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Jay Clayton is both a very significant singer in the jazz avant-garde and a highly influential educator. Clayton learned standards very early from hearing her mother sing around their house. She took private piano lessons from a young age and studied at the St. Louis Institute for Music for a short time. She graduated from Miami University in Oxford, OH in 1963 with a degree in Music Education. Although she studied classical music at school, Clayton sang jazz on the weekends at local clubs. After graduation she moved to New York. While at first she sang standards in clubs, she became one of the first jazz singers to start performing with freer and more avant-garde musicians, in addition to utilizing electronics and interacting with poets. An abbreviated list of her associates through the years includes saxophonists Mark Whitecage, Steve Lacy, Jane Ira Bloom, and Gary Bartz, clarinetist Perry Robinson, trombonist Julian Priester, pianists Muhal Richard Abrams, and George Cables, and the innovative a cappella group Vocal Summit, which teamed her with Jeanne Lee, Urszula Dudziak, Bobby McFerrin, and Norma Winstone.
As an educator, Clayton was inspired by Sheila Jordan and has become just as influential. She has taught at a countless number of seminars, workshops, and master classes, was on the jazz faculty of Cornish College of the Arts for 20 years, and has taught at Universitat fur Musik in Austria, the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop, City College, the New School in New York City, the Vermont Jazz Workshop and the Banff Center in Canada. As a singer, Clayton has been well documented through the years, recording for such labels as Anima, Hep, West Wind, ITM, Winter & Winter and Sound Winds. She has also recorded a duo set of standards with pianist Fred Hersch, Beautiful Love, for Sunnyside.