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Mike Clark: East Bay Funk

George Colligan By

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[ 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 album Thrust (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 sensibilities—and 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.

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