Mike Clark smiles when quizzed about his drumming on the Headhunters’ 1974 classics “Palm Grease,” “Actual Proof,” “Butterfly,” and “Spank-a-Lee,” some of the most influential jazz-funk tracks of all time. When Clark made his name as an innovator of the Oakland-based linear-funk style popularized by the Headhunters, he flipped the groove his way, making it slide with the graceful cogitations of jazz and the deep soul of the blues. Clark’s tenure with Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking Headhunters was brief, prefaced and followed by ceaseless work playing his true love: straight-ahead jazz. Hip-hop also embraced Clark, with many producers including Grandmaster Flash sampling his groove to “God Make Me Funky.”
Yes, Clark has heard it all before—the questions, the praise—and though he’s anxious to talk about his new projects, he’s happy to explain how he invented the slippery, agitated, nerve-juggling grooves of his famous jazz-funk juggernauts. But there’s so much more to Mike Clark’s story. Take, for instance, his origins as a child drumming star in Texas. Or his Chitlin’ Circuit work with blues greats. Or, more to the point, his current schedule as one of the busiest jazz drummers anywhere.
Many of Clark’s current projects are on the adventurous Ropeadope label: Venture’s LifeCycle, the organ trio blowouts of Clark and Delbert Bumps’ RetroReport, and the avant garde of Middle Blue’s LoveChords. There’s also Eddie Henderson’s BeCool, Mike LeDonne’s From the Heart, the Rob Dixon Trio’s Coast to Crossroads, and ongoing work with Peter Bernstein, Eric Alexander, Jack Wilkins, and Dave Stryker, to name a few.
Clark’s earlier oeuvre includes the Headhunters’ records Thrust, Flood, Survival of the Fittest, Straight from the Gate, Evolution Revolution, and Platinum. “One of my records that I really like is Summertime  with Chris Potter and Billy Childs,” he adds. “And there’s Carnival of Soul  and Give the Drummer Some .Blueprints of Jazz  is good. And Wolff & Clark Expedition’s Expedition 2 .”
We spoke to Clark soon after he’d returned from a short tour with the group venture, featuring bassist Felix Pastorius and vibraphonist/pianist Mark Sherman. “That band’s kickin’ butt,” says Clark. “I’m very excited about our album hitting the jazz charts.” And while this issue was in production, the drummer did a hit with George Cables and Ed Howard, a festival with Eddie Henderson and Donald Harrison, a record date with Greg Skaff and Leon Dorsey, a Blue Note show with Sonny Fortune, Dave Kikoski, and Ed Howard, and his own European tour with Rick Margitza and Reggie Washington. “I’m also doing a John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute recording with Kevin Harris, Donald Harrison, Tony Garnier, and Patience Higgins—and Wolff & Clark Expedition are starting their next album!” For Mike Clark, it seems, the hits just keep coming.
MD: This is a Renaissance time for you. What accounts for the resurgence of your popularity?
Mike: I’ve been rolling for a while at this level, but with social media everyone sees I’m very busy. I’ve been making jazz records as a leader and a sideman since the ’80s. I’m not making any more records now than I was then. Label owners and editors see you’re busy on social media, and pretty soon your phone starts ringing. I’m not getting any more work, but I’m getting more attention.
MD: I’ve been listening to your album, Blueprints of Jazz. That’s what I love to hear you play, even though you’re better known for linear funk.
Mike: Post-bop and bebop—that’s been my passion since I was eight years old. But Herbie’s records sell a million and mine sell in the thousands, so that’s the answer to that. I was on some very high-profile records, so naturally people who don’t buy jazz records know me from Thrust, Death Wish, and the other Headhunters albums.
MD: You’re a straight-ahead jazz drummer who was detoured by Herbie Hancock’s bigger paychecks.
Mike: He didn’t [tell me I’d make] a lot more money, because I was making money playing jazz at that point. We all know Herbie from Miles Davis and his records. But he wanted to play funk, and I had some reservations because I thought it might throw a wrench into my jazz career, which it did. I’m not begrudging the gig; it made me a well-known musician. What Herbie said was, “You could stay here and probably play jazz until you die. No one will know you.” I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
MD: What was the essence of the linear style that you originated along with David Garibaldi and Greg Errico?
Mike: I took Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette and put bits of their phrasing on different parts of the instrument instead of playing it just like they did. I’d put maybe one note on the cymbal, one on the snare, one on the bass drum, one on the hi-hat, one on the floor tom, etc. That’s how I came up with those things. I saw Lenny White play at the Both/And Club with Freddie Hubbard; he was addressing something like that also. Lenny and I became friends and we talked about it a little bit. I’d get some ideas of what he was doing and then do it my own way. A lot of us were experimenting with that, and of course Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, and Bernard Purdie, anybody who played funk was also in my brain. And there were jazz radio stations for good music. That became part of what I did.
