whom he knew only by reputation. He recalled that the first time he heard Coleman, he was equally impressed and nonplussed by the sax player's bizarre, free-form style of performing--notes randomly piled upon other notes, songs being shaped out of nowhere.
"Playing with Ornette opened me up quite a bit," said Clay, who was part of Coleman's Jazz Messiahs with Cherry. "I remember one day we came out of the crib and we were going to practice. I got one of those method books out, and we started playing and Ornette just went off like, and I'm playing toot-toot-toot. So I promptly closed the book up. I said, 'Well, we're going off in a completely different direction here, hmmmm.' It opened my ears up to a lot more."
While in L.A., Clay also hooked up with Cannonball Adderly, who was interested in pairing Clay with another Lincoln graduate, David "Fathead" Newman, who was playing with Ray Charles' band. The album they recorded in 1960, The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces, is regarded as one of the finest representations of the Texas Tenors sound.
Clay returned to Dallas but, because of that record, he was offered the chance to records his own album as front man; released in 1961, A Double Dose of Blues, was a remarkable record filled with sweet, wrenching blues played on horn and flute.
For a decade, on and off since the mid-'60s, Clay would perform with Ray Charles, in Los Angeles and New York, and quit just as the money was becoming good. Clay returned home once more--to the solitude afforded by anonymity and family, a life he craved more than any other. "I don't have any regrets about coming back," Clay said in 1992. "First of all, I don't like New York."
Clay hadn't recorded since 1991, for Cookin' at the Continental, but he was scheduled to record an album--with strings--for Mark Elliott's Leaning House Records this spring.