Pianist and vocalist Jim Clayton hails from Sarnia, Ontario (Canada’s “Chemical Valley”). Born in 1967, he was the oldest of four children, with a chemist father and a stay-at-home mom who later became a terminal-unit chaplain and author of books on grief.
At age three he showed an interest in the neighbours’ piano, so his mother and a musician friend bartered babysitting for piano lessons. The friend quickly recommended Jim study with a professional, which led to several years of studying classical piano, theory and harmony through the Royal Conservatory of Music.
He spent grades five and six in Louisiana, when his father’s work took the family to Baton Rouge. School field trips led to Jim encountering jazz in its birthplace of New Orleans. When he expressed interest in the music, his piano teacher introduced him to ragtime piano, which laid some of the left-hand groundwork he’d need later. At school, he took up clarinet in grade five, and viola in grade six. Neither instrument stuck.
Jim took a break from piano studies after grade nine, but music stayed a huge part of his life. He performed on alto sax (poorly) in the school band, DJ’d school dances, taught piano at Diane MacKillop’s School of Music, and borrowed a synth to play in a battle-of-the-bands competition with other teachers from the school.
After several short-lived retail jobs and a lot of DJ’ing in nightclubs, Jim enrolled in Lambton College’s Radio, TV and Journalism program. Within two semesters, he was working as a reporter and photographer for the Sarnia Gazette; a year after that, he was hired as a radio announcer and producer at CHOK Radio, where he co-hosted the market’s top-rated weekend morning show, and became adept at splicing tape with razor blades.
While at CHOK, a radio campaign in support of the Gulf War troops was in need of an instrumental version of Bette Midler’s From A Distance. Unable to find one, Jim took recording equipment to his friend’s piano store and recorded one himself. After hearing the results, the station staff began encouraging him to pursue music professionally.
Jim was accepted into Humber’s Jazz and Commercial Music program in 1991, where he quickly moved his focus from commercial to jazz, and supported himself by busking in subway stations. Teachers and fellow students introduced Jim to the artists he’d listen to for years to come: Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, and Oscar Peterson.
After three semesters, he took a break from college to perform with cruise ship show-bands, backing production shows and playing dance sets. Early cruises took him from New York City through the Caribbean, as far south as Venezuela, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast to Alaska. Others were in Europe, sailing out of Amsterdam or the UK, heading as far west as Iceland and as far east as Russia.
After a year and a half, Jim returned to Humber College. Having discovered jazz-rock and fusion while gigging abroad, he joined the college’s Electric Ensemble, and studied composition. It was then that he connected with the musicians with whom he would make his 1997 debut album Muskoka. And his ensemble instructor took note of Jim’s sense of humour, recommending him for a job with The Second City, the theatre company best known for creating the Emmy-winning TV series, SCTV.
Jim joined The Second City as a music director in 1995. He worked with the company for nearly 17 years, entertaining audiences across Canada, as well as ex-pats in Asia, and the troops in Bosnia.
As a musical director for sketch and improv comedy, he performed with cast members of SNL, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, The Kids In The Hall, and SCTV. This led to years of Jim music-directing corporate events across North America, shows that included the likes of Martin Short, Dan Ackroyd, Piers Morgan, Darryl Sittler, and Deborah Cox. He also created music for several TV series and specials, including multiple episodes of Comedy Now.
In the early 2000’s, his comedy connections led to him producing several musical-comedy albums, including Fast & Dirty’s Live From Our Pants, which led to Jim being the only jazz recording artist whose work was also heard on The Doctor Demento Show.
In 2001, Jim and guitarist Andrew Scott created The Clayton/Scott Group with whom he recorded two albums: August and So Nice. The group won critical acclaim, international radio play, TV and movie placements, and three national awards including Best Jazz Recording at the Canadian Urban Music Awards, and Group Of The Year at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards (twice!). Songs from their two albums have appeared in feature films and television shows.
Following Hurricane Katrina, Jim and his wife, photographer and marketing consultant Tracey Nolan, began making annual trips to New Orleans. The music steered him from the contemporary “smooth” jazz he’d been working on, to more traditional jazz. After seeing Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Band perform at a Rampart Street club in 2009, he struck up a conversation with trumpeter Marlon Jordan. When Jim commented on how inspiring the music scene was there, Marlon replied, “Why don’t you do an album here?”
The result was Jim’s 2013 album, Songs My Daughter Knows, recorded at The Music Shed in New Orleans with local legends including drummer Jason Marsalis and percussionist Bill Summers (Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters). Marlon, who’d inspired the idea, guested on two tracks. The album consisted of jazz arrangements of the songs that underscored his daughter’s first year; Jim’s versions of The Rainbow Connection and Tea For Two became favourites of American jazz programs. DownBeat Magazine called it “warm, happy, and soulful,” and the album landed in the top 30 at American jazz radio.
His follow-up album fared equally well. Recorded in Toronto, 2016’s Lenny Jumps In consisted largely of Jim’s own compositions, inspired by the people and places his daughter loves, along with three more tunes from her early years: Tennessee Waltz, Kenny Loggins’ Return to Pooh Corner, and Cheek To Cheek. Lenny Jumps In made the top 10 at jazz radio, and Jim’s own song Miss Kelly’s House was featured in Jazziz Magazine.
In early 2020, he toured with Colin Mochrie’s show Hyprov, where hypnotized audience members performed improv comedy with Colin, under the guidance of hypnotist Asad Mecci. Jim also began performing to US audiences, just as the industry (and much else) was about to shut down.
When lockdowns began due to Covid-19, Jim began performing for Facebook friends online, to amuse himself and his daughter. Word of his live-streams spread quickly, and the nightly one-hour shows became a hit. Dubbed Jim’s Piano Bar by viewers, it ran for over 750 episodes, garnered 30,000 followers, and was featured on national media outlets.
Jim returned to live performing in 2022, hitting the ground running with a record-setting eight-month (and ongoing) residency at Toronto’s top jazz club, and sold-out shows at other area venues.
Jim lives in the East York area of Toronto with his wife and daughter, in a house with an actual white picket fence.