The Lost Footage of Pianist Sonny Clark

Browse By

Sonny Clark is the one who got away. He’s the face you see in still photos but can’t see in motion. A brilliant jazz pianist who was in demand during the 1950s and ’60s on both the West and East coasts, the only known footage of him playing came from a 1956 TV show called Stars of Jazz, but the film seems to have been destroyed when ABC recorded over many of its reels in order to save money. Blank tapes cost four hundred dollars. The company erased countless hours of footage this way. No one knows how many, but one source estimates that they erased around 130 of the 170 episodes. Clark’s was episode #11. Stars of Jazz ran from July 1956 to January 1959 and featured performances from such jazz giants as Art Blakey, Art Pepper, Billie Holliday, Bobby Timmons, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond and Hampton Hawes, making the cultural cost of ABC’s cost-saving liquidations immeasurable.

You can hear Sonny tearing up the piano on numerous classic albums like Dexter Gordon’s Go, Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag, and his own masterpiece, Cool Struttin’. You can hear him playing live on a few concert recordings, like Oakland 1955 and Art Pepper … Holiday Flight – Lighthouse 1953. Unfortunately, you can also hear him OD’ing on heroin in a New York loft in September, 1961. That tape comes from obsessive documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith’s apartment building at 821 6th Avenue, whose stairwells and halls Smith rigged with microphones in order to capture the details of daily life. (See Sam Stephenson’s fantastic book The Jazz Loft Project for photos and details.) The drugs leave Clark moaning on the ground while his friend, a fellow addicted musician, works to keep Clark conscious. As the guy told Eugene Smith, “Look at this cat. You know, he’s one of the best piano players alive and he’s killing himself.” Sonny lived to see another day, and fatally overdosed a year and a half later, during which time he recorded scores of incredible music. But that audio isn’t the only animated portrait I want of Sonny. He’s one of my favorite musicians, and one of jazz’s best, yet he only lives in sound and still images. If you want to see the way Sonny’s hands moved and body swayed when he played, if you want to get to know him through his ticks and habits, to see the way he laughed, the way he’d tuck his head while comping or watch him drape himself over his piano between songs, folding his arms in particular ways, you’re out of luck. Luck has everything to do with it.

As luck would have it, Clark was in the right place at the right time many times–meeting the right people early on (up-and-coming tenor Wardell Gray), moving to the right cities at the right time (LA and San Francisco) befoSonny at piano, Mosaic Recordsre settling in New York during the fertile era of jazz’s post-bop development. There he teamed up with some of the jazz’s icons and innovators, from saxophonists Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins, to Grant Green and Donald Byrd. He recorded on the right record label (Blue Note), and basically served as Blue Note’s house pianist during its heyday. Clark was talented. He worked hard. He’d played piano since he was a kid. His hard work paid off, and he got a little lucky. But unlucky when it came to film.

Jazz was so popular between the 1940s and ’60s that network TV tried to give the public what they thought they wanted. In his book Jazz on Film, Scott Yanow writes: “Jazz musicians have mostly appeared on variety shows or one time specials, but there were a few attempts to have regular series, particularly during the early years of television. Eddie Condon’s Floor Show with a half-hour weekly series that aired from January 1949 to June 1950 and featured hot jazz in similar format as Condon’s earlier Town Hall radio series. Other pioneering series includes Adventures in Jazz (January – June 1949), Cavalcade of Bands (January 1950 – September 1951), The Hazel Scott Show (July – September 1950), America’s Greatest Bands (June – September 1955), which was hosted by Paul Whiteman, and Stage Show (July 1954 – September 1956), the latter featuring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey as co-leaders with many jazz stars as guests. Music ’55 (ten half-hour episodes that aired during July – September 1955) was hosted by Stan Kenton, and the legendary Nat King Cole Show lasted 59 weeks (September 1956 to December 1957).” As Yanow says, “Typically, many of the televised jazz performances of the 1950s no longer exist.” Some televised jazz broadcasts did survive, and you can watch them on YouTube.

Sonny on Stars of Jazz, by Ray AveryOn CBS’s short-lived Roy Herridge Theater series in 1959, Miles and Coltrane play “So What” with their Kind of Blue band mates Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb. Art Blakey’s classic Jazz Messengers lineup of Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan and Benny Golson play “Moanin’” in 1958. On The Sound of Jazz in 1957, Lester Young and his old friend Billie Holiday play together for what was the first time after a long falling out. Cannonball and Nat Adderley play the famous “Work Song” in 1963 with badass drummer Louis Hayes. Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall do “The Bridge” in 1962 in crystal clear footage on Jazz Casual. And there’s footage of Nina Simone and Grant Green and Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon and Horace Silver. What footage remains is spectacular–a small body of mid-century classics. But for people living in our time of cell phone documentation and a hundred camera angles, the moving record of jazz’s great Hard bop era seems paltry and incomplete. (And we don’t have any footage of Hank Mobley!)

On Clark’s 1956 Stars of Jazz appearance, he played with an early iteration of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, the house band of the famous Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa Beach, California. The band always consisted of a rotating cast. This incarnation was the first to appear on Stars of Jazz, and it featured Howard Rumsey on bass, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer Stan Levey on skins, Frank Rosolino on trombone, vocalist June Christy singing, and her husband Bob Cooper on oboe and sax. Transcriptions of the host’s monologues survive.

My ConceptionBetween songs, he talks about the night’s musicians. He talks about their corporate sponsor Schwepp’s (“Why don’t you try this authentic tonic mixer–the drink made from the magic elixir, with Schweppervesence to last the whole drink through?”), and about West Coast versus East Coast jazz. “From our vantage point here on the Pacific,” he says before introducing the next song, “New York seems to have a slightly smug attitude about its position as the cultural center of the Universe. So while the East rests on its provincial attitude, here in the provinces, jazz men are busy exchanging new ideas, experimenting, and creating fine new music.” When the hosts asks the musicians about the benefits of playing in a house band, the saxophonist explains that not touring allows them to have a home life. As for the musical advantages, Clark says: “Working together for long periods of time, we get to know each other well … which help our music …” The following year, Clark moved to New York permanently, where he put himself on celluloid and wax over and over again, but never again on film.

Yes, at least we have his music. It’s true. And the music always matters more than the story of the artist’s life, but music is so intimate that you get to know a player by getting to know their particular sound and style, their signatures, and the same is true of watching their mannerisms and physical habits on their instrument. Some of us want to know Sonny more than we do.

Sonny survived childhood in a tiny coal mining town during the racially-charged early 20th century. He survived sketchy police stops on dark New Jersey roads to and from recording sessions. He survived overdoses and the fickle jazz economy, but with film, his luck ran out. As the Duke Ellington song says, “I guess I’m just a lucky so-and-so.” Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.