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Parsons native jammed with Basie

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Dec. 14, 2009, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 14, 2009, at 6:08 a.m.

By the time he was 6, Wilbur Dorsey "Buck" Clayton played piano.

At 17, the Parsons native switched to trumpet — and never stopped until lip surgery forced him to nearly four decades later.

Clayton would travel the world and become one of the foremost trumpeters of the 20th century. He was the main soloist in Count Basie's Orchestra and played with some of the top musicians and singers of the day, including Lester Young, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday.

He was born Nov. 12, 1911, in Parsons. His introduction to the jazz world came in Kansas City.

"I was always going to Kansas City," Clayton told Nathan W. Pearson Jr., in the book "Goin' to Kansas City," which features the musicians who played swing and laid groundwork for modern jazz music.

"I went to school in Kansas, and we'd go up to Kansas City every weekend to go to a dance, listen to a band, go to theaters ... "Clayton told Pearson.

Although Clayton was inspired and influenced by trumpet great Louis Armstrong, his forte was in melodic improvisational work.

When Clayton was in his early 20s, he organized the Harlem Gentlement, one of the first jazz bands to play in Shanghai, China.

In China, he was befriended by Chiang Kai-shek's wife, Soong Mei-ling, and her sister, Ai-ling, who came often to the Candirome in Shanghai to hear the Harlem Gentlemen.

Clayton moved back to America in 1937. In Kansas City, he joined Count Basie's band.

"Kansas City music is mostly where they set riffs behind you," Clayton told Pearson. "No matter who's playing a solo, the guys would get just as much kick out of setting a riff ... the first one that set the riff, we all had to follow. If you could think of a riff quicker than anybody else, then we'd all follow you. You play it first, then the whole group would play it with you underneath the soloist. ... That's what used to make Kansas City music stand out. Nobody else did that."

Clayton would play with Basie until November 1943, when he was drafted for World War II.

After his stint in the Army, Clayton worked with Basie, Benny Goodman and Harry James, and toured Europe.

Clayton became the leader of mainstream-oriented jam session recordings in the 1950s. He recorded for Columbia under the title of Jam Session. He had recording sessions with Coleman Hawkins and J.J. Johnson. And he appeared in the 1956 film, "The Benny Goodman Story."

By the late 1960s, lip and dental problems essentially ended his playing career.

In the 1970s, Clayton produced several musical arrangements and compositions. He became an educator at Hunter College in New York City in the 1980s.

He died Dec. 8, 1991, in New York.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

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