Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Mike Clark: A Positive Force

Interview with drummer from original Headhunters group

Super Drummer Mike Clark recording for Tony Adamo Jerry Stucker producing

Mike Clark’s skills, creativity and groove communiqué from behind the drum set have long been the catalyst for many a drummers’ funk and jazz aspirations–whether said drummers are aware of the influence or not. Clark’s syncopated sense of time has oozed out from Oakland onto countless records and tours. He is widely known for his work with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, beginning with the 1974 record, Thrust and the sounds of “Actual Proof.” Clark is now a staple on the world’s music scene. He keeps more than busy with a variety of musically varied projects and has established himself at home and abroad as a popular jazz-drumming bandleader.

Clark’s latest project , the Headhunters’ Platinum, will be released on June 14 on the Owl Studios label and will feature the group under the leadership of Clark and Bill Summers, with contributions from Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Killah Priest, Donald Harrison, Patrice Rushen, Rob Dixon, Derrick Gardner and Richie Goods.


Dominic Fragman: Tell me about some of the projects you have been working on recently. You’ve been running all over the place.

Mike Clark: I’ll give you a little background of what’s been going on lately. I had a record out about two years ago called Blueprints of Jazz. It’s an all acoustic, all straight-ahead jazz record–hard bop. It features Christian Mcbride on bass, Donald Harrison on alto, Patrice Rushen on piano, Christian Scott on trumpet and Jed Levy on tenor. It was picked by DownBeat as one of the best jazz records of the decade–of course out of a couple hundred or so, but still, I’ll roll with that!

I had it in my mind to pattern a band after something close to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers but with a modern sensibility. So, the recording had all the elements of 1950’s and 60’s hard bop and post bop bands. It was really fun. We got everything in one take and walked out. We were done in one day. So, that was cool.

I also just did an organ record this past year for Owl Studios called Carnival Of Soul. I wanted to address the organ thing because I did a lot of those gigs as a kid and even here in New York in my later life with cats like Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith. My first gigs as a leader were with an organ trio. When I was about twenty years old, I had a four night a week organ trio gig for almost four years in California and we were killin! We played everything I wanted! It was great. So, I did a lot of playing in the organ environment and I figured, let me be honest and instead of recording what I think might be the latest thing to get airplay, let me play something that reflects who I actually am.

The record just got picked by JazzWeek Radio as one of the best of 100 for 2010. I had some great players out for the dates. Lenny White came out to play on a track. We did a two drum cut for Big Sid Catlett’s “Mop-Mop” and turned it into a funk groove. It was a lot of fun. We called it “Catlett Outta the Bag.” That track is also on Lenny’s new CD, Anamoly. I had three different organ players – Jerry Z, Jeff Pittson, Delbert Bump – Rob Dixon on saxophone, Tim Ouimette on trumpet and Delbert McClinton was a special guest. He is an old friend of mine. He came over and did a killer rendition of “Cry Me a River.”

Between Blueprints of Jazz and Carnival of Soul, I am going back and forth trying to book both bands.

Right. You just went over to Russia with one of your groups. Who did you make that trip with?

Yeah, I just got back into town not too long ago. I went with my organ trio with Jerry Z on B3 and Rob Dixon. Rob Dixon is a great tenor player who comes out of Indianapolis. We toured all throughout Russia, Siberia, everywhere.

How was that?

It was killin! We drew 600 to 1000 people per night! It was unbelievable! I’m a drummer for crying out loud! People know who we are over there. They were really into it. They were like, “We’ve been waiting 20 years to hear you!” I just couldn’t believe the audiences because I’m not a front man. And we didn’t play any fusion, just all jazz. They are way into it!

We also have a new Headhunters’ CD coming out on Owl Studio’s label that is really workin’. It features Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Killah Priest, Donald Harrison, Patrice Rushen, Rob Dixon, Derrick Gardner, Richie Goods, Bill Summers, and myself. A cross generational effort, we mixed up a lot of genres–jazz, funk, African, latin, and even hip hop on several pieces–that was fun! I wrote or collaborated on most of the tunes.

