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Checking in No. 7: Scott Clark

Scott Clark (Photo by Peter Gannushkin)
Richmond-based drummer and composer Scott Clark often draws on his Native American heritage to create music that is at times challenging and poignant. A streamed concert at Firehouse Theatre on September 2nd was his first live performance in several months. (This photo is from another occasion. It was taken by Peter Gannushkin). 

Scott Clark is a Richmond-based drummer and composer inspired in part by the spiritual quest underpinning John Coltrane’s music and the social critiques of Max Roach. Much of his output is experimental in nature, recalling the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. He’s drawn heavily on his native ancestry as a source of inspiration for his compositions (he’s of Creek and Cherokee descent). In 2014, he premiered the suite Bury My Heart inspired by stories about the struggles between Native Americans and the United States government as told in Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It was released on cd by Clean Feed records in 2016. In 2018, he released a second album on Clean Feed called ToNow – a musical contribution to the protrests at Standing Rock Reservation. You’ll hear excerpts of both of these works in this episode and Scott delves more deeply into his musical inspirations, shares his thoughts about coping with life during the pandemic and his perspective on the protests that ensued after the death of George Floyd.

The segment includes musical excerpts by Hank Williams, The Temptations, Charles Earland, John Coltrane, Buddy Rich, the Scott Clark 4tet, Scuo, Max Roach and Matana Roberts.

Listen here to a 2014 performance by the Scott Clark 4tet playing excerpts from Bury My Heart. Also includes an interview with Clark.  

Edited Transcript:

[MUSIC: “Little Crow’s War” by the Scott Clark 4-tet]

PETER SOLOMON (Host): I’m Peter Solomon. This is Checking in, a series of interviews in which local musicians talk about their music, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and how they are staying productive and inspired. I began my conversation with tonight’s guest, Scott Clark, by asking him about his musical background.

SCOTT CLARK: Like most of us, I kind of started playing real early on in life and ended up going to music school for it. I graduated from VCU with a music degree in Jazz Studies, and I've kind of just been active in the Richmond scene ever since. 

SOLOMON: What sort of music were you exposed to when you were younger?

[MUSIC: I Saw the Light by Hank Williams]

CLARK: Well, my dad was a big country music fan. And so a lot of like, early classic country music like Hank Williams and Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard, you know, the kind of those classic, I guess, 60s 70s, Dolly Parton-era of country music and my mom was into r & b and then just like top 40 stuff, so a lot of like The Temptations with my mom and music like that. So it's kind of an interesting cross section between the two.

[MUSIC: My Girl by The Temptations]  

SOLOMON: Has that informed your music?

CLARK: You know, it's funny, as I've gotten older, I've gone back and especially with the country music stuff and checked out more of that stuff and realized how much of it I knew without realizing just how much I knew because I just grew up hearing it all the time. And a lot the same too with the old r&b stuff. It's just like… background noise in a way, you're not really realizing that you're listening to it in the car. And then as you get older, with more focused listening, you kind of are surprised with just how much you know, so I'm sure it's in there. I mean, I can't point to a specific thing of Merle Haggard’s that ended up in any of my music that I composed necessarily but I'm sure it's in there somewhere because it kind of, you know, forms … a bit of your musical identity. But, you know, ironically… when I was in high school and stuff, I was really into hip hop and rap music and stuff. So there's that and marching band music. So where's the - I don't know where where I necessarily fall in the spectrum of influence- a little bit of everything, 

SOLOMON: What was your entry into jazz? 

CLARK: When I was in high school, I was really big into marching band stuff and rudimental drumming and a drum teacher of mine turned me on to Buddy Rich… 

[MUSIC: Time Check by Buddy Rich Orchestra]

Just because he knew that I'd be way into his chops. And so he was one of the first people. It was him and then I bought this CD randomly of Idris Muhammad just because it was called Acid Jazz and I thought that sounded like a cool little thing.

[MUSIC: Black Talk by Charles Earland] 

So those are like the first two exposures to jazz music that I had and then you know if you just find one person on one of those records, you're like, Okay, well I wonder who else this drummer played with and then you find 10 other musicians that then you just kind of branch out from there. 

SOLOMON: Who were the players and not just drummers, I guess that, are kind of like the major influences on your music. 

