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Clarence Becton: Straight Ahead Into Freedom


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Clarence Becton is a musicians' musician—meaning, someone well-known in musician circles. He belongs to the generation of American jazz heroes who grew up under economically and socially difficult circumstances, and for that very reason, succeeded in gaining a comprehensive education, emancipating himself, and embodying the history of jazz music by directly learning from and working with greats of almost every stylistic era—ragtime, swing, bebop, post-bop, and avant-garde.

Born in 1933, he developed a strong musical interest as a child, began playing the drums publicly in and around Buffalo in 1953, where his family moved when he was twelve years old. Frankie Dunlop, himself from Buffalo, was one of his mentors on jazz drums. In 1981, after having lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Munich, and New York, Becton moved to Amsterdam where he lives as an active musician still today. The long list of musical greats he played with throughout his musical career includes—amongst others---Joe Albany, Pepper Adams, Benny Bailey, Hamiet Bluiett, Marilyn Crispell, Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Don Ellis, Burton Greene, Slide Hampton, 'Captain' John Handy, Coleman Hawkins, Julius Hemphill, Joe Henderson, Jon Hendricks, Earl Hines, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Abdullah Ibrahim, Oliver Lake, Prince Lasha, Thelonious Monk, Mark Murphy, Albert Nicholas, Pony Poindexter, Julian Priester, Arthur Rhames, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry, Lucky Thompson, and Mal Waldron.

All About Jazz: You were born in Mississippi—where exactly?

Clarence Becton: It was a place called Fitler. All it was was one big general store. They sold everything—food, furniture. This was principally a plantation—cotton, corn, soy beans.

AAJ: Your parents were working there?

CB: No. At the time I was born, I don't know where we were.

AAJ: So, you don't know the place or hospital where you were born?

CB: No, it wasn't a hospital. This was Mississippi in 1933 [laughs], out in the country. There was no electricity, no telephones, radios, no running water. The doctor was 20 miles from where we lived. And that was 20 miles by buggy and mule—a mule pulling a wagon.

AAJ: Your family moved to Buffalo, NY, when you were twelve years old.

CB: Well, my uncle had been in the war, he was in the army. In 1945, after years of being the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful, he went to Buffalo, N.Y. found a house, bought it and sent for the family, including me. This was during the time of the mass migration of African-Americans from the south to the north of the U.S., or to Canada. It gave me educational and many other opportunities I did not have in Mississippi. For instance, there were no schools for black children in the area where I lived. The best my brother and I could do was to walk three miles across woods, sloughs & bayous populated by deadly poisonous snakes and other serious hazards, since there were no school buses provided for blacks, to a one room church where we were taught by someone from our community who could read, write, and do arithmetic.

AAJ: Your first musical experience was church music, in Mississippi.

CB: Yeah. Oh, there was also in Cary, that village where my aunt took me to begin my schooling in 1941, I believe, that I used to hear street musicians on the corner, picking a guitar or playing a washboard, spoons or bones. So, I also heard a lot of blues and I wanted to play the guitar. But nobody could afford to buy one. So, about three years later, using some wood and some nails and some wire, I tried to make a guitar, but I never could get the right tension on the strings, so I gave up on it.

AAJ: How old have you been then?

CB: I think I was about ten years old.

AAJ: You began playing the drums publicly at nineteen, in 1953, in Buffalo.

CB: At the time I began to get involved with drumming, I was working full time nights as a radio, and sometimes a TV repairman at Sylvania, which had a factory in Buffalo, N.Y., making car radios and televisions. I was also busy finishing my last year at the technical high school where I was studying electronics, which was to be my career. During this time I bought a radio in early 1953, and found a jazz station. Right away the drums caught my ear, and I went out and bought a pair of drum sticks and improvised some kind of simulated drum set. I then began to play along with the radio recordings. I got lessons later with a drum teacher, who happened to be a classical percussionist and didn't teach drum set playing, but he taught me the drum rudiments, and how to read music. So I had to teach myself drum set playing, and learn by going out and watching and listening to the great players who played in the area. Not long after that, an acquaintance at Sylvania who played piano wanted to put a band together and asked me to play drums. So, I invested in a bass drum, snare drum, ride cymbal, and hi hat—a very basic setup. I had a month to get acquainted with the drums before our first rehearsal in November 1953. Soon after that rehearsal we began to play for house parties where people danced. As I practiced, and practiced, and got better and better, the bassist in the band and I became good friends, and he always took me along with him to hang out with the jazz players around town, and after about a year with the rhythm & blues band, the two of us were asked to join a jazz quartet. From that point my jazz career was launched, off and running.

