Pain Relief Beyond Belief





From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.


Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.


For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.






Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin



       In Her Own Words

Sonny Clark

 January 13, 2011


Forty-eight years ago today, the pianist Conrad Yeatis “Sonny” Clark died of a heroin overdose in a shooting gallery somewhere in New York City. He was thirty-one. The previous two nights—January 11 and 12, 1963—he had played piano at Junior’s Bar on the ground floor of the Alvin Hotel on the northwest corner of Fifty-second and Broadway. On Sunday, January 13, the temperature reached thirty-eight degrees in Central Park.

The next thing we know with certainty is that Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a noted jazz patron, called Clark’s older sister in Pittsburgh to inform her of her brother’s death. Nica, as the baroness was known, said she would pay to have the body transported to his hometown and that she’d pay for a proper funeral.

What is not known, however, is if the body in the New York City morgue with Clark’s name on it was his. Witnesses in both New York and Pittsburgh (after the body arrived there) believed it wasn’t; they thought it didn’t look like Sonny. Some suspected a conspiracy with the drug underground with which Clark was entangled, but, as African Americans in a white system, they were reticent to discuss the matter. It was probably a simple case of carelessness at the morgue, something not uncommon with “street” deaths at the time, particularly when the corpses were African American. Today, there’s a gravestone with Clark’s name on it in the rural hills outside Pittsburgh, where a body shipped from New York was buried in mid-January of that year. How painful it must have been to stay silent and let a funeral proceed, not knowing for sure where Sonny’s body was. His may be one of the thousands of unidentified ones buried in potter’s field on New York’s Hart Island, where Sonny himself dug graves years earlier, while incarcerated at Riker’s Island on drug charges.

Clark’s right fingers on piano keys created some of my favorite sounds in all of recorded jazz. I noticed these sounds for the first time one afternoon in a coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the winter of 1999. I walked in, a freelance writer seeking refuge from cabin fever at home. I was working on a magazine article about a Sixth Avenue New York City loft building that was a late night haunt of jazz musicians forty years earlier. Over the next hour, I became transfixed by the relaxed, swinging blues floating out of the house stereo system. The multipierced barista showed me the two-CD case, Grant Green: The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark. Green was a guitarist from St. Louis with a singing, single-note style that blended beautifully with Clark’s effortless, hypnotic right-hand piano runs. “This is the epitome of cool,” she said. True. It was also smokin’ hot, and I heard a country twang in it. The nineteen tracks were recorded in December 1961 and January 1962 by the Blue Note label, but they weren’t released until many years later, after both Green and Clark were dead.

Clark was born on July 21, 1931, in Herminie No. 2, Pennsylvania, a coal patch a few miles from the bigger company town of Herminie (No. 2 refers to the second mine shaft of the Ocean Coal Company) and about twenty-five miles east of Pittsburgh. On August 2 of that year, his father, Emory Clark, a miner, died of “a lingering illness of tuberculosis,” as indicated in a brief obituary in a local paper. The family called it “black lung,” a casualty of the mine work. Sonny was the youngest of eight kids and was raised by his mother and his older siblings. The 1930 census shows their home surrounded by families from Italy, Poland, Austria, and Russia as well as African Americans from Georgia and Tennessee. This extraordinary mix of people existed in a company village of only a few hundred people. The town had a school, a few places of worship (including a black church), a beer garden, and a company store. There was also a black-owned hotel that hosted some of the most popular weekend dances in the region for African Americans. A small boy (and a small man, too: five-foot-five, one hundred thirty pounds full grown), Sonny began playing piano in the hotel while in elementary school. People marveled at his playing, and he was written up in the famous black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier. His oldest brother, Emory, carried Sonny home on his shoulders after he won a talent show. They skipped rocks across ponds and learned how to make slingshots from roadside weeds and brush. The family’s home was the countryside; Sonny’s parents had met as kids in the country, living across a dirt road from each other in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

My wife, Laurie Cochenour, grew up in Elizabeth Township, about seven miles from Herminie No. 2. For the past decade, I’ve done a bit of research on Sonny Clark each time we visit her family, and Sonny’s two surviving sisters have been helping me. I’ve driven through Herminie No. 2 and found old-timers, black and white, who grew up with him. One of them gave me their second-grade class picture from 1937–38. Sonny is the only black kid in the class. I now have an accordion file full of material. After my biography of W. Eugene Smith, a book on Sonny may follow.


