Mike Clark
Photo by Rick Mattingly

Oh, yeah, Mike Clark. The fusion drummer, right? Well . . . no (not the Byrds’ drummer either, thank you). “I’ve been playing drums since I was five years old, man,” Clark explains with a shrug and a lopsided grin. He’s heard it all before, and while there’s no trace of bitterness in his words, there is a touch of weary, bemused irony. Because even though he’s not trying to deny the musical breakthroughs he made with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters or with fretless bassist Percy Jones in Brand X (nor to discount the double-edged notoriety it afforded him, granting him wide exposure among both musicians and the general public), it still strikes Clark as funny that people identify him with fusion music (perhaps we need a better definition of fusion, but more on that later).

After all, Mike Clark has been a working drummer since he was five, sitting in as a child with Dixieland bands around New Orleans, working in the city’s French Quarter with Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s group at nine, backing up the likes of legendary bluesmen like Albert Collins, Freddie King and Jimmy Reed in Texas at the ripe old age of thirteen. At a time when most guys were waiting eagerly for their first whiskers to sprout, Mike Clark was already privy to the kind of musical experiences you can’t get out of a method book or conservatory study, pursuing his dream as a child in the adult world of ’50s and ’60s juke joints, jazz clubs and dirt floor roadhouses.

“I’ve always been a jazz drummer—that’s all I ever wanted to be. Before Herbie, it’s strange, because I was mainly playing bebop, or whatever it is they’re calling it this year—I call it straight-ahead. Bebop, cool, rock, funk . . . man, I don’t even know what those terms mean. Ever since I was a kid I played straight-ahead acoustic, right up until around the time of Herbie’s gig. So the one time in my career where I tried to earn a living I sort of got typecast as a fusioner. But I’ve always been a jazz drummer. That was always my dream and my idea. Then I did the gig with Herbie and got typecast as a funk drummer. Everybody else labeled it as funk, but we were really playing.”

So why did people think it was funk, I wondered? “Because it was funky,” laughs Clark in that warm, gravelly, black leather jacket voice of his. “Look, with a swing beat the time is felt in triplets, while rock and funk beats are definitely felt in 8th notes—it’s straighter, right? But so long as you’re able to bend the time, shape the music, it doesn’t really matter to me. If cats are really listening to each other and relating, you can paint a picture together, and to me, that’s the goal of music. I don’t care what bag or style of music you’re playing, or if you’re playing them all at once. I find that to be the most gratifying music to play—the most human music, you know what I mean? So basically, jazz, to me, is any form of creative music that has fire, spontaneity and interaction between the cats, instead of it being like bowling night or something, where you play as if it’s some stupid backing track and you’re just waiting for the soloist to arrive. I mean, what is that about?”

Indeed. What can one make of music that requires its participants to mimic Mr. Machine? In which the apex of cool is to act nonchalant and uninvolved? And why have all these labels like jazz, rock, funk, pop—originally intended as simple marketing tools to help people sell records—been used to tear American music asunder, to render its component parts unintelligible to followers of one “style” or another?

The essential unity of American music—a unity in no way compromised by the diversity of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies—is the most resonant, uplifting feature of Mike Clark’s visceral, freewheeling drumming. At any given moment, the entire history of American drumming is present in Mike Clark’s sensitive, virtuostic figurations, maintaining cohesion and direction through the gyroscopic logic and depth of his swing.

In other words, Mike Clark is a hot drummer, a catalyst, the type of player who lifts a band through a combination of chops and spirit. The problem Mike Clark has is that he’s so adept at playing (here come those labels again) swing, bebop, funk and rock styles—seemingly playing them all at once—that in a sense he’s neither fish nor fowl. To the jazzers he’s a funker; to the rockers he’s a jazzer. All he’s trying to do is play, but because of the artificial separations of American music, he’s dubbed a “fusioner,” which is supposed to imply that he’s a little bit of everything (and, therefore, a whole lot of nothing).

Mike Clark
A young Mike Clark with Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s band.

But what, pray tell, is fusion? A contrivance invented during the ’70s to connote an alleged intermingling of musical styles. Towards the end of the ’60s, individuals and groups as distinctive as the Gary Burton Quartet, the Tony Williams Lifetime, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Miles Davis, The Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, and Herbie Hancock had combined elements of dance music and trance music, acoustic and electric, backbeat and no-beat, Western and Third World forms to fashion a melting pot of energy, ideas and aspirations that owed as much (or as little) to the Beatles as to John Coltrane.

But when the energy got co-opted in the mid-’70s, fusion came to mean pyrotechnics or flaccid make-out music, crowd pleasing unisons or chronic underachievement. It is in that sense of the word that Mike Clark is nonplussed by the notion that he’s considered a fusion drummer.

“In the early ’60s,” Clark recalls, “all of that was around. All I knew was that all of the music felt so good, and it was a new experience, and I could play the drums well. So I didn’t even think about what type of music it was. I played what I heard happening, and what I played seemed to fit. In those days it was a big, strong, emotional sound, and it seemed like everybody just knew what to do. Because you heard everything on the radio, not like today; on AM stations you’d have r & b, hard blues and rock ‘n’ roll together in rotation, and the rock ‘n’ roll was more like rhythm & blues then. And it wasn’t about technique, man; it was about feeling—good-time party music with a great big beat. It didn’t seem like the music was as separated as it is now. You’d play a jazz gig, and then you’d go play an r & b gig. It was just another gig, you know.