AAJ: In Buffalo?

CB: In Buffalo, and after a while more musicians began calling us for jazz gigs.

AAJ: Then came a time when you worked with Pete Johnson, Don Menza, Don Ellis, and Wade Legge, at the Royal Arms Club in Buffalo.

CB: Yeah, this was somewhere in the late '50s into the '60s. And as I got better and better and the musicians saw that I was serious, they started calling me more often.

AAJ: You met Coleman Hawkins at that time and played with him.

CB: Well, I did a job for another drummer, they asked me to play in his place. It felt good and natural playing with Coleman and he didn't have any problems with the way I played, so it was a good experience—but I don't remember the details.

AAJ: How did you meet Jon Hendricks, with whom you later worked intensely?

CB: I was playing with a trio in Buffalo—piano, bass and drums. From time to time the two owners of the Royal Arms Jazz Club would call us to play as the rhythm section when they brought in a soloist. Jon Hendricks came to town for a one week engagement in the club, bringing just himself and the pianist, Joseph "Flip" Nuñez. So, they asked me and the bassist from the trio, John Heard to come and play. Somewhere during the week Jon and Flip asked me and John Heard if we'd be interested in going on the road with them, and being regular members of the band. So we said yeah!

AAJ: Was this your first big step into your professional career as a musician?

CB: It definitely gave my career a forward push, and got me out of Buffalo, which I had decided to do however I could, although things had picked up somewhat in Buffalo in that year of 1965. Don Ellis had come to town for an artist-in-residence job at the university, and had put a band together which included me and John Heard. We were also working with a quartet from Don's band plus working with the trio. I had saved up some get-out-of-town money, but going on the road with Jon [Hendricks] was the best option, musically, and personally. Jon is such a great musician and performer. He gave us a lot of musical freedom. I worked with him for a total of 12 years, beginning in May of 1965 to 1968, and then again from 1972 to 1981 when I left the U.S. and relocated to Amsterdam.

AAJ: In 1967 you toured with Jon Hendricks, Flip Nuñez, and Henry Grimes from New York via Canada to San Francisco where you lived and worked for a while as a musician. In 1969 you moved to Munich where you played at the Domicile Jazz Club as the house drummer. How did it come to that position?

CB: Pianist Larry Vuckovich, who went with Jon Hendricks to London in 1968, made contact, and got a steady house rhythm section gig at the Domicile, playing seven nights per week. After some months he prompted the club owner to send for me to come over and play in the club.

AAJ: Can you share some memories about your work with Mal Waldron with whom you recorded his remarkable album Free At Last—the debut album of the now famous ECM label which is based in Munich.

CB: Mal and I played several times together in the Domicile, and recorded Free At Last in the autumn of 1969. Mal Waldron's style of playing was, for me, original, unique, and personal. He was a great musician and a great person. Playing with Mal was always a pleasure and a learning experience. He had a different approach to playing. He would get into this hypnotic thing. It was a very personal kind of thing from Mal. It demonstrated something to me about repetition, kind of hypnotic effects you can achieve by repetition.

AAJ: In 1970 you returned to the US, where you worked with Thelonious Monk. In Robin D.G. Kelley's Monk biography you are mentioned as a talented drummer in the San Francisco area. Where did you play with Monk?

CB: We played at a [now defunct] venue called the Both/And Club in San Francisco in 1970. At that time I had just recently returned from an extended gig in Munich, with the purpose of taking some college music classes to learn more about melody and harmony. Thelonious and his musical director, Paul Jeffrey asked me to leave San Francisco and go on the road with them. Paul Jeffrey on saxophone and on bass Rafael Garrett—a great musician. They found something in my playing they could relate to. I would love to have gone, but I just could not give up my studies at that time. It was a difficult choice to make, but I decided to stay in school.

