The Mad Trumpeter
The Mad Trumpeter
Christopher Lowell Clarke, strong, resilient, maverick, talented, wise, my father. Christopher Clarke has been my lifelong teacher and holds the most prominent male influence in my life, and for this I am immeasurably grateful. My father grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city known for its large percentage of African Americans, but underneath the veneer lives high racial tension and the history behind it. After the Civil War many African Americans, including my great, great grandparents, migrated from the South to Cincinnati. They sought freedom and work, but faced nothing but oppression and hardship in the city. More recently, in 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer; he was unarmed and had committed only traffic violations. This tragedy took place against a backdrop of other killings of young black men by police and triggered incredibly destructive riots in the city. This aspect of Cincinnati would play a key role in my father’s decision to leave the city at a young age and eventually settle in California.
On a Saturday evening my father and I sat down in our kitchen when he came home from work (he is a trumpet playing jazz musician) and I interviewed him as he ate a snack of crackers, lox, and sauerkraut. This is his story.
Childhood and Adolescence
My childhood was great, I mean, for the most part. I had a big family, I was the baby, so I guess I annoyed the shit out of them. I had, you know, an older brother, two older sisters, and an aunt that was like an older sister. We were all close, we took care of each other, they took care of me, and we hung out a lot. We took a lot of family trips, so it was cool. My brother was kind of in and out, he was there but then later on he went to the service. But he was a little crazy, we had some… wild times. He’s just real eccentric. We would do stuff like… I would stand by the door and he would throw knives around me and shit like that (laughs loudly). One time he put me in the oven and burnt my back. Yeah, he was just a little crazy. But also we had good times too, like he used to take me to go watch Kung-Fu movies. He would take me all around the city, we’d catch the bus, and he’d take me around… to the hood and expose me to that kind of stuff too, so it was cool.
As a kid I was… rambunctious (laughs). I don’t know, in a lot of ways I was shy, you know, but around familiar people I was very outgoing. I just liked to have fun, I did a lot of playing, and I was very imaginative. As an adolescent I thought I ruled the universe. You know, we had a lot of freedom in the summertime, and I was pretty independent. We used to ride our bikes all over the city, go swimming all day long, hang out. I grew up in a neighborhood that produced a couple of professional athletes so we were always playing different sports in the summertime.
My father’s main passion emerged at an early age and would stick with him throughout his life. I started playing trumpet in the fourth grade, when I was nine years old. They wanted everybody to try different instruments in the fourth grade. I told the teacher “I’m a trumpet player” and she let me try it first. I played it and she was like “okay you’re a trumpet player” (mockingly). I just had this thing with it. I always knew that I was a trumpet player.
For high school, I went to School for the Creative and Performing Arts. It was an art school that you had to audition for admission. I auditioned trumpet and drama, and got in doing technical theater and music. Technical theater is like set building, and lighting design, and sound… running sound. The trumpet kept me in school. Around 10th or 11th grade I started getting serious about music. I started doing private lessons. There was this one trumpet player, he was a great trumpet player… Herb Smith. He plays for the Rochester Philharmonic now. But he was a great trumpet player and a great inspiration to me. Because of him and my private lesson teacher I really got into playing the trumpet. Herb Smith… I’m still in contact with that guy today.
Life As A Young Dad
College was interrupted by fatherhood. At this time in my father’s life he balanced work, music, a newborn, and the wild life of a young kid. I started off at a junior college connected to the University of Cincinnati in the criminal justice program because I didn’t take my SATs and that was a way for me to get into the school without having an SAT score. Then, the trumpet teacher from the music school at the university knew me from when I was in high school and he got me into the program. It was one of the top programs in the country at the time, it was like the third ranked music school in the country.