“In the ’50s and early ’60s a drummer was supposed to be able to cover any kind of music—period. Like in Texas, if you couldn’t play the Texas shuffle, forget it man, get off the bandstand, goodbye, pack it up. I don’t care how much chops or rudiments you had. The beat to play was the downbeat of four, and you had to play from the bottom up, really leaning into that bass drum. And sometimes the leader’d call out to you to ‘Play backwards with the bass drum, boy’; everything was on the up. I’m telling you, it’s experiences like that which gave me a foundation. Sure, all those gigs dealt with different styles of playing, but it didn’t seem like the distinctions were so important then, like it became later in the big recording boom, when cats started talking stuff like, ‘Well, this guy plays jazz, that guy plays rock, this guy plays funk.’ I don’t see how you break all that down, man. What are you going to categorize Ray Charles as, huh? He plays every style—jazz, gospel, hillbilly, ballad . . . flat out moanin’ blues. And there’s funky jazz music, man. Cats like Horace Silver, and Cannonball and Lee Morgan, they’d get really funky. There’s rock music that swings too, like Cream or the Police. James Brown would put on a hell of a show, but he always had the best musicians, so they could just slug it out and funk your ass off, or they could stretch and show you some chops. I mean, I don’t understand how you separate the stuff. To be honest with you, if I had my druthers, all I’d play’d be real acoustic music of a swing or bebop nature; there’s something about acoustic instruments played strong that means something special to me. But this is the real world, so I don’t always have that luxury. If the cats are open, and we get the music real circular and conversational and dramatic so that we’re telling a story and relating to each other, then it doesn’t matter to me what it is, acoustic or electric. But when cats start telling you to play a little more or a little less, well, then it becomes like a job, and I’m not so into it. I just want to hear sincerity in music; no jivin’, and don’t go putting labels on it. Just let the cats play.”

Still, the confusion about who the real Mike Clark is continues, often with darkly humorous results. One incident which took place on the floor of the Atlanta NAMM show (only the names have been changed to shield the guilty) was right out of a Pirandello play. Wandering the floor, checking out equipment, Clark begins working out on a set of instruments mixing time and rhyme, building in detail and intensity all the while. Soon a big crowd is gathered as Clark blows hot, sweet, swing beats. The listeners are gassed, the booth’s doing good business, and Mike feels positive about his thing. Then the president of the company saunters over to Clark and tells him, “Hey, you sound really great on those—you ought to buy yourself a set.” Then, unaware of Mike’s roots or his stature, offers him some brotherly advice: “You’re a jazz drummer, right, so I don’t know if you’d be into this, but if you really want to be successful you ought to play some funk.” Well, at least he called him a jazz drummer, so Mike listens, patiently. “I’ll tell you what I heard that’s really fantastic,” he continues. “I don’t know if you’re into this type of music, but there’s this Herbie Hancock record that’s really great called Thrust, and the drummer is really fantastic. You ought to learn to play like that.” Clark does a long double-take. “I’m the drummer on Thrust.”

Born on October 3, 1946, Mike Clark was a child of the rock ‘n’ roll era, but his heart was with the great jazz drummers of the 1930s and ’40s, due in no small part to the influence of his father, who was a working drummer until shortly after his son’s birth. “Yeah, he played the drums until he was 35,” Clark recollects, “then said ‘the hell with it’ and started railroading, which is about the same thing [laughs]. It’s a lazy man’s life, you know. Fast money, easy work, and constant travel; moving from town to town—very similar to musician’s life in those aspects. I rather enjoyed all that moving around, because I was meeting new people in different parts of the country all the time, and it was a lot of fun. It was like for every year I was in school I was in another city. In a way, discipline-wise, it would’ve been a lot hipper if I’d lived a more steady, regular lifestyle, I suppose.”

But as a result, Mike Clark got to see the length and breadth of America first-hand, and to internalize the rhythmic vernacular of this country’s south, southwestern and western metropolitan centers: among his ports-of-call along the way were Sacra mento, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Roanoke, Virginia; Covington, Kentucky; Dallas, Ft. Worth and Houston, Texas; New Orleans and Shreveport, Louisiana; Atlanta and Macon, Georgia; and Biloxi, Mississippi, before he settled down in the Oakland/San Francisco community from the mid-’60s through the late ’70s.

“My pop came from the generation of drummers where they didn’t play time on the ride cymbal or even the bass drum— they played it on the snare drum. So he had all these press rolls and buzz rolls together that were really hip, and I picked up a little of that from him, but I still can’t play them anything like him, because that context doesn’t exist anymore. To this day, even though he hasn’t played in over 20 years, I’ll say, ‘Hey dad, check this out,’ laying some hot licks on him, and he’ll come back with ‘bzzzzzzzzz-baduda-dzzzzzzzzzzz’ and I’ll say,’What?’

