I first heard Buck Clayton with the Count Basie Orchestra on recordings during the early '40s. I played trumpet in a band of high school boys in Arizona, and we used to play some of the arrangements he had written for the Basie orchestra that were published for sale as ``stock arrangements.'' When his trumpet solos were transcribed, we would copy them as closely as we could. Later, when I was going to high school in Los Angeles, all of the kids, including me, were completely dedicated budding be-boppers. If one wished to insult another, something would be said like ``Man, you sound just like Buck Clayton today'' or ``Man, you sound just like Louis Armstrong, or Roy Eldridge,'' etc. The only complimentary thing to be said at that time was that one sounded like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, or Kenny Dorham -- but never like the names mentioned earlier and, of course, never like oneself.
Our stupidity, I hope, will be forgiven, since it was just based on the too usual ignorance of many beginners, and none of us to my knowledge had ever heard Buck Clayton in person. All we knew was that he wasn't a be-bopper, and that was the first or last thing we wanted to know about a horn player at the time.
In 1946, when I was playing with the Johnny Otis orchestra, a band from Los Angeles that tried to sound like the Basie orchestra, we used to play some unpublished arrangements Clayton had written for Basie that were eventually sent to us. I enjoyed playing them very much and never knew why we received them. I could only guess that they were, for some reason, not what Basie wanted to play at that time. Anyway, I thought they were the best things we had.
In the early '50s when I had moved to New York and was free-lancing, from time to time I played on a jam session gig at the Stuyvesant Casino on the Lower East Side. Sometimes Buck would be in the other group with people like Pops Foster while I would be in a group with people like J. J. Johnson, Horace Silver, etc. I really got a chance to hear him then. I had enjoyed his work on the Basie records, also the Billie Holiday records, especially the muted trumpet solos, and I still do. But I was knocked over by his open horn: the ease and control of his playing, not to mention the musicality of his melodic ideas, which was always present.
I'll never forget his solo on ``Song of the Islands'' with the Count Basie Orchestra. He had the first chorus and began by playing around the melody, which at this point is just a whole note -- a C or ``sol'' -- repeated for the first three bars. He alternated these C's with A's or ``mi's'' for the first two bars and then a B-flat or ``fa'' in the third bar.
This seemed to stress the C, as if he were holding it to a light so that it glowed almost like a cat's eyes in the dark. He was playing the melody his own way. His vibrato was more like a sob, but it was not at all maudlin. Though a truly eloquent, passionate player, he never waved the flag. He always told a story; he always had a story to tell. I knew that I could never sound like him, but I began to hope that somehow, sometime, I would sound as good as he sounded to me.
The next time I heard him was in the late '50s at Storyville in Boston. I was with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, and he was with the opposite group that included Vic Dickenson and Pee Wee Russell, among others. Although I had gained from experience and study, I realized that I still had a long way to go to sound as good as Buck Clayton sounded to me. In this respect he will always be an inspiration. The more I learn, the more I can hear in his playing.
Although we have talked from time to time over the years that I've known him, I've never asked Buck anything about playing. I just didn't know what to ask. I felt there could be only one answer to this unformed, unaskable question, and that would be to find your own way, to find it out for yourself.