I had your brother Charles when I was 18, during my first year of college. There was a lot of pressure on me, you know, I was very confused. I really didn’t take much responsibility, other than showing up every once in awhile and being around the house. And then, uh, he would stay with me when I moved out, his mom and I had broke up. It was a very bad pregnancy. She was sick all the time, and… it was just… I couldn’t deal. It was a lot. And she went… she kinda lost it. So before Charles was born, we had kinda separated. But she was really supporting, she was paying all the bills. But then she moved out, and I didn’t really have a job. Then I was working all these odd jobs. I worked at a grocery store as a bag guy, then I worked as a construction worker for the grocery company building parking lots and stuff like that. After that I got a job as an electrician’s apprentice. I left that after like two days because my steel toe boots were too small and they killed my feet, I couldn’t do it. Then I was a nurse aide, changing elderly people’s diapers. And then I worked at the university as a janitor while I was in school.
Through all of this, as a young man, my father never lost his passion for music. I had music in my head, so much music was going on. I just couldn’t stop playing music, I was still trying to be a trumpet player.
These were difficult times, but my father did his best and learned many lessons along the way. I thought I was a man, you know. I thought I should be “out there,” but I wasn’t doin’ jack. I bought a car and, you know, I had an older girlfriend who was super fine… back then… to me. I mean, she was like a woman. And I was good looking, you know, I had a bunch of girls after me, I was chasing girls. So I felt like I was the man. I was being… just being stupid. So it… it was not the best period in my life, as far as taking responsibility. But I did what I could, I was around wit ‘eem, my son Charles, you know. We hung out, I took him wit me to play basketball and stuff.
After she had Charles, the Welfare Department made her name his dad, and they charged me all the money that they gave her. It’s a racket in this country where they… you know, they tryna label people as deadbeat dads. If you have a child with someone who’s on welfare, all the money that they give to her is on the dad, regardless. And it’s like, they not tryna give me no job, they wasn’t tryna employ me, but they still charged me. It was one of the ploys of mass incarceration of black men. And it still goes on to this day.
My Father’s Migration
I needed to leave Cincinnati because I had to work, and there was no work musically. It wasn’t the scene for me, I had to get away from there. But it was also a lot of problems with the police, being harassed by the police all the time. Getting pulled over and given tickets for bullshit. That’s what the police do, that’s what it’s all about. Tryna make black children have records so that they can be scrutinized by the law… and always be in that system. In the ’80s selling crack was a big thing, so they thought all the black kids were selling drugs. At that time I had a nice car so they just thought… they thought that I was a drug dealer, well (pauses). I dabbled a little bit in that world, but not anything serious. But I did have that car, and they didn’t like seeing me in that car. So yeah, I had to get the hell up outta Cincinnati.
My father’s journey out of Cincinnati began as the result of a phone call. I was in my third year of college, and I was practicing in the office. A former student called and I happened to answer the phone. They needed a trumpet player on one of the carnival cruise ships, so I got that gig.
The gig sent him on a journey of self-discovery and adventure, always with music in his head. Once I started working on cruise ships, around ’92, I would stay on the ship for awhile, save up money, and I would meet people on the ship, and then I would go visit those people in different cities. When I got to that city, I would go around and try to get work as a musician. I did that in Atlanta for awhile, which was pretty good, but I wasn’t ready to settle down at that point. This was when I first started working the ships. So then I’d run out of money, call the cruise ship, and get back on another ship. I did that for four years. I moved to Atlanta, then I moved down to LA for a while, to visit the girl I went to prom with… that didn’t last very long. But she was all connected, she worked for Quincy Jones and David Hanselman productions, so I was on the set of Fresh Prince of Bel Air and all these different TV shows. I met Wesley Snipes, a whole bunch of people, I went to the Mad TV Premiere. And I was down at USC kinda foolin’ around with the music department out there. I was just tryna find my work, or my way. At that point I had become pretty good at playing the trumpet so… people noticed, you know, that I had a certain skill level. I was still tryna come up though. But anyway, I did that in LA, and then I was in Puerto Rico for awhile.
Eventually, my father found his way to California. After Puerto Rico, I came out here. I met this girl who lived on Treasure Island, I went out there to stay with her for awhile. I would go to San Francisco to check out different clubs, like The Gathering, The End Up, Rose Pistola’s, The Black Cat, Bruno’s, sit in and try to play. And when I did that, I met another girl (laughs). And I met some musicians that, you know, they were interested and they had work, so I started working a little bit.