Something else I am quite excited about is my new project, a sextet I am leading, called Indigo Blue, featuring me, of course, Christian McBride, Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, Rob Dixon, and Antonio Farao. It is acoustic, straight-ahead jazz music, New York-style. We are recording it live at The Iridium at an upcoming date July 29th through the 31st in Manhattan.

So that’s kind of what’s going on and also I’ve been going to Italy to play with the amazing, Antonio Farao. I’ve done a lot of stuff with him over there–a lot of touring. I also did a recent tour overseas with Jeff Berlin, a brilliant bass player. I also am appearing on an episode of Treme this season, the HBO series about post Katrina New Orleans with Donald Harrison and The Congo Nation.

Do you still find time to practice every day?

No, no. I don’t get to practice every day. I practice when I’m home. It’s a drag because I can’t play the drums in my apartment. Now, I do shed on the pad in the crib. Unfortunately, it’s hard with my schedule lately to get downtown and practice things where I need hand and feet coordination or stuff where I need to develop new ideas on the kit.

I know that you do practice Buddhism and meditation. How do you think that kind of focus and mental clarity affect your practice and playing? Does it put these things in a better or higher place for you?

Great question. Herbie actually taught me Buddhism and taught me to chant “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō.” Buddhism postulates “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” is the law of the universe, of cause and effect through sound and rhythm. So in chanting for your dream, you uncover the reason you have not yet obtained it and you do what they call your Human Revolution. You start changing the parts of your inner world that are not so attractive. Basically, if the universe is a mirror of your inner world that is telling you-no matter how subtly-“I can’t,” “I’m not this enough” or “I’m not that enough” the chanting will smash that away. The Buddha nature is nothing mystic or supernatural. It is just the point in your life that is positive. The point that says “Yes I can.” Once that is a part of your foundation then yes, you can!

That is why people get these great benefits. For example, the tune “Actual Proof.” When we were recording that tune they were not going to let me play those beats. They wanted me to play a really simple thing. When I said something to the upper managements folks it only turned into an argument. So, I took what Herbie taught me about the chant and I snuck off into another room for about twenty minutes. It was a far out thing because I was a young guy and my prayer was . . . well, everything else for the record was already finished and in the can and fairly pedestrian, I felt. I said, man, this is Herbie Hancock. Everybody in the world is going to hear this. So I chanted that I would be immortalized by this one track in jazz history. You know, I was 25 years old! There was no use chanting to be the regular guy who’s playing down at the pizza joint. I wanted the whole thing!

So, I chanted and something inside of me changed. Instead of going back out there all confrontational and meeting the guy street style, I was very polite. I even lied to him and said, “Hey that’s a great idea but why don’t you let me try it this way.” By doing that and complimenting his idea I disarmed him. So he let me do it. I could play what I wanted under the condition that I got it in one take, if not we did it his way. I said “OK.” Now, indeed everybody knows me from that track from that moment until the day I kick the bucket!

That’s what you wanted!

Yeah and the track was credited with a drum innovation and many drummers that I know tell me the tune was a huge part of their roots. I mean like three generations of guys because that record was made in 1974. I have all kinds of really great drummers-guys who I think are fantastic-I don’t even know they know me and I’ll be sitting there checking out their gig talking about how great they are and they come up to me and say “Oh man, are you Mike Clark?” And they thank me for “Actual Proof.” I am honored and happy to be able to make that kind of contribution. And all of it came from that Buddhist prayer. Without that, I would have probably knuckled under and just done it the other way. That is why they entitled that track “Actual Proof” because Buddhism says you get what you chant for through inner reformation. That is what they call actual proof: a change within you made by you.

So I chant every morning and evening. I do focus on my drumming and music goals but also other aspects of my life.

So along with the meditation, do you assess the place where music and drumming puts you within the universe and/or how it helps the universe?

Well, music transcends all boundaries and languages. It’s not like when you go from country to country and you can’t speak the language any longer. Music is a language. Musicians have this vocabulary that we speak and speak to other people even. I think, being that music transcends this communication hurdle, it is a super positive force for bringing people together. You don’t have to be from the same ethnic background or anything and we can still get down and play together right away.

