An Interview with Drummer Mike Clark

Swing, Wisdom, and Perseverance from the seminal jazz and funk pioneer.

Mike Clark gained fame throughout the drumming community during his tenure with Herbie Hancock in the early 1970s, most notably because of his tight, syncopated, and innovative grooves on the album Thrust. But that hardly scratches the surface of his extensive output throughout the jazz and fusion worlds—a catalog you’d be remiss not to check out.

Clark’s credits include work with Christian McBride, Chet Baker, John Scofield, Woody Shaw, Chris Potter, Wallace Roney, Gil Evans, and Bobby McFerrin, along with a slew of other jazz heavyweights. And as a leader, the drummer recently released the killing album Indigo Blue: Live at the Iridium, which features Christian McBride, Ronald Harrison, Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, and Antonio Farao.

Clark is also an accomplished educator, international clinician, and author. His two critically acclaimed books include Funk Drumming: Innovative Grooves & Advanced Concepts, and the 2020 jazz-focused release from Hudson Music, The Post-Bop Drum Book.

The Drumming Blog spoke with the seasoned drummer via phone at his Manhattan home.

Could you tell us about your current projects?

Mike: I have a new record out. Well it’s not that new—in fact it’s probably falling off the charts now. [laughs] But it’s called Indigo Blue, and it features Christian McBride, Randy Brecker, Donald Harrison Jr., Rob Dixon, and the great pianist Antonio Farao from Italy. It’s an acoustic jazz record, and it’s out on Rope A Dope Records.

I’ve been playing with the Eddie Henderson quintet, which features Peter Zak, and sometimes Gerald Cannon and Donald Harrison. We’re getting ready to do another record.

And I’m doing a drum book right now for Hudson Music, The Post-Bop Drum Book. I’m not doing anybody else’s stuff in there. I’m not covering Elvin Jones and Tony Williams and Philly Joe and stuff. I’m doing my stuff, and my take on everything. [editor’s note: you can purchase the book HERE] I also do clinics. I just came back from China. I was there with Dave Weckl, Tommy Igoe, and Simon Phillips.

We have a new Headhunters record that’s killing. It’s in the can. We don’t have a label yet, but a few labels are looking at it. There are a lot of guys on this one. I also just did Jerry Z’s record. Lenny White and I might play drums together on a couple of tracks.

And for the kicker, Lenny White and I have an album together that’s in the can with Stanley Clarke, Robben Ford, Wallace Roney…a whole bunch of guys. But we’re getting ready to mix it. We did a couple of live gigs. We had Kenny Garrett. The great Victor Bailey is on it, along with Stanley Clarke. So there’s two bassists and two drummers on it. And it’s not overcrowded. It’s right in there.

What drew you to the drums originally?

Mike: My father was a drummer, and he quit playing when he was about twenty years old. But he had a tremendous jazz collection. And a drumset was always in the house. My parents used to tell me that before I could walk or talk or anything, they’d put me in whatever the equivalent of a bassinet was in those days right next to the record player. And they’d play music for their friends. I guess I was taking it all in, because this was going on for the first four years.

And my dad was a party kind of guy. He had people over all the time. And in those days, the music of the day was jazz. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, the whole thing. Artie Shaw. Louis Prima. Whoever. And that was his thing. He was a blues head as well.

I walked over to the drums one day when I was about four. I just sat down, and I played kind of like the Gene Krupa tom-tom thing. And it all made sense and it was in time. And according to my dad, it was swinging pretty well. So he came home and said, “What?” He was pretty pleased. [laughs] He was like, “Alright!”

That night, he took me to a club where his friends were playing, and I sat in with the band. I couldn’t reach the pedals, so I had to stand up and play. And they gave me a solo. It was over “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I did the tom-tom thing, and I got a lot of howls. And I just started playing every day after that.

