With a broad grin, a strong sense of rhythm, and deft fingers, pianist Clayton Connell has made an increasing place for himself in the Ottawa jazz scene over the last few years. And now he's about to try his luck in Europe, after winning a major scholarship and entrance to a renowned Austrian university.

Clayton Connell © Brett Delmage, 2013
Clayton Connell © Brett Delmage, 2013

But he'd sure like the help and attention of Ottawa jazz lovers first, for a concert on Wednesday.

It's the graduation recital for his B.Music degree at Carleton University. But as you can tell from the title – Jazz: A Soirée with Clayton Connell – this will be more elaborate than just a final performance adjudication.

He's including horns, a string quartet, and his current jazz ensemble, Sugar Jazz. The concert will be a tribute to the diversity of music taught at Carleton, he said, with a wide range of different styles.

The admission fees will help pay for his next term of studies at a renowned music school in Graz, Austria, from mid-February to early July, where he will study jazz piano.

The Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst (University for Music and the Performing Arts) has a “very significant jazz program, the strongest I think in the university world in Europe, certainly that part of Europe and arguably all of Europe,” says Dr. James Wright, the Supervisor of Performance Studies in Carleton's Music Department.

But Wright had no doubts that Connell will flourish in the program. “I think going to places like Graz where he's facing some of the elite jazz players from Europe, I think that's going to be good, too. He's probably our top jazz piano student at the moment, but he's going to get another perspective. And it's perfect for a student like Clayton, because that will only make him rise to the occasion. Some students might be discouraged by that, but that won't be Clayton.”

So I'm really that much more thrilled, knowing that the odds were stacked against him. And they get applications from all over Europe and elsewhere so it's not as though they can't easily fill their international student quota.
– Dr. James Wright, Carleton University

In the last 3½ years, Connell has been a frequent face in both university and non-university performances. He was in the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra for the last two years, and orchestra director Nick Dyson said he was a valuable member.

“He's a sensitive player, with big ears - it was fun to hear him stretch and grow.”

In the last year, Connell started the group Sugar Jazz together with drummer Michel Delage and bassist J.P. Lapensée. He's played with the Chocolate Hot Pockets and the Bytown Jazz Quartet, and is the band leader and assistant music director for his church. And he's part of an Ottawa-based urban gospel band called “Prosper & GPM”.

“He's coming off a great term academically,” Wright said. “He seems to be on everybody's demo CD project – certainly for Carleton students, I know he's involved in multiple recording projects. A guy like Clayton doesn't show stress too much, but at the moment he's got a lot on his plate! But I think when he gets over there [to Graz], I think he's going to actually be able to breathe more easily.

Learning a different approach to the piano

In Austria, Connell will study with Professor Olaf Polziehn, whom he says has “a very Oscar Peterson approach, with Oscar Peterson being essentially my favourite jazz pianist growing up.” Polziehn has played with Bob Mintzer, John Riley, Harry Allen, Scott Hamilton, Till Brönner, and Warren Vaché.

Connell said he was excited at the prospect.

“It'll give me a not necessarily new but a different approach to the instrument. Just the other day I watched a video of [Polziehn] playing: a tribute, I guess, to Oscar Peterson. He was playing in the jazz styling and I've never been personally exposed to playing that structure where they focus on playing a lot of stride piano in the left hand and a lot of melody essentially in the right hand and how the intercontrapuntal function comes back together. And so I feel that will give me a sort of independence with solo piano.”

He expected to be studying a lot of technique with Polziehn. “My understanding is that he teaches from the Barry Harris school of jazz piano. I'm guessing we'll be doing a lot of that. As well I'll be taking some arranging courses and composition courses while I'm down there, but that will be my main focus.”

Connell will be going to Graz as part of an exchange agreement Carleton has with that university, and will be the third student to do so. Pianists Kyle Zavitz and John Dapaah were there in 2011-12; Dapaah was on the classical side, while Zavitz studied with Polziehn, Wright said.

“They really worked [Kyle] hard. He's a very confident guy, but he was a little bit shaken when he was over there at first but rose to the occasion and decided, 'No I'm going to just do what I need to do here,' and then he had the most amazing experience. Kyle was there for two terms studying with Olaf.”

Clayton Connell at Carleton University. © Brett Delmage, 2013
Clayton Connell at Carleton University. © Brett Delmage, 2013

But so far there haven't been any Austrian students coming over to study at Carleton, and that almost put Connell's term in jeopardy.

Exchange agreements work by students paying tuition to their home universities, not the university they're visiting. This works well and is easier to administer if the numbers are roughly in balance, but Wright said the Austrian university was getting concerned.

“They told me they'd love to see another application and your two students were fantastic here, but even at the government level they get real push-back and they're audited very closely on these things. If the exchange over a period of two or three years doesn't even out, they have to close further admissions until we even the score. They said, 'It sounds like this guy's great, but we just don't think we'll be able to take him.' And I said, 'Wait till you hear his audition,' and they said 'I'm sure he's going to be fantastic but we really just don't see how we can do it. But go ahead and submit an application.'”

“All along I had to be honest with Clayton. I told him your application is going to be as strong as it could possibly be, but the numbers might be not in our favour here. So of course he submits the application, and they accepted him immediately!”

“So I'm really that much more thrilled, knowing that the odds were stacked against him. And they get applications from all over Europe and elsewhere so it's not as though they can't easily fill their international student quota.”

Carleton will be doing more recruitment work to promote the exchange to Austrian students in the next year, Wright said.

Another factor making it possible for Connell to go overseas was winning a $2000 scholarship from IODE Ontario. The scholarship is only offered every second year, and recognizes one outstanding post-secondary student studying music in Ontario. Only one student can be nominated by each college or university. Connell said that having this scholarship money in hand was important in order to get a student visa, because the visa requires proof of finances.

