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Clark Gayton Remembers 1993 – 2003: ‘The Sweetest Period for Music in NYC

by Kay Cordtz


Clark Gayton plays trombone, tuba, and sousaphone with musicians from Prince to Sting and in ensembles from Steel Pulse to the Mingus Big Band. He was a longtime member of Levon Helm’s Ramble band and has spent most of the last 2 years on the road with Bruce Springsteen. A composer, producer, and talented photographer, he released a CD in 2013 that has been years in the making. New York 1993 – 2003 is attributed to Clark and the Superslicks, a long list of respected New York musicians. It’s a mix of heavy groove reggae, funk, Latin jazz plus a few wild cards. There’s also a booklet of photographs Gayton took in locations from his Washington Heights neighborhood to the island of Martinique. ROLL recently asked him to talk about the project and the concept behind it.
When did you write these songs?“Tina, Too” was written in 1989, when I was having a very hard time getting started in New York. I felt like writing was the best way for me to get heard. I wasn’t confident with my playing enough to offer that, but I was very confident with my writing, so I pushed that until my playing got better. But as it turned out, my playing was what kept me in New York. I recorded “Tina, Too” originally for my first CD around 1994. “Skylight” was written in the ‘80s also, recorded twice, once in 1989 and the recording you hear now was made in 2000. “Were You There” was arranged in part in 1994, and the new section was written in 2005. Anyway, that’s the pattern — a lot of material here and there that I’m getting off the shelf.

What’s the significance of the title, New York 1993 – 2003?

I told a friend the title of my disc recently, and she immediately said, “That was the sweetest period for music here in New York!”  She was right. There was music in almost every major club in the city back then. The hottest dance clubs had a live band playing in some corner, and they paid the band a salary, which is important to note. I did two or three gigs a night, and could make a living without having to go on the road. Nell’s was the best venue to play, with live music upstairs and a dance club downstairs. Prince, Nile Rogers, Chaka Khan, Jamiroquai, —anyone could be at the club at any time! The Mingus band also was just getting off the ground then at the Time Café. Phil Spector was a regular, and that’s where I was spotted for a role in the Robert Altman film, Kansas City. When I got called to play with Sting in 1996, I didn’t want to go because the music scene in town was so intense! I turned down the gig three times before deciding to go.

Why 1993?

1993 marked the debut of my Ritual Label, and the beginning of the Acid Jazz or Hip Hop Jazz movement. I started hanging out at the Metropolis, which had DJs and a live percussionist/​DJ named Nappy G. Flute player/​producer Richard Worth and Jay Rodrigues, a woodwind player, were also there. Jay, Richard and Nappy G started this party called ‘Giant Step’  — improvisation with DJs. It was a way for musicians to play their instruments in the big clubs and make some money. Those guys went on to become the group ‘The Groove Collective’. They were the pioneers of the new sound and inspired me. Not only was Hip Hop Jazz taking form, but when I went on the road with Steel Pulse in 1990, I saw that there was another underground movement called ‘Blues Dance’ in England.  There were underground parties in Birmingham and Brighton that featured Dancehall artists ‘toasting’ live on top of original Skatalites cuts!  That set the stage for Garage music and Dub Step, and gave me the idea to re-​​interpret the music with a jazz/​instrumental approach. The movement had spread all over the UK, but nobody figured out a way to record it.

Pink Pony

Pink Pony

When and how did you figure that out?

What I thought I would try was to record my band live to tape, then sample that recording so it sounded like a sampled record. It seemed obvious to me at the time, but I had never heard anyone else try that. Everyone was busy trying to find records to sample back then. So I went into the studio, recorded my band, sampled a groove with an Akai S950 to make the live band SOUND like an old record, and looped it. The filters built into the sampler gave the record a gritty sound. I had a lot of battles in the studio with other musicians and engineers because it wasn’t made in a conventional way. I didn’t want to use record samples, and I didn’t want to use conventional reggae devices in the rhythm section. I wanted to write original music in a new idiom —figure out my own sound and concept using my personal influences. When I went to mix the record at Battery Recording, there were top recording engineers sitting in on my session trying to figure out what I had done. I basically had a reggae bass line going, but with no skank —a swirly keyboard sample and jazz solos on top of the groove. That was it! Easy Jazzy, which featured Kochie Banton, was the first thing I released in 1993. It was a 12″ vinyl disc with both a vocal and instrumental version and a ballad on the B side. I gave it to DJs to play at clubs. My sister posted it as an audio file on a listening blog in 1993. It was basically an MP3 before MP3s! The first guy to post a comment on the blog was Alexandernevermind (Prince). “Nice bone solo!”



