Moving to the Music

For most of us, music makes us tap our feet, clap our hands, maybe even sway our hips. Sometimes it stirs up our emotions, rocks us more deeply, more fundamentally. But when U.S. Jazz Ambassador Clay Ross ’98 is moved by music, it can bring him just about anywhere: the North Pole, the Ivory Coast, Macedonia, Tunisia. And, no matter where it takes him, everyone understands, he’s there to make the music happen.

by Alicia Lutz ’98
Photography by Leslie McKellar

Nothing about the scene made sense. Not at first. Not if you weren’t a part of it, a part of what made it make sense – the time, the crowd, the mindset, the energy. Ah, the energy. It was a wild, chaotic energy; the kind of energy that instead of pulsing, seems to flail about, undirected, uncontrolled, impossible to rein in – impossible to follow even, as it ricocheted from the vaulted ceilings to the lancet windows to the plastic-covered booths of this church-turned-restaurant-turned … stage?

Of course, if you were there, it didn’t need to make sense. You didn’t need to understand the onslaught of sound and movement erupting around you. You were there for your friends. You were there for the show. You were there for the music. And the music was enough. The music explained everything.

The music is how the whole thing started. It’s what got things moving. It’s what made sense to Clay Ross ’98 from the beginning. All he had to do was make it happen.

What he and his band did would never fly in today’s Charleston. But this was the Charleston of the 1990s, when the steam escaping from the streets and into the night air seemed magical, full of endless possibilities and dreams come true. And so it was with more willfulness than naiveté that the then–17-year-old Ross asked the owners of local restaurants to let his rock band, Ocean, use their space as a music venue after hours. And it was more excitement than surprise the band felt when the Mesa Grill in the Market and Martini’s on King agreed to their appeals.

To the band, it all made sense. They were there to make music. They’d come in, set up their sound system, invite their friends and transform the restaurant into “crazy music parties. We’d turn this church into a theater where all kinds of craziness would take place,” Ross laughs, recalling the scene at the Mesa Grill, originally the Old Church of the Redeemer. “By the end of the night, there’d be 600 people in there, we’d be naked, and half the audience would be rolling around on the floor together. The parties we’d throw with our music were wild – it was a whole scene.”

Looking back, the whole scene might make more sense than it appeared at first light – it could even be construed as strategic.

“We had to create places to play – that was the first step, and we put a lot of energy into that,” explains Ross, guitarist and lead vocalist for the band. “That spirit has served me well – that entrepreneurial approach. I think that’s useful in anything you do in life: You have to cultivate your ability to solve problems and create opportunities.”

clay-ross5It’s a lesson that must have evaded whoever said opportunity knocks but once, for Ross has managed to take advantage of one momentous opportunity after another. In addition to touring with Cyro Baptista’s world-renowned percussion ensemble, Beat the Donkey, he toured everywhere from China to the North Pole with Canadian fiddler April Verch. In 2005, the U.S. State Department named him a U.S. Jazz Ambassador; as such, he has completed five international tours (to Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, Brazil, the Balkans, the United Kingdom) and is currently on a six-week tour through Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Tunisia.

Last fall, Ross and his band, Matuto, were invited to the world’s biggest world music conference, WOMEX World Music Conference in Copenhagen. Ross took the opportunity to reach out to nearby embassies where he’d had grants over the years, and worked with them to arrange outreach programs and concerts.

“I sort of built a tour so that I was there for three weeks, and it all culminated in this presentation that I gave at WOMEX,” says Ross, who led a workshop on the music business at the conference. “That was really nice. I never expected to feel this way, but I feel like I can help other people because I’ve had all these experiences, and I’ve had to create a lot of paths for myself. I think every artist is dealing with that same challenge. I mean, all people are dealing with that challenge: How do you navigate your own path?”

For his part, Ross has managed to navigate a musical career with no end in sight. It’s taken him places he couldn’t have imagined going – places where the languages and the cultures are so foreign to his own, only the music makes sense. The music always makes sense. And that’s exactly why he’s where he is today.

