Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Sonny Clark - The Blue Note Years by Steve Siegel

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

With previous features on pianist Wade Legge, the Great Day in Harlem Photograph “Mystery Man” - William J. Crump, drummer Frankie Dunlop, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, critic and author Nat Hentoff, and Jazz Party: A Great Night In Manhattan featuring the Miles Davis Sextet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the September 9, 1958 fest that Columbia Records put on at the Plaza Hotel for its executives and guests, trumpeter Dupree Bolton, and vocalist Helen Merrill, Steve Siegel has assumed the role of “unofficial” staff writer for JazzProfiles.

His latest effort is about pianist Sonny Clark [1931-1963], who had an early career on the West Coast with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, clarinetist Buddy De Franco and Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars before setting up shop in New York City where his career as a pianist and composer flourished before his death in 1963.

© -Steve Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

Sonny Clark – The Blue Note Years 

“Johnny Griffin on Sonny Clark:

I remember so well working with Sonny Clark, Philly Joe Jones and Wilbur Ware at the Bohemia in New York City in 1959. And before that recording the Blue Note album “The Congregation” with Sonny Clark, Paul Chambers and Kenny Dennis. Sonny was one of the great pianists coming up at that time. He played his ass off, always. It's a pity that he left the scene so early in his life. He had his own way of doing things. You know, most of the pianists at that time were really playing off Bud Powell's bag. Sonny was a little different. He used Bud's basis for power and attack on the piano, but he had another finesse and an exceptional technique, too. He was quite himself. —Johnny Griffin, Madrid, October 28, 1983.

The year 1957 was an important year in the history of Blue Note Records.  In March, Rudy Van Gelder made his first stereo recording and in May, Blue Note started recording all its sessions in both stereo and mono; though the releases continued to be only in mono until 1959. It was also the year that Van Gelder completed the acquisition of most of the high-quality recording and mastering equipment that became the technical basis of the famous “Van Gelder Sound." 

1957 was also Alfred Lion’s, Blue Note’s co-owner and Producer, most prolific year of the 1950s, yielding *49 sessions and turning out many LP's that were destined to become classics such as Coltrane’s Blue Train, Sonny Rollins' Live at the Village Vanguard, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon and House Party, Johnny Griffin's The Congregation, Lee Morgan’s Vol. 3, and Hank Mobley's Hank Mobley Quintet - to name just a few. Another occurrence which was not considered big news at the time but proved to be an important acquisition for many future Blue Note sessions was the arrival in New York City of 25-year-old Sonny Clark, from California in the Spring of 1957. 

As we shall see, Sonny Clark was to spend so much time in Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack in 1957 and beyond, that Alfred Lion might have considered renting Clark a room in Rudy’s parents’ home, which doubled as his recording studio.

Clark had left California in February 1957, where he had spent the previous four years, bound for NYC. His meal-ticket for the trip east was as the accompanist for Dinah Washington; he arrived in NYC in April of 1957.

Though Clark did not record for Blue Note until June of 1957, we can assume that his reputation preceded him. Clark was making some noise in California through extensive work with Buddy DeFranco, a stint with the Lighthouse All-Stars and lending support to Sonny Criss on three of his albums. Despite his time on the West Coast, Clark's style was always more consonant with the East Coast boppers than the less aggressive sounds coming from many of the West Coast-based musicians in the early to mid-1950s. 

His reason for returning back east was related to Robert Levin for the liner notes for the Dial “S" For Sonny record:

Jazz is jazz wherever it's played. The whole thing has to do with the individual and his conception towards jazz. The thing is that my way of playing jazz 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 meeting of jazz. They're getting away from 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.

Beyond his reputation outside of NYC, Alfred Lion might have caught Clark at one of his infrequent club gigs or became aware of him from other musicians who heard Clark in Los Angeles or gigging around NYC.   

