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Posts Tagged ‘Sonny Clark’

A Big Glooby Blob of Sad Blufush, and Other News

July 22, 2016 | by

Kerouac photographed by John Cohen, 1959. Image via The Spectator.

  • Remember that time Henry James met Winston Churchill? The encounter took place in December, 1914, when Churchill was forty years old and James, his elder by three decades, was still a year from the stroke that would have him signing letters as Napoleon to arrange for “the decoration of certain apartments and palaces ... of the Louvre and the Tuileries.” According to Louis Menand, “Churchill had no idea who James was, found him tedious, and behaved crudely.” After the event, James told his host, Violet Bonham Carter—a friend of Churchill, daughter of the prime minister, and grandmother of Helena—that the “interesting” experience had “brought home to me, very forcibly and vividly … the limitations by which men of genius … purchase their ascendancy … over mankind.”
  • In 1931, during what he described as his wilderness years, Churchill launched an American speaking tour in an effort to make back the money he’d lost in the stock-market crash two years earlier. While crossing Fifth Avenue in New York, Churchill looked the wrong way for traffic and was hit by a taxi, an accident he later wrote up as “My New York Misadventure,” which essay he sold to the Daily Mail for twenty-five hundred dollars. (Yes: about forty thousand dollars in today’s money.) Earlier that year, some three hundred and fifty miles from the site of Churchill’s lucrative debilitation, the hard-bop jazz pianist Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark was born in a Pennsylvania coal patch. Clark’s career was often torturous, in no small part thanks to the heroin addiction that killed him in 1963. But he found a wide following in Japan, and, as Sam Stephenson wrote for the Daily in 2011, “no jazz pianist was more drenched in minor blues” than he was. Clark would have been eighty-five yesterday.
  • Clark released Sonny’s Crib, with John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, in 1957, the same year Jack Kerouac published On the Road. For Geoff Dyer, “there has never been a better-looking male writer. The Kerouac of the 1950s—athletic, muscular forearms emerging from plaid shirt, dark hair roughly quiffed—could step into a bar in Brooklyn today and he’d still look hip.” But Kerouac’s time at the top was brief: “From the moment his achievement was recognized his talent was in decline. He became imprisoned by the method of composition—spontaneous prose—that had liberated him. The breakthrough that enabled him to become a great writer condemned him to often being a pretty terrible one. Sinking into alcoholism, living with his mum in Florida and Massachusetts, he became ‘a big glooby blob of sad blufush.’ ”
  • Kerouac’s father, a French Canadian printer, died of stomach cancer in 1946, the same year a former domestic servant from Scotland gave birth to the man who last night became the Republican Party’s official candidate for president of the United States. About that last fact you may read a word or two today, but in the midst of the frenzy let us not forget the welcome counsel of Julian Barnes, namely that “this has been a rich time to explore nineteenth-century Scandinavian painting.” A new show at the Fondation Custodia, in Paris, includes paintings by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, a Danish painter who studied under Jacques-Louis David. “The Paris show,” Barnes says, reveals Eckersberg “to be always securely himself, yet frequently on the move.”

Gene Smith’s Sink

November 11, 2015 | by

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, ca. 1962.

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, ca. 1962.

I was working on a book and an exhibition about W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs in 1998 when I learned about his voluminous, inexplicable, irresistible collection of reel-to-reel tapes. I’d found them in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) in Tucson, Arizona. There are 1,740 of them, made roughly between 1957 and 1965 inside the loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The simple task of counting and numbering the dusty tapes took me two weeks. It was several years—it would require a great deal of fund-raising to preserve the tapes properly—before I could listen to them.

In 1999, still not having heard the tapes, I wrote an article about Smith’s loft work for DoubleTake magazine. The article was based on his photographs and some thirty interviews I’d conducted with jazz musicians I had identified in his photos or from his chicken-scratched tape labels or who I’d learned about via word of mouth. A man named David Logan, then in his eighties, was on his treadmill in Chicago when he saw me talking about the story on CBS Sunday Morning. He impulsively called Vicki Goldberg, the venerable New York Times photography critic, who had no idea who I was. She suggested he call CCP. Read More »

Sonny Clark, Part 2

January 26, 2011 | by

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

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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Sonny Clark

January 13, 2011 | by

Clark seated at piano backstage at Syria Mosque for Night of Stars event, 1946. Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Heinz Family Fund; © 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

Forty-eight years ago today, the pianist Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark died of a heroin overdose in a shooting gallery somewhere in New York City. He was thirty-one. The previous two nights—January 11 and 12, 1963—he had played piano at Junior’s Bar on the ground floor of the Alvin Hotel on the northwest corner of Fifty-second and Broadway. On Sunday, January 13, the temperature reached thirty-eight degrees in Central Park.

The next thing we know with certainty is that Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a noted jazz patron, called Clark’s older sister in Pittsburgh to inform her of her brother’s death. Nica, as the baroness was known, said she would pay to have the body transported to his hometown and that she’d pay for a proper funeral.

What is not known, however, is if the body in the New York City morgue with Clark’s name on it was his. Witnesses in both New York and Pittsburgh (after the body arrived there) believed it wasn’t; they thought it didn’t look like Sonny. Some suspected a conspiracy with the drug underground with which Clark was entangled, but, as African Americans in a white system, they were reticent to discuss the matter. It was probably a simple case of carelessness at the morgue, something not uncommon with “street” deaths at the time, particularly when the corpses were African American. Today, there’s a gravestone with Clark’s name on it in the rural hills outside Pittsburgh, where a body shipped from New York was buried in mid-January of that year. How painful it must have been to stay silent and let a funeral proceed, not knowing for sure where Sonny’s body was. His may be one of the thousands of unidentified ones buried in potter’s field on New York’s Hart Island, where Sonny himself dug graves years earlier, while incarcerated at Riker’s Island on drug charges.

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