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A Fireside Chat With Mike Clark

AAJ Staff By

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...the first thing that happened was Art Blakey smashed the cymbal, punctuated with the bass drum... it blew my mind so heavy that the very next day, I went out and bought an Art Blakey record and tried to find a cymbal that sounded like that.
When I was a kid, most my age were tuning in to watch Tootie and Blair on The Facts of Life or Gary Coleman say "Whatcha talkin' bout Willis." I would run home from school to catch What's Happening. Not only was the theme song funky, but Rerun (the best character ever on TV) was a dancing machine. And Rerun only got his groove on to the funk. This brings me to a Herbie Hancock record, Thrust, that opens with a track, "Palm Grease," one of the funkiest grooves on record. Shaft's theme ain't got nothing on "Palm Grease." The guy laying down the groove is none other than Mike Clark. Turns out Mike cannot only bring the funk, he can bring the straight ahead as well. His new release is proof positive, but if you ever need audible evidence that this cat can play or you need some good whoopee music (and I have put it in the CD player on many a whoopee occasion), warm up some Thrust. Folks, Mike Clark, as always, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.

Mike Clark: My dad was a drummer who stopped playing when he became about twenty years old. He had a tremendous jazz and blues collection, Louis Jordan, that kind of stuff. He also had big band and some bebop, some Art Blakey. So before I even played the drums, he had the music on all the time and according to my parents, I was seriously listening to it. I would park myself near the record player and just listen all day. Then when I became four or five, he brought his drums down from the attic and I played naturally the way kids play with spoons or drumsticks and it doesn't make any sense.

Well, my stuff had rhythm and made sense. When they saw that, the very next night, my father took me down to a nightclub where his jazz musician friends played and had me sit in with the band. I can remember doing it. He taught me how to play a little ride beat on the cymbal. So that is how it started. I just played and from there, I was kind of like a child drum prodigy. My father helped me get gigs as a child drummer. It was really a lot of fun. He was a railroad man and so he traveled. We went all throughout the United States and as soon as we would get to a town, he would open up the paper and find out where the jazz bands were playing. We'd go down, and in those days, he would buy the drummer a drink or play the drummer or bandleader ten bucks to have me sit in and play a couple of tunes. By the time I was eight, I had quite a little track record.

FJ: You were the Tiger Woods of the drums.

MC: I wish, but yeah, I had a pop like that and he loved the music and he loved all kinds of jazz. He was also a heavy blues head. That was his drinking music when his friends would come over. He was also listening to more advanced things as well. I was sort of born into on that tip.

FJ: Influences and vinyl licorice?

MC: When I started, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, those types of drummers were my father's favorite drummers. He liked Sid Catlett and Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Louie Bellson. Those were the things he was listening to when he wasn't getting his blues thing. Those were the first things that I was attracted to and so I played in that style right away. Who else? Jo Jones, Count Basie, big bands of that time. One day, he brought home an Art Blakey record. I think it was called Drum Suite (Columbia). As soon as he put it on, the first thing that happened was Art Blakey smashed the cymbal, punctuated with the bass drum at the same time and went into a ride beat and it blew my mind so heavy that the very next day, I went out and bought an Art Blakey record and tried to find a cymbal that sounded like that. This was when I was eight years old. Then my dad had some records by Bird. Although he didn't listen to them too much, I had some young friends at that age that were into Bird and so we started digging Bird and later on Max and Clifford. So I just kept going to whatever I am now. Blakey, when I heard that cymbal, that moved me away from Gene Krupa type stuff into bebop and once I heard that, I knew that was where I wanted to go. I tried to play like each of those drummers and tune my drums like each of those guys. I would just stay in my room and play Art Blakey records all day.

FJ: I know railroad people and they live a similar lifestyle as military people, very nomad like.

