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March/April 2017 Feature Interview - Clark Sommers...In His Own Words

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in his own words... Clark Sommers

Bassist, composer and educator Clark Sommers has toured and performed extensively throughout the world, and has performed with Cedar Walton, Darrell Grant, Brian Blade, Ernie Watts, Bennie Maupin, Von Freeman, Ira Sullivan, Frank Wess, Charles McPherson, Peter Bernstein, Lin Haliday, Dana Hall, Jodie Christian, Bobby Broom, Jeff Parker, Ron Perrillo, Geof Bradfield, Michael Weiss, George Fludas, Kevin Mahogany, Eden Atwood, Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls, the Mighty Blue Kings and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra among others.

Sommers completed his undergraduate degree in Jazz Studies and World Music at California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with bass masters Charlie Haden and Darek Oles. While living in Los Angeles, he performed with Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, Joe La Barbara and Larry Koonse. He continues to seek expansion of his craft by pursuing his musical studies with masters such as David Grossman of the New York Philharmonic, Mike Longo and Stefon Harris. He recently completed two residencies at the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California.

Sommers is currently in the bass chair with vocalist Kurt Elling, with whom he tours internationally and has performed on two Grammy-nominated recordings, one of which won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album in 2009. When not on the road with Elling, Sommers enjoys leading his own group, Ba(SH), which includes long-time friends drummer Dana Hall and reeds man Geof Bradfield. The group’s first CD was released in August 2013 and has received critical acclaim. Sommers can also be heard performing with Portland’s pianist Darrell Grant in his Territory ensemble, which includes Brian Blade, Joe Locke and Steve Wilson. Other groups that Sommers performs with regularly include Dana Hall’s Spring and Black Fire, Geof Bradfield’s African Flowers Ensemble and Melba, Chicago Yestet, Dan Cray Trio, and Spin Quartet.

What you don’t see in this bio is the decades of hard work and dedication that Clark Sommers has placed in becoming a jazz musician. Reading this interview you will learn about the evolution of a jazz bass player. About someone who learned––and then relearned––his instrument; about someone who has spent time living in four states spanning the country, searching for keys that would unlock his talent; and someone who has trained himself to use challenges and obstacles as steppingstones, rather than as reasons to give up or to settle for less.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about your early years.

Sommers: I was born in Lake Forest. I actually started on the drum set and switched to the electric bass in eighth grade because the band I played in already had a drummer. Somebody had to take the fall! [laughs] I was playing drums and a little guitar. There was a great music teacher at the junior high I went to. I got involved with rock bands in junior high and high school, and it grew from there.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you started on electric bass?

Sommers: Yeah. Then, about my sophomore year, I was lucky to have met this bass player that had come from the city to my high school. He put up flyers in the school, advertising that he was available for bass and jazz lessons. This person happened to be the great bassist James Cammack, who played with Ahmad Jamal for years. He started to give me private lessons at my house in ‘92 or ‘93. I think he was responsible for fostering my interest in music and my curiosity and desire to pursue it more seriously. I was pretty lucky to have him available because he was so established at that time. He was a real professional and really valued the role of the bass, and was demonstrative about conveying that and instilling it in me. I studied with him until I finished high school. I made the switch to upright bass in 1993 and from there it was pretty obvious what I was going to pursue.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How were you able to afford your first bass?

Sommers: I had several jobs. I worked at an ice cream store and caddied at a country club. My grandma loaned me some money, so she helped pay for it––the first one. I had a great orchestra teacher at Lake Forest High School, Sara Baldwin—really a sympathetic human being. She was so invested in her students. She’d spend extra time with me after school––she played bass and all the string instruments. She was instrumental in getting me started and allowed me to play in the school orchestra when I wasn’t ready. Sara is still around; she teaches privately. I talk to her every now and then. She’s an amazing person who cared a lot. Around the end of my senior year my dad started to drive me to Beverly where Larry Gray lived, a great Chicago bass player. I started to study with him. He’d take me down every Saturday morning, and that paved the way for me to go to DePaul. My senior year I was in the Illinois Music Education Association (IMEA), and was also in the Midwest Grammy Band where Bob Lark was the director. Through that set of circumstances and the proximity of the school to Chicago and all the opportunities it offered, I ended up going to DePaul. At the time, because of having worked with Bob Lark and Larry, who was also teaching at DePaul, it made sense to enroll. I started at DePaul in the fall of 1995, which enabled me to be downtown and play locally with a variety of musicians. I was fortunate in that there didn’t seem to be a lot of younger acoustic bass players around. A few come to mind that were influential at the time––Josh Abrams, Matt Ferguson and Noel Kupersmith. Needless to say, I had opportunities thrown in my lap just by the virtue of the fact I played upright and was willing to do just about any gig.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you start learning the jazz canon?