Wright said Connell's expenses in Austria will be considerable, even though his tuition is covered by Carleton scholarships which he has won over the years. “But the flight and the accommodation and the food and some of the extracurriculars – it's a pretty expensive proposition. He sure needs to raise every penny he can on January 8.”

Connell said that he knows “absolutely no” German right now, but will be intensively studying with a Pimsleur program in January. He will also be taking a German class throughout his time in Graz, and many of his music courses are offered in English.

Returning to the piano, after many other instruments

Piano wasn't Connell's first instrument. “I had started on drums – or pots and pans when I was a child. My parents got frustrated at my beating up their pots and pans, and they eventually got me a snare drum, and my local church donated drums to me. And then I moved from drums to piano, and then from piano to guitar, and from guitar to bass.

“And then I started to notice a pattern, and teachers started to notice a pattern that I was able to pick up instruments quickly, and so if they needed an extra part for one of their concert band pieces, then they would call on me to learn the part. So I had experience learning timpani and tuba and trombone and trumpet and sax.”

But the piano was always there. “I guess piano always had a hold on me. Piano was always my underlying instrument, my go-back-to instrument. When I was frustrated on tenor sax, I would go back to piano with a sense of relief. When I just wasn't getting my rudiments straight on drums, then I would go back to piano as my relief. So it was always there. And I guess by 13 when I started actively playing more, that became my instrument choice.”

He grew up in Toronto and comes from a family of “essentially mostly musicians, not necessarily in the sense of accomplished musicians who are continuing to play in the scene, but they in their day had all done some form of music. I grew up in a Christian home with a Christian background and all my extended family are singers and musicians on both my mom's side and my dad's side. So I came up under a lot of music. A lot of different styles of music, a lot of experience with music, a lot of exploring different music.”

I would say Art Tatum scared me. I didn't realize that the things that he was doing were even possible.
– Clayton Connell

His parents started him studying classical piano at age 8 or 9, “but I was more interested in how modern chords were incorporated into music, and I would end up going to my lessons and showing the teachers the new chords that I was learning, whether it was 7th chord that I had learned, or a 9th extension that I had learned at the time, and all these different patterns of chord progressions that had nothing to do with classical music. And they would commonly get frustrated at the process I was going through. It was one teacher, Julie Zwicker, who had the ability to get me to actually study classical music for the period of time I was studying with her, and I guess that gave me that bridge.”

When he started at Pickering High School, he applied to join the jazz band but hit a barrier: he needed to read music (in his classical piano studies, he would learn the pieces by listening to teachers playing them). Eventually he learned to read some music, and “they allowed me to play in the band from Grade 10 on. That's really when I started listening to jazz.”

And he listened to pianists: Oscar Peterson and more. “I would say Art Tatum scared me. I didn't realize that the things that he was doing were even possible. Thelonious Monk is another one who was very high on my list. But I wasn't ... I guess I was in a cross between jazz and funk and soul music at the time, and I was heavily interested in the Motown movement, even though I was so young at the time. I was very in that sort of era: Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Temptations: those were big groups for me.”

"You have some work to do"

Connell said he was attracted to Carleton by the diversity of its music program, and by the fact he'd always liked Ottawa (his grandparents live here). “Ottawa was always my city for relaxing in a sense, getting out of the scene, getting out of Toronto and its busy lifestyle, and taking a second to breathe. And so I felt that coming to Ottawa would be an opportunity for me to actually study, study and take all the knowledge that I can and soak it up, for what it is.”

Wright happened to be Connell's auditioner when he applied, and “I was just completely blown away. His talent and skills have evolved quite a bit since then. But I have to say that the raw musicality was pretty striking.”

Connell said he learned a great deal in the last 3½ years

“Mark Ferguson really did a number on my playing. I remember my first lesson with him. I thought I was something, and he pretty much told me that, 'You have some work to do' essentially. And I don't regret any of the words that he said, I don't hold anything against him, because it just pushed me to want to do better for myself and to know that there's more to music than where you think you are. There's a much deeper level and there's more study that can be done.”

Connell has also taken lessons with veteran pianists Brian Browne and J.P. Allain, and last term studied with Cuban pianist Miguel de Armas.

Wright said Connell has been a model student. “He's not only a really truly outstanding young jazz performer, and a collaborator – everybody wants to work with him, both from the professional world increasingly and of course the student body – but he's also really an outstanding academic student. He works like mad.”

He thought that Carleton's wider range of music styles and genres – “We're at about 35% classical, 35% jazz, and 30% everything else” – helped Connell by exposing him to more than jazz. “Collaboration opportunities I think have been good for him. I think Ottawa has been good to him in terms of performance opportunities in the community in various ways. Obviously there are cities with more invigorated jazz scenes happening, but this community seems to continue to grow in that way.”

"Really begin to work and work and work"

When Connell returns this summer, he's planning on staying in Ottawa and performing here. “I don't think I'll be going right back [to Toronto]. I think I've spent a lot of time in Ottawa building the contacts and so I think I want to get involved with those contacts, use those contacts to see what we can do out here.”

Without the stress of classes, he wants to work more with his current bands. “I'm also heavily involved in record production, and in studio producing and in audio engineering as well, so I'm looking to take all of those elements and be able to do them really full-time.

“I find that during school there's things that you can do, but there's also periods when you just can't work because – take, for example, now. I just had four exams and four essays all due in the same period. And I mean like 12-page papers! So the workload just doesn't allow for a lot of what I would love to be doing at the time. And so I'm planning to take the opportunity to take that time and really begin to work and work and work and get as much experience as I can.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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