CLARK: John Coltrane, for sure.

[MUSIC: Spiritual by John Coltrane]

Even just the idea of John Coltrane, I think is one of the biggest influences on me and in my music. And then, I mean, there's so many, you know, from different genres inside of the jazz thing, but if I had to point to just one, at this moment, on this day, I would say John Coltrane, for sure. 

SOLOMON: So explain what it is about Coltrane that you have found particularly inspiring. 

CLARK: Well, you know, he was one of those people that he was a real early-on player, so he played in a lot of like the early 50s kind of early bebop era. But then, when he started, I remember a… summer in college, I went to the old Tower record store, I went and bought all of the Impulse Coltrane recordings that they had. I spent like $350 or something on CDs and I spent the whole summer just listening to his whole Impulse era. And for me when I got to like that later quartet stuff with Rashied Ali and those people, I guess Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner and his wife (Alice Coltrane), for me it was I was experiencing something other than just music. You know, you it really took you somewhere else and I could feel that he was reaching for something beyond just licks or notes or whatever. And I think that that really spoke to me a lot from where I wanted to make music from and where I want to listen and what I want to try and get out of music as well. 

SOLOMON: Switching to the projects that you've been working on recently, obviously over the last few years, a lot of your stuff has drawn on your own heritage as a Native American. Can you talk a little bit about ToNow - was that the most recent one? 

CLARK: Yes, that was the most recent release. And so that was inspired by the Standing Rock protest that was happening a couple years ago and truthfully is still a fight that's going on even though no one's talking about it at the moment.  And it was just a kind of a continuation of some of the research and reading and studying that I was doing just on my own time. And then just trying to put that into experience in music and hopefully trying to shine a light on what was happening, what has been happening and what still is happening to such a marginalized community of Americans really, you know. In my own little small way, you know, little small avant garde record or however you want to classify it, you know. If you can turn 10 people's eyes to it, then that's 10 more than knew about it before. 

SOLOMON: You’re listening to Checking in featuring drummer and composer Scott Clark. Coming up, we’ll hear about the ways that Scott has been impacted by the pandemic. We’ll listen next to an excerpt of his 2018 recording ToNow. This is called Red, White, Yellow. The title references the colors on Standing Rock Reservation’s flag. The musicians are Cameron Ralston on bass, Jason Scott on tenor saxophone, Bob Miller on trumpet and Alan Parker  and Toby Summerfield on guitars and Scott Clark on drums. 

[Music: Red, White and Yellow by Scott Clark]  

An excerpt from Red White and Yellow from Scott Clark’s recording “ToNow.” 

I’m Peter Solomon. Here’s more of my conversation with Scott Clark. We spoke in June, about three weeks after the death of George Floyd sparked protests against racial injustice across the country. 

How has the pandemic affected you? 

CLARK: Well, I mean, the first immediate thing is that it's just put a big halt to everything, like all the projects, all the all the gigs, all the work and a lot of the motivation as well has - this is a really suck the life out a lot of that for me personally. You know, they close schools down and now I'm a kindergarten teacher five days a week. And there's no gigs and there's still no gigs, really. So it's just been hard to keep up that motivation I think and try to think about when that is all going to come back and how it will come back and if it will come back the way we are used to it being. 

SOLOMON: What have you done to try and stay creative?

CLARK: I try to carve out time to listen as much as I can, to listen to check out music. Whether it be newer stuff or older stuff, or just stuff I already know, but just like stay connected in that way. And then truthfully, I was told one time I don't remember exactly how the story will be but my drum teacher Howard Curtis when I was at VCU told me one time that he had a guy he was on a session with. And he said he never really trusted anybody who spent too much time in the practice room and not enough time out living life. And so there's a part of this that like I feel, this is just what life is right now. I can't fight against that and I kind of have to lean into what we're confronted with, and be okay with that even though it's hard to do. So, there are days when it just doesn't, I just don't feel really connected to the music because of everything that's happening, you know, not just with the pandemic, but the past couple of weeks and all this stuff that's been taking place in the country and around the world. It's just sometimes it's draining to, you know, it sucks up your motivation. But then there are times when you can get it back and sit by the piano and write some music or listen to some music. So it’s a flux I guess. 

