The Cult of Frailty

You might check out this podcast of an intriguing conversation between Times’ writers Ben Ratliff and Ben Sisario concerning the new posthumous release, “November,” by the saxophonist and loft veteran Steve Lacy.  This solo recording was made in Switzerland in November 2003, three months after Lacy was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He died seven months later.

Ratliff and Sisario discuss how in jazz appreciation aging is okay.  Musicians are appreciated for gaining wisdom and new expressions over time.  Ratliff mentions a “cult of frailty” in jazz.  In other words, infirm jazz musicians are seen to expose primordial human conditions otherwise hidden in “normal” people.  A dying master can express profound new things.  Can you hear evidence of this in Lacy’s late recording?  That’s part of Ratliff’s and Sisario’s discussion.

The cult of frailty also pertains, of course, to musicians who have addictions and other pathologies; they offer access, perhaps dangerous, to the tormented soul.  This might help explain why African-American pianist Sonny Clark, who died of a heroin overdose at age thirty-one in 1963, sells hundreds of thousands of records in Japan.  (This isn’t about Japan; it is about the exotic unknown.  There are excellent French philosophers who are rock stars in American universities but they remain frumpy and obscure in France).

According to Blue Note Records, Clark’s 1958 album “Cool Struttin’” has sold more copies in Japan in the last twenty years (since Soundscan was invented and sales became more traceable) than John Coltrane’s 1957 “Blue Train,” or Horace Silver’s 1965 “Song of My Father,” or Herbie Hancock’s 1965 “Maiden Voyage.”  In fact, “Cool Struttin’” has sold more than “Song of My Father” and “Maiden Voyage” combined.

Sonny Clark’s right hand on piano made some of my favorite sounds in all of recorded American music, but in my view his best music was made as a sideman, not a leader (see Grant Green’s “The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark,” or Serge Chaloff’s “Blue Serge” or Dexter Gordon’s “Go” or his work with Buddy DeFranco’s quartet on Mosaic if you can find it).  I don’t know anyone who mentions “Cool Struttin’” in the same sentence with the iconic records by Silver and Hancock (both of whom are still alive, by the way).  In America Silver and Hancock sell many times more records than Clark.  Does the cult of Sonny’s frailty make him more popular in faraway Japan?  What does this mean?

The cult of frailty is something we’ve had to deal with in the Jazz Loft Project from the beginning.  There is real frailty in the story.  The building itself was weak and decrepit, contrasting with the hallowed halls of Hall Overton’s Juilliard and Eugene Smith’s LIFE magazine.  Smith died at age 59 when he could have passed for a man three decades older, his body ravaged by alcohol and amphetamines and poor nutrition.  Hall Overton died of cirrhosis at age 52.  Sonny Clark overdosed in the loft several times.  Wilbur Ware disappeared into the bathroom and didn’t come out for three hours.  Ronnie Free tells about moving to New York and being lured into the drug scene because many of his heroes were mired in it.  Steve Swallow remembers a loft jam session in which Zoot Sims spit blood into a coffee can all night.  Look at the picture of saxophonist Lin Halliday at the bottom of Gin Wald’s blog.  Lin personifies frail.  Gin looks great.  They are only six years apart in age.

The tortured artist romance is something I need to handle well in my biography of Smith.  His father committed suicide and a psychiatrist told me last week that kids of parents who commit suicide are four times more likely to be suicidal.  That is real stuff, not superstition or romance.  But Smith may have benefited from his legend as a self-destructive maverick and there’s evidence that he fueled it.  Where do you draw the lines?

One day I’ll write something extensive about Sonny Clark.  I’ve got enough material for a long article or small book already.  His two surviving sisters are helping me.  Their parents were both from Stone Mountain, Georgia.  Father Elmer Clark worked in the rock quarries before moving north for good paying work in the Pennsylvania coal mines during WWI.  The six Clark kids grew up in a rural coal “patch” thirty miles east of Pittsburgh.  Elmer died of pulmonary disease, almost certainly black lung, in 1931 when Sonny was an infant.  The family stayed in place until mother Ruth Shepherd Clark died of cancer in 1953.  Sonny moved to Los Angeles where a beloved aunt had relocated with her family some years before.  He made his name on the jazz scene there and then moved to New York City in 1956 where he rose to the top, becoming a house pianist at fabled Blue Note Records.  Thelonious Monk’s son, T.S., who was thirteen when Sonny Clark died in January 1963, said that Sonny taught him how to make a slingshot out of weeds and brush you could find in any ditch or roadside.  When I told that to Sonny’s older sister Gladys she smiled and said, “That’s the country.  It was still in him.”

My wife grew up about seven miles from the Berwind-White coal mine where Elmer Clark worked and every time we visit her family I do a little more research on Sonny.  One summer day a couple of years ago I was driving through the remnants of that old coal patch.  I was checking out the abandoned company store where little Sonny bought hard candy and bottled sodas, and I saw an elderly African-American lady sitting out on a nearby porch.  I walked up and asked, “Do you remember a kid named Sonny Clark who used to live here?”  She said, “Sure.  We went to school together.  His best friend’s sister still lives across the street.”  Then she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Cherrrryl!  Cherrrry!  Cheryl!”  They didn’t have air conditioning and their windows were all wide open.  I walked across the street to Cheryl’s house and they had a faded scrap book of articles about Sonny and photocopied liner notes from his records.

-Sam Stephenson

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