This is music, all grown up. Chill, yet charged. Astute, yet playful. Avant garde, yet cozy. It plays coy, ensnaring the unsuspecting customers as they sip their coffee or nibble their chicken salad sandwiches. Like the chess game by the window, it’s masterful, sly and somehow dubious. This is how Sunday afternoons at Clara’s Café sound: like the comfort of family … and the tricks of family dynamics.

It was a challenge. That’s what led Clay Ross to jazz. It was 1998, and music had changed his course in the four years he’d been in Charleston. Or maybe Charleston had changed the course for his music. Either way, he’d ditched his plan to study psychology, graduating instead with a degree in classical composition. And he’d moved from straight-up rock to jazz-fusion and eventually the experimental jazz practiced by his new band, the Gradual Lean.

“When I came to Charleston, rock music was all I knew,” explains Ross, who began taking weekly guitar lessons when he was 10 years old, and – in addition to attending the Brevard (N.C.) Music Center’s summer camp for a few summers – had been in several garage bands throughout middle school and high school, including the metal band Mantread. “Coming from Anderson, S.C. – or anywhere in the suburban South, really – Charleston was like an oasis of music, an oasis of culture. There’s a jazz club scene, there’s music in the streets. That was just a really special time
in Charleston.”

Still, the only musicians he knew then were the guys he’d played with back home, and he managed to talk two of them into moving to Charleston to join Ocean. “The thing about Ocean: We weren’t very good – we were pretty bad, actually – but we had enthusiasm, that’s for sure.”

They also had pluck. Playing in the streets or in vacated restaurants didn’t faze them one bit. In fact, it only emboldened them more.

“Having an audience dance and scream and shout was too infectious for us ever to let go of, even to this day,” says Ocean’s drummer Taylor Davis ’99, who now has his own New York City–based band, Yard Sale. “That force and passion was awakened in Charleston for us and hasn’t left to this day.”

clay-ross4But Charleston also awakened some further musical curiosity in both Ross and Davis, who began collaborating with bassist Kevin Hamilton ’95, eventually forming the jazz-infused rap-rock jam band Otus, which was known to draw crowds of 500-plus to the Music Farm in its day. Still, Ross continued to be lured by the intricate sounds of jazz, and he and Hamilton eventually teamed up with trumpeter Charlton Singleton and percussionist Quentin Baxter ’98 to form the modern jazz bebop band the Gradual Lean.

“By the time we started the Gradual Lean, I was really at the point of taking my music more seriously,” says Ross, whose goal was simply to pay his way with music. “It was a big transition to take those steps going from college band to, OK, I’m going to do this. I’m an artist. This is what I’m going to do with my life.”

Music had gone from hobby to livelihood, and he had to make it work. He had to make the music make sense. Charleston had built a career for him, and he’d used everything the city offered him to create even more opportunities, more possibilities. It was time to move on. And so, in 2003, Ross moved to New York City.

“That’s what New York is all about,” Ross observes. “People come here to take it to the next level.”
And it wasn’t long before he’d heard the “next level” he wanted to achieve: the Latin musical style of chorinho. It changed Ross’ musical outlook forever. He hooked up with Spanish accordionist Victor Prieto, who taught him the Brazilian ragtime, and began seeking out Brazilian musicians around the city. Soon enough, he’d become known for his ability to bridge jazz and music from other parts of the world.

“New information comes in, and I want to understand and process it and live it for a while and make it my own. You just start to investigate where this music is coming from and what it is you like about it, and just one little bit of information leads to another,” explains Ross. “It’s like I’ve been following this thread, and all the music I make is a continuation of that thread.”

That chorinho thread, for example, led him to Brazil for a little musical excursion, and then to Cyro Baptista’s Beat the Donkey, whom he toured with from 2005 until he formed Matuto in 2009.

Since then, Matuto – which Ross describes as a “Brazilian bluegrass blissfest of sound” that brings the Brazilian Carnaval to the Appalachian Mountains (thus the name, which translates as country bumpkin) – has been going strong. Currently, they are touring in Africa and their newest album, The Devil and The Diamond, will be released in May.