“So my dad was into cats like Chick Webb, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Sid Catlett. And he was very heavily into Mr. Louis Armstrong, so from the time i was born, his music and that of Philly Joe, Roy Haynes and especially Art Blakey was all around me. So I guess I just soaked it right up. He was also really heavy into all kinds of boogie woogie piano and blues music, so I guess that’s where my funk and rock thing got off the ground, too. I used to listen to records all the time, and I’ve probably been influenced by every drummer who ever lived. But my main influences as a kid, right through grade school, were Krupa, Buddy, Zutty Singleton, Louis Bellson, Sid Catlett and Chick Webb. I think it was the way they all swung with those big bands that first got to me; the feeling of the drums and the pulse of those bands, the way they soloed—I heard all that immediately. Then around high school I got deep into Max Roach as well as Philly Joe and Art Blakey. Then after high school it was Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette; they all played with so much intellect and emotion—and they kicked ass in any band they were in; made the other musicians come out, go beyond their standard licks. And that pretty much marked the end of my active listening period. From there I just sort of took off into whatever it is I’m doing now. In a way it’s really not fair to single any cats out, because when you listen, especially as a child, you take in so much information that it has to come out in some way. So I’ve just tried to really respect and extend the traditions of those who came before me, and to put my own stamp on it.”

Mike Clark
Photo by Rick Mattingly

But Mike Clark’s formative years involved more than just passive listening, because, again, through his father (and mother), he got to participate as an equal with his musical elders. “When I was five, my father went up to the attic and came down with a trap case, set up some stuff and handed me a pair of sticks, and right away I started to play just like Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole and Lionel Hampton, even though I could barely hold the sticks. But just from listening to all those Louis Armstrong records and what-have-you, I could do take-offs on the cats, and mimic all the licks, breaks and solos. And my time was cool, too. So I got to play all the time, and right away I had some natural ideas and a natural ability to play, and I just kept going from there. My ears kept developing, so that I had a better idea about how the things I was hearing went together; it’s like some kind of crossword puzzle—all the different combinations you can use in and out of the drums. So after a while the combinations become interesting, that develops, and you have a wider range of materials to draw on. If you know the right combinations between the drums you can sound like two or three drummers.

“Anyway, my pop was really impressed by my natural ability, and we’d show each other our hot licks and trip out together. My mom was into it, too—she really dug the drums. That’s what held us together as family for a long time—the drums. Then a few days after I began playing they bought me a set of Gretsch Broadcasters, in white pearl no less, with a 20″ bass drum and a couple of A. Zildjians. And that was my set-up right through ’til the end of high school. So all the while my mom and dad encouraged me to play, and they’d take me around to all these jazz joints, you know, buy the drummer a taste, and get them to let me sit in. If I’d known what was going on I might’ve freaked and not done it, but I could play so it was no big deal for me—it was fun, and that’s how I got my start. The drummers would see this little kid, figure, you know, cute. All they thought I could play was maybe a little roll or a paradiddle; but I could comp, trade fours, keep time— I was into it; it was second nature so it all came out. And by the time I was seven or eight I was sitting in regularly with Dixieland bands around New Orleans, and sort of getting introduced to the nightlife by my pop. It blended right in with his lifestyle, so the introduction was in rhythm with what he was doing.”

One particularly memorable event in Mike Clark’s development, capping his experiences playing down at the Famous Door with Dixielanders like Sharkey Bonano and Murphy Campo, was his work with Clarence “Frogman” Henry at the age of nine. “My old man and I were in New Orleans, and we went into this place called the Court Of The Two Sisters. And my old man was talking to the drummer and he told him I could play, so the band said bring him on up. So I sat in for a whole set. Later on we ran into one of the musicians on the street, and he said the drummer was sick and they asked me to sub. So I did the gig once in a while when they asked me to play, and I even got paid a couple of times. We were staying in the French Quarter at the time , and it was a big novelty—everybody got off on it. I’ll tell you, I remember the feeling of playing with those black men in ‘Frogman’s’ band, and the music was so strong, I’d almost pass out it was so exciting. And they really encouraged me to work out, take solos, breaks, trade fours, and eights; same thing when later on in Texas I played all this real lowdown blues with ‘ravelling bluesmen coming through. That music is so powerful. I guess, in a way, the music would get too good to me; it brought tears to my eyes nightly. It would send chills up and down my spine and emotionally blow me out. What a great rush! I still get the same way, even if I hear music like that on the radio. It hits at the core of my being.”