As soon as I was in first grade, I got into school orchestra, and I was very advanced. So, they bumped me up to dance band by the time I was in second or third grade. We’d play Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie…whatever. And that’s how I started. Also, because my dad knew a lot of people in the business, by the time I was about seven I suppose, he’d have me come in as a feature. By then I could play almost at an adult level. I could play a Gene Krupa–type of deal. And I was listening to Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Zutty Singleton, and Lionel Hampton. And they would hire me and pay me to come in and play. I’d play “Sing, Sing, Sing” and take a drum solo. And it’d be a feature thing—a novelty. And I even did this in the Blue Room of The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. And I played with a bunch of guys in New Orleans. We didn’t live there, but we were going there a lot. So, I’d sit in at this famous store with all kinds of people and play. And I just kept playing.

So that’s what happened. I started professionally at a really young age. And then I became involved with every function that had jazz music that I could possibly become involved with.

Then when I got to be eight or nine, my dad brought home an Art Blakey record. I think it was Drum Suite. And that blew his mind and my mind. He didn’t know who Art Blakey was. He just saw a drummer on the cover of a record.

That’s when everything changed for me. I was an advanced guy for being eight years old. And some guys do that. They learn young, and they can get it right away. And some guys become really great from the ages of twenty on. You know, it goes differently for everybody.

But I had a fast start, where I could understand what the hands and feet were doing. Nobody had to show me. I didn’t take lessons. I could just do it. So, when he brought home the Art Blakey record, that kind of changed everything. Through that I found Bird, Max and Clifford Brown, Roy Haynes, and all of the rest of them up to this very second. When I heard Art Blakey, or when I heard the band come in, I thought, “This is a whole new world.” And I dug it right away. I didn’t understand it right away. But I didn’t not understand it either. It was drumming, you know? And great drumming at that. And I continue to play until now.

What did you see in all of that in terms of your passion for the drums?

Mike: Well I think it’s what I felt and what drove it and what I heard. My dad would take me to hear bands as a child. During my childhood he’d take me to jazz clubs, and we’d listen to bands together. And the excitement of the club life and the excitement of the bands—the brass and the trumpets and the tenors, and the drums hitting hard, swinging…. It all filled me up completely inside, you know? There was nothing else I ever wanted to do. And I was totally happy in that environment.

So, I guess it’s whatever you teach the brain when you’re young. [laughs] And my dad taught me. You know, sometimes I think, “Man, I could’ve been a lawyer.” [laughs] But my brain only knows this.

And now, of course it’s not just about making a living. That’s not what I’m driven by. There’s nothing about music that I don’t like. Nothing.

Did you take lessons?

Mike: I learned to read from a teacher. And still to this day when my reading gets funky and I don’t see any music for a while, I go study with a guy named Joe Bonadio who’s a great drummer and a great sight-reader. He’s trying to get my eyes up to a level like someone who’d be on Broadway. I’ve been reading music all my life. But then when I don’t see things, a lot of times as a jazz drummer, you only read sketches. And by today’s standards of reading, I feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up. It’s not like I can’t read. But I’m constantly improving it. But I never had lessons for how to drum or how to swing or how to play. None of that. I didn’t learn that way.

Given that perspective, would you recommend a beginner to take lessons?

Mike: Absolutely. I’d say get the best instructor that you can. Really seek out and do some research to find out who can really play. And get someone who can really play at a high level to teach you. That’s A.

And B—which is more important than anything in my mind—is that once you become proficient at manipulating the drumset or understanding your way around the drums, then play all you can with live musicians. That’s where you learn to play. Not in the drum room.

I mean the practice room is great. I’m not saying to not do any of that. But the more you play with people, the more in touch with music you are and the more you learn to play with the band.

It’s not about playing a drum solo. It’s the music that rules. And if you serve the music—in order to serve the music and learn how to serve the music—you have to play it enough with people to find out what that even means.

What does that mean to you?

Mike: It means a great community spirit. It means something all-inclusive as a human being. You’re being all-inclusive. You’re playing for the music, you’re on a team, and you’re using your instrument to enhance what’s going on—not to sell yourself. Not to say, “Watch how fast I can play this” or “Hey, look at me.” You know…it’s a real adult thing playing jazz music, because it’s all about swinging hard and trying to do the right thing at the right time that enhances the music. It doesn’t draw from the music to stop the flow or the concentration or the communication for an egotistical gesture.

