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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.

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