Leading a pioneering jazz band on the West Coast, Texas-born pianist Sonny Clay is often credited with spreading jazz music to Australia by way of an ill-fated 1927 tour.
William Roger Campbell Clay, son of William and Lizzie Clay, was born on May 15, 1899, in the small east Texas town of Chappell Hill. After spending his early childhood in Houston, the Clays relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, when he was nine years old. It was in that state where the young “Sonny” began his career in music, learning first to play the drums and xylophone, before graduating to playing piano in early jazz groups of the western desert. In 1916, he continued westward to California, where he would soon make his name. In the west, he played with Kid Ory and Reb Spikes, and he encountered Jelly Roll Morton in Tijuana around 1920. By 1922, he had established his own jazz band in Los Angeles, known originally as the Eccentric Harmony Six. In 1923, his group made one disc for the West Coast-based Sunset label as the “California Poppies”, and a year later Clay waxed two piano solos for the Triumph label. It was 1926 however, that brought the Clay his most fruitful recording endeavor in the form of a contract with Vocalion. Sonny Clay’s Plantation Orchestra cut one record at each of four sessions between that year and 1927, as well as an additional four unissued sides from the last. In 1928, he embarked with his band, including future Duke Ellington vocalist Ivey Anderson, now billed as “Sonny Clay’s Colored Idea”, for a tour of Australia—perhaps making them the earliest American band to bring jazz to their shores. Though initially finding great success down under, Clay’s tour ultimately ended with a press scandal alleging that the African-American musicians were hosting wild parties rife with drug-crazed interracial sexual abandon, ultimately resulting in their deportation and a subsequent ban on black musicians entering the country which lasted until 1954. Back in the United States, Clay organized a new orchestra in Los Angeles, playing at the Vernon Country Club. In the late 1920s and first years of the 1930s, Clay’s Hartford Ballroom Orchestra waxed several discs for his own “Sonny Clay” vanity label (one of which also appeared on Champion), but as the Great Depression progressed, he eventually dissolved his band to work as a soloist for the remainder of the decade. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Clay enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a musician. Following the War’s end, he sometimes found employment as a piano tuner and postal worker, but continued to work sporadically as a professional musician, into the 1960s, including one final recording session in 1960. Sonny Clay died on April 10, 1973, in Los Angeles.
Vocalion 15078 was recorded on July 28, 1925, in Los Angeles, California. The Plantation Orchestra consists of Ernest Coycault on trumpet, W. B. “Woody” Woodman on trombone, Leonard Davidson on clarinet, Sonny Clay on piano, one Fitzgerald (whose first name is unknown) on banjo, and Willie McDaniel on drums and kazoo.
On the first side, Clay’s boys play “Jambled Blues”, in my sincerest opinion one of the brightest shining examples of mid-1920s West Coast jazz excellence ever recorded.
On the reverse, they dish out some of the same hot stuff on “Bogloosa Blues”, sharing a composer’s credit with fellow West Coast bandleader Herb Wiedoeft.