Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


CLARK, Sonny

(b Conrad Yeatis Clark, 21 July 1931, Herminie PA; d 13 January 1963, NYC) Piano. Bud Powell was the definer of jazz piano; the brilliant young Clark simplified and personalized Powell's approach with a soulful drive and would have had a brilliant career, but died very young. First of an all-star series of LPs on Blue Note was a quintet set, Dial S For Sonny with Art Farmer, Curtis Fuller, Hank Mobley, Wilbur Ware, drummer Louis Hayes; Sonny's Crib with John Coltrane, Sonny Clark Trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones; the session released as Cool Struttin' Volume 2 was a quintet again with Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Clifford Jordan, not released until later in Japan: all these were made in '57. Blues In The Night c.1957-8 is by the trio, Chambers and Wes Landers on drums, again only in Japan; Cool Struttin' '58 is a quintet again with Chambers, Jones, Art Farmer and Jackie McLean, probably Clark's most famous album. Trio sessions '58 were released on several discs, finally compiled as Standards '98 on Blue Note. My Conception '59 is a quintet set with Donald Byrd, Blakey, Mobley, Chambers; Leapin' And Lopin' '61 by sextet Sonny Clark All-Stars, with Charlie Rouse on tenor, Ike Quebec on one track. Another trio set '60 was released on Time and Bainbridge, with George Duvivier and Max Roach; yet another, Sonny Clark Memorial Album on Xanadu, had been made '54 in Oslo. Clark toured and recorded with clarinettist Buddy DeFranco '54-5; the complete recordings on Verve, and Clark's complete recordings with guitarist Grant Green on Blue Note '61-2, were compiled in boxes by Mosaic. During the De Franco period he recorded Oakland, 1955: bassist Jerry Good and drummer Al Randall were the house rhythm section at Jimbo's Bop City in San Francisco and wanted to record with him, so Good taped the date at an Oakland club, later on Uptown: all Clark fans will want it. John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz and others play Clark's tunes in group/eponymous album Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet on Black Saint.

Addenda: Sam Stephenson's book Gene Smith's Sink: A Wide-Angle View (2017) includes an elegaic chapter on Sonny Clark, who overdosed on heroin at Smith's Jazz Loft (see Hall Overton), but recovered on that occasion. He was more popular in Japan than at home, though he never went to that country; between 1991 and 2009 his Cool Struttin', reissued on CD, sold more copies that John Coltrane's Blue Train, both on Blue Note from the same period. Japanese young people seem to have heard his music as a mysterious combination of compassion and suppression of it. He died of another heroin overdose in a shooting gallery, according to Smith, and we cannot even be sure where he is buried, because street deaths in New York City were often clumsily handled at that time. He was one of the jazz musicans the Baroness de Koenigswarter tried to look after; she arranged for a funeral, but witnesses said that the body was not Sonny's. He may have been buried in a potter's field on New York's Hart Island, where he himself had once dug graves while incarcerated on a drug change.