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Omar Clay 1935 - 2008

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Omar Clay (pictured), a well-known jazz drummer, teacher and native of St. Louis, has died at age 73. His obituary was published today in the Marin (CA) Independent Journal:
“Omar Clay, a renowned drummer/percussionist who played with some of the greatest names in jazz and was a popular instrumental music teacher at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, died Dec. 4.

Mr. Clay died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. He was 73.

In his illustrious career, Mr. Clay performed or recorded with a veritable “who's who" of jazz, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, David “Fathead" Newman, Dionne Warwick and Roberta Flack, among many others.

A resident of Mill Valley, Mr. Clay taught instrumental music at Tam High from 1990 to 2000, retiring as music director. Last year, a star was dedicated in his honor in the new Caldwell Performing Arts Center on campus.

“He loved kids and they loved him back," said Barbara Chew, Mr. Clay's longtime partner and companion. “His passions were music and teaching."

Tucker Kelley, one of Mr. Clay's former students, said: “Of all the teachers I had at Tam, he remains one of my all-time favorites. “He always maintained such a cool personality, even when he was scolding us. It still amazes me. His mustaches, his hollering, the tuxedos, the football games we played. All of these are wonderful memories of Mr.Clay for me."

Born in 1935 in St. Louis, Mr. Clay attended Xavier University in New Orleans on a scholarship before enlisting in the U.S. Army, playing in a jazz band while stationed in Germany.

After the service, he received a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Michigan, then moved to New York, making a name for himself on the Manhattan jazz scene while teaching at the High School of Music and Arts."He was a wonderful drummer and dear friend," said venerable jazz pianist Marian McPartland.

Mr. Clay performed in concert with Coltrane in the early 1960s, and played with Sarah Vaughan and the Bob James Trio at a White House concert during the Johnson Administration. He was proud to have danced with Lady Bird Johnson.

He was one of the six original members of Max Roach's all-percussion M'Boom Ensemble, playing marimba, timbales, xylophone and timpani. He also worked in the orchestra pits of the Broadway musicals “Guys and Dolls" and “Raisin," a 1973 adaptation of the play “A Raisin in the Sun."

In 1979, he moved to Northern California, getting a master's degree in music education from San Francisco State University before joining the faculty at Tam High.

He was a member of the Bay Area-based Guarneri Jazz Quartet, andrecorded locally with Mill Valley singer Jackie Ryan, pianist Larry Vuckovich, singers Jon Hendricks and Frank Jackson, guitarist Josh Workman and bassist Jeff Chambers.

Mr. Clay continued to play even after he was diagnosed with ALS, a neuro-degenerative disease, last summer.

In addition to Ms. Chew, he is survived by his mother, Elnora Jackson of Akron, Ohio, and a daughter, Wanda Davis of Hayward.

A musical tribute is being planned for next month.

Donations can be made to the Forbes Norris ALS Research Center, 2324 Sacramento St. Suite 111, San Francisco 94115 or the music department at Tamalpais High School, 700 Miller Ave., Mill Valley 94941."
You can see another recent photo of Clay here, read a short bio of him on the Guarneri Quartet page here, and see a partial discography of his work here.

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This story appears courtesy of St. Louis Jazz Notes by Dean Minderman.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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