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Meet Colleen Clark

Today we’d like to introduce you to Colleen Clark.

Can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today?
My story is unique. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut that had an incredible jazz band program. My high school, Bacon Academy, won the Berklee High School Jazz Festival numerous times. Now living in South Carolina this is an interesting situation because I did not grow up with a marching band – some of my students can’t imagine an upbringing without a marching band. Connecticut has and continues to have incredible jazz musicians, born and raised, that continue to do great things.

My father was an agent in Hartford until the 2010s and so he knew all of the jazz/pop musicians around the state as he would book them for society gigs, etc. He even had an awesome outdoor music series in partnership with Aetna where he booked acts from The Eagles to Duke Ellington. He knew I’d be a drummer and when I came home and told him that I was assigned the flute that day in fourth grade, he did my drop-off at school the next morning. He told the band director that I would start drumset lessons immediately. The band teacher told him that he already had 13 drummers for the year and my Dad promised him it’d be worth giving me the chance to play the drums. The rest is history. Yes, I was one of less than a handful of girls. One of the girls that also played is now the star of NYC’s STOMP, but other than Kris Lee and myself, there haven’t been a ton of female drummers to continue in music out of our public-school program. I’ll also add that my entire family has continued to support my passion for music throughout this journey.

As a teenager, I had the great fortune of studying with Mr. Al Lepak (Hartford Symphony timpanist for 50 years, founded the Hartt School Percussion department, and offered the Duke Ellington gig). He was my first real mentor. He stood up for me and was honest with me. After my studies with Mr. Lepak, I earned an undergraduate degree in percussion performance and music education from Ithaca College, under the tutelage of the great marimbist and composer Gordon Stout. Gordon is still my mentor to this day. I studied with one of the drumset masters, John Riley (Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) at SUNY Purchase during my master’s degree. John still mentors me to this day. Finally, I earned my Doctorate in Music Arts with a concentration in jazz studies from the world-renowned University of North Texas where I had the opportunity to study under one of the other great masters of our instrument, Ed Soph. I am the only drummer and woman to earn this degree from the oldest jazz institution in America. Ed still mentors me to this day.

I hope you can see the similarities with the mentorship that is deeply important to my life and musicianship. It’s an important part of the jazz art form: passing it down. That’s why I’m deeply invested in doing this for my students.

I’ve had the opportunity to teach at CUNY’s Borough Manhattan Community College, University of North Texas and now, my dream job, the University of South Carolina.

I’ve played on some of the biggest stages in the US including leading my band at the Kennedy Center, and being a sideman at Birdland, The 55 Bar and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It’s never an easy road being in the minority group of your field. Women in jazz are not the majority. That doesn’t mean women in jazz aren’t starting to get deserved attention, but 1917 was the first recorded jazz and when examining jazz history textbooks, it’s hard to find women in jazz, other than a handful of names that include: Lucille Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland. More opportunity was not presented until recently, and I’m not saying that it’s equal opportunity. It typically takes a historical moment for women in jazz to benefit from either a nationalized or global uproar about equal rights. The most recent example is the #MeToo movement. Women in jazz have been offered more opportunities because of this major event. I just hope it sticks this time.

Honestly, I didn’t feel that there was a lack of gigs or opportunities as a performer or professor when I was working in NYC. I also worked at an elite vintage drum shop among men and a couple of females that treated me equally. My boss from the shop is still an incredible friend, ally, and supporter. When I began my doctorate, I noticed the numbers. I was one of five women in a jazz program of 300 students and the only female in the drumset studio. I conducted the top student run lab band and countless times when we finished our final performance of the semester, my students came up to me to thank me and let me know that I was their first ever female big band conductor (progress!!). I’ll talk a little more later about my initiative that helps alter these numbers, the founding of The University of South Carolina’s Jazz Girls Day. I have learned that we as teachers and mentors need to do our best to support our students, as they will be the ones passing down our music to the next generation from those special mentors (like the ones that I have been very lucky to have in my life).

