Posts Tagged ‘Sonny Clark’
November 11, 2015 | by Sam Stephenson
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 »
January 26, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
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.
January 13, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
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.