According to Roy Haynes who was the drummer on the sessions, Clark got his first recording date in NYC on a Sonny Rollins Riverside session when he replaced Hank Jones who was originally scheduled for the gig on June 11, 12 and 19, 1957. 

Clark's first Blue Note session occurred only four days after his final Riverside session - appearing at the June 23 Blue Note session that yielded the Hank Mobley Sextet album. His first session as a leader took place four weeks later on July 21 - Clark's 26th birthday, resulting in the Dial ‘S' for Sonny album with Curtis Fuller, Hank Mobley, Wilber Ware and Louis Hayes. 

To put into perspective Sonny Clark's value to Alfred Lion: From June 23 to December 15, 1957, (the date of Blue Note’s last session of 1957), Blue Note held *27 recording sessions. Seven of these 27 sessions did not employ a pianist (five Jimmy Smith sessions and the two Sonny Rollins' Village Vanguard sessions. Only one session utilized a pianist as a leader (Bud Powell) and five sessions employed five different pianists as sidemen. So that leaves 14 sessions where another pianist was involved. Sonny Clark was the pianist on all 14 of these – 10 as a sideman and four as a leader. Therefore, during this six-month period, no pianist entered the Van Gelder studio for a Blue Note session more than once, except Sonny Clark who entered it 14 times! 

In NYC, in 1957, there was no shortage of accomplished, world class jazz pianists who were available to Lion (though some had exclusive contracts with other labels). For a new arrival to NYC, the scope of Clark's work for the label during this six-month period was impressive - even more so if one considers that the leaders of the 10 sessions that Clark supported as a sideman had either requested Clark or approved of Clark at Lion's suggestion – Lion would not have forced Clark on any of these session leaders.

Pianist Michael Weiss: 

The decision to use Sonny as a sideman is almost entirely determined by the leader of the date. Alfred Lion would have to have some non-musical compelling reason to prevent a leader from using a sideman the leader wanted, especially if he was under contract to the label. Of course, with Sonny already under contract it's in Alfred's interest to have him appear as a sideman, if the leader is agreeable.

Of all the musicians that led a Blue Note session during this six-month period, only Jimmy Smith had more leadership sessions than Clark – five to Clark's four.

This clearly shows the respect as a musician that both Lion and Clark's fellow musicians had for him – and only after a few months in NYC.

Why Clark ended up being such an integral part of the Blue Note family, recording the five solo albums that were released in his lifetime, as well as being the pianist on multiple classic and near classic Blue Note recordings becomes self-evident when listening to his work. He was as perfect an accompanist for the type of music that Blue Note was putting out as existed in the jazz scene in NYC at the time. Why Clark accepted the grind of so many sessions might also have had something to do with the cost of his serious drug addiction. Rather remarkably though it appears that somehow his drug habit rarely, if ever, seemed to impact his ability as a leader or accompanist.

As an accompanist Clark seemed to have the uncanny ability to find the holes in the ensemble and put down appropriate chords and single note lines necessary to enhance the quality of all recordings that he was present on. Every note he played seemed to have a purpose and had a positive impact on the musical output of every ensemble he was currently recording with.  


Sonny Clark had a distinctive touch and sound on the piano. His chords were rich, his rhythm and swing were buoyant, the expressiveness and intent behind his attack and articulation were convincing. He was a rhythmically stimulating accompanist who knew how to support a soloist without getting in the way. I am sure all of these traits made him a valued asset to any group.

Pianist Sullivan Fortner:

As of late, there has been an unexpected resurgence of jazz pianists who are interested in Sonny Clark. What I’ve admired lately about Sonny Clark is his clarity of rhythm and melodic construction, but also his timing. It seems to me, his priority is always groove. He also never flubs… everything he plays is just right and it’s just what the doctor orders musically (he never plays more than what the music needs). He was also a hell of a comper. I remember once I asked (trumpeter) Roy Hargrove, if you could play like any pianist, who would it be? And he told me, “Sonny Clark.”