AAJ: In 1973 you met and worked with Woody Shaw—can you share some thoughts on him?

CB: I can say without hesitation that playing with Woody Shaw was always a magical journey on the highest level. It was my good fortune to work with Woody in two different periods—1973 and 1975. It was such a great feeling playing with him. I could just be myself and play and it was so compatible. I loved his melodic and harmonic approach. His playing very much reminded me of John Coltrane's, but with his own uniqueness, and his rhythm concept was great—he played drums, you know, and sounded great. When we played together, he played in such a way that he made everything I played sound good. We all miss Woody Shaw very much!!

AAJ: In early 1979 you went on the road for nine months with Earl "Fatha" Hines, touring the US, Canada and parts of Europe. Did you learn from him?

CB: Absolutely! I learned so much working with Earl, and we had very good work, playing a lot of festivals, and sometimes hotel lounges for three or four weeks at a time. Musically—for me it was a new kind of experience because he comes from all the way back into the ragtime era, and swing era, and I came into music in the bebop era, and then the music beyond bebop. At the time I joined Earl's band I was busy with juggling rhythms, doing polyrhythmic stuff. On the tour, a lesson I learned in my Munich days on a concert tour in Italy with the great clarinetist, Albert Nicholas, was re-learned and reinforced. I learned that "modern swing" that's played from the heart is compatible with "old style swing" that's played from the heart. Having said that, I have to acknowledge some musical vocabulary adjustments that were made sometimes. For example, Earl leaned more towards syncopation, which felt good, and I leaned more towards polyrhythms, which Earl would embrace when he was rested, but was not comfortable for him when he was experiencing some road fatigue, so I would give him some of the old style swing feeling and syncopation, and when I would get into that, I began to imagine and visualize his life back in New Orleans in the Twenties and Thirties and the communities and neighborhoods, and I could feel that in what he played. And I guess, in my playing he felt something of my background and experiences when he got into the polyrhythmic thing with me and explored that. When he played his solo piano numbers I would always be right down by the stage, listening to everything he played—and I often heard him play some fantastic things, and he definitely did move into some modern concepts. Sometimes during his solo set Earl would venture into a kind of oriental sound, which was exotic, and beautiful. I also sometimes heard him playing three independent lines at one time, three stories.

AAJ: Living as a working musician for almost thirty five years here in Europe, in Amsterdam— what is your impression of the current development in US-American jazz music?

CB: Well, I hear some things from time to time, you know, some bands that come over from New York, plus things I hear on the radio give me some idea of what's going on over there. What I have heard is that they seem to be playing more odd time signatures, and more complex harmonic structures and song forms. In some cases, some other elements, feeling-wise, that I would like to have heard, were not so present.

AAJ: How would you describe your own musical approach or style?

CB: First of all, I have my own personal musical vision, which comes from, and draws upon something deep inside myself instead of external concepts such as bebop on one side, and avant-garde / free music on the other side. My idea of playing free is to have the freedom to utilize devices from either, or both sides, or neither side, at any time that I choose, to express that personal musical vision. Of course I sometimes play bebop based music, but in order to express my musical vision in that context I need it to have a certain amount of space, so I can paint and color. And in avant-garde based music, I need the space to utilize repetition. In my playing I don't get to utilize the hypnotic thing so very often, but I need to have the possibility and the right musical context in which to do so. It just turned out that it was mostly straight ahead players that called me to play. However, I did do some playing in the avant-garde scene, in the Bimhuis [Amsterdam] with Prince Lasha. He played really free form, had a beautiful sound on the alto, and he improvised some really beautiful melodies. And for some years I played with Burton Greene's quartets. We played mostly his compositions, with structures and forms on which we would start out, then go out and play free, then come back to the starting point. On a few of the tunes we played free all the way through.

Selected Discography

Mal Waldron, Free At Last (ECM, 1969)
Dusko Goykovich, As Simple As It Is—Live at the Domicile Munich (MPS 1970)
Hadley Caliman, Hadley Caliman (Ace Records, 1971)
Michael White, Father Music, Mother Dance (Impulse! 1974)
Joe Malinga & Southern African Force, Vuka (Planisphere, 1989)
Benny Bailey, I Thought About You (Laika 1996)

Photo Credit: Bas Uterwijk


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