[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan
's blog, Jazztruth
I remember the first time I heard the classic Herbie Hancock
(Columbia, 1974). It was on the radio, if you can believe it. The song "Actual Proof" burned into my brain: I had been a fan of Herbie's, especially of the Headhunters, of songs like "Chameleon" and "Watermelon Man," but this was different. It was so electrifying, so ultra-sophisticated, so mesmerizing. It was a musical magic trick: I was hearing it, but I didn't believe it. And then for years I wondered, "Who is Mike Clark? This is some ridiculous drumming." And I've been fortunate to get to meet Mr. Clark, and also get to play with him, and witness up close the unique new language he has bequeathed to the modern drum set. Clark is restless as a human being as he is a drummer. He has many ideas and I was lucky to get him to submit to an interview.George Colligan:
How would you describe the Oakland Funk style to an alien who just landed on earth? Or maybe just a regular human being who didn't know about the Oakland Funk? How did it develop? How did you get into it? Do you think there are drummers today who are influenced by that and/or your playing more specifically? Do you see yourself as an innovator?Mike Clark:
I would say that the Oakland style of funk playing was like a dot-and-dash type of 16th note bass and drum grooves. The guitar playing was sort of like what Catfish Collins and those cats did with James Brown
, some slightly busy chicken scratchin,' as we used to call it. The rest of the band played jazz derived solos over the top. As far as the drumming is concerned, I would say it was the next logical place for forward thinking drummers of that time to go. For me I listened to Clyde Stubblefield, Jabbo Stark, Bernard Purdie
and found my own way of kind of negotiating what I thought they were doing, added bits of that to my own sensibilitiesand that become my signature grooves. As far as the blowing, improv, or even fills, I used be-bop or post-bop language instead of the type of stuff you would hear most funk drummers playing. I didn't have that type of thing in my vocabulary. I was a be-bopper, so my career is sort of like Spock's on Star Trek. If you see Leonard Nimoy doing a romantic lead in a Broadway show, people are like, "Yo Man, that's Spock." When people hear me playing jazz they think "Hey man! Isn't he that funk drummer from Herbie Hancock?!" HA! Gotta love marketing!
As far as the development of this style I would say myself, David Garibaldi
(Tower of Power), and Gaylord Birch were the main pioneers of this style. At one point there were many working clubs in Oakland, you could hear this type of funk being played in the parking lot before you went in. While on break from my gig I could hear a band blasting it out of the club next door or down the street sort of like [how] New Orleans is. It was a big deal at the time and big fun for us. People all identified with it as the "Oakland Thing" and we all felt united in this understanding. Musicians and non-musicians alike talked about it all the time, like we all shared this thing and the whole town got it. This was really exciting! When you went to hear music everyone was trying to push the envelope and taking chances, there was no playing safe, it was all exploratory. We were having so much fun we weren't even bugged that we weren't playing jazz. Most of the musicians in Oakland at the time were in fact jazz musicians who were forced to play funky music to make a living. They could play at a much higher level than most regular funk band type cats, and so the so-called Oakland Funk was sort of a natural progression. Also, Lenny White
was coming out from New York all the time, and became one of us. He taught us about what was going on in the Big Apple, so we tried to understand and add that to the mix. He also added some of our stuff to his bag.
I hear the Oakland style somewhere in almost everybody that came after 1975. Even some guys that were before me went back and added bits of it to their own playing. It seemed to have cut across the lines of jazz, blues, funk, and even rock and Latin. With the fame of the HeadHunters and the Tower of Power, this style became popular world wide and I could hear its influence in music everywhere for the next ten years or so, even still today.
Like anything, when enough becomes enough, new ideas and concepts surface and move to the front. I can hear my influence especially in the jazz drummers that came up after the Headhunters did their thing. It became part of the history and language like the stuff that went before the '60s. It gets woven into the vocabulary and pieces of it show up here and there according to what's being played. In answer to your question if this kind of playing influenced me. [laughs] I would have to say in this case, I did the influencing since I was one of the guys that came up with it!
As far as if I consider myself an innovator, I think in my case I took what went before me in jazz, funk, and blues, and put my own spin on it. I listened to everyone and everything I could. I tried to meet all the players in each camp so I could understand what was being played by who and why. Having played jazz gigs most of my life before I met Herbie is what made my thing sound different when he added me to the funk. Usually young people take what happened ten years before and sort of update it if you will to fit their own needs and what they are going through in their lives. I came up as a be-bop drummer and was trying to play like Max Roach, and Philly Joe since sixth grade. I never thought of playing any funk. People didn't even call it funk at that time. Then came Elvin Jones
, Tony Williams
, and Lenny White
. When these guys hit things began to change as far as straight ahead jazz playing was concerned. I became seriously involved in this new change. At that time there were enough jazz gigs happening to work things out on the gig, which was great for me. Everything was in a very creative and experimental place at this time.
