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Sonny Clark, Part 2

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Notes from a Biographer

Sonny Clark, ca. 1961. Photograph by Francis Wolff. (c) Mosaic Images (www.mosaicrecords.com)

On October 26, 1961, Sonny Clark reported to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for a recording session led by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Clark brought with him a new composition he called “Five Will Get You Ten.” He was an effective composer, and his tunes were welcome at most sessions. However, this one he’d stolen from Thelonious Monk. He had probably seen the sheet music or heard Monk working out the tune on the piano at the Weehawken, New Jersey, home of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who routinely made her home a rest stop and clubhouse for jazz musicians.

Monk called the tune “Two Timer”; Clark gave it a new name so he could claim composer’s royalties. It was the move of a desperate, depleted junky. (W. Eugene Smith had cameras, lenses, and other equipment stolen from his loft by jazz junkies all the time, but, an addict himself, he wasn’t one to judge. The thefts would leave him both distraught and ambivalent.) According to Robin D. G. Kelley’s remarkable recent biography of Monk, the elder master treated Clark like a “troubled younger brother,” and he never did anything about the stolen tune. Chances are that by the time Monk heard McLean’s record and realized what had happened, Clark was dead, or in some other condition that made a reprimand irrelevant.

In the last eighteen months of Clark’s life, he would climb to daylight for brief periods, breath clean air, play some beautiful music, and then sink to lower and lower depths. In the August 1962 issue of the invaluable, idiosyncratic Canadian jazz magazine, Coda, there was this report from New York by Fred Norsworthy:

One of the saddest sights these days is the terrible condition of one of the nation’s foremost, and certainly original pianists. Having been around for many years he came into his own in 1959 and no one deserved it more than he. I feel that something should be done about drug addiction before we lose many more artists. I saw him several times in the past three months and was shocked to see one of our jazz greats in such pitiful shape. Unfortunately, the album dates that he keeps getting only help his addiction get worse instead of better. Whether or not he licks this problem at this stage of the game remains to be seen. In some cases people refuse help and the loss of a close friend was no help either. If anything he took a turn for the worse and disappeared for 3 weeks. However right now should he die it will at least be better than living a slow death with no relief in sight.

The pianist is almost certainly Sonny Clark. That same month, he cut two classic Blue Note albums under the leadership of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Go and A Swinging Affair. When Clark died five months later, Gordon remembered these sessions in a letter to Blue Note impresarios Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff: Clark had “almost totally given up” on his life, Gordon wrote. Yet judging from the surviving albums, he still cooked on piano. Several of Clark’s solos are top notch, but in this rhythm section with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, he conducts a clinic on how to play sensitive, sparkling piano accompaniment behind a soloing saxophonist, in this case the atmospheric Gordon. Clark didn’t appear to give up on anything musically. Many years later Gordon remembered Go as among his career favorites.

As a potential biographer of Sonny Clark, I have to be careful of the notion of the damaged, tragic artist having an aesthetic advantage (I have to be careful of this for Eugene Smith, too). He grew up not far from where my wife did, near the Allegheny hills where her ancestors migrated for work, same as Sonny’s parents. I’m drawn to these hills like a second home; the place haunts me. How did a black man come from here and learn such an extraordinary facility on piano? Why did he become such a stereotypical jazz junkie? Why is the wrong body apparently buried underneath his gravestone in these hills?

Greenwood Cemetery, Sharpsburg, PA. A gravestone with Sonny Clark's name rests in the foreground. Photograph by Charlee Brodsky, 2006.

I’m curious, too, about his remarkable popularity in Japan today, a country in which he never stepped foot. Consider these facts: From 1991, when Soundscan began tracking CD sales, through 2009, Clark’s 1958 Blue Note recording, Cool Struttin’, sold 38,000 copies in America and 179,000 in Japan. Those numbers alone are eye-opening. But a quick comparison illustrates just how astonishing they really are: John Coltrane’s classic 1957 Blue Note recording, Blue Train, sold 545,000 copies in America over the same period and 147,000 copies in Japan. Cool Struttin’ outsells Blue Train in Japan.

Aesthetically, the two records are very much of the same time and place. Both feature front lines of saxophone, trumpet, and piano backed by Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and they were recorded by the same label in the same studio, only four months apart. The real distinction is that Blue Train is an entry-level recording by a saxophonist who went on to become one of the most feverish and supreme giants of American music, while Cool Struttin’ could be described by a cynic as a fine but routine, almost potluck jam session typical of the period.

I’m not yet sure how to explain the unusual prestige of Cool Struttin’ in Japan. In February, I embark on a five-week trip to research W. Eugene Smith’s work there in the 1960s and ’70s along with his World War II combat photography in Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and elsewhere in the Pacific. While there, I’ll spend some time trying to figure out the reasons for Clark’s popularity. Perhaps it’s just a fluke. I believe there’s more to it. My feeling is that the Japanese audience may have a special ear for the beauty of Clark’s minor blues. This occurred to me when I was listening to one of Smith’s loft tapes. On May 8, 1960, Smith made an audio recording of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS program, Small World, from Channel 2 in New York City. The episode featured Yukio Mishima and Tennessee Williams in a discussion of Japanese cinema.

MISHIMA
I think a characteristic of Japanese character is just this mixture of very brutal things and elegance. It’s a very strange mixture.

WILLIAMS
I think that you in Japan are close to us in the Southern states of the United States.

MISHIMA
I think so.

WILLIAMS
A kind of beauty and grace. So that although it is horror, it is not just sheer horror, it has also the mystery of life, which is an elegant thing.

This “very strange mixture” of the brutal and the elegant may describe what Japanese jazz fans hear coming out of Clark’s piano. His parents came from rural, Jim Crow Georgia and moved to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, so Sonny’s father could work in the coke yards of Jones & Laughlin Steel. They were chased away by KKK activity there and ended up in a company coal-mining village that reminded them of their rural Southern home near a rock quarry. Mr. Clark died of black-lung disease two weeks after Sonny was born. Mrs. Clark died of breast cancer when he was twenty-two. The family dispersed; Sonny followed a brother to Los Angeles, where it didn’t take him long to rise to the top of the jazz scene, a topsy-turvy milieu drizzled with narcotics.

No jazz pianist was more drenched in minor blues than Clark. Yet he blended his blues with a buoyant, ventilated swing. And to this day, nobody sounds like Sonny Clark.

Click here to read part 1 of Stephenson on Sonny Clark.

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.