No matter how wide open the path Ross is navigating seems, however, he reiterates that a career in music is never easy.

“You always fight for survival. You still think, How am I going to keep this up? But I think as long as you’re inspired and it’s what you want, you’ll fight for it. For me, it’s been a path of pure will and my own desire to do this,” says Ross, noting that a musical career is never as glamorous as it seems. Even the creative process isn’t all that it’s made out to be: “The moment of the idea is only going to get you so far. You have to do the work. None of it means anything unless you do the work. So, the creative idea, the inspiration, is important – and maybe it’s the most important – but it’s only a spark. You have to create an engine that’s going to realize that spark. And the engine is your work, and your motivation to do that work.”

Whether it’s preparing for or creating opportunities, booking or promoting tours, recording, planning, managing – whatever – there’s always work to be done.

“It’s nonstop, constant work. That’s how you make a living as a musician,” Ross says. “That’s how you keep it alive.”

One of the goats stands, motionless, in front of the barn’s stage, peering over his shoulder at the rosy-cheeked, bundled-up audience behind him. The entire crowd is holding its breath. All eyes are locked onto the small, red gourds swinging between the fingers of Clay Ross’ hands. All ears are in awe of the precise, controlled, complex polyrhythms that he manages out of these African kashakas. No one has ever seen anything like it. So transfixed the crowd is that it doesn’t at first notice the other goat, tonguing at the band’s set list, going in for a snack.

It’s a crisp November night at the Awendaw (S.C.) Green Barn Jam, the bonfires are roaring, the oysters are roasting and – at the end of the percussion solo – the crowd resumes bouncing along with the enchanting music of Matuto.

Just then, Ross’ eyes crinkle and an exuberant smile spreads across his face as the goat manages to pull the set list into his mouth, chewing it without hurry or shame.

clay-ross3“I love it, I love it, I love it!” Ross calls out before launching into a lively call-and-response bit. There’s no question that he’s having fun. This is what makes him happy. This is what he does: music. And a little bit of showmanship. He plays to the audience, lures each person in and makes them a part of the music. He makes them listen, makes them care.

“The whole point for musicians and their music is to bring people into the moment and bring people into a calm, peaceful, connected feeling. Great songs do that, great performances do that. You just forget about all your problems – or maybe they make your struggle more pronounced, but it brings you immediately into the moment of life,” Ross says. “To live inside of that, and to make a living doing that, to be completely involved in that process all the time, it’s good for me.

“That’s what’s so nice about the life of music: What you have to share is inside you, and it’s something that you’ve cultivated and worked hard on. And so it’s something that you can share and bring to other people,” he continues. “It’s what I work for every day, just to make sure I can keep that up.”

When Ross and the rest of Matuto visited the Lowcountry on their annual Cornbread and Collards tour of the South, they included a three-day stop to lead a workshop at the College and to play at the Mezz jazz club on King, the Awendaw Green Barn Jam and the Kiawah Island Arts Council.

“Charleston is such a great, nurturing place for music and for young artists. It just changes your picture, changes your idea of what’s possible,” Ross says. “I always love visiting, giving back to the place that gave me so much freedom. Everything’s changed a lot since then. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I kept playing. I kept going.”

And, even though the music he plays with Matuto is a far cry from the raucous rock of Ocean, he hasn’t lost all of the untamed spirit his music had when he first arrived in Charleston in 1994.

“Sometimes that personality that I cultivated in those wild college performances with those college rock bands, it still comes out,” he admits. “It’s fun, you know. It’s just passion. It’s honest. And I think that’s an undercurrent that everybody feels – it’s a universal thing that every human being can connect to.”

He’s seen it in every country he’s visited, in every crowd, in every venue: Music speaks to everyone in the same language.

“When you walk inside music and you live inside of it and it’s your life’s work and your vehicle and your gateway and your key to every situation and opens every door in your life, you can’t help but notice how it connects all people, in all situations. It’s a universal reality: Music makes life easy. It lubricates life. It makes things move,” he says, pausing with a nod: “Yeah, music makes things move.”

And so, wherever it moves him, music will always make sense.