My interest in Clark grew when I heard him on Smith’s tapes from the Sixth Avenue loft scene. In the wee morning hours of September 25, 1961, while packing to leave for Japan from Idlewild Airport later that day, Smith turned on his tape recorder and let it roll until dawn. He had live microphones in the hallway and stairwell. He captured Sonny and his friend, the saxophonist Lin Halliday, arriving at the building and walking up the bare wood stairs with Lin’s seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Virginia “Gin” McEwan. Sonny and Lin had been playing at the White Whale in the East Village earlier in the evening with bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins. Sonny sticks his head in Smith’s door and says to the notorious pack rat, “You’ve got a lot of shit in here.” Smith responds, “I’ve been shitting for a long time.” They laugh. Sonny and Lin then go into the hallway bathroom on the fourth floor and shoot heroin. Smith’s tapes catch Sonny moaning to near unconsciousness. Lin grows anxious and then frightened. He sings to Sonny to try to keep him awake. Earlier that summer, Gin had saved Sonny’s life with amateur CPR after an overdose. But now, when Lin calls out for her—“Gin? Gin? Gin?”—she does not respond; she had already moved somewhere else in the building. The tension in the harrowing scene mounts. How miraculous (and perhaps questionable) that such a moment is caught on plastic reel-to-reel tape, to be heard in real time a half-century later in a digitally transferred file.

Meanwhile, in his room packing for Japan, Smith plays vinyl records of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her poetry and actress Julie Harris reading Emily Dickinson. (Smith owned the entire Caedmon Records inventory). Over time, Sonny’s dose wears off, and he and Lin shuffle down to the automat for cheeseburgers and milkshakes. For money, they tote several dozen bottles that Smith gave them to redeem for deposits at the grocery store. It’s not clear if Smith ever saw Sonny Clark again. He spent a year in Japan, and Sonny went on to record the great tracks with Grant Green, as well as several other classic Blue Note albums, before dying sixteen months later.

Read the second part of Stephenson’s look back at Sonny Clark here.

See also: “Dorrie Glenn Woodson” and “W. Eugene Smith.”

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.

Views: 2


You need to be a member of Pittsburgh Jazz Network to add comments!

Join Pittsburgh Jazz Network

Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on January 8, 2023 at 4:32am

Sonny Clark, Part 2

 January 26, 2011


On October 26, 1961, Sonny Clark reported to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for a recording session led by alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. Clark brought with him a new composition he called “Five Will Get You Ten.” He was an effective composer, and his tunes were welcome at most sessions. However, this one he’d stolen from Thelonious Monk. He had probably seen the sheet music or heard Monk working out the tune on the piano at the Weehawken, New Jersey, home of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who routinely made her home a rest stop and clubhouse for jazz musicians.

Monk called the tune “Two Timer”; Clark gave it a new name so he could claim composer’s royalties. It was the move of a desperate, depleted junky. (W. Eugene Smith had cameras, lenses, and other equipment stolen from his loft by jazz junkies all the time, but, an addict himself, he wasn’t one to judge. The thefts would leave him both distraught and ambivalent.) According to Robin D. G. Kelley’s remarkable recent biography of Monk, the elder master treated Clark like a “troubled younger brother,” and he never did anything about the stolen tune. Chances are that by the time Monk heard McLean’s record and realized what had happened, Clark was dead, or in some other condition that made a reprimand irrelevant.

In the last eighteen months of Clark’s life, he would climb to daylight for brief periods, breath clean air, play some beautiful music, and then sink to lower and lower depths. In the August 1962 issue of the invaluable, idiosyncratic Canadian jazz magazine, Coda, there was this report from New York by Fred Norsworthy:

One of the saddest sights these days is the terrible condition of one of the nation’s foremost, and certainly original pianists. Having been around for many years he came into his own in 1959 and no one deserved it more than he. I feel that something should be done about drug addiction before we lose many more artists. I saw him several times in the past three months and was shocked to see one of our jazz greats in such pitiful shape. Unfortunately, the album dates that he keeps getting only help his addiction get worse instead of better. Whether or not he licks this problem at this stage of the game remains to be seen. In some cases people refuse help and the loss of a close friend was no help either. If anything he took a turn for the worse and disappeared for 3 weeks. However right now should he die it will at least be better than living a slow death with no relief in sight.

