Sonny Clark - Biography
In a 1987 piece in the New York Times, the late critic Robert Palmer noted that pianist Sonny Clark was routinely, and somewhat unfairly, characterized as a member of the so-called “Bud Powell school.” While Clark, like many of the other keyboardists of his generation, was undoubtedly influenced by the work of his inimitable Blue Note Records label mate, who virtually defined bebop’s virtuosic approach to the instrument, he brought his own style to the table, as saxophonist Johnny Griffin noted in the same story.
“Sonny was a little different,” Griffin noted. “He used Bud's basis for power and attack on the piano, but he had another finesse and an exceptional technique, too. He was quite himself.”
Clark contributed a good deal of himself in the studio, in his ongoing role as Blue Note’s house pianist during the heady hard bop days of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His formidable chops and his impressive composing skills were also on display in seven solo albums he made for the company. Sadly, like many other players of the bop era, his career was derailed and his life was ended prematurely by a deep dependence on drugs and alcohol.
He was born Conrad Yeatis Clark in the small coal-mining community of Herminie, Pennsylvania, on July 21, 1931. He began playing the piano as a child, and, after his family moved to Pittsburgh, he started playing professionally while still in high school. At 19, he took a trip to the West Coast with an older brother; both the climate and the music agreed with him, and he was situated in California for much of the ‘50s.
Considering his eventual identification with aggressive New York hard bop, it’s somewhat ironic that Clark earned his stripes on the comparatively languid West Coast scene. First based in San Francisco, he played in the bands of tenor saxophonists Wardell Gray and Vido Musso and bassist Oscar Pettiford before settling in for a 1953-56 run with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco; he appeared on several DeFranco sessions for producer Norman Granz (later collected by Mosaic Records, ardent keepers of the pianist’s reputation, as The Complete Verve Recordings of the BuddyDeFranco Quartet/Quintet With Sonny Clark). After relocating to Los Angeles in 1956, he played with trombonist Frank Rosolino and saxophonists Serge Chaloff (on the baritonist’s great “Blue Serge”) and Sonny Criss, and worked with several studio units organized by bassist Howard Rumsey, who made his musical home at the Lighthouse club in Hermosa Beach.
However, in 1957, Clark wearied of the more laid-back style – the so-called “California cool” -- of the West Coast jazzmen and headed for New York. As he explained to journalist Leonard Feather, “The climate [in California] is crazy. I’m going to be truthful, though: I did have sort of a hard time trying to be comfortable in my playing. The fellows out on the west coast have a different sort of feeling, a different approach to jazz…the eastern musicians play with so much fire and passion.”
After playing his way across the country as a member of singer Dinah Washington’s band, Clark swiftly found work with the top talents in New York: His first sessions in the Apple were with Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Hank Mobley. The latter was a key member of the quintet led by Clark in his first toplining date with Blue Note, a July 1957 session that was issued as Dial “S” For Sonny (1957). Two more sessions fronted by Clark, in September and October of that year (the former featuring John Coltrane on tenor), were issued as Sonny’s Crib (1957) and Sonny Clark Trio (both 1957) respectively.
Clark began working with hard bop’s top guns: Curtis Fuller, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson. (One of his best sessions, with the little-known but gifted tenor player Tina Brooks, went unreleased for decades.) The album that came to be known as his best work was recorded on Jan. 5, 1958, with an all-star quintet that included trumpeter Art Farmer, altoist Jackie McLean, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. From its classic Reid Miles-designed cover to its program of tautly swinging tracks, Clark’s Cool Struttin’ (1958) is considered a defining hard bop recording.
Nat Hentoff outlined the diverse sources of Clark’s sound in the liner notes for that album: “Sonny’s earliest influences on his instrument, starting when he was 11 or 12, were Pete Johnson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. There followed Erroll Garner and then Bud Powell. He also admires Lennie Tristano (‘his technical ability and conception’), George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk…Young pianists who impress Sonny include Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Ray Bryant, and Red Garland.”
Clark’s spirited yet seemingly effortless pianistic attack and great writing skills portended much, but his discography indicates that his substance abuse problems were already beginning to affect his career: He made only four studio appearances in 1959, and three in 1960. (His 1960 trio date for the Bainbridge Time label with George Duvivier and Max Roach was, in the words of historian David H. Rosenthal, “of such concentrated inventive fire that it could stand comparison with even the quickest-burning bebop torches.”
His last session as a leader, with trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and tenorist Charlie Rouse, was issued as Leapin’ and Lopin’ (1962); some critics identify this album as the work where all of Clark’s abilities can be heard at their apex. He returned to the studio frequently in the last year of his life as a sideman. Several stints with Blue Note’s funkified house guitarist Grant Green went largely unreleased, but were posthumously collected in boxed set form by Mosaic as The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Grant Green With Sonny Clark. He also appeared on two hard-hitting August 1962 dates with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon that became the greatly prized hard bop classics Go! and A Swinging Affair.
In late 1962, Clark was hospitalized after he suffered a heart attack. In the early morning hours of Jan. 30, 1963, he died of a drug overdose at the age of 31 in a New York club called Junior’s; according to writer Rosenthal, the venue’s owners dumped Clark’s body in an apartment to avoid bad publicity and keep their liquor license.
His passing was little noted outside the jazz community; pianist Bill Evans, an admirer of Clark (and a fellow heroin addict) paid tribute to his colleague by composing a number that used an anagram of his name for its title: “NYC’s No Lark.” In the 1980s, The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet was founded by pianist Wayne Horvitz to perform the late keyboardist’s repertoire.