In an attempt to make a living I have played with Albert King
, Albert Collins
, Sam and Dave, Joe Tex
, and Jimmy Reed
to name a few. I even did a few hits with Sly Stone before he put the Family Stone together. I also played with Woody Shaw
, Bobby Hutcherson
, Chet Baker
, Vince Guaraldi
, Jon Hendricks
, Oscar Brown Jr.
, and Eddie Henderson
also to name a few. So now I had this blues-funk experience as well as playing jazz. Paul Jackson
who was my best friend played acoustic bass at that time. We had working jazz trios and quartets and played every night for years. One day, he brought an electric bass to the gig having only played one a few times, he took it out of the case, counted off a blues and we both played the type of thing you heard on Actual Proof immediately without ever talking about it or working on it. I think it came from our friendship, we hung and played together for many years and had some kind of natural musical telepathy and chemistry. It just happened and the rest is history.GC:
What did you learn from playing with Herbie Hancock? What did he learn from you?MC:
What I got from Herbie Hancock was to find my own voice and not to copy others. I was young when I was on his band and the music was brand new. We were doing things that hadn't been done before, so there was no real road map. Whenever I was playing and trying to sound like some of my favorite drummersmost of whom he had played withhe would say, "Hey Mike, if I wanted to play with so-and-so, I would have hired
him! Let me hear what you
have to say." I started developing my own style based on the roots of the music I dug. This has lasted me a lifetime. I'm still in this mode and although there have been periods since the Headhunters where it has been popular to copy people damn near to the T, I kept playing my own stuff. Now it's second nature. He also taught me to be a conversational musician, to have a dialog with the people I'm playing with based on what they were playing. He listened deeply and expected us to do the same. He wanted total interaction- not to hear a one armed drummer playing straight time.
One time, we played poorly at a big show. The critic went to dinner with us after the show and was telling Hancock that he didn't think the band sounded very good that night. Herbie knew we were sounding pretty sadbut said to the critic, "You mean you didn't hear
it?" The guy had a strange look on his face, and Herbie went on to tell him how we had worked very hard to get it to sound that way and it was a brand new way of looking at things musically. The next day we got a great review saying how we had found some new stuff. I learned a great lesson from that!
As far as what Hancock learned from me I'm not sure, but Paul and I were the only cats in that band that had any experience playing funky music, so we would suggest things to him to make the music lay better. He would ask us things like if what he was doing was funky or too weird and we would give him our opinions. We used to challenge each other by playing way over the bar, or by playing poly-rhythms during the blowing, and you had to be on your toes; it was fun. I learned to stay totally focused while playing. I have heard some of his latest CDs and we have all changed so much since then... so unfortunately, I have no idea what he is feeling about music today.GC:
Talk about your recent projects: You have The Headhunters, an organ trio, a straight ahead jazz group. Plus you are doing a lot of clinics. And I recently saw you with a big band! What are you enjoying the most, and is there anything else you have eyes for?MC:
I have a new CD out called Carnival of Soul
(Owl Studios, 2010). I played organ gigs for years and even had my own organ trio in a club five nights a week in California for four years. So I thought I'd make an organ record. I used Jerry Z, Jeff Pittson
, and Delbert Bump
on organ. I have history with each of these cats so it was easy for all of us to get to our personal stuff right away. I used Rez Abbasi
and Steve Homan
on guitar, Rob Dixon
on tenor saxophone, and Tim Ouimette
on trumpet. Delbert McClinton
[appeared] on "Cry Me a River," which was a great thing for me since I played in Delbert's band when I was seventeen. Lenny White guested [sic
] on a track he and I wrote called "Catlett Outta The Bag," a tribute to Big Big Sid Catlett
, a great drummer and a hero of ours. We played originals, standards, funk, swing, old school, and modern. We had a blast, and last week it was number 8 on the jazz charts for the third week. I did it for Owl Studios-a new record company. Last year I made a CD called Blueprints of Jazz
(Fontana, 2009) with Christian McBride
, Patrice Rushen
, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
, Donald Harrison
, and Jed Levy
. This one was picked one of the best of the decade by Downbeat magazine. I loved that.
