Jazz Man Damon K. Clark: "We Pay Accountants a Living Wage. Why Not Musicians?"

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Justin Clemens
Damon K. Clark
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Damon K. Clark, co-musical director at Winspear Opera House, is changing lanes. He's sidelining what has been a pretty spirited performance career in local jazz and choir to concentrate on music lessons. A bit of a loss to local fans, but a big break for some aspiring pupils. Clark took some time to hip us to what a "beast" is, and give us a local jazz starter kit.

So, take me on a local jazz tour, beyond just dining at Sambuca.
Well, I would direct you to the Amsterdam Bar on Monday night, and the Tuesday night jam at Sandaga 813, which is a couple of doors down from that. Thursday night live at The Dallas Museum of Art, and just about any night at the Balcony Club. There are some other places, but those are my haunts. Each place has its own charm to disarm.

Who would be some ideal pianists to see locally?
Caleb Sean McCampbell. A beast on the keys! Also, Bobby Sparks. I was never an organ lover till I saw Bobby play the heck out of one at what used to be the Pussycat Lounge. Now I'm a fan, of Bobby and the organ. Another keys beast is Bernard Wright.

How about local jazz vocalists?
Emily Elbert. She's young, but she's got an old soul. I opened for her a couple of years ago. She knocked me down with her warm mezzo soprano. Her voice says, "I have wisdom beyond my years." I became a fan that day! And Liz Mikel. One of my favorite actresses/singers. She's a theatre beast. Drama, comedy, dramedy, musicals. She does it all and always with the sparkle of a celestial body. Also, Victor Cager. Wine aficionados know a fine wine by the complexity of the flavors it gives off. Those are called "notes." Well, Maestro Cager certainly gives off many a pleasant, surprising and completely satisfying note when he performs. A beast! I admire his phrasing, conviction and commitment to the story of a song. You can tell he's connected with the lyric and composition in a most meaning full way.

Is "beast" a jazz lingo thing?
If you haven't already guessed, "beast"artists speak for someone who is master of their craft.

I understand you started vocal training at a very young, age but it was very "square" in the beginning.
Early on, my mother taught me a few songs like "Over in the Meadow" and "Las Mañanitas" in English. I was probably 3. Then by age 7, I was studying with a classical voice teacher. Then at about 16 I was introduced to jazz. It wasn't a happy meeting, though.

So, jazz was a negative musical experience for you in your teens?
My mom's younger brother, who was a great musician and singer, decided that I was in danger of never developing "black voice." He mentioned this to my mother and suggested that she get me another voice teacher. Well, she did. I studied with a jazz guy named Charles Cooper. At the time, I would not realize how influential he would be. I initially resisted but found I had a propensity for jazz. Of course, even with that, I still didn't really embark on a career singing jazz until about six years ago. I stuck to classical music, pretty much.

So you sang jazz for six years, but now you're putting that aside to concentrate fully on teaching. Is that something you've always wanted to do?
I truly had no interest in teaching, but I did it because a friend of mine asked me if I'd teach him how to sing. I began to slowly enjoy teaching. Now I have a passion for educating vocalists. I've had the privilege of doing mini vocal coaching sessions with Liz Mikel, Caleb McCampbell, Sarah Sellers and more extensive coaching with LaLa and ShaDana Jones, all of whom are very fine vocalists. I find myself in awe of their talent.

During this hiatus, what local jazz musicians will you miss performing with the most?
Madelyn Brené. She's perhaps my musical soul mate. She and I have a concert series together (classical and jazz). Her soprano is a warm, chocolaty soubrette with a dark core. I also adored performing with Andrea Wallace. Andrea has a powerful, bright, yet supremely flexible soprano. Andrea sings classical music, jazz, neo-soul, gospel, all equally well. I've performed with her a few times and each time she reveals a new level of mastery. She's also a well-known vocal coach. I am also glad to call her friend as well. I have also had the privilege of working performing with Sarah Sellers, whom I admire greatly. I love mezzo sopranos and Sarah certainly wears mezzo well. We've only gotten to sing together one time, but that made me more than an admirer.

