Interview with Clarence Penn, Drummer for Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60!
By Lois Mummaw, President Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan (JAMM)
When Bob Hoffman, Wharton Center Public Relations Manager, contacted me in late February and asked if I would be willing to interview a member of the Newport Jazz Festival in anticipation of the concert coming to Wharton Center, I thought, “I’ve never really interviewed anybody!”
Then, when Bob suggested I speak with the drummer, Clarence Penn I agreed to do it, but not just because Clarence is from Detroit. I agreed because I have a soft spot in my heart for drummers. My son is a drummer. To me, drummers represent the beat of life…and of jazz. We spoke by phone and once I told him I was not a journalist, as such, he actually seemed a bit relieved. Here then is our wonderful conversation:
LM: Thanks for taking time to speak with me today. I am not a professional interviewer. I am President of The Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan (JAMM). Our mission is “to preserve and promote the tradition of live jazz across Mid-Michigan”. Our members are so excited for Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60! to perform at The Wharton Center on March 27.
CP: Thank you, Lois.
LM: My husband and I travel to lots of jazz festivals every year–Monterey, New Orleans, Newport and we have a few wonderful jazz festivals right here in Michigan (East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, Lansing JazzFest, and of course, Detroit Jazz Fest) and we have been racking our brains to try and think of where we have heard you play and with whom. I know you are from Detroit. Have you played at the Detroit Jazz Festival recently?
CP: Yes, I have played with the Maria Schneider Orchestra for the past 10 years.
LM: Oh, that’s it! You played with Maria at the 2010 Detroit Jazz Fest! That was one of my favorite concerts ever! And, it was highly acclaimed by all the music critics and writers from Detroit as well as Jazz Times and Downbeat as one of the 10 best (if not the best) performance at the festival. I remember being transported by 3 songs in particular “Sky Blue”, “Journey Home” and “Hang Gliding”. Transported as in I had the sense of floating weightless. I felt like I could hang in the sky and dance with those giant Gaudi puppets.
CP: Yes, Maria has a special thing. I love playing in that band. She is a great person and a great composer.
LM: My husband and I just went on our 7th (The) Jazz Cruise. This year Randy Brecker was on the boat and last year both Karrin Allyson and Anat Cohen. We heard a rumor that George Wein was on the cruise this year but we didn’t see him until, on our way home when we were in the Delta Lounge at the Ft Lauderdale airport. I said hello to him and, even though I had only met him briefly at the Newport Jazz Festival Gala in 2012, he stopped and carried on a very warm conversation with me. My two short interactions with him leave me with the impression that he genuinely cares about people’s opinions about his jazz festival and values being in the present moment.
CP: Yes, Lois, you are so right on about George. I just played with him over Christmas. I love it when I get a chance to play with him. I mostly know him from a business side–the Newport Jazz Festival, this touring band for the festival, etc. But George is always thinking. And he truly does care for others–that’s what keeps him young! George is also a true jazz musician. Any true jazz musician is all about being in the moment. He or she is always learning.
A true jazz musician tries to get to the next level. Jazz is taking from what’s going on in life right now. True jazz musicians are playing life.
Details for the 3/27/14 concert and Clarence Penn’s bio below:
Mar 27 , 2014
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL: Now 60!
Cobb Great Hall
Founded in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival was the first of its kind in America and has been called the “grandfather of all jazz festivals.” 2014 marks its 60th year, and the Festival is celebrating with a multi-generational tour featuring an all-star band honoring the festival’s rich heritage, its significance and the global scope of jazz today. Led by clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, the ensemble features vocalist Karrin Allyson, hailed by the LA Times as “the jazz world’s finest” and often heard on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion; five-time Grammy- winning trumpet wizard, Randy Brecker; guitarist Mark Whitfield; and pianist Peter Martin; with Clarence Penn on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass.
CLARENCE PENN August, 2000 – YouTube
Clarence Penn ranks high among drummers who are versatile and savvy enough to play any style of music. Having played in a semi-professional capacity since the age of 15, Penn has toured, performed and recorded with a veritable who’s who of musical stars, including Betty Carter, Ellis Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Jacky Terrasson, Roberta Flack, Dizzy Gilespie, Dianne Reeves, Cyrus Chestnut, Stephen Scott, Steps Ahead, Mike Stern and Rachel Z. He is probably one of the most sought after drummers of his generation on the scene.
Growing up the second of three children in his native Detroit Michigan, Penn got his first drum set as a third grader, picking the drums as his instrument of choice rather by chance. “My neighbor played the drums,” remembers Penn. “And I would hear him practicing everyday when I came home from school.” Although Penn admits to not wanting to practice, he nevertheless continued taking drum lessons, eventually reaching a level of competence on the drums that afforded him the opportunity to spend his last year in high school at Michigan’s prestigious school of fine arts, Interlochen Arts Academy. There Penn toyed with the idea of pursuing a steady classical career, but was quickly drawn to the ultimately rigorous routine of a free-lance musician.
A gig with grown-ups changed Penn’s life. Asked to perform with a group of his teachers for an event away from school, Penn eagerly accepted. “That experience combined with what I was already being exposed to at school gave me the desire to pursue the drum set more seriously.” Back at Interlochen, Penn later formed a band with some other students, performing regularly at various school functions.
Upon graduation, Penn headed for the University of Miami, attracted by what he perceived to be a diverse program in jazz and classical percussion. But a little more than a year later, Penn transferred to Virginia Commonwealth at the suggestion of Wynton Marsalis whose father, Ellis was a faculty member. “I met Wynton in tenth grade,” Penn says. “He came to my high school and kind of became my mentor for the next few years. He would often advise me on what to do.”
Apparently there were others, in addition to Wynton, who were paying attention to Penn’s burgeoning talent. In 1989, Penn received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to study with the late, renowned drummer, Alan Dawson. “I took private lessons with Alan in Boston during my summer break from school at Virginia,” Penn says. “It was a great experience. Alan was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
In addition to receiving the illustrious grant from the NEA, Penn, after only six months at Virginia, was asked by Ellis Marsalis to join his trio. The group would gig on the weekends, or take a four day weekend, but as Penn remembers, Marsalis would “make sure that I did my work.” 1990 witnessed Penn accompanying Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis and bassist Reginald Veal to Japan to perform at the famous Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival. There, Penn met Lewis Nash who had the opportunity to hear the young drummer play. Impressed, Nash kept Penn in mind, and when the chance arose, recommended Penn to Betty Carter during one of her many searches for a talented musician, this time a drummer. Nash gave Penn such a glowing recommendation, Carter hired him without an audition.
Remaining with Carter for several years, Penn went on to play with Stanley Clarke and soon after became a part of the Cyrus Chestnut Trio and the Stephen Scott Trio. In 1995, Penn joined the popular fusion group Steps Ahead, recording with the group two albums, one of which included a composition penned by Penn. He has additionally recorded and performed with David Sanchez, Slide Hampton, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Barron, Makoto Ozone, Kevin Mahogany and the list goes on.
“It’s important that other people know my versatility, sensitivity and professionalism,” says Penn. “I’m very serious about what I do, and I want people to know that I can do the job that I’m called to do.”
In 1996, the esteemed independent jazz label Criss Cross invited Penn to record his first album as a leader titled Penn’s Landing . In 1997 “Penn’s Landing” was chosen by the New York Times jazz critics as one of the best records of the year.