Don’t Try To Question was the first CD I released in 1995. It was sort of an EP with seven or eight cuts on it. Jahmerican Jazz came out in 1996, Walk the Water in 1998, and Sankofa! around 2001. Sankofa! was an enhanced CD with the liner notes included from a projector on the disc with a link to my website. Pretty cool, but most people didn’t know how to use it — just a few years ahead of its time! Most of my money went into making these records, but I think it was worth it. The records got better and better each time, and it put me on the map, if nothing else.

There’s a two-​​year gap between Easy Jazzy and the first CD. What was happening during that time?

In 1994, I was in a vicious car accident. I was thrown through the back windshield of a car while on tour in Florida. I was airlifted to the hospital and suffered minimal injury, all things considered. Even though I was thrown 50 feet, I only had a few lacerations, a separated shoulder and torn ligaments in my arm. Before I went through the windshield, I said a prayer and thought about how I was going to survive, and it played out exactly how I imagined it in advance. (I protected my head by pushing the street away from my head and rolled.) I realize it was really luck, but it didn’t hurt to have a plan! It was a wake up call. It made me realize that I could visualize the outcome of a situation, and make it happen. I couldn’t play trombone for several months, but I learned that I could play euphonium left-​​handed, so I went on the road with the Skatalites a week later playing euphonium.

And what is the significance of the 2003 date?

By that time, live music had died around the city. Cabaret laws were shutting down all the venues, and rent was too high to not have a retail store on the lot. The Brazilian Girls, who I also played with, had broken onto the scene, and had a good run after that time, but everything kind of fell off from there. Of course, that’s when Levon started the Ramble upstate, and I went out with Bruce two years later. But it was the end of an era in which I went from playing in the subways to touring with the Basie band and dating a movie star! [Gayton had a seven-​​year relationship with Boardwalk Empire actress Gretchen Mol, who he met when she was the coat-​​check girl at Metropolis.]  Only in New York.  But the random chance seems to have vanished.

You have nearly 35 other musicians on this record. Who are they?

The musicians on the record are my friends. I never use musicians that I don’t a have history with. Victor Lewis and Harry Whitaker are a generation or two ahead of me, but I played with Victor in many situations, and I really needed his experience on “Tina, Too.” Same with Harry. I used to sit in with him on Wednesdays at Arturo’s. I knew he was very ill at the time, and I thought it would be a shame if our relationship was not documented in some way. He barely made it up the stairs to the studio for the recording; we had to assist him up the last flight. Once we sat him down, he was fine, and he played beautifully. Very subtle, but it gave me the impressionist sound I wanted. He died three weeks later.


Guys like Jerry Johnson and Ras Droppa taught me most of what I know about reggae. Of course I learned my ABC’s from Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso when I joined the Skatalites in 1988, but the weekly gigs at the Lion’s Den with Skadanks was a crash course. Later I learned the Skatalites were the beginning and the end! What you hear on this record is a combination of both experiences.

Tell me about the photographs that accompany the CD.

The photos are just casual shots from over the years. The cover shot is Tommy McCook, asleep on a ferryboat to Amsterdam. The back shot, taken in Austria, is James Zollar, a very old friend and mentor of mine. The other photos in the booklet were selected to give the feel of that decade for me. My years in Washington Heights, late nights at Nublu, gigs in the Caribbean, various spots in the East Village …the main thing I wanted to express was that this was MY experience in New York.

All photographs by Clark Gayton.

To buy New York 1993-​​2003, visit CD Baby.

For more on Clark Gayton and his activities visit his Facebook page.

Or read ROLL’s feature on Gayton and one particular collaborator.


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