James Clay

James Clay (1935-1994), after making a strong impression in the late 1950s, went into obscurity for nearly 30 years before making a comeback.

A fine tenor saxophonist who was part of the long tradition of Texas tenors, Clay was born in Dallas. Although early on he mostly played r&b and blues-oriented music, he was an early associate of Ornette Coleman and was open to playing in freer settings. He moved up North in the mid-1950s and recorded with drummer Larance Marable in 1956.

In 1960, Clay made his greatest impact, leading two excellent albums for Riverside. The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces teams him with David “Fathead” Newman (another Texas tenor), pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Arthur Taylor. The two tenors battle it out on a variety of tunes and the results are a tie for the saxophonists and a victory for the listeners. A Double Dose of Soul has Clay utilizing Cannonball Adderley’s sidemen (cornetist Nat Adderley, vibraphonist Victor Feldman, Sam Jones, and drummer Louis Hayes) plus pianist Gene Harris in a bop-based program that features Clay doubling on flute.

Rather than building on this promising start, James Clay decided to move back to Texas and become an educator. Very little was heard from him on the national scene until cornetist Don Cherry persuaded Clay to record on his 1988 album Art Deco. James Clay was still playing in his prime and he was rediscovered, recording as a leader on a few occasions prior to his 1994 death.