Q&A: Alexander Claffy
By J. Chambless
By Lisa Fieldman
Claffy is making his mark on the jazz world. Playing electric as well
as upright bass, he regularly jams with many of the world’s top
jazz musicians. He has toured Europe and the United States several
times, played gigs in the Middle East, and he's a fixture in the New
York and Philadelphia jazz scenes.
He grew up in Pocopson, graduated from Unionville High School, and currently lives in Harlem.
Is your family involved in the arts?
A.: My parents are extremely musical. My dad [Joe Claffy] plays piano, clarinet, sax, drums -- he can pick up and play anything. He’s also a great arranger and conductor. My mom, Patti, was a talent agent in New York, and that’s how we got in involved in child acting. We [Alex and his sister, Mara] did voiceover work for Nickelodeon on “Blue’s Clues.” We also did commercials, and I think my sister did “Sesame Street.” Mara is a vocalist and is currently teaching Spanish. My mom is also a vocalist – that’s how she met my dad. My younger sister, Eliza, just started playing bass, and she also plays piano. She loves music. She’s so talented.
When did you start playing music?
I grew up playing piano, and also played trombone. I couldn’t really read music for a long time, but I had a really quick ear. I’d have WMGK on the radio, and I’d sit and figure out songs. In middle school, Jason Matthews, Matt Block and Will Berry had a band and needed a bass player. So I went to the guitar store and there was some heavy metal on. I picked up a bass and started playing AC/DC's “Back in Black.” Mr. Sudimak was my teacher at Charles Patton. He played bass and he would show me stuff. I also played in jazz band with Mr. O’Rourke. In high school jazz band, they forced me to switch over to upright bass, because if you really want to play jazz or swing -- the true roots of jazz music -- you have to play the upright bass.
How did music influence you as you were growing up?
I didn’t have many friends in elementary or middle school, because all I cared about was music. Unionville is a wonderful place to be peaceful and serene, and to write music, but there’s not a whole lot of [music] culture. You have to drive to Wilmington or all the way to Philly. In high school, my girlfriend would drive me to the train every day. I’d get out of class, and if we gunned it, I would make the train at Thorndale. It was an hour and 15 minute trip to Philadelphia. Sometimes I would take my upright bass on the train. I would go downtown to play at jam sessions, or hang out at gospel/R&B sessions, and I learned from those musicians.
On Monday, I played in an ensemble at the Settlement Music School. Every Saturday, I was in an ensemble at the Clef Club of Philadelphia, which is where I pretty much learned everything about jazz. Also, our band was going this whole time. We were always rehearsing, playing at The Whip, or setting up on the street in West Chester. In high school I was in jazz band, concert band, marching band, choir, and out gigging at night. I was getting as much as I could get musically.
Mike Boone is a bass player, and he was very important in my life at that time. Mike played with everyone from Buddy Rich to Joe Henderson. He played in Germantown every Sunday, and I’d get a ride there no matter what. I just wanted to play.
Every night I’d be out till about 1 a.m. My parents, of course, would be livid. But my father is also an entertainment lawyer, and he would often drive to Philly for work. He’d have clients or rehearsals, and he’d pick me up. I’d get to bed by 1 a.m. and then get up at 6 a.m. for school.
How did you make the leap from playing local gigs with friends to playing jazz in Philly?
Our band, Dogo Wazo, started out playing prog rock -- Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Cream, Led Zeppelin. Matt was a trumpet player, and he got us listening to modern jazz records. Matt showed us Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and bebop; then I found Coltrane, whom I was super into. We were playing a mix of that stuff and some original compositions. We weren’t that good at playing jazz, but for the standards of the area we were great!
I was already getting my butt whooped on gigs since I had started playing bass. So I began going to Philly; I thought I was ready. Then I'd go downtown and I see all these jazz masters. Philadelphia is such a jazz town. I got a warm reception; I had so many mentors immediately. That’s the way Philly is. They heard me play, and they knew I had something. All the gospel and R&B bass players were just hanging out and playing. I can’t tell you how valuable it was seeing them play. I’m a young kid, and I walk into a room full of gospel musicians in downtown Philly, and they call me up to play. They were so nice. There were some guys who really busted my chops, too. It’s part of the tradition. They’d say, “Come on man, get it together, learn these songs. You didn’t sound very good. Here’s what you can work on.” Some people had a better way of doing it, and some people were rough on me. My dad is totally that way, too. I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to my father in terms of being a tough bandleader.
When did you move to New York?
I went to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. I was supposed to go to William Paterson University, but I secretly applied to the New School and didn’t tell my parents. In between classes at Unionville, I’d duck into the choir room and call the New School and battle with them about a scholarship.
