Music for Music: Joe Clark: Breath is Truth

NIU Jazz Ensemble to record “Black and Cardinal”

Music for Music: Joe Clark: Breath is Truth

by Dan Ursini ©2020

Time and again, Chicago has risen from catastrophe and soared phoenix-like toward rebirth. But these comebacks are tragically incomplete. The deepest of its problems reverberate: racism, poverty, and violence continue to destroy lives. Chicago is having another brutal summer. There is a fundamental need to rethink this urban recovery process. Music can inspire reflection and evoke a new sense of the big picture. In that direction are a couple suites for big band by composer/arranger/trumpeter Joe Clark. He explains, “’Ghost Signs’ and ‘Black and Cardinal’ came from learning more about the music of Bronzeville and the unifying social vision of Fred Hampton, respectively. I can’t fully speak to the truths of either subject, not my stories to tell…But if there is any truth in my music, it’s how  those subjects have made me reflect on social justice, death and mourning, anger and frustration.”

Clark continues, “Both pieces are generally about the power of people to create a new world. ‘Ghost Signs’ celebrates the communities of the musicians who overcame adverse conditions on the South Side of Chicago, to create one of the world’s most influential music scenes. Modeling the piece on the Requiem Mass gave a framework for reflection and an immediate personal relevance.”

The “Ghost Signs” title was inspired by the weathered ads of the past still visible on urban facades. The first movement, “Restless,” dramatizes the process of another world gradually achieving focus. It begins with ominous special effects, produced from within an acoustic piano. As the melody is introduced, the music starts to swing. The whole concept of swing is famously inexplicable but everybody knows it when they hear it and “Ghost Signs,” swings all the way through. This driving music is a synthesis of various styles of jazz, particularly bebop. But it is also marked by stateliness and grace—hallmarks of Duke Ellington and his contemporaries.

Northwestern Jazz Orchestra with Joe Clark conducting

The live recording on SoundCloud was performed by the Northwestern Jazz Orchestra, with Clark as conductor. Highlights include spirited solos by trumpeter Thomas Levy, alto sax player Louis Danowsky, and tenor player Austin Klewin.

Joe explains that “Black and Cardinal” was inspired by Fred Hampton, the late Sixties-era chairman of the Black Panthers, who envisioned a fully inclusive Rainbow Coalition of Chicago’s races and cultures—the first of its kind in the USA. I had planned to write about “Black and Cardinal” here. But there are no publicly available recordings, and COVID 19 has delayed a long-planned album. When the album is made, it will be partially funded by grants from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Luminarts Cultural Foundation.

“Ghost Signs” and “Black and Cardinal” articulate Clark’s commitment to wind music—song that depends on human lungs for power. Breath is everything. Clark says, “The music begins before the sound, with the inhalation. The breath determines phrasing, pacing…and any sound you make is a reflection of your body. There’s also a sense of limitation: you can’t breathe out forever.”

Contending with these issues nurtures timeless camaraderie. Clark remarked, “It’s not a stretch to feel a connection to the Venetian musicians playing the music of Gabrieli in antiphonal choirs at St. Mark’s, the trombone players at Beethoven’s funeral, the countless players of taps through history.”

The encyclopedic range of Clark’s interests as a composer/arranger extends even to the medieval-inspired horn music he composed for the Chicago Horn Consort. “Catch Fire” is the title track of their most recent album, a celebration of the “golden history of the horn.” It is a caccia, which derives from music for fox hunts. It has three parts—two of which chase after the third. In Clark’s fascinating caccia, the music falls apart and rebuilds, over and over—each time with sonorous horns and constant shifts in polyrhythms and texture. It is like a scene in a play, a curious family argument where everybody tries to say feisty things even though they are playing music with beautiful-sounding horns.  

In the arranging of “Catch Fire,” there is a great sense of proportion: wit, tension and conflict are evident in highly concise yet complete terms. This characterizes all of Clark’s work—particularly his contributions to Sisters in Song on the Cedille label.

Sisters in Song is a brilliant duet album by highly regarded sopranos Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge. Clark played the critical role of seamlessly recasting, as duets, songs that were never meant for two voices. Beyond that, his orchestrations emphasize fresh textures—especially some terrific string/woodwind blends. My favorite is his orchestration of the album-closing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Filled with verve and charm, it captures the exuberant power that can result when spirituals are given operatic treatment.

When considering the incredible range of Clark’s musical commitments, I think he consistently expresses the conviction that breath is truth—and that the shape of any piece of music should transparently support that truth.


Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at:

Music for Music: Joe Clark & Arcana at EIL

Joe Clark’s Website

Chicago Consort

Sisters in Song at Cedille Records

“Ghost Signs” at SoundCloud

Jazz Orchestra at Northwestern University

Ghost Signs on Hidden Chicago with Geoffrey Baer at WTTW


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