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

Damon K. Clark
Damon K. Clark
Justin Clemens

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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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