Each fall, he divides roughly 40 students into eight jazz combos. The groups practice under his guidance every week and perform two concerts a year, along with various gigs around campus.
An accomplished saxophonist and ethnomusicologist, Clayton has a strong vision for these student jazz ensembles. Here’s what he told us about those goals, and about his own experiences as a musician.
What type of jazz do you have the combos playing?
That’s one of the fun parts. We take music from the entire history of jazz, and we do some non-jazz too. We did an Adele song one year, and we’ve also done classics like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. It runs the gamut. A lot of times, I get a feel for what the ensemble is interested in playing and give them the freedom to select from pieces I brought in or their own music they’d like to play. We’ve even had some students compose their own music and perform that.
How would you describe your vision for the combos program?
One of my main goals was to grow the program, but also to make it a program that really encouraged and supported the students’ excitement and love of jazz and their desire to really better themselves as musicians.
To that end, I wanted to integrate the performance side of the music with the academic side of the music. In addition to combo rehearsals, I created an academic course that is open to the jazz combo members. It’s a one-year theory and history class that spans the history of jazz music.
I also wanted to make sure that the program welcomed all proficiency levels. We have some people that are playing at a very high level; some at a more intermediate level. I wanted to make sure the program is welcoming to everybody and that everyone can learn and progress at their own pace.
How do you see the combos connecting to the Philly jazz scene?
Philadelphia historically has been one of the great centers of jazz in the country. Now it’s a smaller scene. I’d like to see the students have an opportunity to get a bit more integrated into it. That’s one of the things I’m working on this year. We’ve already had some invitations to do high-profile performances that are in the works right now.
You’re an accomplished musician as well as an ethnomusicologist. When did you discover the saxophone?
I started saxophone when I was 10. I started performing pretty seriously in middle school. In high school, I started competing. In my senior year of high school, I was selected to be in the National Grammy High School Jazz Band. When I went to college, I majored in music. That was all academic—theory, history, and composition. But I also had a very serious performing outlet: I started my own group and we performed all over campus and even outside in the surrounding neighborhoods. In graduate school, I performed with and directed the graduate school’s Big Band.
How has running the jazz combos influenced your own musical pursuits?
It’s really inspired me to pursue my own dreams as a performer. Working with students is very therapeutic and inspiring as a musician because I see the ways that I can improve, and it also makes me very aware of how to communicate clearly about the music.
What have you been working on lately, performance-wise?
This past year, I released my debut album with my group, The Matthew Clayton Quartet. That was very exciting. We first got together in the summer of 2012, then we had our first gig together at a jazz club in Philly called Chris’s Jazz Café. We’ve been together ever since.
How do you approach jazz as a performer?
I really try to convey honesty and openness and sincerity in what I play. I try to write music and play music that is very pleasing to listen to. Sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in thinking about music that you start to lose some of the immediacy and the feeling.
One of the things that I learned in studying music—and this is probably true for a lot of different professions—is that when you’re an expert at something, sometimes you can lose touch with what other people connect to because you’re so deep into what you know. I always try to keep my finger on what initially drew me to the music, which was the beauty and sound of it, the energy, the passion, the love. Those are most important to me. That’s how I approach playing and writing music.
Is there a particular style of jazz you prefer to play?
I play what’s called “straight-ahead jazz,” which basically means classic jazz. There are other classifications, like bebop, which is one of the main sources of my musical skill set. But I think the broader term would be straight-ahead jazz.
Improvisation is obviously a huge part of jazz. How do you open yourself up for that?
I’ll give you a condensed answer, but I think it’s a good one: The best place to learn how to improvise is to first listen and emulate the people that do it the best.
When I was in high, I started to transcribe solos of the saxophonists that I liked the most. What’s great about that is not only do you get the notes they’re playing, you also get the emotion and inflection and nuances of their sound. When you transcribe it, you play along with the recording so you can try to sound like them.
It’s a journey from learning how to copy a great musician’s style and then getting your own style. It’s very similar to learning a new language. You have to learn the vocabulary and the syntax and all that. But when you become a fluent speaker, you can have a conversation with someone you meet on the street and you know all the ins and outs of that language. It’s the same thing in music.
To be a great improviser, you have to have absorbed and internalized the melodic, the harmonic, the rhythmic structures of the piece you’re playing. You have to be a master of your instrument so that you can play anything you hear in your head and respond at a moment’s notice. I think it’s really a combination of internalizing the history and sound of the music you’re trying to convey and also being a master of your instrument so you can respond in the moment.
Here’s a video from last spring’s Penn Jazz Combos concert. The piece is “Speedball” by Lee Morgan and the musicians are Ben Dickstein C’15 on alto saxophone; Matthew Clayton on alto saxophone (he comes in around 1:20); Atul Tiwary EAS’16 on tenor saxophone; Jono Wachter W’15 on piano; Ilan Gold C’18 on bass; and Frank Barr on drums:
—Molly Petrilla C’06