An example of that comping skill can be heard early in Clark's career on Serge Chaloff’s 1956 classic album Blue Serge – an album recorded in Los Angeles about a year before Clark's arrival in New York, with a rhythm section of Leroy Vinegar, Philly Joe Jones and Clark.

Chaloff’s technical mastery of the challenging baritone saxophone was complete. On Blue Serge all the elements that contribute to this mastery are on display. This album showed the oftentimes erratic Chaloff at his absolute best, performing on the baritone at a level never sustained for an entire album by any other baritone player on record up until that time. Chaloff could be musically overwhelming, using every bit of the baritone's almost two-octave range and varying his dynamics from pianissimo to forte, oftentimes within the same phrase. Many talented pianists of the day would have been hard pressed to add much to the proceedings or, at times, even be clearly heard over the rumbling baritone of Chaloff. Clark, with little or no prior rehearsal of the material, consistently manages to find the musical cracks in Chaloff's swirl of sound and adds sparkling filigrees of sound to the proceedings.

Pianist Pete Malinverni:

He plays nothing superfluous while elucidating the chord progressions in an elegant way. His touch is beautiful, too. He plays lines featuring slightly detached notes and uses dynamics in a way that many pianists forget to employ.

Perhaps Alfred Lion might have heard Clark's work on this Chaloff album. Regardless if he did or didn't, his work here could have served as a good “calling card” when he arrived in NYC.

On four occasions during the second half of 1957, Lion brought Clark into the Van Gelder studio to record as a leader.

For the July 21 session, a sextet was put together which included Curtis Fuller, Art Farmer, Hank Mobley, Wilbur Ware and Louis Hayes - all handpicked for the session by Clark. They laid down six tracks which were released as BLP 1570 – Dial “S" for Sonny. Of the six tracks, four were written by Clark. Five of the tracks were performed by the sextet, with the final track, Gershwin's “Love Walked In,” performed with the trio of Clark, Ware and Hayes.

On September 1, Clark returned to Hackensack. Lion must have liked the sound that the sextet format provided for Clark, for he again used that format with the same instrumentation – tenor, trumpet and trombone – as was present for Clark's previous effort but with only Fuller returning from BLP 1570. Now joining Fuller in the frontline were John Coltrane and Donald Byrd with the rhythm support of Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. Five tracks appeared on the release, BLP 1576, Sonny's Crib. It featured two more Clark originals: “Lulu's Back in Town" and “Sonny's Crib.”

This album might have served as a “test drive" of sorts for Lion, because exactly two weeks later, on September 15, he brought back Coltrane, Fuller and Chambers; with Coltrane adding Kenny Drew, Lee Morgan and Philly Joe Jones and recorded Coltrane's only Blue Note album as a leader and arguably Blue Note’s finest ever – Blue Train.

Clark was back in the studio on October 13 for a trio album. Evidently, Lion felt comfortable enough with Clark to give him the opportunity to perform with the ultimate “stand naked in front of the crowd and stretch out musically” format – a piano trio. Providing the support was the telepathic duo of Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones of the Miles Davis group. Lion and Clark seemed to be playing it safe commercially by recording all jazz and Great American Songbook standards – no Clark originals. The finished product, BLP 1579, was entitled Sonny Clark Trio.

Clark's final album in 1957 as a leader, took place on December 8. Joining Clark were Clifford Jordan, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers and Pete La Rocca. Three Sonny Clark originals were recorded and the album to be was actually assigned an album number – BLP 1592 – but was never completed nor ever issued. This album that never was, holds the distinction of being the only one in the Blue Note 1500 mono series to be issued a catalog number but never released. The three titles recorded that day eventually found their way onto two Japanese releases: Sonny Clark Quintets (1977) and Cool Struttin' Volume 2 (1983). 