Sommers: In high school, when I was with Jim Cammack, every week he’d give me a different record to check out, a different bass player. He’d say, “Here’s Miles Davis’s Four and More with Ron Carter––you need to listen to this. Here’s a record with Ray Brown; here’s this group; here’s a record with Jimmy Garrison…” He’d go on and on down the line. He was really my first exposure to recorded jazz. Prior to Jim, I had never really checked it out much, as I was mostly into classic rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. I didn’t know where to start with jazz, and Jim showed me the path.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you embrace jazz immediately or were you overwhelmed?

Sommers: I was pretty much into it from the beginning. He’d give me different stuff too––the Yellowjackets, Tribal Tech and Weather Report, Bach, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and the Meters. He was really trying to engender in me the idea that jazz wasn’t just this one thing. The attitude that he conveyed to me was the role of the bass in music and how can it affect the overall feeling of a band. He also had insightful ways of talking about the nuanced relationship between the bass and the drums. He played this steady gig at My Place For, a restaurant on the North Side of Chicago. I used to go down there every week in high school and listen to him play. He covered so much material. It was a cool lesson, to see that it wasn’t just about one style but, rather, the authenticity of honoring whatever the song asked of him. He played with an incredibly demonstrative energy and emphasized the foundational element of the bass and how interesting that could be before even playing a solo. That made a big impression on me. When I got with Larry Gray later on in my high school years, he exposed me to records too. There was also another piano player I started taking lessons with, Kevin Gaynor, who is deceased but was on the scene at the time. He’d give me an LP and say, “Check this out—this is a Wayne Shorter record,” or “This is an Art Tatum record. You should hear this even though you don’t play the piano.” I would go into the lesson with my bass and he would teach me tunes. It was very helpful. It just grew from there. Once I started at DePaul, my addiction to buying records began in earnest. The school was located down the street from Tower Records; I think it was on Belden and Lincoln Avenue. We’d just walk down the street and I would go and buy records with whatever money I made from gigs.

Dan Cray, Clark and Greg Wyser-Pratte

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Weren’t you playing with Dan Cray and Greg Wyser-Pratte in high school?

Sommers: Yeah. There was a piano player in my high school, Marco Paguia, a prodigy classical player studying with Kevin Gaynor, the piano player who I took some lessons from. Later he studied with Mike Kocour. We were the same age, but he was already seasoned and could really play. So when I started playing upright we sort of developed this connection, because he was already a virtuosic pianist and already new tunes and had a great “feel.” We started playing together all the time. And then Greg Wyser-Pratte, an old friend from my high school switched from trumpet to drums and the three of us formed a trio. We went to a club in Evanston one night my junior year and they let us sit in. The place offered us a steady gig starting in January 1994. That’s how I met Dan Cray. He was at Northwestern and was a year older than me, and when Marco couldn’t do the gig, Dan would play. We had that gig into my college days. When I got into college I started branching out. I met Kelly Sill in January 1996, and that changed my life.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about it.

Sommers: Kelly is a unique musician and human being. He has a really singular voice on the bass and an insightful way of hearing, talking about and understanding music. He’s always been inspiring to me––a really great example of someone who has his own voice but still plays the role of the bass. He’s spontaneous and very melodic. I was always moved by the vocal quality of his playing. I was 18 or 19, and he was playing at the old Pops for Champagne with Mike Kocour and Joel Spencer. I remember hearing him and being blown away. He was open and accepting of me––I’d go to his house a couple times a week. We’d talk about music and he’d show me some stuff on the piano. He would have this great stuff to say about recordings and different ways of playing. He had an overarching philosophy about music and life, and how they were inseparable. He exposed me to a lot of ideas, thoughts and records, how to think critically about the process of music in very productive ways. It was an amazing time because I was at DePaul and was trying to get what I could out of Larry Gray, because he’s this virtuosic master of the bass. I was kind of simultaneously doing time with both of them.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: They have very different styles.

Sommers: They were complete polar opposites. I loved that, especially having started with Jim Cammack––they were all so different and definitive and valid in their own ways, and all were incredibly supportive and generous. Around 1997, I met Dennis Carroll and that had a profound influence on my conception too. He was playing with Ron Perrillo and Bobby Broom.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever have a conversation with your parents about where you were headed, musically?