MD: In the ’70s you played on the Headhunters’ Thrust, Man-Child, and Flood. And Herbie’s soundtracks to Death Wish and The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Videos of the latter-period Headhunters show the band becoming more commercial. Is that why you left?
Mike: Yeah. I still wanted to play jazz, and I wasn’t getting off creatively. I was becoming unhappy, and I was vocal about it. When we’d record, Paul Jackson and I would lay down a minute and a half of a groove, then Herbie would take it to L.A. and turn it into a whole piece. Herbie hired a rhythm guitar player who couldn’t solo, and I’m thinking, “This is not what I want to do with my life.” It’s great to say I’m playing with Herbie Hancock, because he’s a genius, man. But still the music was becoming something I didn’t want to do.
MD: What did you do?
Mike: I went back to San Francisco and played one year at a club called Christo’s with a band that featured Eddie Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Henderson, and Julian Priester. I came off Hancock and rolled right into that gig.
MD: You’ve seen it all. How have drum and cymbal companies changed?
Mike: I play a DW Jazz kit now, and it sounds fantastic. I have my old Gretsch kit, too. And I have some old K Zildjian cymbals, but I prefer my Istanbul cymbals and my DW drumset to the old Gretsch kit and the old K cymbals.
Mike: When I play old Gretsch drums or old Ks, I start to play a little bit like the people I loved to listen to on records in those days, even though my personality is strong in what I do. With the DW set and Istanbul cymbals, it’s really me. It’s my sound. I’m not impersonating anybody.
MD: There’s an amazing YouTube video of you and Paul Jackson playing together. It looks like you’re in a restaurant. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of your funk playing.
Mike: That was recorded in a lighthouse in Japan around 1988. Paul and I are best friends; our relationship is completely natural. I was going to Japan to tour with him. Paul picks me up off the plane in Narita, and I say, “Get me to the hotel. I need to sleep.” Paul says, “No, man, we got to do a video. The bread is really good.” We get to the lighthouse. There’s a camera crew and everything. I’d been teaching at Drummers Collective, so I’d seen a lot of DCI videos. I asked Paul, “Where’s the script? What are we going to do?” He’s like, “Oh, man. Don’t worry about it. Go out there and sit down.” I have no idea what we’re going to play, and Paul says, “Remember that thing we used to do with Herbie?” I have no idea what he’s talking about. We did about a million things with Herbie. And Paul says, “Yeah, you know!” and he counts “3, 4,” and we just hit it. Paul and I have this telepathy. We could just play together, man. So the whole thing is ad lib. It represents our friendship and love for each other. We could hook up a groove up in a nanosecond. In Japan that video is called RhythmCombination. Then Paul and I did a record, TheFunkStopsHere.
MD: Whether playing jazz or funk, you keep your sticks close to the heads and cymbals. What does that give you?
Mike: It depends on the gig. With Grant Green Jr. recently, the sticks were way off the head. It depends on the emotions. In a jazz situation, if you’re not required to use a lot of power, there’s no reason to have the sticks way back. If you get heated up, then all bets are off on your grip and all the things you think are correct. You play whatever feels fantastic in the moment. After all this time playing, I have control so I can spit it out without making a bunch of arm movements. I play from the wrist. I can play everything at tremendous volume, and I can play the same stuff at a whisper, because I’ve worked on it.
MD: What did you work on specifically to enable those dynamic levels?
Mike: In the ’70s I played three years in a jazz trio where we couldn’t play very loud. But they wanted us to be creative. I learned to make it happen like that. Now I can do that at will. And I played with Vince Guaraldi [famous for the Charlie Brown theme and many jazz records] for ten years. There were times in the ’70s when Vince wanted us to be modern, really bashing, then he had this Wynton Kelly side to his playing. We just wanted to “tip,” but he’d give us solos, and it would be inappropriate to play the drum solos at three times the volume of the rest of the song. Most of the things I’ve learned to do came from the gig, not the practice room.
MD: What’s your focus when playing funk?
Mike: No matter what I’m playing, I focus on the whole picture—the dynamics, the feeling, and the interplay. I focus real heavy on what everybody else is doing. I’m listening to them and then adding what I think will enhance the situation. Herbie taught me to chant. That gives me a tight focus. I chant before I play, “nam-myoho-renge-kyo”; that gives me that tight focus that can last for hours.
Drums: DW Jazz set
A. 5.5×14 wood DW or 6×14 Craviotto snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 14×18 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Epoch series
1. 14″ hi-hats
2. 22″ ride
3. 20″ ride
4. 18″ crash
Heads: Evans Level 360 G1 Coated snare batter and Clear snare side, J1 tom and bass drum batters
Sticks and Brushes: Innovative Percussion
MD: How do you maintain your hands?