I mean there’s a time and place in the music to play fast or play slow or play loud or play soft. And once again, if you can’t really know that information, you can’t really know how to do that unless you play with live humans. Because then, your reaction time is faster than the speed of time even. You can really get to what you need to get to in order to express yourself while making the band sound great and making the other people feel comfortable. That’s a drummer’s job. Don’t just watch a bunch of drum videos and play as many rudiments as fast as you can. That doesn’t make sense to me.

I mean, I can do all that stuff. But it’s like, “Why? If that’s not what’s called for, then why do it?” And that’s why I’m working all the time. So that’s why with my advice, I believe in what I’m telling you. I’m not just telling you a bunch of bunk. It’s my opinion, but it seems to work for me.

You used that word, “community.” Some artists, they treat other musicians like family. Do you have that concept when you’re playing?

Mike: Well, I certainly know musicians well enough to consider them family. I’ve known guys for years. That’s one level of what you’re asking.

But the bigger answer for me, by talking about community…. Let’s start with that. “Community” would mean the whole world and means not to isolate yourself from the world and not to isolate anyone else. Don’t draw boundaries between people. To me, that’s a good neighborhood policy. [laughs] You know what I mean? And I’m looking at it as a bigger picture, not just the band. But yeah, of course you get to know people really well and you respect their talent so much. And you have a lot of conversations both musically and offstage with them. And they become like family.

If everybody committed to the project, and we’re all really working, it’s like a basketball team. We’re trying to get down court and do the very best we can. It’s not about one guy doing a million half-court shots. It’s a community effort. Or simply put, it’s a band.

Was there ever one challenge that you’ve had coming up? How’d you get over it?

Mike: I think for me, when I’d play with the band…. I used to have my favorite musicians that I’d play with because they played in a style that was conducive to mine. Now, when I got out of that range, out of that comfort zone, and played with people with a style much different from mine, I would either feel bad about myself or feel awkward—even while hanging out with them, much less playing with them. And I’d either blame them for not knowing what I know, or inwardly I’d blame myself for not knowing what they’d know.

So, I did a bunch of research as a young guy on different kinds of jazz music. I’d learn how they would play in the ‘40s, the ‘50s, ‘60s, all the way up to what we’re doing now. So that way I don’t have to have a favorite group of people. I can almost play with anybody in the idiom. And I don’t have every one of those eras totally covered. But if you call me and tell me we’re going to play some sort of 1950s type of thing, or 1940s, there are a lot of different types of things in each of those eras to know. And I can’t know them all. But I try to know a lot about that. And that just gives me more people to play with.

I know a lot of young drummers just want to play Miles Smiles. Well, there’s more than that. That’s great, and I also love that deeply. But I had to find a lot of different avenues of expression in different genres of acoustic swinging music. It just brought more order into my life. So, when guys call me, they can trust me to pretty much take on whatever it is that needs to be done.

I mean, I can’t do everything, don’t get me wrong. But I can do a lot of different stuff in order to make a living. It’s the same with the funky thing. People know me for a certain style of funk, and that’s my style I guess if you want to say that. But I can play any level of the funky stuff. I can sound real “in-the-pocket” like Al Jackson or I can sound real fusion. It depends on what’s up.

But I know all that stuff. And when I started playing with Herbie, around Oakland, all of a sudden for some reason I was doing mostly gigs with Vince Guaraldi, Woody Shaw, and Bobby Hutcherson. We were playing straight-ahead. And it was pretty hip jazz. And somehow, I started doing some funk gigs, and I had lived in Texas at one point and played a lot of blues with a lot of the famous blues artists. So, I had a good shuffle. I had a good backbeat. And I worked on it, making it sound funkier and fatter—knowing how to strike the snare and get a nasty bark out of it for a backbeat. I’d play with Sam and Dave and others. But with a lot of the soul artists of that time, you’d have to play really simply and just sit in the groove. And I taught myself to do that. And also, when I was in Oakland, I was one of the guys that pioneered that sound. And I just used my jazz sensibility to put those things together.