Sommers: After my first year at DePaul, I went to my parents and sat them down. I had this “twelve-month plan” that I drew up, because I wanted to stop going to school and wanted to live at home, take lessons and practice for ten hours a day. I worked up the gumption to present this to them. They always felt very strongly about my sisters and I going to college and finishing. After my first year at DePaul it was clear I wasn’t really thriving––I was out working every night and wasn’t doing very well in my classes. Bob Lark grew pretty frustrated with me because I wasn’t really following the jazz program protocol. I wasn’t doing it out of spite––I think this is important for me to clarify, because I wasn’t getting the support I thought I needed at school. I felt there was a lack of imagination and sensitivity from the program with regard to a specific individual’s needs, and, frankly, I was ridiculed for it. It was a hard time. But, it's my impression that the environment over at DePaul has evolved quite a bit since the mid-‘90s. Anyway, I was getting a lot of opportunities and support around town and that felt like the obvious path. Nonetheless, this pissed off Bob and he wanted me leave the program, which I eventually did. I wanted to explore what this was about. I could see the writing on the wall––that I was probably wasting everyone’s time and money and should just take a step back and try to pursue this thing and work on some stuff. I was young and had always intended to go back to school. My parents were totally supportive in every way. They were completely amazing about it, to the point where my dad said, “What do you need? What do you need to take lessons with these people?” It was a great feeling to get that parental support.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: They weren’t musical?

Sommers: No, not at all. But they were jazz fans––my mother loved it and my dad just loved the fact that I showed a serious commitment to it. He’d come down to the basement and would listen to me practice. That was one of the ways we connected—that was really cool. They were both into it so I was lucky in that way. Right before my second year at DePaul I had a conversation with my mom. She said, “You can still do your plan, but what if you stayed in school and just did your gen-ed classes?” That’s what I ended up doing. I’m so glad I listened to her advice. It can be atypical for a young person to take the advice from parents, especially if it’s diametrically opposed with what they want to do. It was really a great idea, and when I did finally go back to school at CalArts years later, I didn’t have to do most of the extra work. But in the summer of 1997, I got an opportunity to go on the road with this swing band called the Mighty Blue Kings, so things took another course.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Dave Jemilo says that the Mighty Blue Kings was the most popular band he’d ever had at the Green Mill.

Sommers: I got that gig when I was 19 and lived in a van for two years. I went all over the country and it was a total blast. That’s where I met all these other great musicians that passed through that band: Geof Bradfield, Scott Burns, John Sandford and Chris Foreman. It was a fun time, and was kind of ridiculous in so many ways, too, but it was invaluable to perform every night and be in front of crowds. Around that time I met Ron Perrillo, Bobby Broom, Dennis Carroll, Dana Hall, Mike Allemana, Jeff Parker and George Fludas. It was sort of like two worlds colliding. That was a different thing, interacting with those guys. They were artists.

The group Ba(SH): Geof Bradfield, Dana Hall and Sommers

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was different about their approach from the things you’d seen prior?

Sommers: Both Ron’s trio and Bobby’s trio had such a “simpatico” vibe and played together so much. At the time it was Dennis Carroll on bass and George Fludas on drums, and Dana with Bobby’s trio. Both groups had a steady gig at Pete Miller’s. It was inspiring to hear Dennis play regularly with both groups. He used so much space and could influence the direction of the music in both contexts with one note. He played with an understated sensitivity and intent that made an indelible impression on me. I first met those guys when I was doing a gig at the Deja Vu with Lin Halliday, the great tenor player. Those guys came in and I didn’t know them. I was so young––still in my first year at DePaul. I lived right down the street from that club, on Lincoln and Sheffield, and could walk my bass over there. It was Lin Halliday’s gig with Mike Allemana on guitar and Mike Schlick on the drums. Mike wanted to introduce me to Dennis and George and Ron. They had—still have—this really incredibly spontaneous and fearless approach to the music. They are all so heavily grounded in the language of jazz, though they never seemed tethered to rules and they played with an emotive, expressive immediacy I hadn’t heard. Dana Hall started rotating into that group. They had this excitement and freshness. It was so musical and interesting to hear how they’d allow each other the space for the music go where it naturally wanted to go. So Dennis would introduce a certain bass note or Ron would build a world off of it. Not to overly demystify it, but it was just total mastery in the moment of the music. Ron’s thing is unlike anybody else’s––totally singul