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Clarence Becton: Straight Ahead Into Freedom

Barbara Ina Frenz By

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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, Oliver Lake, Prince Lasha, Thelonious Monk, Mark Murphy, Albert Nicholas, Pony Poindexter, Julian Priester, 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!
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