As 1958 began, Clark returned to Hackensack on January 5 for a session that would yield what is considered by many to be his strongest Blue Note album, BLP 1588 - Cool Struttin'. (Though 1962’s Leapin' and Lopin', Clark's last album for Blue Note, has, in recent decades, gained much traction in the United States as Clark's best album.) 

Art Farmer, Jackie McLean, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones joined Clark on four compositions, two of which were Clark originals.

The success of the Cool Struttin' album is perhaps based upon Clark and company's ability to take the precepts of hard bop which made it a viable, less complex and more listenable alternative to be-bop and combine all of those elements in a rather organic and natural manner. We find an album seeped in a blues feel though offering structural elements that mostly transcend your basic 12-bar blues. In essence, Clark encouraged the musicians to stretch out to more completely tell their musical stories. All the musicians seemed to lock in to Clark's ideas, producing true musical art and never crossing over into the self-indulgence that some hard bop albums of the era possessed, while straining for commercial appeal. 


Cool Struttin’ is one of those records I always go back to, not just to study, but to dance to with my girlfriend, or cook to. 

People music!


I especially liked the way he infused his bebop vocabulary with blues- tinged ideas. Labels have never been good for a musician, but if the term “hard bop” could be exemplified by anyone, I think Sonny Clark would be a prime candidate. In addition to the obvious influence of Bud Powell, Monk also seemed to have left his mark. It’s tragic that Sonny died so young. I believe he was on the verge of building on his style in a significant way. I was attracted to Sonny Clark’s playing as soon as I heard him, and his influence on me is undeniable.

The remainder of 1958 found Clark still functioning as a critical cog in another busy year for Blue Note. Though not as involved in the whirlwind of activity that 1957 had provided, nonetheless Clark held down the piano chair at nine sessions - three as a leader and six as a sideman. 

Unfortunately, for reasons often speculated upon but never clarified, of the three sessions that Clark led in 1958, only Cool Struttin' was released in his lifetime. The other two sessions were not to be released in album form for two more decades - on Japanese releases.

His second session as a leader, which took place on November 16, was probably never intended to be released in album format. The idea was to record some easily recognizable jazz chestnuts suitable for casual listening, add a little funk to them suitable for dancing and release them on 7-inch 45 RPM vinyl for use in jukeboxes in Black communities. Six songs such as “Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You" and “I'm Just a Lucky So and So” were recorded and released on three 2-sided 45 RPM records. 

In 1980, all six songs were compiled on the “B" side of an album, only released in Japan, titled The Art of the Trio with Clark, Wes Landers on drums and Jymie Merritt on bass. The “A" side contained three alternative takes from the October 1957 session that produced BLP 1579 - The Sonny Clark Trio.

Clark's final leadership session of 1958 took place on December 7 with Wes Landers again on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. This album was never released in the United States and was finally released in Japan in 1979, under the title Blues in the Night.

Clark's first stint with Blue Note ended in early 1959. On January 18 he appeared on three issued songs on Jackie McLean’s album, Jackie's Bag. His partners in the rhythm section were his old friends Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

Then on March 29, he walked into Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio to record another album as a leader. Sidemen included Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers and Art Blakey. They completed six songs that day – enough to complete the album. But again, another session was shelved and any intended album was never issued until decades later. It was first released in 1979, in Japan, as My Conception and in the United States in 2022 with the same title.

Perhaps because of Clark's frustration with Lion's decision to hold back 16 accepted takes recorded at three sessions, he was not to appear on any sessions for Blue Note for 2½ years, until October 26, 1961.

The eventual release of those shelved recordings has made it clear to critics, historians, musicians and fans of Clark's work, that his complete body of work for Blue Note was consistently good and that Lion's failure to release them was probably not due to any decline in the quality of the output. Perhaps it was, as many have speculated, that Lion simply had too much good “product" on hand and some things simply were put on his “to do” list and eventually were lost to time.

With that in mind, who could blame Clark if he finally got to the point where professionally, he simply could no longer justify putting in the work necessary to produce quality recorded jazz, if the master tape might spend decades sitting in its container in the Blue Note archives.