Then, there were many twists and turns. Things kinda fell apart with the girl from Treasure Island, but this other girl, her uncle owned a jazz club, Rassala’s. She lived on top of the jazz club, so I moved in with her. I would be down there often times. So I started working. I got another call to go on a cruise ship, but me and this girl were pretty close to being married. She called me her husband and all that, it was wild. Anyway, I went out for a little bit, got on another cruise ship, got fired from the cruise ship, ran out of money, and she sent me a plane ticket to come back to San Francisco. So I came back, and stayed in San Francisco for a while, working. Then me and that girl broke up and I moved out.
The next period for my father was hard as he tried to find work. As always, he recalls this time with humor and honesty. I was living in a residential hotel for a while. It had an old, weird, moldy kind of smell. It was like a roach motel. Drug addicts lived there… and drag queens. Yeah it was just weird (laughs). When I first moved in there I had a smaller room, it was like a closet. Just room enough for a bed and a desk. You walked in, you either sit at the desk or sit on the bed. It was a wild experience. But I went in there with my Nag Champa and created my little corner of peace (laughs loudly). Got rid of the roaches, I had a nice room at the corner of the building, I had a nice window that looked out onto the street, and it was a nice sized room. Towards the end I had a TV in there. I was just living a young kid’s life tryna find myself and try to find work… and then I met your mother. And here we are to this day, right here, with a few trials and tribulations in between there, but yeah, we made it.
Black Man, Black Man
Being a black man period in this country is… is quite… quite an endeavor. You get all these preconceived notions coming from everybody, you know, and they react to your presence in a certain kind of way. That has never changed for me.
Back in Cincinnati, during college, I was in some type of trouble with getting too many moving violations. I had a couple car accidents, I was pretty reckless… driving crazy. I had my own car too, I had bought my own car. Anyway, I was trying to get a public defender. So, in the interview with the public defender, mind you I had a brand new car, the guy who was interviewing me was like “oh how did you afford a brand new car” (mockingly). You know, basically he was implying that I was some type of drug dealer, like I deserved to be in trouble or something. I don’t know, it just felt bad. Here I am trying to go to this guy for help and he’s pinning me as some criminal, drug dealer. Like he chuckled when I told him I had a car. You know, it was like, to him… I was just some drug dealer. It was the only reason why I could have a car. Like it wasn’t that I come from a hardworking family that supports their child and helped me with a car, you know (laughs). It just felt shitty.
Another time in college, we were coming out of a club and they were trying to get everybody to leave the area because when the club closed everybody would be all out on the streets hangin’ out. So, I was there with my friends trying to get them to come on and the police woman just came up to me and was like “alright you’re going to jail” (mockingly) and charged me with disorderly conduct. And they took me to jail. You know, it was just a bunch of black people hangin’ out so they just started arresting people to make a point.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I never really got harassed by the police, necessarily. When I was in Cincinnati, it was all police and, you know, always harassment. But I was a kid, and I was driving a nice car around and all that, and hanging out, being in public places. But when I moved out to the Bay Area it was more like… business people tryna get in my way and keep me from making money. So it was deeper, you know, it wasn’t just okay we gon’ put a record on you, put all these warrants on you, it was like we’re gonna try to disenfranchise you so you can’t do shit.
I worked on Maiden Lane in San Francisco for years with Dewayne Oakley. They blocked off the street and we were set up in front of Cafe Mocha. Dewayne had been there for a long time by himself, then when I showed up it became a big deal because I am a trumpet player. All of a sudden, businesses around started calling the police to harass us and try to get me out of there. But there was nothing they could do. We overcame it, but it was just like all of a sudden my presence… well the trumpet is a very dynamic instrument. So that kinda freaked out a lot of people when I showed up… and I was down there hittin’ it (laughs). I wasn’t takin’ prisoners (laughs). And people loved it, we drew people from all around downtown to come down there. They would just come down, sit down, and just check it out. People took pictures and videos. But when I first showed up I had to overcome the business owners in the area trying to hate and call the police on me specifically to get rid of me. It was a lot of that, being harrassed by the business owners, trying to make me intimidated by them, just treating us rude. Not letting me use the bathroom and weird shit like that. They were just inhumane. It was like I was dealing with a bunch of demons… seriously. Horns on their heads, and fuckin’ red bloodshot eyes, and fangs and (laughs) seriously, I could see that in them. They were just super rude and really confrontational.