SOLOMON: I know you've been watching the events unfolding after the killing of George Floyd. I was wondering, what your thoughts were about that - and do you see that making its way into you music? 

CLARK: Okay, so first of all, it's terrible. You know, what, what happened to George Floyd and so many other African Americans in the past couple of months, past couple of weeks, past couple of days, past couple years and really 400 years, you know. I mean, it's, it's painful to watch. And I think that we're being confronted with this. Most of society I think is being confronted with this idea of like, there's no hiding behind just reading it on a newspaper anymore. Now you're going to watch this man die. You know, now you're going to watch these events happen because people have cameras and people have video  I'm hopeful that that the fact that it's so visible now will maybe start to bring change. I feel like what's happening now versus what happened a couple years ago in Ferguson. The the momentum of the past couple of weeks has really been transformative. I'm worried that might be  just accelerated it to try to get it to stop. And then no real reform ever actually happens. You know, like being here in the in Richmond with the Confederate monuments, being up and now being talked about getting taken down. I think it's great. I think that when you actually read why they were put up to begin with, even beyond who they're memorializing, which is why they were put on Monument Avenue, how they were marketed to people to come and live in Monument avenue that is going to be keeping African Americans away from the community. I mean, of course, it has to go. And you know, it's inspiring in so many ways. I went down, I think not this past Sunday, but the Sunday before, down to the Lee monument to look and be around and truthfully, it was the most diverse and peaceful experience I've ever had on Monument Avenue walking around there talking to people. 

Some artist gave my daughter a little drawing that she she did and signed it for us and took a picture. I mean, it was just like seeing that gave me some hope, you know, seeing these little kids, little African American kids sitting up on the statue with their fists in the air, you know, it brings so much hope. I just hope that it can be sustained and that people… of our generation and younger can keep this momentum going to have this sustained - this movement sustained to actual, actual systemic reform. There's just so many layers of it, though, that it's really going to be a long fight I think. 

SOLOMON: Do you see this making its way into your music? Because I feel like your music is sometimes politically charged, you know? 

CLARK: One thing that, you know, I have, obviously had no experience of is what it's like to be an African American living in America, you know. And so, there's elements of the heart of what these protests are about, that we have never experienced and I think it's important to be aware of that. And be mindful of that, and not try to somehow coopt that in a way. But at the same time, you know, we're all people trying to live this life, this thing together and I think just the - as far as it creeping into the music or being a part of the music, I think that in the way that any artist experiences life, that that life then ends up in their music. I think yes, it'll be there. You know, whether overtly or not I'm not really sure, but I know I've been spending a lot of time listening to old Max Roach records from the civil rights era, and, and I’m definitely being inspired by a lot of the music that I'm seeing being made now by African American artists. And so, I mean, I guess the short answer would be, I would have to imagine that it would, just by the nature of, of being a person living this moment in time. 

SOLOMON: Those Max Roach albums are powerful. I mean, I'm thinking of especially the one with Abbey Lincoln and and Oscar Brown Jr. 

[MUSIC: Freedom Day by Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln]

Freedom Now I guess it's got Coleman Hawkins it's a really interesting mix of players but and then there were a whole bunch of them that he did that, you know, from, I guess kind of meditations on that the same sorts of topics, you know? 

CLARK: Yeah. I mean it's there's that's the thing with his music that that I don't think I realized when I was younger checking him out, it's just how politically active he was in that movement, and seemingly, I guess, because of such I don't know if he got blacklisted or what but like, you know, Lift Every Voice and Sing is a great record. Members Don't Get Weary. I mean, there's so many from that time period that I think still really speak today which is, you know, it's kind of sad in a way right that this record made almost 60 years ago - you have a section of society still fighting for the same basic fundamental rights and not even privileges you know, just to be equal members of society through all aspects of society. 

[MUSIC: Troubled Waters by Max Roach] 

SOLOMON: You’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music. Tonight’s guest is drummer and composer Scott Clark. More from my conversation with Scott coming up in a few minutes. Here’s some music that he recorded with Richmond-based guitarist Scott Burton. The two Scotts formed a duo they called Scuo. This is one of the selections that they recorded together, it’s Shoulders on VPM Music. 