But my funk comes from the roots of the music as my jazz does. I didn’t just start with Jack DeJohnette—and that’s not to pick on him. He’s a genius. But I didn’t just start with him. I went way back.

I mean some of my students start with Jack or Tony Williams, and I have to take them back and teach them about Philly Joe and Max Roach because they don’t have that. And it sounds funny…. Even if you don’t play real modern stuff, if you have that background, your modern stuff will make sense. We’ve all heard drummers that unload a whole bunch of busy stuff throughout the music, which I like if it’s appropriate, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense. It’s like, “Man, it sounded like it came out right, but it sounds wrong. You came out on beat 1, but somehow it sounds stilted and it sounds like a bull in a china shop or something.”

And if you have that bebop understanding, you can make your modern stuff really add up. It really makes sense.

When you play, do you have an image in your mind or some concept?

Mike: Not really. I do try to have a vision of what I think is hip—what I think is great. But I try to not think of anything when I’m playing. And I trained myself to concentrate on what I’m doing in the moment, just like I’m doing right now in this interview. I try to be as 100-percent there as I possibly can. And so, I don’t really have a preconceived notion of what I’m going to do.

But I mean, I’m a human being. So sometimes I do. Sometimes I’m like, “Hey I have an idea,” and I haven’t even heard the piece yet. [laughs] So I try not to do that and to keep myself present and accounted for.

The great fighter, Larry Holmes…. I’m a big boxing fan. I remember watching him fight when he was in his prime, and no one could beat him for about five years. He was really doing it, and he kind of adopted Muhammad Ali’s style, and he did it his own way. But, at one time a commentator said that one of the things that made him great was “ringman-ship.” When he was in the ring, there were guys that hit harder and could maybe do things that he couldn’t do. But he had a way of controlling himself in the ring.

When I watch a great drummer like Billy Hart play, I consider him to have great ringman-ship if you will. Because when he’s on his bandstand, he seems to be extremely centered, and he owns that space. It’s not like he’s just completely doing his thing. And that’s not what I mean by that. He’s doing his thing, but in conjunction with everybody else. But he’s very sure-footed on the stage. He’s concentrating. He’s all the way there in the moment.

And I think that’s the secret, right there. If you’re armed with some history and you’re armed with some pretty good hands and feet for manipulating a drumset and getting around the drums in a musical fashion, I think that’s pretty much it. And to a degree, how you fine-tune that is up to the individual.

Is there any one piece of advice that really stuck with you when you were younger?

Mike: Sure. Never give up your dreams. No matter what anyone tells you, if they put you down or tell you can’t do this or you don’t know how to do this, or that there’s no way, or that so-and-so does it so much better….. No matter what kind of slander, or what kind of B.S. comes your way, never give up on what you know is correct about yourself.

Most artists know what it is that’s great about themselves, and they also know their flaws. I know my good points, and I also know my flaws, my holes in my playing. My neglected areas—where I rested on my laurels and didn’t learn this or didn’t learn that. And so, I say never quit expanding on your knowledge. Continue to grow. And don’t let anybody talk you out of that. If you want to grow and you want to succeed and you have the determination, you’ll do it.

When I first did the stuff that I’m now known for on the funky side with Herbie Hancock, everybody said, “Oh man. Nobody’s going to know where 1 is. What you’re doing is too much.” And I said, “Look. I’m just kind of taking what Roy Haynes and Max Roach and Tony Williams did and throwing it in a stew and putting a backbeat in it.” And I did it, and it became very successful. And I did it in the face of people telling me, “You can’t do that. Just play straight 2 and 4 with an occasional drum fill.” Get out of here with that. [laughs] I had to go up against them all.

So it’s not always easy. And you have to persevere.

Mike Clark’s Gear:
DW drums
Istanbul Agop cymbals
Innovative Percussion drumsticks
Evans drumheads

For more information on Mike Clark, head to www.drummermikeclark.info