Finally settling in around the Bay Area with his mother (going out with his father during breaks from school), Clark found himself drawn to rock ‘n’ roll of the ’50s and early ’60s on a social level, but not on a musical one. “All my friends were into the rock of the day, which was starting to happen with cats like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin and Elvis. So I was into that, too, but there was another side of me where I was always into the high school big bands and jazz bands, getting into my reading and all, but I loved rock, too. The thing was at that time there was this rap that if you played rock you couldn’t play, and that the music was really dumb. Even as a kid I didn’t feel, performing it, that I enjoyed it. But when I was home, doing my music homework, I’d be listening to rock on the radio, and it struck my main nerve just like everybody else. But one thing is, that no matter where my head was at with jazz, I always listened to James Brown, regardless of my musical leanings. I listened to him all the way through, so in the back of my mind I was always hearing Clyde Stubblefield, and I guess I internalized all of that so I knew what to do. Clyde Stubblefield was the founding father of all the hip funk you heard from the ’60s up through today. But back then I didn’t play any of that. I played big bands, casuals, jazz gigs and whatever I could find. It was easy to be underage and work in those days, back in ’63 and ’64 before the Beatles hit big. Jazz gigs were good right up until around 1972, but when I came up, rock gigs weren’t even considered good gigs. I didn’t take that music seriously; I should have really taken the time to scope it, but I didn’t get into it until I went with Herbie and realized there were cats making millions of dollars [laughs]. So I’d never really had any experience playing it except with the few exceptions of coming to school and sitting in with the local rock band at the assembly and blowin’ ’em away.”

Heaven forbid, Mike, are you saying you were a greaser in high school? “No doubt about it man. Are you kidding? I was one of the originals [laughs]. You know, the complete ‘Rebel Without A Cause,’ insecure, totally sensitive greaser trying to be bad. I think I first realized I was a greaser around 1958. My mother was Italian, and there was this big number among Italian parents about not having your son look like a hood. My mother broke into tears on the sofa because I had like blocked hair, a pompadour, pointedtoe shoes that buckled on the side, black Frisco pants and suspenders. At that point I knew I was out of pocket. The cats in my neighborhood were really tough cats. I wasn’t one of them, but I was the drummer they liked, so that sort of gave me a special dispensation not to get my butt kicked. So it sort of made sense for me to look like that kind of cat; if I’d walked through that neighborhood in a collegiate shirt and tennis shoes, I’d have gotten punched all the way out.”

After high school, Clark went to Texas to play five-nighters and blues gigs; returned to California and went on the road with a Louis Prima-type lounge band “because it was the only thing I could find where I could at least play some swing,” and eventually tired of it and settled in the Bay Area to study music and pursue his goal, which was to someday lead an acoustic band that travelled the world playing no-holds-barred jazz. “The bands that Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette have led are really the best examples of what I was trying to do when I settled in Oakland. They play forceful, adventurous music that’s open and swings. They’re back there kicking ass, and no one’s telling them ‘Hey, man, cool out a little.’

Mike Clark
Photo by Rick Mattingly

“I’ve been sitting back there for 20 years, chopping wood, thinking to myself, ‘Pretty soon now.’ I’ve always believed that a drummer should take action. Once you set up the context and provide a framework for the band to play off of, then you should be as free as anyone to be spontaneous and contribute to the dialog—but still keep it swinging. That’s when the music becomes really exciting and open, and the music that most inspired me when I was woodshedding and gigging around the Bay was Clifford Brown with Max Roach; Sonny Rollins; all of that Blue Note music, like Grachan Moncur, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill and Wayne Shorter; Coltrane with Elvin, I really OD’d on that, just listening to it all the time—people thought I was crazy, but those musicians sought after and attained the greatest heights in music I’ve ever heard. And everything that Tony Williams was in, of course, from his work with Jackie McLean, to those early solo albums with Sam Rivers and Gary Peacock, and the Miles Davis Quintet. He was the cat, and when I saw him at the Both And in San Francisco in 1969 with McLaughlin and Larry Young, that was also some of the deepest music I ever heard. Tony sounded like he was playing to his full potential every second—just immaculate independence, control and space-age chops. Eric Dolphy affected me that way, too. He wasn’t content to just rehash everyone’s favorite Bird licks; he was about trying to always extend his voice, trying to talk to you through the music, free up the rhythm and the melody, and he always really swung. So that whole vibe from the ’60s, and the innovations of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette are the jumping off point for what I’ve been trying to do.

“I just didn’t want to feel limited as a drummer. I mean context is cool, just playing time and grooving is cool, but I’m not out here to play life-support music. The things that I’ve had to deal with since Oakland are the electric vibe and cats’ attitudes about the role of a drummer. I mean, electric music is cool, but it seems like every time I’ve gotten hooked up in that it’s somehow thwarted my real goal. The only electric band I will work with is Stone Tiger, with Bill Frisell and Percy Jones, because they have such a fantastic concept. But the acoustic thing is where my heart’s at.

“The other thing is that sometimes the role of a drummer can really be out. I resent the subservient posture that drummers are forced to assume by those who perceive them as metronomes, and by soloists who are oblivious to the potential that lies in listening to and interacting with the rhythm section. I enjoy the melodrama and poignancies in music that occur only as a result of full communication.

“I also find it amusing when they ask if you can keep it quiet. I mean, they’re drums. We’re not discussing a flute or a violin. Of course, you’ve got to observe the content and context of the music, but when the moment beckons, I say hit it.

“Moving to New York has been like coming home. I’ve never felt more relaxed and comfortable in the music. Thanks to the high quality of musicianship here, my life is really swinging. I’m more happy than I’ve been in years.”