Music also evokes all these creative emotions, which is the thing that most people gravitate towards. There is a lot of value there because of how it makes us feel. Life is made up second to second of feelings: how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about others. And, we are always trying to polish and improve our inner world so that our art will be clearer and of service to others as opposed to just being an extension of our ego. Ego is definitely involved because no one wants to get up and sound bad. We want to present something that we believe in and that we like. We-musicians-are also working on this inner picture by way of practice. That is how we hide the blemishes in our personality. It is not dishonesty. We are really trying to present a better picture. If you track it down further, we are trying to present-or be-a better person. In that aspect, it is a hell of a contribution to our society and our world.

Through music and art, musicians and artists want to bring the most positive energy and causes in the world to the forefront. Therefore, it is a great service that we perform. Sometimes we are not paid correctly like a lawyer or a person on Wall Street but we do have the satisfaction of knowing we are doing the right thing. There is no doubt.

You were saying earlier, you get to check out drummers playing around the city sometimes. Who are some of your favorite players right now?

I get hit quite a bit with this, “which one of the new drummers are you listening to or do you like?” Here is my answer. I don’t listen to fusion drummers or chop electric drummers. I listen to jazz drummers. Some of the jazz drummers I like that are in the environment playing today are Billy Hart. Billy is one of my all time favorites. I love his improvisation and his sense of history and his innovation. I love what he hears and what he brings to the music. He is a master of improvisation. He can really handle himself in the band. I really love how he plays.

I love Lenny White. I’m talking about jazz not fusion. I love Lenny in any situation but I especially love him in jazz. He’s fascinating to listen to. You never know what he’s going to do. And he has the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest swing beat I have heard since the passing of Elvin Jones. I can’t imagine anybody who has got a deeper groove when it comes to swingin’ than Lenny White. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know that about him. They know him from fusion and that’s a damn shame because he’s really a master of jazz music. He makes a lot of records.

I also love Al Foster. I think Al can really swing. He’s got great ideas. He’s got great hands and feet. He has got great chops and I love listening to him play. He is another one where I don’t know what is going to happen next.

Those are the guys I listen to. When I hear everybody else, I like them. I don’t dislike them. I like them. But nobody knocks me out like those guys. And then, of course, there are the heroes that we all have from yesteryear: Elvin, Tony, Philly Joe, Max Roach, Roy Haynes. We don’t have to go on and name everybody.

How would you define chops?

For me, there is a difference between chops and technique. Technique would be the mechanics of how to play certain figures or ideas. Chops are what a guy does in the heat of the moment right on the spot. When I say chops, I do not mean how fast I can play or how high I can jump or any of that. What I mean is I am functioning at my best; hearing everything in a split second; translating what I am hearing into the music and having it be musical right away. Being able to play ideas that challenge my hands and feet and at the same time have that coming through the history; coming through the music. My chops are good when all these things are present during the hit. You know what I mean? Like when a tenor player tells me, “man, my chops feel good,” it does not mean he is blowing a mile a minute. It means his technique, the way he feels with his horn, the way he is laying with the band, his phrases are all there. Now, it doesn’t mean he can’t play all the fast stuff.

All these qualities are all necessary factors for development as a player in drumming and music overall–what do you think the next step in music and drumming might be? Where or what is the new thing?

Well . . . I have no idea. It’s a great question. I wish I had an answer. Here is why I think it may be a difficult question: the contour, the shape, the history of jazz has shifted. A lot of the younger musicians were not alive so they did not get to hear some of the great masters play. As a result, when you hear these newer cats play you can tell they got it off the records. That is not their fault. There is nowhere else to get it. For example, Jimmy Cobb is one of the last guys left. So, because people are only able to get the stuff from records, it sounds different now. Changes and shifts in the perceptions of playing have developed. These changes are also a result of record companies and their attempts–and successes–at placing and creating whoever they want to make the latest hero. When this kind of thing happens, it doesn’t mean that the guy they pick has any history, therefore, the real history is even further diluted and the tradition slips further away. And, when I say the tradition, I don’t mean you have to play the same phrasing like the guys fifty years ago. I mean that somewhere in the playing the tradition, the language is alive. Now, however, in a lot of the music where there is “swingin” the jazz lexicon and language is absent. Therefore, it can really go anywhere.