What would you improve in the local jazz community if you could? Say, if you were presiding as mayor?
Oh, my! Well, the first action I would take as mayor would be to significantly increase musician pay to an actual living wage. Many venues significantly underpay musicians. I feel strongly that musicians should be compensated for their work fairly. Sadly, that is often not the case. People are used to consuming these men and women's hard work for free. That disturbs me. We pay accountants a living wage. Why not musicians?

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mwa6582751
mwa6582751 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sorry about Phil York.  I saw him last year and he was able to work with some tapes I made.  

mwa6582751
mwa6582751 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was glad to see the young and coming vocalists mentioned, but some of us have been here a long time.  We have left the country in some cases to make a living, only to find the landscape changed when we returned.  I've gone to other cities, Russia, China, England, France, and South Africa. Others have gone to China.  Still others have gone to Mexico!  I find that a living wage has been paid (the Fairmont hotels, New Orleans, Vegas), but within the last ten years, I've seen Dallas turn into a town of Rockers and everyone "believes" that they know music well enough to create music without learning the basics first.  The "basics" are blues, standards, bossa novas, songs that have been translated into English.  I find when I've done gigs (with some mentioned in this article) they don't know standards.  Yes, they can play their instruments, but audiences have been "dumbed down" so much by playing a lot of notes,  they have never learned "taste" and "manners!"   Those things take on various meanings in music, but the bottom line is that these people have to walk before they can run, and they have to read before they can write.  Victor is one of the older musicians I've seen who can do this, but others I am not so certain about.  Yes, paying a living wage is important, but when musicians work for one nighters and then get paid for an hours work for that one night, it's disturbing, such as the Freeman.  I've just come back from England, and it's far better than in Dallas.  Thanks for listening--Marilyn Walton

wrecked
wrecked like.author.displayName 1 Like

You are so right.  Much of what passes for jazz in Dallas is no more than souped up rock or R&B.  Venues can't pay musicians what they are worth.  Musicians blame the venues for this, but what is their true economic worth if patrons will only come see them when it is "no cover"??  It is a sad situation, watered down and dumbed down, indeed! 

mwa6582751
mwa6582751 like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @wrecked Thanks for agreeing with me!  I don't know what to say about this SAD SAD SAD situation in my home town!  Most musicians have gone to get other professions, rather than what they studied so long and so hard for.  I'm not certain that people KNOW what jazz is? That started when they confused jazz and funk in the 70s.   I wrote to a guy named Joe, who teaches jazz guitar up North and told him that I would like to come up and record with him.  He was 80+ years old.  He didn't believe me because he has had so many who came up and were ignorant of what jazz really was.  The singers and musicians he had worked with were mostly now gone, but they were the people that I learned from and respected.  When I went to New York with my trio (I had to get a pianist in Chicago) I heard Helen Hume, dinner with Joe Williams, made friends with many famous musicians--Earl "Fatha" Hines, Ellington's son, so many!  They taught me and I learned.  Dallas knows nothing about jazz.  It does not exist here.  When you heard Count Basie play his 1 (ONE) NOTE at the end of a tune, that said more than all of the so called geniuses that play in Dallas.  I learned from Ella and she was told by a couple of  Dallas musicians who married the worse singers I'd ever heard that I wanted to be a "Star!"  They resented that.  But I learned my art and it has taken me all over the world.  I heard Ella the first time when I was 12--my parents took me to hear her! (Yea!) I got the Duke Ellington's band's autographs--Cootie Williams, Paul Gonzalez, Hamie Carney, etc.  Yes, I learned and it's sad that the musicians today have not learned, because the club owners have not learned, therefore the patrons have not learned what jazz is and IS NOT!

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