Clay, James Earl (1935–1995)

By: Bradley Shreve

Type: Biography

Published: November 27, 2006

Updated: September 25, 2015

James Earl Clay, saxophonist, was born in Dallas on September 8, 1935. His mother was Jessie Lloyd. Clay attended Lincoln High School. His musical interest began with the flute, but he took up the saxophone during his teenage years and became a jazz player in the "Texas tenor" tradition. He refined his playing as a student at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, and later at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. In 1955 he moved to Los Angeles and established himself in the hard-bop and freestyle jazz styles. His first commercial breakthrough came when he joined Red Mitchell's band, with which he appeared on the album Presenting Red Mitchell. Shortly thereafter Clay joined the Jazz Messiahs, collaborating with Ornette Coleman. He also cut an album with David "Fathead" Newman in 1960. Later that year he turned down a chance to replace John Coltrane in Miles Davis's band, returning instead to his native Dallas to care for his ailing grandmother. Though he performed in the Deep Ellum district, financial strains forced him to work full-time at a record warehouse. He had some commercial success again in the 1960s when he landed a spot in Ray Charles's band, but continued playing primarily in the Dallas area over the next two decades. In the 1990s he reunited with "Fathead" Newman, and two albums resulted—Return to the Wide Open Spaces and Cookin' at the Continental. Clay died in Dallas on January 6, 1995. He was survived by his wife, Billye, and three children.

Dallas Morning News, January 9, 1995. Rick Koster, Texas Music (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998). Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).


  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans


  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Bradley Shreve, “Clay, James Earl,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 27, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 27, 2006
September 25, 2015

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