Clayton played piano when he was six years old and switched to trumpet when he was a teenager. After highschool, he moved to Los Angeles. He later formed a band named “14 Gentleman from Harlem” in which he was the leader of the 14 member orchestras.
From there there are multiple sources claiming different ways in which Clayton ended up in Shanghai. Some claimed that Clayton was picked by Teddy Weatherford for a job at the international settlement areas of the Canidrome in Shanghai. Others claimed he escaped US temporarily to avoid racism.
From 1934 or 1935, depending on the sources, he was a leader of the "Harlem Gentlemen" in Shanghai. His experience in the east was unique, since Clayton was discriminated against by fellow American marines who were stationed in Shanghai. On numerous accounts, he was attacked by soldiers including an instance where bricks were thrown at him. On the contrary he was treated like an elite by the Chinese. Some of the bureaucratic social group he was with included Chiang Kai-shek's wife Soong Ching-ling, who were regulars at the canidrome.
Clayton would play a number of songs that were composed by Li, while adopting the Chinese music scale into the American scale. Li learned a great deal from the American jazz influence brought on over by Clayton. A 1935 guidebook in Shanghai listed Clayton and Teddy Weatherford as the main jazz attraction to the canidrome. He would eventually leave Shanghai before the 1937 Second Sino-Japanese War. Clayton is credited for helping close the gap between traditional Chinese music and shidaiqu/mandopop. Though Li is mostly remembered in China, since he would later die in the Cultural Revolution.
Later that year he accepted an offer from bandleader Willie Bryant in New York, but while moving east he stopped off in Kansas City, and was persuaded to stay by Count Basie, whose orchestra had a residency at the Reno Club, taking the trumpet chair recently vacated by Hot Lips Page. From 1937, Basie was in New York, which gave Clayton the opportunity to freelance in the recordings studios, and he participated in recordings sessions featuring Billie Holiday and was also present on Commodore (and later Keynote Records) sessions with Lester Young. Clayton remained with Basie until he was called up for war service in November 1943, and being based at Camp Kilmer near New York, he was able to participate in various all-star sessions, some of which were led by Sy Oliver.
After his honorable discharge in 1946 he did arrangements for Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Harry James and became a member of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic package, appearing in April in a concert with Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, and in October participated in JATPs first national tour of the United States. He also recorded at this time for the H.R.S. label. In 1947 he was back in New York, and had a residency at the Café Society, Downtown, and the following year had a reunion with Jimmy Rushing, his fellow Basie alumni, at the Savoy Ballroom. Clayton and Rushing worked together occasionally in to the 1960s.
From September 1949 he was in Europe for nine months, leading his own band in France. Clayton recorded intermittently over the next few tears for the French Vogue label, under his own name, that of clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow and for one session, with pianist Earl Hines. In 1953, he toured Europe with Mezzrow; in Italy, the group was joined (improbably) by Frank Sinatra.
The English critic Stanley Dance coined the term mainstream in the 1950s to describe the style of those swing era players who fell between the revivalist and modernist camps. Clayton was precisely one of the players to whom this appellation most applied. In December 1953 Clayton embarked on a series of jam session albums for Columbia, which had been the idea of John Hammond, though George Avakian was the principal producer. The recording sessions for these albums lasted until 1956.
The tracks could last the length of a LP side, and it had been the new format that had given Hammond the idea, but sometimes this led to unfortunate anomalies. The title track the Jumping at the Woodside album was compiled from two takes recorded four months apart, each with a completely different rhythm section. His Jazz Spectacular album from this series (with Kai Windling, J.J. Johnson and vocals by Frankie Laine) is loved by jazz and pop fans alike. Clayton also recorded at this time for Vanguard under his own name and on dates led by Ruby Braff, Mel Powell and Sir Charles Thompson.
In 1955 he appeared in the Benny Goodman Story, also working with Goodman in New York at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel two years later. In 1958 he was at the Worlds Fair in Brussels for concerts with Sidney Bechet, and toured Europe again the following year and annually through the 1960s. For the Swingville label (a subsidiary of Prestige Records) he co-led two albums with former Basis colleague Buddy Tate and supported Pee Wee Russell on his own outing for the label.
In 1964 he performed in Japan, Australia and New Zealand with Eddie Condon, with whom he had already occasionally worked for several years. In the early ‘sixties he guested with the band of British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton in public performances and on several record albums.
Shortly after appearing at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1969, Clayton underwent lip surgery, and had to give up playing the trumpet in 1972. He was able to resume playing in 1977 for a State Department sponsored tour of Africa, but had to permanently stop playing in 1979, though he still worked as an arranger. He began to teach at Hunter College, CUNY from 1975-80 and again in the early ‘eighties..
The semi-autobiography, “Buck Clayton’s Jazz World”, co-authored by Nancy Miller Elliott, first appeared in 1986. In the same year, his new Big Band debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and Clayton toured internationally with it, contributing 100 compositions to the band book.
Buck Clayton died quietly in his sleep in 1991.
Clayton’s father was an amateur musician associated with the families local church, who was responsible for teaching his son how to play the trumpet from the age of six. From the age of seventeen, Clayton learned the trumpet, and was taught by Bob Russell, a member of George E. Lee’s band. In his early twenties he was based in California, and was briefly a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and worked with other leaders. Clayton was also taught at this time by trumpeter Mutt Carey, who later emerged as a prominent west-coast revivalist in the 1940s.