Award Winning Jazz Drummer
Clark grew up in a jazz environment as the son of Stan Tracey CBE, the UK's leading jazz pianist. At 13 he started playing the drums, turning professional at 17 by joining his father's various ensembles, from trio to orchestra. Within that context he toured worldwide and recorded extensively. Following Stan’s death in 2013 he wrote an award winning biography of Stan entitled "The Godfather of British Jazz", released on Equinox Publishing. Clark runs two record labels, one devoted to his father’s music, Resteamed Records. Band Leader In 1981 Clark began the first of his many groups, employing the cream of the UK’s younger talent. His present sextet includes musicians as young as 18, prompting critics to dub him “the Art Blakey of British Jazz”. He has recorded over 100 albums (15 as a leader) and performed in over 50 countries. Clark has over 40 years' experience playing alongside some of the most important artists in jazz at home and abroad. He has been awarded "Best Drums" title six times in the British Jazz Awards (most recently in 2018) and Ronnie Scott's Award for "Best Drums" in 2007.
Why did you take up percussion and how old were you?
Purely by chance, a drummer left his kit at our house when I was 13 and I was given permission to play them. I had already picked up piano and vibes as they were already living in our house.
Who was your first teacher and where did you start?
I didn't have a teacher per se. My guide and mentor to this day was Bryan Spring who was my father's drummer for 10 years. I followed him into my father's groups when i was 17 after he left the band. I had left school the year before so I was a little wet around the ears.
What instruments/resources did you have?
I was very lucky to have a family, especially my father, who were involved in the jazz business. My mum was also a promoter and protagonist for British jazz. I listened to and watched live jazz from my earliest years.
Do you have any advice for young drummers during this stage of education?
Having taught Trinity grades (and contributed to the current edition) I don't recommend putting a lot of time and energy into perfecting them. I found it was usually the parents who wanted the certificate more than the student, ergo very little passion for the instrument itself. My top students could barely read but had a strong imagination and excelled in terms of technique as a result. In the absence of grade books and jazz education for myself, I was given Charles Wilcoxon's book, "Modern Rudimental Solos for the Advanced Drummer" by Bryan Spring, who had studied with Philly Joe Jones. Apparently this was Philly's bible and he took it everywhere. The book focused on the basic rudiments but I soon studied all of them, learning to incorporate them into my playing as part of my language, rather than seeing them as just a bunch of exercises. As a beginner, my strongest advice is to listen to live music and absorb the great recordings, transcribe, filter and enjoy the music. Seek out musicians of a similar age with a common interest. You will learn most from better musicians throughout your career. As to practise, of course it's a necessity. The more you do, the richer your language and ability will grow, but never practise without the same enthusiasm you have for just playing. A serious student will practise between 3-7 hours a day.
With your knowledge and experience, what performance opportunities would you suggest young percussionists to engage with?
Most schools will provide a decent enough platform for developing students. Again, I suggest seeking out similar minded musicians to discover the music together away from school. Top of the list for most age groups is experience of playing together so the more you can do the better. There are some excellent jazz schools and services during holiday times. Don't be shy - get stuck in. We all started with nothing! And, having spent some time absorbing live drummers, perhaps approach one who particularly appeals for some private tuition. We all need guidance of some sort so look for the best. My mantra to my own students is "No one will take you seriously until you do."
At what point did you decide this was the profession for you?
I drifted into the business so it wasn't really life changing. I was just excited about not having to go to school any more. I had been gigging since I was around 14.
What was your first ever professional engagement, what was it like and how did you get it?
As explained before, my father offered me the drum chair in his groups when I was 17, ready or not! My first gig was at the famous 100 Club in August 1978 with his octet playing to around 300 discerning London jazz fans. I was petrified, knowing my tender aged inability and lack of first hand experience with top professionals wasn't an asset to me, and my predecessor, Mr Spring, was watching me from the audience, so no pressure! And for the record, two days later I was performing with the same band at a Swiss festival to around 2000 people. Like my dad used to quip, "Nepotism begins at home".
What happened next?
Truthfully, nobody else booked me for the next three years until I knuckled down and practised 5 hours daily and religiously for months. Suddenly the phone started ringing.
You are an eminent British Jazz Drummer having played with many artists and ensembles what is this like and are there any challenges?
I desperately wanted to work with as many musicians as possible so when I started gaining a reputation in my early Twenties, I found myself playing with a huge variety of musicians, both established and fairly new at the time. I had a little quandary about who I was stylistically as I was being offered light jazz gigs along with the more furious side. In the end I realised I needed to be a chameleon on the drums to please everyone, which I think has stood me in good stead and kept my diary pretty full. My study of so many different stylists was a great help.
You have also acted as a band leader, what do you enjoy about this challenge and how does it differ from your other playing?
I put my first band together in my early Twenties mostly because I wasn't working with people my own age - and that's certainly not a complaint! I wanted to play more like they were playing for another dimension to my output, although as my bands changed personnel, and I had some success with them, I enjoyed opening up my compositional abilities and directing the groups. We were offered some incredible dates around the world thanks to the British Council and we were treated like ambassadors for British jazz.
