Mike Clark, the Oakland Groove behind Herbie, Chet and Charlie Brown /1

Drummer Mike Clark is best known for four albums with Herbie Hancock, one including a celebrated solo on Actual Proof, but he also provided the pulse for Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi and more

For those hip to post-bop, fusion or 70s jazz-funk, drummer Mike Clark needs no introduction. His grooves can be heard on some of the most important records of the modern jazz era. He’s worked over the last 60-plus years with artists such as Chet Baker, John Scofield, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett, Woody Shaw, Stanley Clarke, Brand X, Bobby Hutcherson, Wallace Roney, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Gil Evans, Chris Potter and Tony Bennett to name but a few.

Clark really came to prominence in 1974, taking over the drum chair from Harvey Mason in Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters band. It was a position he held long enough to tour with the group worldwide and also record with Hancock the albums  Flood, Manchild, Deathwish and Thrust. Hancock himself still considers Clark’s solo on the track Actual Proof from the latter as one of the best on any of his albums, hailing him “a great jazz drummer that hasn’t lost any of that stuff he brought from Oakland”.

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Clark was born in Sacramento, California in 1946 and gravitated to the drum set at an early age, becoming a kind of novelty child drummer not unlike Buddy Rich was. With an old drum set of his dad’s permanently set up in the family home and a stack of jazz and jump-blues discs on constant rotation, it wasn’t long before he was tapping out rhythms with his dad’s sticks and soon entertaining regulars in local bars.

“I think my dad and mom played jazz records in the house almost everyday”, Clark remembers from his current Manhattan base. “I couldn’t walk or talk, but I think my brain was putting all this together or internalising it. When I went to the drums it just seemed to be there. I played this Gene Krupa kind of tom-tom thing and it all made sense, so my dad took me to a club one night and I played Sweet Georgia Brown with a band of his friends that had a gig there.”

Through grade school Clark’s interest in and ability on the drums grew. He played in school bands, dance bands and society gigs, but it would be his first real exposure to live shows travelling around different parts of the country with his railroad-working father that first truly awakened him musically. Taking in clubs, concerts and as many styles of music as the pair did towns and cities, it was a time he remembers fondly:  “Man, we would go out three or four nights a week. As a union man, my dad travelled a lot in the South so we would go to hear bands everywhere and he would ask the leaders if I could sit in and they always said yes. I got to know some of the players too and I played with organ trios, strip-club bands, quintets, quartets, piano trios and a few big bands.”

Clark was refining his skills on the drum set, both from talking to older musicians and sitting in with them. By the age of 12 he was already personally acquainted with revered drummers (such as Bobby Morris and Paul Ferrara) and playing with the likes of Frogman Henry, Murphy Campo, Tex Beneke, Vido Musso and the future Dr John – Mac Rebennack.

My love for what Vince [Guaraldi] did was based on him swinging kind of like Wynton Kelly, and, musically, that’s mostly what we did together … It’s fun to say I was on some of the Charlie Brown stuff but when he played that style it never knocked me out

Stylistically, Clark insists another real game-changing moment in his musical development was hearing bebop for the first time thanks to an Art Blakey album his father brought home one day. It was a record that not only awakened him to that music and artists like Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Mingus, Monk and Bird, but also to a new approach to playing the drum set. Surely, for any young player unseasoned in that style, it was some challenge.

“To be honest, it seemed to be no problem for me to not play all four beats on the bass drum and instead drop ‘bombs’ as they were called. It was fun and I seemed to get it right away. I did, however, have problems soloing in that style at first as I didn’t know you had to play the form of the tunes. I had good hands that were fairly formed at a young age, but it was out of the Krupa, Singleton, Bellson and Buddy Rich mode, so addressing a different language with different dialect, the hand movements were not easy. I had to practise playing in this style so as not to sound contrived or tongue in cheek. Making that change took me a minute for sure.”

Clark’s attempts to dissect the dialect of bop coincided with eighth grade and him seeking similarly minded musicians playing in that vein. There was plenty of work for jazz musicians at that time, but he was also now playing with rhythm and blues groups to bring in more money, outfits that would become road bands he would later tour the East Coast with. He was booked for engagements in Lake Tahoe, Reno and Vegas where he witnessed classy lounge bands and big, bright-lit showcases from legends like Sonny Payne, Buddy Rich and Harry James. During this time his early connection with the East Coast jazz scene also brought his playing to the attention of more great musicians, most notably the pianist and famed composer for Peanuts, Vince Guaraldi, with whom he would collaborate on and off through to the mid-1970s.

“I recorded a lot of stuff with Vince that he would later chop it up and use”, Clark recalls. “I’m not sure how many Charlie Brown shows I am on but I did at least one, maybe two Christmas specials and recorded the tune Little Birdie with him. My love for what Vince did though was based on him  swinging kind of like Wynton Kelly, and, musically, that’s mostly what we did together. We played ski resorts, concerts and jazz clubs. It’s fun to say I was on some of the Charlie Brown stuff but when he played that style it never knocked me out. Man, I really loved Vince though…”

The Post-Bop Drum Book by Mike Clark is now available to order here:

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