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Mead High students jazzed by Grammy winner’s visit

John Clayton works with a student at Moscow High School.
John Clayton works with a student at Moscow High School.

In the past three years, the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival has engaged in more outreach to regional schools. Last week it was the Mead High School jazz choir’s turn to get a little special attention.

Festival artistic director John Clayton stopped by to work with the choir and its repertoire.

“It’s always a thrill walking in to work with a group I don’t know,” Clayton said after the morning session was over. “I never know what’s going to happen, and I can’t come in with a pre-arranged message. I just love it.”

Clayton is a Grammy Award-winning bassist who has worked with artists including Diana Krall and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

The students were a little star-struck, but that passed quickly as Clayton began working with them on a jazz arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”

“It brings a whole new depth of music to have someone like John Clayton stop in and work with us,” said senior Hannah Miller, 17.

This time around, Clayton conducted personal clinics at Mead, Ferris and Central Valley high schools. He has also been to Asotin and Moscow high schools.

He said the jazz festival is trying to reach out to regional schools, especially now that the festival has discontinued its student competition.

“The competition was motivating for the students, but we wanted to get away from that,” Clayton said. “It now becomes my job to present something that’s motivational instead of the competition.”

Mentoring sessions with well-known musicians are available at the jazz festival, and so are scholarships for clinics.

“We want to deepen our relationship with the schools and the students,” said Clayton, adding that there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging achievement with an award or a trophy. “But art is subjective. There is no such thing as the best trumpet player or the best drummer in the world.”

The Mead jazz choir is directed by Mike Saccomanno. Clayton worked with the group on tempo, rhythm and how to better convey emotion with its singing.

“The feeling you are trying to communicate has to be sincere,” said Clayton, or the audience will notice.

Clayton hesitated when students asked him what music they should listen to.

“I don’t want you to listen to someone and make it feel like you are taking medicine,” said Clayton, laughing, before mentioning jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and Singers Unlimited. “And Doctor John is an interesting voice you should know.”

He then wanted to know what the students were listening to, and they threw out names like Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Take 6 and Dave Brubeck.

“That’s how I learn, by asking who you are listening to,” said Clayton, who kept an open, easy dialogue with the students.

Senior Zach Merkling, 18, said the workshop was great.

“Mr. Clayton has such talent, and he is famous,” Merkling said. “But this was fun – it was like hanging out with a friend.”