You could have any combination where different understandings of playing can come out. Where it used to be there was Chick Webb, then Gene Krupa, then Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson; and that is on that side of the fence. On the other side there was Big Sid Catlett and then Max Roach then Philly Joe then Elvin and Tony. Those guys were all logical extensions of what was going to happen next. In fact, at times, if you were paying close enough attention, you could actually predict what kind of direction things were going to go.

Now I am not saying any of this is bad! It is just what I see. As a result, I just don’t know what’s going to happen. That is all I am getting at. I mean people are trying to assimilate anything from Buddy Rich to Elvin and more because there is so much information out now with computers and YouTube. It is not like the old days where you had to go sit with and talk to Roy Haynes or Philly Joe or Elvin to try to understand what was going on. Now you can just go online and even find it written out.

But, you will not get that life and feel from recordings and computers. And based on all of this I haven’t got the foggiest idea what’s up!

Any idea where you would like to see it go?

I would like to see a creative mind that has put some time into the instrument and has also put some time into the history. This does not mean they have to play like somebody from long ago. There is nothing I hate more than these bebop snobs that tell you if you are not playing like 1955 that you can’t swing. Someone needs to take them out in the ally and kick the crap out of them because that is complete b.s. And you can quote me on that! That’s some bullshit! Those guys don’t even sound like the cats from the 50’s. I played with Sonny Stitt and a lot of the guys from back in that time period. Trust me, these guys now are very good. It does not mean they are any better or any worse. It means they don’t sound like the guys that invented and came from bebop. They are trying to play a music that was happening around fifty years ago based on what they think happened. There is nothing wrong with that. It just does not ring true in my brain.

And there is nothing wrong with that either-not ringing true in my brain! Some of it does. However, if you are going to say that this space that I understand is the only place where there is value, then what you are doing is acting like a dog. You are peeing on territory. Like an old caveman: marking off the area of your expertise and claiming that to be the only area. That kind of behavior protects you from having to compete with somebody who understands a different area. It is really some old business that is really territorial and fear-based.

As someone who has been dubbed as such–not just by a vote or because it was written somewhere, but because people continue to approach you and tell you that you are–what does it take to be an innovator?

Well, I do not think I have played anything that has not been played before. I think I have rearranged what was played before me in a sensibility that worked for my brain. So it was not that I did not carry the tradition with me, it is that I studied it. I studied all those drummers we have talked about and more-and not just the drummers but also the bands that went before me. So, when I came up with those things I played with Herbie, it seemed to me a logical extension of the stuff that I had listened to and studied. But, instead of playing swing, we were going to play eighth note or sixteenth note patterns-whatever that funky thing is. So I orchestrated my understanding in that direction rather than play it the way I heard everybody else play it.

I was never examining what other cats did technically or exactly how they played their beats. I never copied them. I just tried to play in that direction. There was no, right right left left foot foot stuff. Your hands and feet will just take you there and if they don’t then you work on it. I worked on my own kind of technique by listening to guys and then trying to play the sound or direction of whatever it was they were playing. So then I took that information and something like what is on “Actual Proof” just poured out of me. I do not understand how another cat feels, thinks or breathes when he sits down behind the drums. I just know me so I have just played my stuff. But every record and drummer I have heard has influenced me. Paul Murphy’s drumming has influenced me. It is all in my brain and it can come out. I played an avant garde gig not too long ago and drew on some of the things I knew Paul does-not exactly, just in that direction. I tried to get my bass drum moving like he does and play a lot of rolls and make things thick like he can. Although I do not know what his sticking is, I worked to create some kind of swell inside the music like I saw Paul do many times with Jimmy Lyons. And it worked great! Everybody liked it!

Originally Published