Sonny Clark: An Appreciation

by Paul Hofmann

Of the many jazz pianists on the scene in the 1950s and 60s, there were a surprising number of gifted musicians who remained relatively unknown even to jazz aficionados. One of the prime examples of this unfortunate phenomenon was the Herminie, PA native Sonny Clark. And oh, what a talent...

Certain sections of the country are associated with jazz; one tends to think of New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Detroit and Philadelphia. The Pittsburgh area has also produced more than its share of fantastic jazz performers: drummer Art Blakey and pianists Earl Hines, Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal among them. Steeped in this rich local tradition, Sonny Clark’s playing featured elements of these musical giants even while highlighting his own unique expression.

Art Tatum’s sophisticated harmonic sensibilities and Teddy Wilson’s light-as-a-feather touch were both clearly evident in Clark’s approach, but the most recognizable influence, as for so many other pianists of Clark’s generation, was the bebop vocabulary developed by Bud Powell (and to a lesser degree Thelonious Monk). Clark’s stylistic debt to Powell remained constant throughout his career.

Sonny gained valuable touring and recording experience while still in his early twenties, first by accompanying clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and then by backing up the great singer Dinah Washington. Upon his arrival in New York at age twenty-five, and until his tragic early death in January 1963 (at age thirty-one), Clark was one of the most recorded jazz pianists. During his brief moment in the limelight, he was perhaps the pianist most in demand at Alfred Lion’s Blue Note label. In this capacity, Sonny consistently appeared with a ‘who’s who’ of jazz greats on dozens of small group recordings, both as sideman and leader.

The uniformly excellent quality of the sessions he led, like most other Blue Note dates of the time, is a brilliant accomplishment. Many listeners point to Clark’s 1958 quintet date “Cool Struttin’” as his masterpiece, and rightly so. But everything from his first date as leader (“Dial ‘S’ for Sonny,” 1957) to his last (1961’s “Leapin’ and Lopin’”) features Clark’s consummate taste, elegance and swinging solos – along with his wonderful compositions. Sonny also recorded a fabulous trio record for Time Records: 1960’s “Sonny Clark Trio,” featuring his timeless ballad My Conception.

Many jazz buffs who may not own a Sonny Clark album have heard him on other projects often without realizing it. Clark appears with tenor titan Sonny Rollins on 1957’s Riverside record, “The Sound of Sonny.” Clark was also featured on terrific Blue Note dates led by trombonist Curtis Fuller (on at least three sessions), trumpeter Lee Morgan (“Candy”), guitarist Grant Green (“Born To Be Blue”), and saxophonists Johnny Griffin (“The Congregation”), Jackie McLean (“Tippin’ the Scales”) and Ike Quebec (“Easy Living”). Sonny is also the pianist on the classic sessions that produced Dexter Gordon’s LPs “Go!” and “A Swingin’ Affair,” both recorded in August 1962. Tragically, Clark would be dead within five months.

Most jazz musicians, then, were surely aware of Clark’s great talent, especially given the great demand for his services. Why not the general jazz audience? One reason may be the fact that unlike his fellow pianists Red Garland and Wynton Kelly (both equally marvelous; both alumni of trumpeter Miles Davis’s ensembles), Clark was heard exclusively on independent labels. Columbia, the most widely distributed record company in the world, had Davis under contract during these years (as well as a few celebrated pianists like Garner, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck – and later, Monk), so players like Sonny, no matter how accomplished, tended to be overlooked. And underappreciated.

What’s more, great winds of change were swirling around the jazz world. By the late fifties, Ellington himself had recorded some of the most unorthodox jazz music imaginable, and yet this side of his musical personality had been (and still is) far less acknowledged than his many other talents. It was his great gift for composing standard tunes that most listeners, musicians included, more fully appreciated.

By 1960 however, younger avant-garde musicians like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra were beginning to exert a measurable impact on the future direction of jazz – a direction decidedly away from bebop’s baroque sensibilities. For both better and worse, Davis, John Coltrane and Jackie McLean were all soon to follow this trend (while Miles and Trane continued to set new ones).

True to his musical calling, Sonny continued to play within the relatively restricted style known today as hard bop. At the time, even this approach was saturated by other great pianists; those who, like Sonny, were featured on smaller labels: Kenny Drew (Sonny’s predecessor with Buddy DeFranco and another early influence on Clark); Horace Silver; Ray Bryant; Tommy Flanagan; et al. Perhaps there were too many great players chasing what few good gigs existed. And Sonny’s refined musical approach, particularly his phrasing, was perhaps more subtle than any other pianist’s. Inspiration and inventiveness don’t always translate into general popularity; they surely didn’t for Clark.

These factors combined to produce a situation decidedly not conducive for wide commercial acceptance. Of course, we sadly see the tragic circle completed when Sonny’s dreadful drug habit (the direct cause of his early passing) is taken into account. Given all this, there are unmistakable parallels with the legacies of saxophonists Hank Mobley and Tina Brooks – two other highly sophisticated players who, in spite of personal and professional difficulties, are now more recognized in death than they ever were in life.

In retrospect, it was certainly fortunate that Alfred Lion produced as many Clark-led sessions as he did. And what a group of sidemen! Indeed, the renowned musicians that were Clark’s sectionmates (bassists Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware; drummers Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor) and horn players (Coltrane; McLean; Fuller; Mobley; Art Farmer) speak volumes about Sonny’s art. All evidence suggests that Clark had a way of bringing out the very best in the other musicians he performed with.

The upshot? Clark’s smooth and relaxed, wonderfully logical and inventive playing remains an aural textbook on how to swing. In this, he learned from Bud and from Erroll well! Although his Blue Note sessions continue to go in and out of print (several are still only obtainable as Japanese imports), a few like “Cool Struttin’” remain widely available.

And because Sonny was such a tremendous musician, it’s encouraging to know that an increasing number of modern listeners have discovered him. Drummer Michael Melito and I have released two of Clark’s compositions on MHR Records (My Conception appears on Mike’s debut album of the same name, whereas Nicely appears on my own “Topsy Turvy”); I was also honored to contribute an original tune to Mike’s project entitled Like Sonny C. – my musical tribute to Clark.

But again, many musicians from his era were ‘in the know;’ even those who played in different styles appreciated him. Following Clark’s death, jazz pianist Bill Evans wrote a wonderful melody (recorded on his “Conversations With Myself”) that sums things up quite nicely: N. Y. C.’s No Lark. The title is an anagram of Sonny Clark.