During his time in Oakland, Clark played with the likes of Woody Shaw, Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, Al Tanner, Vince Guaraldi, Mose Allison, Sonny Simmons, Mike Nock, John Handy, Michael Howell, Jerry Harm, and a lot of organ trios. There were a number of bands with trumpeter Jack Walrath, a relationship that has continued to this day in New York, and a big house Clark shared with bass player Paul Jackson that served as an all-purpose crib and 24-hour rehearsal space. But while Mike Clark was practicing to perfect the art, craft and energy of ’60s jazz, the jazz scene in Oakland began to dry up, and the very fabric of the music scene shifted—became electric.

It’s an odd accident of history that in 1967, when the great John Coltrane passed away, Jimi Hendrix appeared out of nowhere to take up that torch in a music  where the screaming feedback and distortion of an overdriven electric (blues) guitar approximated the urgent, keening cry of a tenor saxophone; where the modal, vertical rhythms of Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison were paraphrased by the likes of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell; when the spirit and appeal of the emerging popular music overwhelmed a now leaderless jazz movement. Taking that into account, making note of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder’s revolutionary extensions of James Brown and Motown respectively (and considering that jazz clubs looked like tombs to even the best-drawing artists), it’s not surprising that the choice for jazzmen was simple: go underground and drop from sight—maybe into teaching gigs or day jobs—or translate all those years of knowledge and dues into the emerging vocabulary of the 1970s.

Out of this time, in the environment of the Bay Area, from out of bebop tradition, Mike Clark perfected a jazzy, linear style of funk that has become known, rather loosely, as the Oakland Sound— a steamy, Morse code of accents and fills that sounded for all the world like Clyde Stubblefield paraphrasing Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. An innovation that even Mike Clark hasn’t come to terms with, mainly because he fears it typecasts him and betrays his tradition—when in fact it brilliantly extends and enriches it.

“We’d been playing jazz 12-16 hours a day at my house, a really great growth period for all of us,” Clark recalls fondly. “We were really exploring the history of jazz styles on our instruments. At this time, I tightened my reading up by studying with a great drummer and teacher, Bill Nawrocki. Then Jack Walrath moved to New York, and right at that point, around ’72, Paul Jackson, who’d been playing upright bass all this time, brought home a Fender bass, and he could really play it, right from the start. We didn’t want to play any rock or funk. But he’d hooked up a few gigs, and he’d found a way we could make some money playing some funk, and jazz gigs were getting real scarce, so finally we said, ‘Sure.’

“So Paul and I were sharing this pad at the time, and to make these gigs interesting we came up with all these new little patterns and syncopations. It was boring for me, as a jazz drummer, to simply play straight 8ths or lean into the two and four, so I began looking for all these odd beats. And Paul would tell me, ‘Play a rhythm as if you were playing a solo but make it a rhythm. Solo on the bass drum and the snare against the hi-hat rhythms, and make it one long, flowing solo, but play it next to what I’m doing on the bass.’

“So even though I couldn’t play all over the top of the drums—because you’d throw the singers off—we had this constant chatter going on all the time; always changing the accents; putting them on the ‘e’ and the ‘and’ of any beat; always keeping the one in the same place—but hiding the one was the name of the game. And we’d do it with all sorts of combinations of broken 8ths and 16th notes, trying to be as creative as possible within the restrictions of the form. Dave Garibaldi was also doing something similar to this, Ray Torres is a master at this style, as well as Gaylord Birch; I think Harvey Mason was still at Berklee, and he came along later. I think I was the first guy to try this in a traditional jazz setting. So we all learned from each other, playing straight-ahead gigs, organ trios and r & b, and out of that period in Oakland a modern funk sound emerged.”

And out of Jackson’s electric bass, the realities of a gigging musician’s economics, and a desire to avoid the numbing recurrence of the two and four, Mike Clark created a sound; and all the rock and funk music he’d heard growing up as a jazz drummer clicked into place. Then Paul Jackson got a gig with Herbie Hancock. “Herbie loved Paul’s concept. They were just making the Headhunters album, and doing a few gigs around the coast, but I don’t think Harvey wanted to go on the road. So they auditioned drummers and Paul had Herbie check me out. Now, I hadn’t heard any of this music, and I assumed that the Headhunters were going to take over where Mwandishi left off—which was the logical extension of every thing I’d been playing for 20 years. So I auditioned as if I were with the Mwandishi band, and they were playing funk, but it was like I couldn’t believe I was supposed to be playing funk. So later, after the rehearsal, Herbie told Paul that they needed a funk drummer, not a jazz drummer, and that Mike’s a jazz drummer. But Paul said that I could play funk, too, and that he should give me another listen. So at the next audition, Herbie said, ‘Why don’t you try putting a pillow in the bass drum, and give me some backbeats; play more like a rhythm & blues thing. So I did that, but I added all the things I’d worked out with Paul, and as soon as Herbie heard that, he hired me on the spot.”

