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.

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 drummers—most of whom he had played with—he 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 sad—but 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?
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