It is both a blessing and a curse to drum master Mike Clark that his fan base remains interested in the contributions he made to beat language during his mid-1970s tenure with the Headhunters, the popular funk-jazz unit founded by Herbie Hancock. Clark’s bespoke grooves on hits like “Actual Proof” and “God Make Me Funky” remain hip-hop lingua franca, looped, sampled and appropriated by high-profile producers and turntablists since Grandmaster Flash used the latter track in the early ’80s. His fans include several generations of jazz drummers of all stylistic predispositions, who regard “the godfather of linear funk,” to quote one YouTube clip title, as a model for imparting texture and motivic variety to groove without sacrificing elemental phatness.
Clark, 71, continues to bring those qualities to funky music, most notably with a N’awlins-flavored edition of the Headhunters that he co-leads with percussionist Bill Summers, a ’70s bandmate, featuring sidemen like saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Chris Severin. But it frustrates Clark that his fans—and bookers—are less cognizant of another unit, Wolff & Clark Expedition, that he co-leads with pianist Michael Wolff; their most recent offering is the well-reviewed 2015 album Expedition 2 (Random Act), which includes trumpeter Wallace Roney and bassist Christian McBride. At the time he was readying the album, Wolff elaborated on Clark’s “serious strengths”: his “straight-ahead playing; his special funk stuff; his mixture of all those beats; the way he turns the time around. I feel a total freedom rhythmically to do whatever I want to do with him.” Clark also notes that he’s currently mixing a kinetic organ-trio date with California-based Delbert Bump, and points out Philadelphia bassist Dylan Taylor’s One in Mind (Blujazz), on which Clark drum-paints to improvisations by the late guitarist Larry Coryell.
In July, Clark was back in New York after a week teaching at a West Coast jazz camp, and was looking forward to upcoming swinging engagements with vibraphonist Mark Sherman and two frequent partners, pianist George Cables and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. We sat in the book-filled living/dining room of his flat in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where he lives with his partner, June Cross, a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at Columbia University, and two mellow cats. After the opening pleasantries, Clark cut to the chase.
“Headhunters sold millions, or close to it, so naturally everybody knows me from those couple of records and not the jazz records I’ve made—and I’ve made a lot of them,” Clark says. “I don’t have drum language that goes with funk or fusion. I’m a bebop and post-bebop drummer. My heroes are Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. What made me different is that I spread their stuff on different parts of the set, using jazz phrasing but without the swing beat. Max once told me, ‘You’re totally funky, but I don’t understand what you’re doing.’ I told him, ‘A lot of it is your stuff—paradiddles and doubles using different limbs.’ When I showed him, he cracked up: ‘That is my stuff.’”
Clark says he was 4 when his father, a railroad switchman in love with jazz and drumming, heard the toddler spontaneously execute a cohesive Gene Krupa tom-tom beat on his kit, took him to a local boîte and convinced the band to let him sit in on “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “I was too small to sit down and play, so I stood,” Clark recalls. “I always could play what I heard. As an adult I played some of Louie Bellson’s stuff for him. He asked, ‘Did you write this out?’ ‘No, I used to do this.’ He said, ‘You don’t know how close you are to what I did.’”
Clark’s childhood was peripatetic, as his father took assignments in Roanoke, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and New Orleans, where, he relates, “I played a lot.” Paul Ferrara, a drummer with Al Hirt and Louis Prima, gave him tips, and Clark has a picture of himself at 11, on a gig with trumpeter Murphy Campo at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street; the bassist that evening was a teenaged Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John. Later, at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, where Clark’s uncle, an ex-boxer, took tickets, he met legendary Ellington drummer Sam Woodyard backstage, and was told to dig out quarter notes on the cymbal with an “ice cream scoop” gesture. “I was never not a musician and I was never not in a nightclub,” he says. “Other kids didn’t roll like that.”
It’s safe to say that few other 1946 babies were rolling with Art Blakey’s Drum Suite, a 1957 release that Clark’s father brought home. “That changed everything,” Clark says. “Then I heard Max and Philly Joe, and slowly built up a record collection. I didn’t know about form and chord changes, but somehow I got it, and I could play something close to Max’s solos. The new way of comping, no more 4/4 bass drum, what they used to call ‘dropping bombs’—it was an exciting new frontier.”
Clark was “working all the time” by 1964, when he graduated from high school in Sacramento. On extended visits to his father in Fort Worth, where he gigged with, among others, Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins and Jimmy Reed, he mastered the shuffle beat and “learned to play a slow blues like I mean it.” He swung for Vince Guaraldi in the mid-’60s, and would tour with the pianist later that decade and into the ’70s. Already “working seven nights a week” in the Bay Area by 1967, he got a house in East Oakland with Paul Jackson, his “best friend,” then playing upright bass, that became an epicenter for musical and various extracurricular activities. A favorite spot was the Both/And Club, which booked national stars like Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, who, when “they couldn’t afford to bring out Lenny White or one of the guys who made the records,” retained either Clark’s or Eddie Marshall’s services.
In 1973, after Harvey Mason left Headhunters, White and Jackson separately recommended Clark to Hancock. “I wasn’t sure I wanted the gig,” Clark says. “Of course, anyone would want to play with Herbie. But I knew everyone would know me from that thing, whatever you want to call it. They didn’t call it anything then. I find playing funky music tune after tune incredibly boring. It’s a great rush, but after two of them I’m done. I want to play a standard with brushes, or swing hard, or do something creative. But it was a job, and I needed rent. I asked Herbie all the time if we could play ‘The Eye of the Hurricane’ or some of his jazz pieces. ‘We’ll do that later.’ But we never did. The whole band put the cuffs on me, like, ‘Play that funky music, white boy.’ It was completely ‘let’s make some money.’ When I was playing with blues guys who could really shout and scream, then it made sense. But when you’re back there chopping wood for a bunch of jazz musicians, it’s like a dog getting off on your leg.”
After leaving the Headhunters in 1977, Clark returned to the Both/And for an 18-month, five-nights-a-week run with a sextet led by Eddie Henderson that included saxophonist Dave Liebman. “I had to dig deeper and deeper,” Clark says. “It was very important then to be what they called ‘modern’—to make that jump from Philly Joe and Max into Elvin and Tony. I worked out a lot of stuff with Eddie. I had all these bits and pieces of each era together, even 1940, and that gig helped me to solidify who I am.”
He moved to New York after the Both/And closed in 1978, taking an 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. sinecure at a speakeasy at 138th and Amsterdam in Harlem for $50 a night. That spawned a slew of associations—avant-blues with saxophonist Julius Hemphill and trumpeter Baikida Carroll, trios with Wolff and guitarist Jack Wilkins, several years with trumpeter Jack Walrath, frequent organ gigs on the Tri-State Area soul-jazz circuit. “None of these were like the Vanguard,” Clark says. “This is where I learned to play the music much better than when I first moved here. I wasn’t business-minded. I knew Bruce Lundvall and those guys from Herbie. I didn’t go talk to them about record dates. What I did was play five to seven nights a week for years, always straight-ahead.”
He intends to apply that blue collar m.o. as he progresses through his eighth decade. “Everything has changed,” Clark says. “Drums are tuned differently. The cymbals are different. You have a soundman that controls everything, and a monitor screaming in your ear. You can’t keep going along like it’s 1960. I make the changes I can live with, that allow me to continue to work without changing parts of my music that I love.”