[Music: Shoulders by Scuo]

SOLOMON: Drummer Scott Clark with Scott Burton on guitar. That was called Shoulders. I’m Peter Solomon, you’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music.

Are there recordings or streamed performances that you go to kind of for inspiration?

CLARK: You know, it's funny. I haven't really watched many streamed performances lately. I did pull out the old like Koyaanisqatsi  movie that I have on DVD the other day from the Philip Glass movie from whenever it was - 80s and 90s. But I've actually been listening to a lot of Tyshawn Sorey, a great composer, drummer multi- instrumentalist.I think he's probably my age. He's been a real big inspiration, his compositional approach, and everything has been really inspirational.

SOLOMON: Can you tell me a specific example of something that you like of his and what it is that speaks to you about that work? 

CLARK: It's not his last record, but I think maybe one before but it's called Pillars. It's a three disc set. And for me, the thing that I've really been enjoying with that record especially is the space then he's not afraid to use, these slow unfolding compositions. So there's three discs: Pillars One, Two and Three. Each disc is one of the pillars and it's like 56 minutes long or something. And for me… I know as a musician what it takes to have the patience to be fine with silence and the patience with that - it's just been really inspiring to see. He's someone who I'm really looking forward to his canon of music over the next many years to come. I think he has a lot to offer. 

Also - Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Music. I don't know if you're familiar with her. 

[MUSIC: Rise by Matana Roberts] 

She has, I think, four chapters now of this project that she's been working on and it's extremely motivating for a lot of the same reasons. Just dealing with space and her subject matter that she's grappling with and the way that she handles it is really, really inspiring. 

SOLOMON: And what of Matana  Roberts' output? I guess you said there's a series so far of four. 

CLARK: So I think the overall name for the project is Coin Coin. And then so each record is another chapter… Months ago, the most recent one came out and it's really, really heavy… I feel like with a lot of music, I've always been a person that if I don't get it the first time, or the first 15 Times or The first 30 times, I'm not afraid to come back to it. And once I finally heard her music, I've never been the same, since it's really that transformative for me. 

SOLOMON: So when you say once you finally heard it, do you mean once you finally got it after listening to it several times? 

CLARK: I would say there's a time before I like bought all those Coltrane records and then there's the person I was before that, and there's the person I am now and then I think her music and Tyshawn’s music is a lot the same way.

SOLOMON: Once the pandemic passes, what are you most looking forward to happening?

CLARK: As far as music is concerned, and this has been happening for a while even before this, just because it's so hard to make money as a musician full time that something interesting that's been happening is that people are doing smaller projects or trios or interesting like instrumentation type projects. And so I can only imagine what this time is going to be doing as far as like people trying to make music, cross the internet or in small way. So it's going to be interesting to see what emerges from this artistically in that aspect. But I feel like that's going to be really the one of the main ways to get back into it. Ironically, a year ago, this month, I had recorded a solo record of mine. I was talking with my friend Adam, and we're talking about putting it out in September. And in a way, it's like kind of the perfect time to be putting out a solo record, because if there's ever going to be an opportunity to tour, it would be with one person playing to a group of 10 people.  You don't have to worry about having a bunch of people. It's not going to be selling out in rock clubs anytime soon. So I think that the things that will start to come back will be smaller things in the creative scene, especially galleries or alternative performance spaces that will start to have music reemerge slowly, hopefully over the next couple of months. We can only hope. 

SOLOMON: Scott, is there anything that I've haven't asked you that you would want to say before let you go. 

CLARK: I don’t know man, I mean, you know, we're all on this together and hopefully we can weather this together and not let this time divide us any more than we have seen for a long time, you know. I am seeing more of a coalescing around people. I try to make a an effort to look outside of our own bubble to really try and get a picture of what is happening, but it does seem like I said, when I went down to the Lee monument, the cross section of society that I saw down there really was inspiring. And it's in the aftermath of a lot of tension, but you know, it'd be a good song to play  After the rain, right?  The Coltrane record. It's like you got this huge thunderstorm and then got this beautiful piece of music after the rain. And I'm just hoping that that's that's when we can be kind of coasting into kind of from Interstellar Space to After the Rain. 

[Music: After the Rain by John Coltrane]