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approached music with joyous abandon. … Note perfect, rhythmically bouncy and
always ready with a quirky idea, he was the ideal group-player ….
Appearing as it did in the shadow of Cool Struttin’ [… an immaculately tasteful Jazz album and one of the key documents of hard bop] the March 1959 My Conception sessions never gained the reputation of its wonderful predecessor. This is unfortunate, for here again
showcases a wonderful set of originals The result is an immaculately tasteful
and sophisticated modern Jazz record.. .”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“And don’t forget, Sonny Clark.”
This gentle reminder was offered by a friend during a group conversation on the subject of Jazz musicians who were often overlooked in terms of the body of work they composed.
Also referenced during the course of the chat were pianists Elmo Hope, Russ Freeman and Cedar Walton, trumpeters Clifford Brown and Donald Byrd, trombonists Curtis Fuller and J.J. Johnson, alto saxophonists Art Pepper and Gigi Gryce and tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley and John Coltrane.
Remember, it’s all in a point-of-view with regard to how opinions are formed.
Some in the group seriously objected to Gigi’s Gryce’s inclusion in the obscure composer listing arguing that Gigi was better known as a composer than a player while others strongly agreed that the compositional body of work that Hank Mobley, Clifford Brown and even John Coltrane had put together during their careers was overshadowed by the acclaim they received as instrumentalists.
But when pianist Sonny Clark’s name was mentioned, it was met by a universal acknowledgement that his writing was deserving of much wider recognition and respect.
One person likened Sonny’s obscurity as a composer to that of fellow pianist Elmo Hope while also remarking that “… the consistency and the of quality of his writing puts him right up there with Horace Silver” [the legendary small group leader and pianist turned out such iconic Jazz tunes as The Preacher, Doodlin’ and Senor Blues].
Following this get-together, I went searching through my collection of Sonny Clark recordings and pleasantly rediscovered a number of his terrific tunes, all of which was made even more amazing when one considers that he was a victim of the heroin scourge that gripped the Jazz world from around 1945-1965 and died in 1963 at the age of 32.
Sonny’s all-too-brief career is wonderfully encapsulated and memorialized in
Michael Cuscuna’s insert notes to Sonny’s Blue Note recording – My
Conception[7243 5 22674 2 2]. We wrote to Michael and he
graciously granted his permission to reproduce these notes on JazzProfiles.
Cuscuna: used with the author’s permission, copyright
protected, all rights reserved.
“SONNY CLARK is not a name that appears with any frequency in documents of jazz history. He has never been proclaimed a major original pianist. Yet
Clark's major influence seems to have been his
own creativity. His style was full and rich, yet carried a bright, irresistible
swing that swept away the musician and listener alike. He was, to these ears,
the realization of the perfect post-bop pianist. By all accounts, the musicians
that worked with him regarded him as a source of joy and inspiration. And any
listener who stops and really hears his work will be hooked forever.
After spending the first 20 years of his life in and around
mastering the piano and playing vibes and
bass as well, Pittsburgh Clark ventured out to the West Coast in 1951
with his older brother. He worked the area with Wardell Gray, Art Farmer, Dexter
Gordon, Shelly Manne and a score of others. In 1953, Oscar Pettiford came to Los Angeles , formed a band that included Los Angeles Clark and went up to . There Sonny met Buddy DeFranco who was
leading a quartet with Art Blakey and Kenny Drew. Blakey and Drew left, and
Sonny was asked to join. During the next two and a half years, San Francisco Clark appeared on three DeFranco recordings and
toured Europe, the American Midwest and with the clarinetist. Hawaii
In January of 1956,
Clark settled into a more stationary life,
joining Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. During that year, he recorded in
a quartet setting under the leadership of Serge Chaloff with Philly Joe Jones
on drums (EMI Capitol) and with drummer Lawrence Marable's quartet which
featured tenor saxophonist James Clay (Jazz West). On that album Sonny was not
only featured as a player, but also contributed three compositions.
In February 1957, he joined Dinah
in order to work his way back East. Referring to West Coast
music, he said, "I did have sort of a hard time trying to be comfortable
in my playing, the fellows on the West Coast have a different sort of feeling,
a different approach to jazz. They swing in their own way....The Eastern musicians
play with so much fire.” On another occasion, he was quoted as saying,
"Jazz is jazz wherever it's played. The whole thing has to do with the
individual and his conception toward jazz. The thing is that my playing is
different from the way most of the fellows out West play. I'd rather work in
the East because what is played here is closer to the traditional meaning of
jazz. They're getting away from the tradition out West — combining jazz with
classical music and playing chamber music-type jazz. What they play is really
very good, but it's just not the way I want to play. That's why I came back
East." And come back he did in April 1957 at the end of the Dinah
Washington tour. Washington
He worked at Birdland under the leadership of J.R. Monterose and Stan Getz and gigged briefly with Anita O'Day and Charles Mingus. In early June, he recorded with Sonny Rollins (
). On June 23, he recorded as a sideman for Blue Note on a
Hank Mobley session. A month later, he made his first album as a leader for
Blue Note. Thus began a long and fruitful association wherein Riverside Clark appeared regularly on Blue Note dates with
a variety of artists.