The gig lasted from 1973-1976, and as Mike struggles to explain his feelings, both positive and negative, about the music which brought him to the public’s attention, a familiar theme again crops up with the recurring regularity of those dreaded backbeats. “What can you say, man? I got to attend the University of Hancock for three years, and listen to all those chords— God, what chords—and just to play anything with Herbie, because he’s such a bril liant talent. I have nothing but high praise for the man as an artist and human being. He advised me to never play the expected, and to not resolve the phrases on the one. In fact, to end the phrase in an unusual part of the bar and then keep right on playing with a steady stream of communication until the last note of the piece. Totally elastic.

“But by far, the most invaluable aspect of my stint with Herbie was my introduction to Nichiren Shoshu True Buddhism. He explained that by chanting ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo,’ I could attain all my dreams and realize my full potential as a human being. The basic principle being that man and all phenomena in the universe are one, and by invoking the highest law—Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which roughly translates to Devotion to the Mystic Law of Cause and Effect through Sound Vibration—you effect fundamental change in the depths of your life, and since you are inseparable from your environ ment, the environment responds. In other words, it enables you to elevate the entire condition of your life. The most important validation of the teaching is actual proof, and I’ve gotten immeasurable actual proof every day of my life since I started. I am forever indebted to Herbie and Bennie Maupin, who also chants, for the direction and encouragement they gave me.

“However, musically I was ready for a change. I just wanted to work on my art. I was still pursuing my dream, and I thought that Herbie would help take me there—and he did, too—but I realized that if I kept playing that music with him, at that time, I wouldn’t make it. And as much as I valued our relationship, I’d reached a point that all musicians come to, where you have to make some choices, and I didn’t have any interest in becoming a studio- type drummer in the funk-rock-pop vein. So even though Herbie’s music was of great benefit to me, and brought me recognition, even brought me closer to the jazz world in a funny way, it was time to go.”

Mike Clark
Photo by Rick Mattingly

Clark began to work jazz gigs around the Bay Area, made some pop-oriented records with the Herbie-less Headhunters, and played five-nights a week with Eddie Henderson, Dave Liebman, Julian Priester, Mark Levine and Mark Williams. “As soon as that was over I got a call from Brand X in England, asking me if I wanted to go on the road with them playing their music. So they flew me to New York, I auditioned, got the gig, and went out. And I loved playing with Percy Jones, who’s a real innovator, and we’ve continued in a very fruitful relationship to this day with Stone Tiger. And Brand X let me play anything I wanted, even though it was an electric band. I got to play loose, syncopated and all over the kit, anytime I felt the urge. It was like a jazz band in that it was about communication, opening up and really playing. So that was an enjoyable taste, and it led to two albums [Product and Does It Hurt] and several tours.”

Finally, Clark left California to come to New York, as much to pursue his dream as to escape from a scene he could no longer relate to. “The jazz in Oakland had dissipated. When I turned to San Francisco, I found the basic premise of jazz as a life-to life communication, and sincere hard swinging to be taboo. What is taken for granted amongst New York musicians was not even acknowledged.

“In an attempt to stall the inevitable major move to New York City, I thought I’d check out some L.A. studio action. I was in the studio doing a date with a friend of mine. I’d just set up and was reading the charts down when this guitar player showed up. I just couldn’t relate to this cat at all. He pulled up to the studio in this Mustang with the pipes sticking out and all—like my high school days—and I thought, ‘What is this?’ So he cruises inside pushing this enormous case, opens it up and there are like 4000 guitars and 20,000 amps in there. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there with this weird studio set of tubs going, ‘What’s happenning?’ So he sets up and we hit it, and I’m reading the stuff down cold, and playing on it too. All of a sudden the guy comes up next to me and says, ‘Hey man, could you kind of give me that aerosol thing on the hi-hats, man?’ So I’m trying to communicate with the cat and I say, ‘Uhh, aerosol…man, what do you mean?’ And he goes, ‘You know, tssss, tssss, tssss.’ So I say, ‘Yeah, I hear you,’ but I couldn’t believe it. I mean, why am I here? If that’s all he wants maybe he can get a rhythm machine, because he sure doesn’t need me to play like that. So I told my lady, ‘Get me out of here. I don’t care about money. New York here I come.'”

In New York since 1980, Clark has found the level of jazz musicians he always aspired to play with, even as his technique and sound have undergone a gradual refinement and growth. Commenting on his approach to the kit, he traces his evolution and that of his equipment from his childhood playing days. “The Gretsch kit my parents bought for me was what I used right through high school; as a kid I was just glad to have a set of drums. Then all I did was go out and buy an 18″ bass drum. I used that size bass drum right up until I got with Herbie when I began using a 22”.

“I remember being really impressed by the sound that Elvin, Tony and Art Blakey were getting with an 18”. What it gave me was a lot more ring, as opposed to a thud; a higher pitched sound, although you can get that from a 20″ if you really work with it. It also gave me a lot more rebound action with the foot pedal for triplets, and fast hand and feet combinations—a jazzier sound, you know. I began switching up to more of a broken triplet, 8th/16th-note thing, and the switch to the 18″ enabled me to realize that with a lot more clarity and cleaner execution. It helped me focus on the relationship between breaking things up on my left hand and the bass drum every way I could possibly think of. It was just something I liked to do, and I guess in a way, that characterizes a major aspect of my style. That coupled with the way I break up hands and feet throughout the entire set, certain things with four-way coordination, the way I work the ride cymbal into patterns, and different ways of syncopating the hi-hats into the flow. That and just moving freely throughout the set.

