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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Wide Open Jazz and Beyond

Drummer Mike Clark

By Published: May 30, 2006
If you have a natural inclination toward the blues like I do, it will well up inside your life and pour out of your soul when the groove really hits. A really great blues can cripple you. For me, this is the big payoff. This is why most of us are still playing. That feeling is what we live for. It puts tears in your eyes, sends chills up your back, curls up your toes and tickles your funny bone. It makes it all worthwhile.

Worthwhile for me is having had the great fortune to know and play with the creator of these beautiful words for the past twenty years. With his Humphrey Bogart looks, deep throaty voice and sharp wit Mike Clark is a drummer that shares with you his deep love and respect for playing music at the most dynamic level. Playing with Mike is a full creative experience that always touches your heart and soul no matter the style of music you're playing.

I first met Mike when he came over to my apartment in Brooklyn to play on my 1966 psychedelic red swirl Slingerland drums with bassist Anthony Cox back in the early 80's. Like most musicians I already knew Mike as the super-funk drummer on recordings by Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. I remember at the time wondering what music we could play as both Anthony and I were into modern jazz and I didn't have a lot of funk tunes to play. To my great surprise Mike wasn't into playing funk with us, he wanted to swang. And man did he play some serious swang. In fact Mike told us that he had come to NY from California so that he could get away from being known as merely a funk drummer. I learned a valuable lesson that first day with Mike, the talents of a person should not be judged merely by listening to a recording or two. Recordings can be very deceptive in many ways. They can only be a partial picture of the sound and creative depths of a musician. Yes I knew from recordings that Mike was a great funky drummer but playing with him that day showed me that he embodied the history of modern jazz drumming as well. You could hear he had studied the styles of Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey as well as Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. Mike is definitely much more than just a superb funk drummer.

Mike grew up in Oakland California where he began playing drums at the age of four. You heard me, four. He was on television shows when he was six or seven as a Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa-style child drummer and he was even playing gigs with a big band a few years later. At the age of twelve while living in Texas, Mike began playing in the blues bands of Jimmy Reed and O.C. Smith and in high school he played in a house band backing up blues greats like Albert and Freddy King. Back in Oakland he even played with the legendary Sly Stone. After high school Mike went on the road for a few years with jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. It's Mike on the soundtrack of the Peanuts - Charlie Brown Christmas special (Vince wrote all the music for the shows). Back in the Bay area Mike began playing with some of the greatest jazz players in the world like Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Pharoah Sanders, Eddie Henderson and too many more to mention. It was also at that time that Mike became good friends with the bass wizard Paul Jackson who was playing double bass back then. They soon became the dynamic duo of the Bay area working with everyone in town playing all different kinds of music. Around 1973 Mike's visibility changed when both he and Paul were hired by Herbie Hancock to join his new touring band that would create some of the hippest and deepest funk music imaginable which culminated in the classic album called Thrust. Herbie to this day says that Mike's drum solo on the piece Actual Proof from the album is one of the best drum solos on any of his recordings! After three years Herbie left the band but the Headhunters continued on its own. It was also at this time that Mike got a call to work with the great British fusion-band called Brand X to replace Phil Collins who was getting too busy with the group Genesis. After recording two albums with X Mike made a short detour back to the Bay area before moving on to try his hand at the Big Apple music scene.

For a long time in New York Mike had to fight the image of being merely a funk drummer and often struggled to get the recognition from the jazz world he desired and deserved. After a number of great jazz gigs and recordings including his Stash records release, Give the Drummer Some, Mike now feels comfortable playing funky music again. Back in 1992 he reunited with Paul Jackson to record a fantastic funky CD called The Funk Stops Here which included Miles Davis alumni Kenny Garrett on saxophone. Back in '98 Mike was back in the groove as the Headhunters got together again for a whirlwind tour and a Verve CD release Return of the Headhunters, featuring Herbie Hancock. Which takes us to the present with Mike's recent releases of Actual Proof on Platform Records with eight-string bass/guitar genius Charlie Hunter and Conjunction on Buckyball Records once again with Paul Jackson. Most recently Mike has hooked up with the Jam-band circuit along with Paul Jackson and James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley, turntable wizard DJ Logic, organist Larry Goldings and many others.

Mike Clark is an all-around fantastic drummer and he definitely makes it all worthwhile! Go check him out when you get a chance and don't forget to keep in touch!



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