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Notes from a Biographer

Sonny Clark, Part 2

January 26, 2011 | by

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.

18 COMMENTS

16 Comments

  1. night rpm | January 26, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Sam, this is fantastic, what a tribute! Clark’s last LP as a leader, Leapin’ and Lopin’, was fantastic, too… but to me, he’s more invaluable when he wasn’t a leader, as he made so many of those Blue Note LPs exponentially greater. Like Lee Morgan’s “Candy” or Lou Donaldson’s “Lou Takes Off” or Louis Smith’s “Smithville”? I’m convinced they’d be pretty mediocre without Sonny Clark’s contribution.

    I don’t know how much potentiality is in “potential Sonny Clark biographer,” but hey. Please write the Sonny Clark bio!

  2. Justin | January 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    “How did a black man come from here and learn such an extraordinary facility on piano?”

    Sam, I’m not sure it’s all that remarkable. Western Pennsylvania, particularly the city of Pittsburgh, which is where Clark lived from age 12 to 20, produced many great jazz artists. Art Blakey, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Ahmad Jamal, and Ray Brown all came up in the area. The city was especially well known for its piano players. It’s one of the most important places in jazz history.

  3. shereese Maynard tucker | January 27, 2011 at 6:19 am

    This is a brilliant article. I’d agree with Justin, many jazz greats come from PA. There’s no surprise to me regarding his talent. I’d also offer, many great pianists fall in the same way. I’m reminded of D’Angelo. Although he sought out mainstream fame, he was an accomplished pianist and extremely talented. Most people don’t realize how classically trained he was and unfortunately i was not able to find a clip but here’s an appearance he made some time ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHvXPxTGWlA). His fall from grace was sad. When the true potential of great artists goes unrealized, all of society suffers.

  4. Sam | January 27, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Those interested in Pittsburgh jazz history will be happy to note that there is history being written by professional guitarist Colter Harper who is finishing his PhD in History with a dissertation on that very topic, interviewing old-timers and using the bountiful photographs of Teenie Harris as a primary resource. For my money, frontiers of jazz research are local histories in almost every city including smaller ones like Raleigh, Savannah, Little Rock, Wichita, Richmond, Baltimore, Buffalo. PIttsburgh as a city and cauldron of culture is richer than most. No place blended eastern Europe, African-America, and Appalachia like it did. Another frontier of research is going very, very deep on the musicians as human beings with parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and other ancestors and loved ones. Everybody’s story is a little (or a lot) different. Saying Clark was from Pittsburgh is something like saying Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was from Chicago. August Wilson is a guide to this kind of complex research on the Pittsburgh story, as is Teenie Harris. The Carnegie Museum of Art, by the way, will mount a Harris retrospective to open Oct. 28, 2011. The show will have 1000 life size projections looping on 4 state-of-the-art projectors, plus lots of Harris ephemera. In my view it will be the photography event of 2011.

  5. Justin | January 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Harper’s research sounds interesting. I agree with you, Sam, about the growing importance of local histories in jazz research. A lot has been ignored. I would add Detroit, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Chicago to your list of major jazz centers that have been overlooked by historians.

    Obviously lots of things influence an artist’s development, including place. What I find strange about the question you posed in the post is that it seems to assume Clark would have been untouched by the cultural matrix of Pittsburgh growing up in a small town just outside the city and that rural + black = uncultured. It also overlooks the fact that Clark actually did live in the city. After I read this post I looked at the liner notes to his trio album. Here’s what Clark told Leonard Feather in 1957:

    “I was born in a little coal mining town, about 16 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, called Herminie, Pa.–population 800. I was raised there ’til I was 12, then lived in Pittsburgh until I was 19, just turning 20.”

    I don’t see why it’s so surprising that a black man came from here and learned “such extraordinary facility on the piano.” There wasn’t a shortage of local examples. Anyway, the post interests me due to my own personal ties to the Pittsburgh area and the research I am currently conducting on a pianist from Pennsylvania, a contemporary of Clark’s who suffered from the same addiction.