During his hiatus from Blue Note, he continued to record elsewhere. On March 23, 1960, Clark went into the studio for Time Records with Max Roach and George Duvivier and turned out perhaps his best trio album, Sonny Clark Trio. Interestingly, four of the eight recordings on the album were compositions that Clark had previously recorded for Blue Note which hadn't been released. Three were new compositions and only one – “Sonny's Crib" - had been recorded for Blue Note and previously released. 

On October 26, 1961, Clark returned to Blue Note for the Jackie McLean Fickle Sonance session. Also present at the session were Blue Note’s new pairing of bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins. Clark, Warren and Higgins were to appear together on a total of eight Blue Note sessions through August of 1962.

The following day, Clark, Higgins and Warren appeared on a Grant Green session. This was Clark's first studio meeting with Green, the first of many very productive sessions that Clark and Green would have over the next year for Blue Note. Unfortunately, much of this work was only released in Japan until finally compiled in a box set by Mosaic Records, MR5-133.

On November 13, Clark returned to Van Gelder's new studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ for his final session as a Blue Note leader. With him were Charlie Rouse, Ike Quebec, Tommy Turrentine, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. 

Of the six songs recorded, three were written by Clark, with Turrentine and Warren each contributing one. The other piece was the De Lange and Van Heusen standard, “Deep in a Dream.” Only on “Deep in a Dream" does Quebec appear, with Turrentine and Rouse laying out.

Leapin' and Lopin' is considered one of Clark's finest releases, regardless of his label. It also shows that Clark, though having only 14 months to live, had lost nothing as both a composer and as a pianist.

In 1962, Clark was called upon to appear at 13 sessions as a sideman and with regards to his work with Green, an equal partner. From the time of his return to Blue Note in late 1961 until his final session in late 1962, Clark shared six sessions with Green. 

Beyond his work with Green, in 1962, on June 25, August 25 and 27, Clark did three sessions with Dexter Gordon. Two albums were released as A Swingin' Affair and Go! – the latter considered by many to be Dexter's best work on Blue Note. Higgins and Warren joined Clark on both of these albums. The third album Landslide was first released in 1980.

Clark’s final Blue Note session took place on October 18, 1962, led by Stanley Turrentine, entitled Jubilee Shout!!!.


Sonny Clark! He's been a huge influence on me. I call him "Jazz Mozart," because what he plays sounds simple, but "you try it!" Of course, I love the compositions and arrangements on the quintet records, but his trio recordings are the ones I listen to over and over again. He's sort of a "Bud Powell for mortals," in that what he plays addresses the tunes beautifully, but you can hear and transcribe everything he does. I regularly use him in my teaching and find that listening to and emulating him gives a young musician an effective and idiomatic language - which, of course, we've all done toward developing our own personal styles, as we broaden our listening to include all the greats who've come before us, in the way composers study the works of the past toward moving the art forward - our ultimate goal. 

On January 13, 1963 Sonny Clark died at the age of 31 of what was determined to be a heart attack but was most likely related to drug use.

He was my man. He just left too soon. You know, he let me down. I was really mad when he died. He taught me a lot, I really loved him. A very good young man, a very good person. We shared many things together - women, music, songs, everything, you name it. We were boys! 

- Curtis Fuller

*Some Blue Note discographies for 1957 list the two Monk/Coltrane, Carnegie Hall recordings as Blue Note sessions. They were not and were only released on Blue Note in 2005. Therefore, they are not included as Blue Note sessions in this article.

All album releases refer to the original LP releases in the United States and Japan.

Special thanks to Sullivan Fortner, Pete Malinverni and Michael Weiss for kindly taking the time to express their most erudite thoughts on Mr. Clark for this article.

1 comment:

  1. Man, what a fantastic writeup! And thanks for introducing me to Blue Serge


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