Sonny Clark’s Birthday

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Clark seated at piano backstage at Syria Mosque for Night of Stars event, 1946. Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Heinz Family Fund; © 2004 Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive.

Eighty years ago today Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark was born in Herminie No. 2, Pennsylvania.  Two weeks later, on August 3, his father Emery Clark died of “acute pulmonary disease” (according to his death certificate), almost certainly black lung (Mr. Clark was a coal miner).

Two weeks ago I finished 3300 words of new material in a piece called “Sonny Clark’s Blues,” commissioned by Tin House magazine.  I was impressed with editor Michelle Wildgen’s thoughtful (and quickly responsive) efforts to help me shape the piece into something we’re pleased with.  There are quotes from trombonist Curtis Fuller, former Five Spot bartender Bob Whiteside, writer A.B. Spellman, Jean Redwood Douglass (a childhood friend of Sonny’s), Times writer Ben Ratliff, and novelist Haruki Murakami.  My interpreter Momoko Gill, a jazz drummer, helped me explicate the Japanese writing on Clark, an effort to get to the bottom of his remarkable popularity in that country, and the piece includes an interpretation of Japanese symbols often used to describe Clark’s music.  There’s also an effort to better understand addictions in mid-century jazz, leaning on Spellman and on Nat Hentoff’s 1961 book, “The Jazz Life.”  I think it’s a decent piece.  It’ll be published in the fall.  Tin House doesn’t make their print issue material available on-line normally, but updates on hard copy publication can be found here.  Many thanks to Tin House for providing the opportunity and a good editorial experience.

A writer friend points out that with this new Tin House piece, plus my two Paris Review Daily pieces from earlier this year, I’ve got enough material for a substantial book proposal.

-Sam Stephenson

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