Although he faced oppression in this new city, it was important for him to experience a new energy, one much different than Cincinnati. The Bay Area, you know, this is an international city. So you got people from all over, you got people speaking different languages all over the place, and Cincinnati was just black and white. Not many Spanish speaking people, not many Asians. It’s just straight black and white, that’s it.
It was important for me to get out of Cincinnati to have more of a worldly kind of idea of things, as opposed to a smaller mentality of just… I’m a black man and they’re white people and everybody is out to get me and that’s it. Around the world, you know, a lot of black culture and black people are embraced, especially for what I deal with, jazz music, you know. In Europe, and in Asia, they love black musicians, they’re revered and appreciated. Not so much in this country, still, although there is a community of people that really appreciate the fact that this is an American… jazz is an American made institution. You know, it was created in this country by black Americans and that’s why it’s kind of a hard pill for America to swallow (laughs). But it is recognized, I mean it’s been named a national treasure, something that was created in this country and is something that partially defines what this country is about.
My father and I closed our conversation with his thoughts on the fading popularity of jazz in America and his description of the music he loves. I think that a lot of the problems I had with people as a musician had to do with me being a black man. I’ve seen how the music industry itself, it went through a period where they were like… attacking jazz musicians. You know, gettin ’em strung out and arrested, put in jail, they tried to destroy jazz. Then they created an industry where they’d pump all this money into other music and tried to make that the popular music. They tried to kinda, wipe out jazz music in a certain sense. It’s part of the dumbing down of America, you know. Jazz is very intellectual music.
It started with swing. They played familiar melodies from the broadway musicals at the time and popular music from the time, and what Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and these dudes did is they added all these hip colors and complex chord progressions, and created more vibrations. You know, vibrations have an impact on you physically so when you get all these dissonant chords and these notes that are close together, that clash and create this buzz and this vibration it just hits your body and makes you feel a certain kind of way. It’s pretty profound how they came up with this.
Jazz brings you closer to your emotions, it enables you to feel your emotions. It also inspires you to be positive. You know, I always get this happy feeling when the music just starts swingin’ and it’s like mmh, you just feel good. You feel positive about things, you feel full of life, and vigor, and energy, and it just makes me happy.
Generations ago, my father’s family migrated to Cincinnati to escape the extremely racist, hostile Kentucky after slavery. Interestingly enough, my father left home escaping not only the small town, black versus white attitude of Cincinnati, but also the harassment he was facing by police as a young black man. Even decades later, my father sees the same kind of racial attitudes and harassment his ancestors had faced generations ago.
This was the first time I heard my father’s story from beginning to the present in all its glorious honesty and adventure. I now realize, through hearing his life story, that though there are many differences between us, there are also many similarities. For most of his life he lived as a nomad, trying to find himself, following only the call of his heart and the music. For me that is unimaginably courageous. No plan, almost no stability, and still he thrived, with a few trials and tribulations, as he says. In contrast, my life is full of long-term plans, to-do lists, and next steps; my father’s life was the complete opposite. Yet when I look at myself I see his passion, his wisdom, and his drive residing in me. I deeply admire my father’s resiliency and I hope that one day I can grow to be as strong and resilient as he is.
Written by Isha Clarke in conversation with her father Christopher Lowell Clarke
“The Mad Trumpeter” is from Past Is Present which documents the oral histories of 12 MetWest High School students as they learn the migration and immigration stories of their lineage. These brave youth come with burning questions and open ears, ready to record, write, and make visible the unheard stories of their families’ journeys. These pages are filled with resilience and courage, survival and hope, grief and praise.
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