“As far as drums go, I was always a Gretsch man, getting different sets of wood Gretsch over the years—period. Gretsch and jazz just seemed to go together, like bread and butter. They had that sound, so I didn’t pay too much attention to other sets through the years. It was basically just Gretsch and calfskin, until they came out with the Weatherkings, when I switched to your regular frosted Ambassadors on top and bottom. There was a time there, when I had the house in Oakland, where I’d be experimenting with different tunings and heads. But I always went back to the Ambassador set-up until I went with Herbie, where that sound didn’t make it. I always liked a nice, wide-open sound, with plenty of ring, but that didn’t translate into enough punch with Herbie or Brand X, so I had a big set of Gretsch, with a 22” bass, and those Remo CS blackdot heads top and bottom. The drums still had plenty of ring and resonance, but it was more centered, more controlled; a nice sharp attack, not just ‘bang’ or ‘thud.’

“I’ve played big and small kits through the years, and I like them equally well, but it seems—and this isn’t a hard and fast rule—that with little drums they resonate into each other quicker; all of my ideas seem to come out cleaner and faster, and of course, the little tubs rhyme a lot better with acoustic music. Big drums are cool, too; the only thing I don’t like, is when you’re playing on a set and you hit the drum and it just goes ‘thud.’ How are you supposed to build a solo without the natural decay and sustain of the drum? I mean, I can do it, but I’m not really into masonry, you know what I mean?

“As far as what I’m using now, I sold off my set of big Gretsch and converted that into a small set of Yamahas, one of the old series (9000DA), with a black finish and an 18” bass drum, an 8 x 12 mounted and 14 x 14 floor tom. I was always used to Gretsch in small kits, but these sound even better, and they’re a lot lighter to lug around. It’s hard to explain the sound…the attack is faster, with more edge, and the ring is a little lighter and more present. They’re like somewhere between Gretsch and Sonor—perfect, you know. They move fast and ring without a lot of low-end rumble. I don’t tune ’em to any particular note, just so they sound good with each other and have the right feel and response—how they feel to my sticks. I mean, sometimes you’ll tune drums so they sound good but the response is awful, or they’re rebounding great but the sound is choked. What I dig about the Yamahas is that they let me find a happy means; they just tune up real crisp and full, yet still open. I’ve also got a set of those acrylic Dragon Drums—I think they call ’em Dragoons— which are really nice for playing pitched kind of percussion; real bright and centered sounding, but I don’t get much call for that kind of work anymore.

“And where cymbals are concerned, I got my first set of K. Zildjian when I was 17, and I’ve been a K. man ever since. That was the only cymbal for me. I knew that Art, Tony, and Elvin played ’em, and it was a nasty sound with a lot of fire. That was the sound I first heard in my head, and I didn’t hear it in A. Zildjian. My first set was a 22″ on the right, a 20″ on the left and 14” hi-hats. They were pretty heavy and had a lot of attack and overtones. They spread out more than an A., and there was more pang; the overtones somehow seemed more controlled or controllable. It just had a dark, airy, mysterious sound that reminded me of the Orient. When I heard K.s, not only was I hearing the mystery and the attack, I was hearing the wrath of the guy who was performing—his intentions were always clear. And every time you ride it, or hit it with the shoulder of the stick, or crash it, it gives you another sound, some new twist or surprise. When I was with Herbie, though, I was breaking them left and right, because we were really bashing, and I wasn’t used to playing before big crowds in arena-settings. Before, on jazz gigs, it seemed like the only thing you used a mic’ for was to announce the tunes. I finally learned to relax more, still getting the same attack, but learning to play the cymbal more loosely, letting the mic’ do some of the work. Right now I’m not in that position, so that’s not so much of a problem. I’m using an old, nasty 22″ K. ride, an 18″ A. crash, and a pair of 14″ hi-hats with an A. New Beat on the bottom and medium K. on top. They don’t have too much life left in ’em though, so I’m looking to cop some of the new K.s, perhaps, because they’re getting pretty close to the quality of the old Istanbul cymbals— maybe a bit brighter though. And I like what I’ve heard in those new Sabian hand-hammered cymbals—they’re getting real close, too. It’s just a matter of bread at this point.”

On the subject of chops and technique, Clark waxes even more specific. “There’s some jive going down on the street where some cats will put down great players just because they have chops and can read. Another form of oppression to stifle creativity from the mundane world. With all due respect to people who feel like if you have any kind of technique at all you can’t swing—bullshit. Look at Buddy Rich and Tony and Elvin and Philly Joe. All these guys can really play the instrument in a commanding manner. A lot of second-line musicians who can’t see past mediocrity are always going to mistake playing loose with a good feeling for a lack of motor skills—with being unskilled. That ain’t it. To be unskilled doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be swinging; there’s nothing the matter with being able to play your ass off, although some cats take that all the other way out where it come down to chops and nothing else.