MC: Well, that is very interesting too, Fred. I was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a switchman and then he got elected to a union position. Being he was a railroad man, we moved. So for almost every year I was in high school, I lived in a different state. It was a little bit bizarre. I lived in Texas, Georgia, a couple of times back to California, Pittsburgh. We lived outside of Buffalo for a while. I lived in Savannah, Atlanta, Virginia, and a little bit in Chattanooga. As a result of that type of training, when I left high school, I was going to go to music school, but instead, I went right on the road with a band. I was making good money for a guy who was seventeen. I stayed on the road and I am still on the road. I had a blast. There is nothing I didn't like about it then and there is nothing about it that I don't like now. I made a lot of friends. The thing is, you never have roots in one town. I have friends still in grade school from all of those towns. I really dug it. It was exciting. In those days, you could work in a nightclub with a pass, with a permit. Even when I got to be fourteen or fifteen, then you didn't even need a pass, especially down South. At that time, I was getting calls to do blues and funk because blues and funk was the music of my high school peers. Only a couple of times did I have to stop because of my age.

FJ: Them were the days.

MC: For real. I played with Albert King and Albert Collins, backing these people up. I wasn't in their bands, but we would play sometimes a week at a time with these guys. Even though I was deeply into bebop, I was doing that to make money. Because of the split up of my parents, especially when I was living with my mother, I had to work and being a drummer, work was right there for me. It was cool.

FJ: How did you get the gig with Herbie?

MC: At the time, I was playing with Woody Shaw and Bobby Hutcherson quite regularly at a club in San Francisco. There were three drummers in San Francisco at that time, Vince Lateano, Eddie Marshall, and myself and we were getting pretty much all the work concerning jazz. So my roommate Paul Jackson came home one day and said that I got a gig with Herbie Hancock playing funk. Meanwhile, Paul and I had a group together out in East Oakland. I kept answering the phone because Paul was a social animal and I would have these long conversations with Herbie. We started talking for hours at a time about everything, life, politics, whatever. Finally, he said, "Paul tells me you can play some really different sounding funk." I said, "Yeah, I can do that." He said, "Why don't you come over and play with me and Paul?" I went over there and I had a good jazz career going in San Francisco. I was a young guy, in my early twenties and I was working constantly. I didn't really know if I wanted this gig with Herbie Hancock, should he want me because I knew it was going to be a funk gig and I would get a reputation for playing funk and I didn't want it to screw up my jazz thing. But at the same time, I knew I was going to be known throughout the world if I took this gig at that time. I knew the record was going to sell. I played with him and at first, I played more of a Tony Williams, Elvin Jones kind of groove and he said, "No, no, put a pillow in the bass drum," and so I did and played the funky thing and he said, "OK, we are leaving for Chicago next Monday. Your tickets will be waiting for you if you want to go." That was it. Then he walked out with his big, black coat on like Darth Vader. I said to Paul, "Does that mean I got the gig?" And Paul said, "I think so."

FJ: Herbie is an advanced cat. He thinks on a different level than we do.

MC: Oh, yeah, he really is. He is a genius. I had a conversation with Chick Corea backstage about a year ago and he said that one of the funniest activities one can participate in is talking to Herbie Hancock. It is because he is not only a genius musically, he is a genius of humanity. He is the kind of cat that can talk to you for a few minutes and feel what you need to hear to encourage your life. Talking to him is encouraging. It makes you feel high. It makes you feel up. He was like that most of the time. Only very seldom was he down or grumpy.

FJ: Having to replace Harvey Mason in the band, was there pressure? The band was known and you were just a young cat at the time.

MC: Well, no, I didn't feel any pressure behind the fact that Harvey played first. I just had to learn some of the beats he played and had the learn the music, but I was confident. I don't sound like him and so I never went in that direction. I am a fan of Harvey. I love Harvey's playing. I am not a jealous or competitive drummer. I left that way back there, so when I hear good drummers, it excites me and makes me want to play. Lenny White is a dear, dear friend of mine and in my estimation, he is the hardest swinging drummer in jazz. He has got the greasiest, dirtiest ride beat that I have heard in many years. We're buddies. I love it. I love good drummers.

FJ: You certainly took the group into a new direction. Proof is in Thrust , a killing album.
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