You have your own record labels, Tentoten Records and Resteamed Records, what led you to form these and what does this entail?
Tentoten was set up in the absence of any interest from a major label at that time, although nothing has changed for me. I watched many of my contemporaries receiving major deals but perhaps a drummer's not what they were looking for! The label's output began with my own music and gradually I introduced other bands who I deemed worthy of a record issue. Resteamed was set up to release as well as reissue my father's recordings and has of course remained far more successful. As to how to set up your own label, it couldn't be easier really. Put in a lot of your own money and be prepared to never see it again!
What advice would you give a young musician aiming for a career in Jazz?
This really isn't easy to answer. There's no money in it, the hours are awful, the success rate is almost zero, your family life will normally suffer, you will be treated as an outcast in society for not having a real job etc. I hope that wasn't too honest! On the other hand, you will travel and meet people you never would have otherwise and the personal satisfaction of performing well is unbeatable. I wouldn't do anything else - I've been driven by passion my whole life and without that you won't make it.
You have performed on many recordings, TV shows and films. How does recording differ from performing live?
There's a different kind of satisfaction from recording - you have the opportunity to tidy up a bit afterwards with a good editor and it stands forever as a document to where you were at that time of your development. Some recordings are really important and you have to be on the money, while others are more casual without so much pressure. In that respect it's pretty similar to playing live. The obvious difference is you don't get feedback from an audience in the studio.
You have also performed as an actor/drummer on stage, what is this like?
At first it was quite nerve wracking but after a while it just becomes another string to your bow. Remembering lines can be troublesome but it's still a lot of fun. I'm very lucky that all my acting jobs on stage could have been based on myself. I never played in the pits.
You've also composed music for your quintet, jazz orchestras and the Trinity College London Drum Kit Syllabus. When and how did you start composing?
I began composing in earnest in my own bands. I wanted to produce music as well as perform it. It can be tough - there's much trial and error involved, but my work mates were there to correct and support me. I drew inspiration from many of the great composers I grew up listening to and I've found it to be immensely satisfying.
You have also written your own instructional drum book "Exploring Jazz Drums" what led you to this and what was the process?
I was offered this job quite out of the blue by the German company, Schott, who specialise in instructional music books, though mostly classical. They had released a few jazz and blues books for other instruments and somehow I was called on to write the drums version. I was instructed to aim it towards drummers with an intermediate knowledge of drumming, so I tried to cover the history of jazz drums with some musical examples as well as more detailed descriptions. I made it a policy, however, to be completely honest about the tribulations we face every day in our work and how I've best dealt with them myself. I took a trio into the studio to give examples of grooves we use and odd time signatures we sometimes face, as well as tricky sequences and different styles. The book is accompanied by a playalong disc and a video disc for learning brushwork. I was also reluctantly allowed to put some killer exercises in the back of the book.
You are a visiting Jazz Drums Tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, what is this like?
I find it both enjoyable and a little frustrating. Having never had formal training or experience of the college process, much of what I have to offer goes against the grain in some ways. We now have four drum tutors at the college, which must leave the students slightly confused as we don't all come from the same experience, although we agree on many aspects, naturally. I prefer the college to teaching in schools, which nearly turned me crazy. It's much easier to encourage students who love the music and want to be a part of it but I wonder if their time and money wouldn't be better spent in other ways.
When and why did you start teaching?
Simple answer is that I had a debt the size of a small house following an acrimonious divorce twenty years ago! I wish it were more romantic, but there it is. In my parents' day you were either a teacher or a working musician, but the world changes and I'm now happy to have the extra income. Also I've met some great young drummers there and I'm proud to have been a part of their development.
You have won the Best Drummer title six times at the British Jazz Awards and Ronnie Scott's award for Best Drums, how does it feel to receive this recognition?
It's always a good inner feeling that you've been recognised and awarded something as a result. My father, who won more awards and accolades than Art Blakey used press rolls, would stick them all in a drawer out of sight claiming they don't put a meal on the table, and he was right. But I have to say I carry some pride that people actually bothered to vote for me when there are so many exceptional drummers in the UK.
What is your career highlight so far?
I've often been asked and considered this question. It's really difficult because, guess what? Yes, there have been so many great moments. I would have to say, if pushed, my experience of being Stan Tracey's drummer for 35 years was an incredible time and something money could never buy.
What is the best thing about being a musician?
You are ultimately your own boss. You decide how much or how little you want to be involved as a musician/teacher/promoter/author/record company director etc. As mentioned previously, having visited over 50 countries as a performer, there are few jobs available that can provide that kind of exposure to different cultures and especially having the honour to perform your own music to people who have never heard jazz before.
What would your 'Top Three Tips' be for a young drummer/percussionist thinking about a career in music?
2. Absorb the works of the great masters
3. Don't lose sight of why you first wanted to be a part of this dedicated family of percussionists.
If you would like to find out more about Clark, check out his website:
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Clark has endorsements with:
Bosphorus Cymbals www.bosphoruscymbals.com
Cambridge Drums www.cambridgedrums.co.uk