When I applied to the New School, I auditioned for Reggie Workman [bass player in John Coltrane’s quartet], which was surreal for me, as Coltrane was all I listened to in high school. I got this surprise letter in the mail, and my dad opened it and burst out crying. He was so proud. He had to read it three times. They gave me close to a full scholarship.
Originally, my parent’s didn’t want me to go to music school. They really fought it because they didn’t want me to go through the hardships they had endured as musicians. At the time, I was angry, but I totally respect it now. It can be a very difficult lifestyle. I’m lucky; I’m 24 and make a nice living in New York City. I’m part of a whole community that tours and plays with others.
How did you break in to the New York Jazz scene?
While I was at the New School, I always knew that I wasn’t going to learn everything in school. I was going to learn it from the people who were out there doing it. So I’d go and sit in on jam sessions every single night. I would be out till 4 in the morning, no matter if I had a 9 a.m. class or not. That’s how I got connected, and also by practicing.
In the beginning, I only got gigs because there was a shortage of bass players. But I proved myself, even though I fell on my face 1,000 times. It’s not like sports, where training prepares you. Practice does, and I can’t stress enough how much music I listen to. In jazz music, you are always improvising, it’s constantly changing, you can never nail it down. You are always playing with different people. I think I love it because I love the challenge.
I was working with Orrin Evans -- he and Mike Boone had mentored me since I was a kid. I was still traveling back to Philly on the weekends to make a living, because working in New York doesn’t happen overnight. I was one of the best bass players in Philly when I left at 18, and I was one of the worst bass players in New York! That’s the way it works, and that is why you move. Fast-forward three years, and I am studying and playing with people like Sir Ron Carter [bass player for Miles Davis]. He was the best teacher in the world.
Then I dropped out of school to go tour the Middle East. Jazz at Lincoln Center opened up a club in Qatar, and I got a call with an offer to play. They said, “Can you go to Qatar for a month? We need to know in 24 hours.” I was told, “You’ll be in six-star hotels, all your meals will be paid for, we’ll be wearing suits, and playing two sets a night of your favorite kind of jazz -- swinging Miles Davis standards.” I was like, “YES!”
I figured the New School was going to make me drop out because I would be away for a month. But they said they could hold my scholarship for as long as year.
It was an amazing experience being on the road with some real seasoned musicians, like Jerry Weldon, who had been playing with Harry Connick, Jr., for 20 years. It was surreal. That year really took off for me; I toured Europe twice with different people. Then I went back and finished my final semester. For my senior recital, I had a big band. My father played the first tune, “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” with us, which was great.
Tell us about your album and what else is on the horizon.
The album spans straight-up jazz to neo-soul, R&B and some of my compositions. Matt Block (Ropeadope Records) helped me put it out. Jason Matthews is on the record as producer and keyboard player. Matt Helm is the narrator. It’s cool to have these Unionville alumni on the project. I worked with this incredible engineer, Michael Perez-Cisneros. We spent thousands of hours on that record, and you can hear it in the quality of the recording, mixing and lyrics. The day it was released, we played to a sold-out crowd at the Kennedy Center. What more can I ask for?
The band in full force is eight or nine people. It’s a big band with organist, piano, bass, drums, guitarist, two vocalists and a horn player. The first album does not have a title because it was inspired by Zeppelin and all those bands in the '70s who put out a record with just a picture on the front. The back story of my album is unrequited love. It is based on my romance with an ex-girlfriend who lived in Switzerland. The story starts at midpoint in the relationship, and follows it through to the heartbreak and breakup of two people who are separated by distance.
I’m working on my next album, “Claffy Vol. 2,” which will have a lot of the same artists from the first album. There will be some Beatles arrangements, some jazz, some new compositions, and some music by French composer Michel Legrand. I think my next endeavor will be putting out a straight-ahead jazz debut. Kind of like introducing Alexander Claffy as a bass player, because I haven’t done that yet. I’ve recorded on so many other peoples’ records, but those records don’t really display me as an upright, straight-ahead jazz player.
I also have a weekly residency at Django in New York City, where I lead jam sessions. Sometimes it's with the Claffy Band and other times it’s with up-and-coming bands. On June 10, I’ll be recording live and celebrating my birthday at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia. We are booked as the Alex Claffy Quintet, and I’m excited to have Orrin Evans playing with us. This summer I’m back in Europe for three weeks, touring with a young piano player, Joey Alexander, from Indonesia. A jazz great, in the body of a 13-year-old – amazing artist!
What advice do you have for young musicians?
Well, one piece of advice has stuck with me over the years. A great bass player gave it to me: “Show up on time, play good rhythm, play well with other people, and be a good time.” In addition to that, practice and study all the masters. Always be a student, but never be afraid to be yourself as a musician.
Visit www.alexanderclaffy.com or Alexander Claffy on Facebook for show schedules and news.