Trumpeter Tim Ouimette and I co-lead a big band and we are going to put a CD out next year. Tim writes brilliant arrangements and we play everything from Basie to Actual Proof. I am also going to Italy quite a bit to play with Antonio Farao
the great pianist and in fact I'm taking a band into the Iridium in New York October 27th through the 31st featuring Donald Harrison, Antonio Farao, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton
, and Rob Dixon
. I am also touring Russia for one month with my organ trio featuring Jerry Z and Rob Dixon, so I have been pretty busy for quite a while. I am going to Indianapolis next week to mix the new Headhunters CD. The cast for this Headhunters date is Donald Harrison, Derrick Gardner
, Patrice Rushen, Rob Dixon, Bill Summers and myself. Snoop Dogg is even on a track and I just heard today that Ice Cube [might] appear on it. This is heavy funky and I like it a lot. This is the first Headhunters CD I have really dug in a long time.
Other than that I have been traveling some with the Michael Wolff
Trio and doing tons of clinics from one coast to the other, and also in Europe and Australia. I do colleges, drum shops, music stores, schools, and drum festivals and jazz camps. I really dig doing clinics and many times take a trio so it's not all about drumming. I played with Nat Adderley
and he taught us never to leave the stage without paying our respects to the blues, which is the springboard for all of the music I play. I bring all of the things I've learned from all these guys to the students so my clinics are not all about chops or a single stroke roll which I find totally boringand they really appreciate it so I have been getting a great reaction.
Lastly I would like to become a bandleader in the tradition of Art Blakey
and travel the world playing to all the crowds at festivals and clubs and to continue to make records that reflect how I feel mirror my daily life.GC:
How do you view the music industry today and how do you think the political climate affects it?MC:
I think the political climate of our country is in very sad shape and the effects of greed are making things extremely difficult for the American people and in fact people the world over. It is way out of control. For musicians, this makes it hard for small clubs to stay open so musicians don't have as many places to hone their skills and work on things in a band context in front of an audience. This also cuts the ability to make money down considerably. The larger clubs usually want an all-star band, and these groups never really play together, so the music is unable to grow. Hotels gas and air travel are all up in price as well. Having a steady group of people in one band is damn near impossible, so once again the music suffers. However, whenever times are tough, it seems to push the artists to raise the level of their work very high, and this has a "rock in the pond" effect. Most of the greatest jazz ever played in my opinion was a reflection of seemingly impossible situations and oppression. I have noticed that since the money has dried up, the bands that I do hear are playing their butts off, and New York is starting to sound like New York again. This is a welcome relief from some of the stiff contrived groups that are trying to imitate records done in the fifties, without having ever heard theses people live. I played with Sonny Stitt
and some of those guys and the copy bands don't have the fire, blues, guts and don't swing as hard because they got it from the records, which is a controlled sound. I was there and live...it was alive!
Back to politics. I hate any from of bullying or manipulation which is what we have going on now as the corporations are in control and the well being of the people is the last thing on their minds. At any rate what is empowering is it leaves whatever value we create up to us!GC:
Do you see a relationship between comedy and music? Who are your favorite comedians? MC:
I think the similarities between the music that I play and comedy are first off, the timing. Timing is of the utmost importance for a good musician and a comedian. Also, delivering a great punch line is important to both music and comedy. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum etc. The story telling has to be interesting, and the sound of ones voice or instrument reflects our inner world, so one's life experience and feelings are right out there for all to hear. Vulnerability is important, to be strong enough to let people feel and hear your voice as they are going to judge you and criticize. In order to learn and grow, you have to keep showing up and putting it out there. Also, in order to make a living at either of these artistic endeavors you have to shed and do your homework, constantly learning, re-inventing yourself and changing in order to make a living. It's a life long challenge, which is one reason we love it.
Some of my favorite comedians? Paul Mooney, Richard Prior, George Carlin, Chris Rock,Steve Harvey, Dave Chappelle, and George Lopez. I might also add George that I dug your
stand-up show that night at Caroline's. I always wished you would write some more stuff and hit it again. You were funny. You know how some musicians are technically really good, did the right homework, and seem to be very up on things, but somehow they don't make you feel anything. Some comedians can stand up there and talk, are bold, but aren't funny, Man, you cracked us up!
Thanks a lot, George- I enjoyed the interview, great questions.GC:
Thank You, Mike.