“Obviously book techniques, finger technique and all that doesn’t have much place in my life. I have this natural technique happening that allows me to move freely throughout the kit during the music, and work in all of these combinations and moves in between the drums, breaking up the beat in interesting ways; interaction between hands and feet, the snare, bass drum and ride cymbal; triplets, 8ths, and 16ths, between right and left hand and bass drum or hi-hat; flam configurations between hands and feet, mixed groupings between toms, snare, bass drum and hi-hat; mixed stickings of my own with unusual alterations, single strokes, left-and-right-hand accents weaved throughout the drumset, and the music as a form of self expression. It’s not out of a book but out of me. I don’t just want to play garden variety fills or be hot-dogging it with easy cliches, so I try and break things up to make the other cats want to play—to reach farther. That way, we’re able to avoid the standard responses. The more counterpunctual I can get, the better I like it. That’s my approach; not to simply be a metronome or play flashy rolls.”

It’s still a pretty flashy thing, though, to see Clark’s hands open up and watch that single-stroke roll come pouring out. “It’s just something I’ve always been into. It’s not a textbook roll, but more of a gut feeling I have about pushing the music ahead. All I’m doing is keeping the fingers over the stick so that I get more extension and power. It’s still mostly wrist, not real finger control like Joe Morello employs. I’m actually just keeping the first two fingers over the stick so that each finger is like a little guide. It just sort of developed that way so that when the wrists are moving the fingers sort of guide ’em back so that you can lift the drumsticks off of the head, and make the sound snap, instead of simply driving the sticks into the head like a hydraulic. This way you can go from triple forte to a whisper. It’s hard to articulate how I do it, but I’ve found that most cats have to develop their own methods. You can’t play it the way I do, and you really shouldn’t try. Develop your own techniques to match your own feelings.”

Mike Clark continues to expand upon his 30-plus years of experience as a working drummer, performing with the likes of Jack Walrath (with whom he recorded a well-received album of straight-ahead entitled Revenge Of The Fat People), and trombonist Ed Neumeister (teaming with pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs and bassist Buster Williams for an upcoming record). “I’ve been fortunate to have played with Buster Williams, Anthony Cox and John Burr, three of the most dynamic bass players I have encountered.” Mike has also performed with pianist Mike Nock (“his harmonic and rhythmic concepts are so loose”), bassist Jeff Berlin with guitarists Mick Goodrick or Mike Stern, and, on a recent tour of Japan, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Shunzo Ono and Buster Williams. “My most recent endeavor was a recording with an incredible new pianist, Jeff Pittson, with Jeff Carney on bass. This record is an accurate depiction of what I’m doing now. We’re currently shopping for a label, so I’m hoping the record will be available soon.”

In addition to his continuing relationship with Stone Tiger, Clark singles out his work with guitarist Jack Wilkins and reedman Julius Hemphill as being the most fulfilling. “Jack Wilkins is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. I haven’t had the feeling I get playing with Jack since I was with Herbie Hancock, when all the music seemed so uplifting and fresh to me. And as far as Julius Hemphill is concerned, even though we’ve only played in the studio a few times to do some jamming, it was just the ultimate in communication. I felt like what Elvin must have when he first hooked up with ‘Trane—the energy was like an Apollo launch. During the course of our playing we were able to sort of examine what we were doing and keep bringing the energy up. The minute he puts the alto to his mouth he takes me to a place where I want to be. He just brings me all the way out, and any drummer loves that.”

As for those occasions where the music doesn’t bring him all the way out, Clark has grown more reflective. “When I first came to New York, I was really uptight about my contributions to a band, but now I’ve mellowed into a space where I realize that so long as I’m listening, it’s cool; I can put my thing in, without actually changing it for anybody…and it works. I found out that nobody was really asking me to hold back—it was me. As long as you do your thing eloquently, and remain open to what the cats are creating, it doesn’t make any difference whether I’m thundering or just plain grooving.”

Still, even as Mike Clark pursues his art, merging all the rhythmic traditions of America into a cohesive whole, establishing a clear musical identity, he looks about him at the young generation of drummers and realizes that, knowingly or not, they’re working out of cultural vacuum. “The point is,” he concludes, “no matter what music you’re playing, whatever you want to call it, if you’re interested in American music and have a particular place you’d like to take it, it’s important to trace the traditions, the roots of it, as far back as you can, and learn as much about it as you can so that it’ll manifest itself in your music when you perform it. That’s true with rock, funk, jazz or whatever it is they’re calling it.

“To play jazz, you should certainly understand the tradition of swing: know all about Chick Webb, Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, right up through Max, Art, Philly, Tony and Elvin—understand as much of that as you can. To play funk you’d have to trace the music back through Chicago, James Brown, r&b, boogie woogie; right back to the most primitive gut-bucket blues. If you at least make an effort to trace the blues roots of this music, to understand the history—even if you ain’t lived it, just trying to respect it— then your playing will be so much richer, fuller and sweeter as a result.

“Then, at a certain point in your life, you’ll gain a certain amount of control emotionally and technically, and you’ll be able to perform at a certain level, so that no matter what the idiom is, you’ll be able to play the instrument creatively—just doing the best job you can.”