  6. Sam | January 27, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Justin, every local example needs to be researched individually. You are to be commended for doing your work, and I’m grateful for your interest in my Clark pieces here. I find it surprising that musicians of this caliber come from anywhere.

    Feather’s quote attributed to Clark is flimsy. None of the facts are accurate.

  7. Mark Reep | January 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Great piece. The Mishima/Williams exchange, too.

  8. john | February 1, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Your post got me listening to Grant Green and Sonny’s Blue Note sessions, then on to Grant’s LP’s with organist Larry Young and Elvin Jones. Thanks for this!

  9. ernst schlogelhofer | February 8, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Hi Sam – I hope this reaches you – I am writing to you from london … I am loving your book THE JAZZ LOFT PROJECT for both the pictures by Smith and your evocative writing … I am sure I am not alone in asking you to PLEASE follow-up the book with some of the recordings by Smith on a CD box … having the book is great, seeing the pictures is wonderful, but now we need to hear it!!! thanks, Ernst.

  10. Sam | February 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Ernst, thanks for the note. Anybody interested in Jazz Loft Project audio can find around four hours of it on our website:

    http://www.jazzloftproject.org

    Click on SOUNDS.

  11. Bill | February 16, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for the article on Sonny. I have CDs of his music and they enthrall me. Great talent! I also have a few jazz histories and picture books which hardly mention Sonny’s name and none of his work or life. I look forward to reading a biography.

  12. Nic | February 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    This is a fantastic article- I will immediately buy any biography of Sonny Clark you write. I have always been fascinated by Clark, but have never found much more about him than what is listed in Wikipedia, apart from the transcript of a brief interview with a Jazz publication. As an amateur jazz pianist myself, he is easily one of my favorite pianisits of all time, and almost certainly my favorite accompanist. My only bone to pick with you is calling Cool Struttin’ “routine”, an outrageous comment; Sonny Clark’s opening and solo on Deep Night are the very reason I devote myself to the insrument. It’s easy to take any album from that period and call it routine or archetypal Blue Note (“it’s all hard bop”)- frankly, if Coltrane had died 6 months after recording Blue Train, it would be labeled derivative too, and you would probably have never heard it. Cool Struttin’ represents Sonny Clark’s finest album as a frontman, and is therefore one of the strongest testaments to his status as an artist. I look forward to reading your book- above all, it sounds like a great story.

  13. Sam | February 19, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Nic, thanks for the comment and your kind words. I’m grateful that you paid this kind of attention to this piece. You may be interested to know that I have about 3500 words of new material on Clark in the current Winter issue of Tin House magazine. In response to your “outrage” at my use of the term “routine,” looking back at that piece I think I qualified my use of that term pretty well by using the hypothetical “cynic” point of view. Many thanks for your note.

  14. Peter Leitch | November 18, 2012 at 6:25 am

    At last. Please do the Sonny Clark bio, Sam. “The” solo for me is on “Blues Inn” on the album “Jackie’s Bag.

  15. Peter Leitch | November 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Really loved the Loft Jazz Project. Please do the Sonny Clark bio! ‘The” solo for me is on “Blues Inn” on Jackie’s Bag. But I love all of Sonny’s work. He played the very essence of the idiom and its intricate vocabulary.

  16. Carl Redwood | December 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Until he was 12 Sonny Clark lived in Herminie #2. Most of that time he lived in the Redwood Hotel. This was the music place where his talent began and was nurtured. Many black musicians who traveled to Pittsburgh could not stay at Pittsburgh hotels so they stayed at the Redwood hotel.

2 Pingbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by netw3rk, prof rebuke and Charles Homans, The Paris Review. The Paris Review said: More on jazz pianist Sonny Clark: stealing from Thelonious Monk, popularity in Japan, and the final months of his life http://tpr.ly/f20SnP [...]

  2. [...] footnote: Not long after this recording, Dexter moved to Paris, and Sonny Clark was with us no [...]

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