In fact, between June 1957 and March 1959, he was in the studio eight times as a leader and another 15 times as a sideman with Mobley, John Jenkins, Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, Louis Smith, Tina Brooks, Bennie Green and Jackie McLean.
Then for some strange reason, Sonny was totally absent from Blue Note for the next two and a half years. In 1960 he recorded a trio album and appeared on albums by Bennie Green and Stanley Turrentine, all for Time Records and all very much Blue Note in style and personnel. That two and a half years of relative inactivity is usually credited to his bouts with drug addiction.
In October 1961, he reentered the Blue Note fold on a Jackie McLean date and during the next 12 months appeared on 13 sessions under the leadership of
McLean, Don Wilkerson, Dexter Gordon, Stanley
Turrentine and Grant Green as well as making his last album as a leader, Leapin'
And Lopin', in November 1961. After his final session in October 1962
(Stanley Turrentine's Jubilee Shout), Clark suffered a heart attack. He was released
from the hospital in January 1963. He played two nights at a club called Junior's and, in the early
morning hours, died of an overdose. To preserve the club's image and liquor
license, his body was moved to a private apartment before the police were
called in. Thus, a short ten years after his first record dates with Teddy
Charles and Buddy DeFranco, his career and his life came to an end with the
most tragic cliché in the jazz life. New York
It is through recorded documents such as this one that Sonny Clark continues to live and enrich our lives. This album, made on
March 29, 1959, closed the first of Clark's two tenures at Blue Note.
What is most unique and most delightful is the presence of Art Blakey on drums. It is surprising that these two Blue Note regulars only recorded together three times — on this date and on still unissued Tina Brooks and Grant Green sessions. [Note: These sessions have since been released by Blue Note as Tina Brooks Minor Move and Grant Green
.] The great Blakey is typically superb
here in his drive, pacing and taste. Listen to how he literally conducts the
flow and dynamics of the music from the drum stool. His shadings and his power
pace and inspire each soloist perfectly. And when given the opportunity to
trade fours with the horns, as on "Junka" and "Some Clark Bars”
he positively erupts. Nigeria
With the exception of Sonny's first Blue Note album and a trio session of standards issued on 45 singles, bassist Paul Chambers was present on every date that the pianist led at Blue Note. And they were, of course, brought together on many sessions by other Blue Note artists.
once said, ‘I met Paul in in 1954. He was very young and nobody
outside the city knew much about him, but I dug him right then. He's very
consistent and has superior conception, choice of notes and ability to
construct lines. He plays with intelligence and he always keeps it
interesting.’ Aside from his typically superb support, Chambers gets off an
effective and to-the-point arco solo on "Junka.” Detroit
Donald Byrd appeared on
Clark's second album Sonny's Crib in October
1957. Two months later, both men contributed admirably to Lou Donaldson's Lou
Takes Off. They were reunited in January 1959 on a Jackie McLean date that
produced half of the Jackie's Bag album. That reunion
undoubtedly led to Byrd’s presence on this session.
Encounters between the pianist and Hank Mobley were all too rare.
Clark made his Blue Note debut, as mentioned
earlier, on one of Mobley’s sextet albums (BLP 1568) on June
23, 1957. Mobley
then participated in Sonny's first album Dial S For Sonny a month later. Clark appeared a month later on a still unissued
Mobley album. They did not record together again until this album. Clark once said, ‘I never heard Hank Mobley in
person until I came to but I listened to his records with the
Jazz Messengers and dug him very much. [He] plays in my style and I was very
happy working with [him] and very satisfied with the results.’ New York
That is certainly an understatement. If "post-bop" ever spawned two underappreciated figures who were suited to each other's playing, it was Clark and Mobley. Both have a bright, propelling and very individual sense of swing. And both can burn hard with surprising lightness and grace. In the general format of hard bop that can mask the less inventive player, Clark and Mobley always gave their all with subtle, self-assured brilliance. Check out Mobley's astonishing solos on "Junka" and "Royal Flush" and his beautiful reading of the theme of "My Conception." They made quite a team!
"Some Clark Bars" is the only tune on this album that pops up nowhere else in Sonny Clark's discography. "Minor Meeting," the oldest composition, first appears on the Lawrence Marable-James Clay album of 1956, then on a December 1957 Blue Note session (that was issued in
on the album Quintets in 1977) and
finally on the pianist's trio date for Time Records. "Royal Flush,"
from the January 1958 session that produced the Cool Struttin' album, was
also issued in 1977 on the Quintets album. The version heard
here eliminates the introduction used on the earlier date. "Junka,"
"Blues Blue" and "My Conception" were all given trio
treatments on the aforementioned Time album from 1960. Japan
Despite an occasional rough edge in the arrangements or a minor trumpet fluff, this newly unearthed album is a welcome and valuable edition to the legacy of Sonny Clark. Perhaps through such releases the magnitude of Sonny Clark's brilliance will be recognized by the world audience where it has only been truly appreciated by the musicians themselves and the Japanese jazz audience. Sonny
Clark's music will long endure.
—MICHAEL CUSCUNA, 1980”
With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz
LTD and the production facilities at
StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles put together the
following video tribute to Sonny which features the second version of his Royal Flush from the My
Conception album. [Click the “X” to drop the ads from the video should
Joining Sonny are Donald Byrd on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Paul Chambers on bass and the irrepressible Art Blakey on drums.