Two weeks of backing Sammy Davis Jr. and four legendary tap dancers forever changed drummer Clayton Cameron’s brush technique. Cameron, who appears with his group the Jass eXplosion at the 19th Annual Jazz in the Pines Festival in August, took many months to assimilate what he had heard and learned from the tap dancers and developed a style that earned him the sobriquet the Brush Master.
“I worked to orchestrate the sounds I had heard, the sounds and the rhythms, to make them a part of my groove. I felt this real compulsiveness about it, since it was so engaging. Whatever uniqueness I bring to the table, came, in large part from that experience,” he said.
Cameron, who played for Davis for eight years, as well as for Davis’s Rat Pack friends Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, said Davis was the consummate entertainer — singer, dancer, instrumentalist and actor. “He could do it all,” said Cameron. He also said Davis was a great guy.
In his first month on the job as Davis’s drummer in Las Vegas, with big band and strings, Cameron missed a cue in the beginning of a song. “I caused a train wreck,” Cameron recalled. “I was sure I was going to be fired. Then Sammy walked up to the conductor, and said he had a frog in his throat and asked if they could start the song again. After the performance, Davis walked up to me and said, ‘See you tonight babe,’ letting me know I still had a job.”
In 1990, Cameron released a video, “The Living Art of Brushes,” which enhanced his reputation as a master of brush technique. By experimenting with brush technique, styles and tonalities, Cameron said he was trying to make drumming more interesting.
“It’s been wonderful watching the growing interest in this art form,” said Cameron. “I never thought that my rhythmic tapping on empty oatmeal boxes would lead to such a distinction as Brush Master. My parents always thought I just loved oatmeal for breakfast. The fact is I knew the sooner I emptied the box the sooner I’d have another cardboard drum.”
Cameron’s playing for the greats continued when he began a six-year stint backing Tony Bennett. “Performing with Tony has been a thrilling experience,” said Cameron. “His love of music and entertaining people has won him countless awards. I’ve had the pleasure of recording with Tony on six albums [each of which received Grammy nominations, five won and in 1994 “Tony Bennett Unplugged” won album of the year.]
Cameron, typical of many jazz musicians, believes he has an obligation to pass on what he knows to upcoming players. Cameron teaches at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. “I enjoy it,” said Cameron of his teaching gig. “It’s very satisfying seeing someone grow over a four year transformation period. I end up learning a lot. Teaching makes me check myself.” He said teaching is part of the jazz culture. “Dizzy Gillespie, he was a teacher,” said Cameron. “He taught everybody. Freddie Hubbard, he was another. There’s a lot of mentorship is jazz. Basically you want people to make the music sound great.”
Cameron has a new tribute CD, “Here’s to the Messengers: Tribute to Art Blakey,” and talked about undertaking a tribute to one of his heroes. “From the early forties with the Billy Eckstine’s Big Band, to the beginnings of the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver, until his last famous press roll, Art Blakey always had drive. With such a unique sound documented on thousands of tracks, I found it overwhelming to even scratch the surface of his contribution to music. So I took a deep breath and picked a few compositions that were written by some Jazz Messenger luminaries, chose one that he recorded with Miles and Cannonball, and then wrote tunes with inspiration from all the above.”
Cameron brings to Idyllwild’s Jazz Fest some very distinguished sidemen; on piano, 10-time Grammy award nominee and three-time winner Billy Childs. In 2009, Childs was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2006 was awarded a Chamber Music America composer’s grant; on trumpet, Gilbert Castellanos, member of the renowned Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and called by Downbeat magazine a new American master; on bass, Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz, voted in 2005 “Best Accoustic Bassist” in Jazz Forum European magazine, and bass teacher at Cal Arts and University of California, Irvine; on sax and other woodwinds, Bob Sheppard, part of Billy Childs Ensembles and the Peter Erskine trio who has also toured with Steely Dan and Boz Skaggs; on trombone, musician, orchestrator and arranger Duane Benjamin, whose arrangements figure prominently on Fox Television’s “American Idol,” and NBC’s “The Voice.”
Clayton Cameron and the Jass eXplosion appear on Sunday, Aug. 26, at the 19th Annual Jazz in the Pines.