Mike: Joe Bonadio showed me a warm-up that Joe Morello showed him. You play two strokes on the right hand, two strokes on the left hand, and then repeat that all the way up to ten strokes. You do it at 8ths then 16th notes. That helps me when I go to the gig so I can swing right away. My hands aren’t tied. If I want to increase the speed of my hands, then I speed up the metronome marking, and I do three sets until I get to a place where I’m uncomfortable with the speed. Then I back it down a little bit. And I practice phrasing and swinging. I practice jazz language, Charley Wilcoxon’s ModernRudimentalSwingSolos, and Philly Joe Jones’ ideas.
MD: We live in an era of drummers with tremendous facility. Thoughts?
Mike: Well, if a guy has tremendous technique and he uses it musically, that’s fantastic. But if it’s all like “Look at me,” it’s boring and self-serving. One problem in jazz is when I see guys that have gospel-chops technique or incredible double pedal, but that language doesn’t fit in jazz music. I’m not saying to keep jazz language where it is; definitely move it forward, but take from where it left off and move forward. I’m a big fan of McClenty Hunter and Greg Hutchinson and EJ Strickland. As far as the lineage, I like Lenny White and Billy Hart. Both of those two guys are master improvisers.
MD: You came up playing in Texas and New Orleans?
Mike: I was born in Sacramento, and my dad was a drummer. He had a tremendous jazz record collection. I was a child drummer. I sat in with my dad’s bands. Then when he travelled later as a union rep with the railroad, we’d go to Philly, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, Virginia, and we moved to Texas. As a kid I could play an exciting drum solo like Gene Krupa. Eventually I’d get gigs as a solo drummer. I played from New Orleans to Hawaii until I was eleven, when I started my own bands.
MD: How did you begin playing jazz?
Mike: There were a lot of bebop bands in Texas, and I played in strip bars and nightclubs. I was into Art Blakey and others at an early age. I played jazz and blues, and I played every damn gig that they called me for. We played swing on blues gigs. It was the closest thing to jazz. I brought in some money as a kid.
MD: When did you go pro?
Mike: At twenty-one I had my own organ trio in Vallejo for three years, four nights a week. Then I met Paul Jackson and started getting seriously busy in Oakland. This was around 1967. And because I could play the James Brown grooves, I got those gigs.
MD: You played with Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw around Oakland and Berkeley then?
Mike: Yes, we played the Both/And Club, New Ruthie’s Red Duck, and Esther’s Orbit Room. Then, Mr. Majors, and the Black Knight, and Latitude 38. I played, of course, the Keystone Corner. And the Keystone Berkeley, Mandrake’s was another. And Gatsby’s and the Trident in Sausalito. There were so many places to play that were so phenomenal. We played seven nights a week, and I’m not exaggerating.
MD: You must have had some wild experiences.
Mike: When I was fifteen I played a gig with Albert King. Nobody knew who he was then. It was this town in Texas called Brooklyn. They took us to this little place out in the woods. I wore a black suit, a white shirt, a tab collar, and a black tie. The other musicians on the gig were maybe twenty-five. Everybody seemed to be afraid of Albert King. I was too young to be afraid of him. We started playing a shuffle. And Albert said to me, “Put some bacon fat on it, motherf**ker! Don’t make me come back there.” Some guy came up from the audience and grabbed the stick out of my hand. This joint is all picnic tables and sawdust. It’s not like the Village Vanguard. This guy takes the stick and hits the snare drum and makes me somehow realize I needed a backbeat on the 2 and the 4. He told me to mash down on the stick after I hit 2 and 4, and I did. That put the back on the backbeat. I started doing that on the shuffle, which I’d been playing more like a Cannonball Adderley or Horace Silver thing. As soon as I started to do that, Albert King turned around and said, “Well, all right!”
MD: What did the gig pay?
Mike: At the end of the gig Albert said, “Step into my office,” and there was no office. Albert sat in one chair, and, you know, he’s a great big guy. On the other chair was a pearl-handled 38 pistol. The pay was fifteen dollars. And he screwed me for three bucks. He said “Well, I think twelve.”
MD: What accounts for your longevity at seventy-one?
Mike: I feel great. I think I’m improving as a jazz musician and an artist. And I love people. I really dig people. Some jazz guys get old and bitter and hate humans. In all walks of life some people get that way, and there are definitely some bitter older jazz guys that feel they were overlooked. Or they hate all the new stuff. I don’t buy into any of that stuff.
MD: You have a great attitude.
Mike: I think each one of us can accomplish our dreams just as who we are. You have to improve and be at a certain level of performance, but I don’t have to copy the latest guy or another drummer. I spent most of my life except for the gig with Herbie Hancock playing straight-ahead jazz with funk gigs on the side. For the most part I played the way I wanted to play and lived my life as creatively as I wanted to, and I’m still doing okay—phone rings all the time.
My absolute favorite thing in life is playing jazz in New York with New York jazz musicians, because it’s so focused and sophisticated, yet it’s so funky and swings so hard, and everybody knows what they’re doing. I love playing with these cats!