Pittsburgh Music Story‎ > ‎Jazz‎ > ‎Modern Era‎ > ‎

Sonny Clark

The Quintessential Hard Bop pianist and composer for Blue Note Records 

Sonny Clark was an extraordinary modern jazz pianist and composer noted for his nine classic Blue Note albums.  His most acclaimed albums "Cool Struttin" and "Leapin and Lopin" is rated by some critics among  among the best jazz recordings of all time.  Appearing on Clark’s recordings were jazz legends John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Art Taylor, and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chambers.  Clark is called the “quintessential hard bop pianist”.  From 1957 through 1962 he was the resident pianist for Blue Note recording sessions.  He appeared on the recordings of hard pop players Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Curtis Fuller, Grant Green, Philly Joe Jones, Clifford Jordan, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Art Taylor, and Wilbur Ware along with recording with Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, Stanley Turrentine, and Lee Morgan.  He began his career touring with with saxophonist Wardell Gray, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, and  Dinah Washington before he settled in New York to become a Blue Note artist.

He has all of the chops, inventiveness, and speed to burn that made him one of the most impressive pianists of the hard bop era.” - Michael G. Nastos Allmusic.com

Sonny Clark’s playing style and original compositions were influenced by Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Horace Sliver.  He had is own distinct touch and tone that colored his long flowing relaxed melodic lines and lively driving rhythmic solos.  His music combined minor blues and hard swing.  Pianist Bill Evans cites Sonny Clark as a major influence.  Clark's music has been immensely popular in Japan.  Since 1991 his “Cool Struttin” CD has sold 179,000 copies out selling John Contrane’s “Blue Train” album.

Sony Clark was born Conrad Yeatis Clark on July 21, 1931 in the small coal mining town Herminie No. 2 about twenty five miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  His parents grew up and met in the rural countryside of Stone Mountain Georgia before migrating to Western Pennsylvania.  They moved first to Aliquippa where his father worked in the coke yards of Jones & Laughlin Steel. Driven from Aliquippa by KKK activity the Clarks moved to more rural Herminie mining town to raise their family.  Sonny’s coal miner father, Emory Clark, died of black lung disease on August 2 of 1931.  The youngest of eight children Sonny was raised by his mother Ruth Shepherd Clark and his older siblings. Upon Emory’s death the Clark family moved from their mining company owned house to the Redwood Inn hotel in Herminie.  Owned by African American John Redwood the hotel held popular weekend jazz dances attended by African Americans who came from a 50 mile radius to attend  Sony began playing piano at age four while living at the Redwood Inn. He studied piano with a private teacher and was also taught by his older brother George.  During elementary school at age 6 Sonny began playing piano professionally at the hotel.  Sonny also appeared on a radio amateur hour show at age 6 performing a boogie-woogie.  Hearing that audiences marveled at Sonny’s performances the Pittsburgh Courier published an article about the young pianist.   

Hearing the music of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Cout Basie, and Duke Ellington on the radio, he fell in love with jazz.  Attending high school in Jeanette he played bass and vibes with his high school band and also performed as a  piano soloist. He performed professionally around Pittsburgh while still in school.  At age 15 Sonny appeared on the bill of the historic “Night of the Stars” Concert held at the Syria Mosque to celebrate the music of Pittsburgh’s jazz superstars.  Presented by the Frog Club and the Pittsburgh Courier on August 7, 1946 the show featured an all star cast of legendary Pittsburgh pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, and Erroll Garner and jazz greats Billy Eckstein, Roy Eldridge, Maxine Sullivan, Ray Brown, Louis Deppe and more.

In 1951, when Sonny was 19, his older brother, also a pianist, took him on a trip to visit their aunt in Los Angeles.  Sonny decided to stay in California and found work performing with Wardell Grey and Vido Musso.  Working in California Sonny played with the key figures in the West Coast jazz movement including Stan Getz, Art Farmer. Wardell Grey, Anita O’Day, and Shelly Manne.  His was one of the few African Americans performing West Coast jazz.   Sonny made with recording debut in 1953 with saxophonist Wardell Grey on the Verve label.   He joined Oscar Pettiford’s band and moved to San Francisco.  In San Fransisco he joined Buddy DeFranco’s band.  Sonny performed with Buddy DeFranco for two and a half years beginning with a tour of Europe and the U.S in 1954.  Sonny recorded his first album as a trio leader in 1955.  Titled “Oakland” it featured   bassist Jerry Good and drummer Al Randall and was recorded at the Mocambo Club in Oakland in January of 1955,  Sonny joined the Lighthouse All Stars in Hermosa Beach playing with them throughout 1956.   Wanting to travel back East and to visit his family in Pittsburgh on the way, Sonny took a job touring with Dinah Washington in February of 1957.   

Settling in New York in 1957 he worked dates with West Coast jazz artists including two weeks at Birdland with Stan Getz and a weekend with Anita O'Day.  Switching from West Coast Jazz to Hard Bop Sonny quickly became a requested sideman playing with hardpop players John Coltrane, Dextor Gorden, Kenny Burrell, and more. He began recording on the prestigious Blue Note label at age 26. Sonny recorded 29 Blue Note sessions as a band leader and a sideman.  He made 17 recordings in 1957 including five album recordings for Blue Note.  His first recording as a band leader was “Dial S for Sonny” released in 1957. His second release in 1957 was “Sonny‘s Crib” that featured a band comprised of John Coltrane and Paul Chambers. The album Sonny Clark Trio with Paul Chambers Philly Joe Jones was also released in 1957.  The classic “Cool Struttin’ album and the “Standards” albums were released in 1958.  Critic Thom Jurek of Allmusic.com calls the title tract “Cool Struttin: “one of the preeminent swinging medium blues pieces in jazz history.”  The album “My Conception” featuring tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley was released in 1959.  The “Sonny Clark Trio” album with George Duvivier and Max Roach was released in 1960.  His last album “Leapin' and Lopin” released in 1961 featuring four song composed by Clark includes the classics tracts “Vodoo” and “Something Special”.  Writer Michael G. Nastos of Allmusic.com calls “Leapin and Lopin” one of the definitive recording for all time in the mainstream jazz idiom.

In 1962 Sonny performed with Dexter Gordon on two of his classic Blue Note albums “Go” and “A Swinging Affair”.  He was Gorden’s favorite piano accompanist.  Sonny also recorded in 1962 the albums Blue and Sentimental and Easy Living with Ike Quebec, Born to be Blue and Nigeria with Grant Green, the Jackie McLean Quintet and  Tippin' the Scales with Jackie McLean, and Jubliee Shout with Stanley Turrentine.

Sonny died of a heart attack on Sunday, January 13, 1963 at the age of 31. He had been in poor health due to his heroin and alcohol addictions.  Sonny played his last gigs two nights before his death on January 11 and 12 at Junior’s Bar on at the Alvin Hotel on Fifty-second and Broadway.  Sonny’s friend, jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, called Clark’s older sister in Pittsburgh to tell her of her brother’ passing.  The baroness paid to transport Sonny’s body back to Pittsburgh and paid for his funeral.  Sonny’s grave lies in the Greenwood Cemetery in Sharpsburg, PA.

Sonny Clark
The Music of Sonny Clark

Sonny Clark Tunes

Sonny age 15 at Night of the Stars Syria Mosque- 
Teenie Harris Photo
Cool Struttin'