The pianist is almost certainly Sonny Clark. That same month, he cut two classic Blue Note albums under the leadership of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Go and A Swinging Affair. When Clark died five months later, Gordon remembered these sessions in a letter to Blue Note impresarios Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff: Clark had “almost totally given up” on his life, Gordon wrote. Yet judging from the surviving albums, he still cooked on piano. Several of Clark’s solos are top notch, but in this rhythm section with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, he conducts a clinic on how to play sensitive, sparkling piano accompaniment behind a soloing saxophonist, in this case the atmospheric Gordon. Clark didn’t appear to give up on anything musically. Many years later Gordon remembered Go as among his career favorites.

As a potential biographer of Sonny Clark, I have to be careful of the notion of the damaged, tragic artist having an aesthetic advantage (I have to be careful of this for Eugene Smith, too). He grew up not far from where my wife did, near the Allegheny hills where her ancestors migrated for work, same as Sonny’s parents. I’m drawn to these hills like a second home; the place haunts me. How did a black man come from here and learn such an extraordinary facility on piano? Why did he become such a stereotypical jazz junkie? Why is the wrong body apparently buried underneath his gravestone in these hills?


I’m curious, too, about his remarkable popularity in Japan today, a country in which he never stepped foot. Consider these facts: From 1991, when Soundscan began tracking CD sales, through 2009, Clark’s 1958 Blue Note recording, Cool Struttin’, sold 38,000 copies in America and 179,000 in Japan. Those numbers alone are eye-opening. But a quick comparison illustrates just how astonishing they really are: John Coltrane’s classic 1957 Blue Note recording, Blue Train, sold 545,000 copies in America over the same period and 147,000 copies in Japan. Cool Struttin’ outsells Blue Train in Japan.

Aesthetically, the two records are very much of the same time and place. Both feature front lines of saxophone, trumpet, and piano backed by Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and they were recorded by the same label in the same studio, only four months apart. The real distinction is that Blue Train is an entry-level recording by a saxophonist who went on to become one of the most feverish and supreme giants of American music, while Cool Struttin’ could be described by a cynic as a fine but routine, almost potluck jam session typical of the period.

I’m not yet sure how to explain the unusual prestige of Cool Struttin’ in Japan. In February, I embark on a five-week trip to research W. Eugene Smith’s work there in the 1960s and ’70s along with his World War II combat photography in Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and elsewhere in the Pacific. While there, I’ll spend some time trying to figure out the reasons for Clark’s popularity. Perhaps it’s just a fluke. I believe there’s more to it. My feeling is that the Japanese audience may have a special ear for the beauty of Clark’s minor blues. This occurred to me when I was listening to one of Smith’s loft tapes. On May 8, 1960, Smith made an audio recording of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS program, Small World, from Channel 2 in New York City. The episode featured Yukio Mishima and Tennessee Williams in a discussion of Japanese cinema.

I think a characteristic of Japanese character is just this mixture of very brutal things and elegance. It’s a very strange mixture.

I think that you in Japan are close to us in the Southern states of the United States.

I think so.

A kind of beauty and grace. So that although it is horror, it is not just sheer horror, it has also the mystery of life, which is an elegant thing.

This “very strange mixture” of the brutal and the elegant may describe what Japanese jazz fans hear coming out of Clark’s piano. His parents came from rural, Jim Crow Georgia and moved to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, so Sonny’s father could work in the coke yards of Jones & Laughlin Steel. They were chased away by KKK activity there and ended up in a company coal-mining village that reminded them of their rural Southern home near a rock quarry. Mr. Clark died of black-lung disease two weeks after Sonny was born. Mrs. Clark died of breast cancer when he was twenty-two. The family dispersed; Sonny followed a brother to Los Angeles, where it didn’t take him long to rise to the top of the jazz scene, a topsy-turvy milieu drizzled with narcotics.

No jazz pianist was more drenched in minor blues than Clark. Yet he blended his blues with a buoyant, ventilated swing. And to this day, nobody sounds like Sonny Clark.

Click here to read part 1 of Stephenson on Sonny Clark.

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.

© 2023   Created by Dr. Nelson Harrison.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service