I’m grateful for the opportunity that Ed Soph and John Murphy provided by inviting me to the program and I’m proud of the distinguished work I accomplished while attending that university, which includes my published dissertation.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I’m extremely proud of my appointment at UofSC. As a jazz educator, a platform as strong and supportive as UofSC is an incredible tool. The support from Dean Tayloe Harding that me and my colleagues receive is remarkable. I truly don’t know of another Dean of a School of Music that is so respected in the University setting. I will also say that my interview at UofSC began with Tayloe at 8:30am. I was getting off the elevator and I thought to myself, I have an idea…We sat down for breakfast and within 30 seconds I knew Tayloe was the guy to work with and learn from. Feeling comfortable, I told Tayloe the following: “I will be your Dawn Staley.” I said it and quickly looked at his face and he smiled. I knew it. Success! I’m an avid women’s basketball fan, being from Connecticut and all. I’ll set the record straight that I AM a huge Dawn Staley and Gamecock WBB fan of course, and for many reasons look to her coaching for inspiration in teaching and leadership. I’ve learned from her podcast and roster that she takes South Carolina recruitment really seriously (and for good reason). So, I got with my jazz colleagues and brought this up and we’ve realized that through the founding of Jazz Girls Day and our intense public school outreach programming (where we go into schools, play and perform with public school students and work with public school teachers) we are going to get the best of the best from our state. We have already reaped these rewards with our incoming freshman class, some participated in JGD and others we met on outreach sessions.

My work here at the University of South Carolina is fueled by inspiration from my students and from the state itself. One of my missions here in the state is to get more women and girls involved in jazz. That’s why I founded and am the director of the University of South Carolina’s Jazz Girls Day. A little bit about Jazz Girls Day… Jazz Girls Day fills a necessary void in jazz education: the active inclusion of women and girls. By demonstrating that girls are interested in and want to play jazz, we are not only influencing the participants, but the music educators and our students – the next generation of advocates for the arts. This program is not the norm across the United States, but by starting it here in the state of South Carolina, we know that our Jazz Girls Days structure and curriculum can be used as the flagship model to influence music educators across the country. Since the lead up and launch of our first Jazz Girls Day event our jazz area has seen an uptick in female university applicants that are pursuing jazz studies or jazz performance as a performance area. By continuing the Jazz Girls Day host program and two regional outreach programs, data will reflect an uptick in participation, advocation by our current jazz students, South Carolina music educators, and future recruitment.

I have won three different grants (Center for Integrative and Experiential Beyond the Classroom, SPARK mini-grant, SPARK Creativity in Teaching) that will expand our Jazz Girls Day mission to two more locations, the Fine Arts Center in Greenville (upstate) in Fall 2022 and the low country (location TBD) in the Spring of 2023. We (the UofSC Jazz team, SPARK, CIEL and UofSC students) are writing a Jazz Girls Day Curriculum that will become the national precedent for the launch of Jazz Girls Days across the United States.

As you can tell from my story, it only makes sense that this has become my passion.

I’m also an active performer and clinician. I just finished a record with my colleague Dr. Matt White that was funded by South Arts and features the music of Dolly Parton. In collaboration with Matt (the new Director of Jazz Studies at UofSC), Lauren Meccia, Craig Butterfield and Mike Wilkinson, we are aggressively making UofSC THE jazz studies destination of the SEC.

Networking and finding a mentor can have such a positive impact on one’s life and career. Any advice?
Finding a mentor is not how I think of it. Typically, the mentor finds you. This could happen through your work or the networking circles you expand, but if you are actively looking for a mentor I tend to offer this as advice:

1. Find someone that has your back: this can be challenging, especially as folks tend to have their own agendas in mind, but once you find someone that is not jealous or intimidated by the work you do, stick with that person.

2. Your good work will attract good people to your networking circle. Always do good work and by good (for women and minorities) it needs to be extraordinary work.

3. Be a team player and know your boundaries. If you don’t know how to do something, say it! Don’t be the person that pretends to know something and then completes it at a lower level than a person that is an expert in that field.

4. Be truly open to criticism and then take what you think will help you excel. Don’t let it get you down!

5. Be positive. Be nice.

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Image Credits:

Loren Wohl (professional shots)
University of South Carolina (photo booth style)

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