Tom Clark–Tuba, String Bass
“I’ve been blessed . . . We came from very humble beginnings, but we had a lot of love in our family.”
My family wanted to hold up my birth so we could have a July 4 gathering but about 4 o’clock the afternoon of the 3rd my Mom says, “We are going to the hospital.”
I was born in Lafayette, Indiana in 1945 and at that point my family was renting part of a farm. We moved in 1948 to Kentucky. It was a one mile walk to the bridge that crossed the Ohio River to Cincinnati. The house we rented was built before the Civil War, a farmhouse that had been occupied by forces of both the North and the South. We found things around the chicken coop, my brothers and I, little insignias of the Confederate army. The house was a wreck. The rent was $30 a month and it never went up.
My mother was raised in a Finnish community. Her father worked in the iron mines close to Lake Superior. He was a dynamiter, the most dangerous job. He had left a wife and kids in Finland and he took the most dangerous job because it paid the most. In three years he made enough money to get passage over for his family and buy seven acres where he built a log cabin. My mother did not speak English until high school. It was all Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
We came from very humble beginnings, but we had a lot of love in our family. And we were always telling jokes. I remember being sent to bed because I wouldn’t stop telling jokes at the dinner table. There was a lot of laughter. We had very little money, but a lot of good humor.
My mother and her sister were musicians. My mother had played alto horn in the Hibbing Band in Hibbing, Minnesota. So in fifth grade when our band director sent out a notice—“If you’re interested in music, come down.”—I did.
I played trombone and baritone horn and tuba and I was studying with the principal trombone player of the Cincinnati Symphony. About my fourth lesson I’m playing trombone, and he says: “Kid, I gotta level with you, you ain’t got it. You have an incorrect embouchure, you have a raspy tone, and the only way to get over that is to stop playing for a year, and then come back and I’ll retrain you.”
I was playing tuba and trombone in a Dixieland Band and we desperately needed a bass player. In a locker in the high school was a string bass and I made a deal with the director, “If I repair that, can I use it until I graduate?” So I made friends with a repairman in Cincinnati and got the bass put together and I took my first lesson with the principle bass player in the Cincinnati Symphony. I played my first paying gig on bass two weeks after my first lesson. A friend from high school said, “I hear you got a bass. Bring it down to the bowling alley; I got a gig for you.” It paid $8.oo. I could only play major chords, you know 1-3-5, but after the gig he said, “That’s good enough.” Within six months I was playing in five bands.
My bass teacher was an excellent jazz player, too, and he asked which way I wanted to go, so I said, “I want to play jazz.” It just took off. Bass was the instrument that opened a lot of doors. I played one season with the Cincinnati Youth Symphony.
At one time I was in fifteen bands–Dixieland, traditional jazz, jazz festivals and clubs. I was playing bass and tuba in those groups.
As a kid I heard almost all of the Big Bands and Dixieland groups and I had an open ticket to the Cincinnati Symphony. I had the influence of Cincinnati. It’s wonderful for art and music, great colleges. I’d go to Cincinnati on the weekends and go through the museums.
When my parents died, my uncle moved into the house with us and helped bring us up. My first job was working in a hardware store with my uncle. I had a really good job with General Motors when I graduated from high school. They had a parts warehouse in Cincinnati and a friend of mine got me a job. The pay was excellent but that ended in the 1964 strike when all the newbies were kicked out.
I went into the military. I was in the process of being drafted so I told the local recruiter I would like to be a Navy musician and he said to take a test and they’d send me to the Great Lakes Training Center. I passed the test on bass but I failed on tuba. They told me they needed tall people to play the tuba because the horn was huge. They had 315 bass players in that class for 17 openings.
It was the Viet Nam war. So I ended up working in navigation and I was lucky. I went on a Mediterranean tour. I was on the East Coast, but I wanted to see California, so I volunteered for a ship on the West Coast and I went on the battleship New Jersey.
All three of us brothers made it back from Viet Nam. We were firing into the jungle and my brother was there and every time a bullet went over my head, I prayed, “Don’t let it be Harry.”
When I got out of Viet Nam, I was released in Washington State. It was my last week in the service so I got dressed up in my spiffiest uniform and I took the ferry up to Victoria, Canada. Walking around the ferry I met this girl, a nursing student from Santa Rosa. I told her that after I got out I was going to Southern California and she said, “Why don’t you stop in Santa Rosa on your way down.” I did. We had some time together in California, and then I went home . . . and then I came back out in 1970 and we got married.
I’ve been blessed. My wife and I had two boys. One is deceased and the other one is back with us again because of the 2017 fire. He’s a wonderful guy, also a bass player.
I had a good career with the phone company. My main job was as a cable splicer. I started climbing poles, doing hard physical work, but I kept going to college on the G.I. bill, either at night or daytime, and I got my degree in electronics at SRJC.
My wife was a nurse and I was making pretty good money so we were able to travel. We went to Spain, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia. We have relatives in Sweden, Finland, friends in England, Germany. We’ve been to Australia and all over.
We had a lot of family time; that was really precious. And I have played music a lot. I’ve played Broadway-type shows in Petaluma in a pit band. I played at Sonoma High School in a pit orchestra for Fiddler on the Roof. I love that.
One day at the phone company my boss says, “Call your wife, she’s got a gig for you.” I call and she says, “Can you get home and get in your tux and play for Cab Calloway’s birthday at LBC?” He was appearing and after that they were going to have a big party. So they formed a band and I played for Cab Calloway.
I was involved in the Jazz Club called TradJazz and a guy named Kazoo, a retired professor from San Francisco who played bass clarinet, told me all about the New Horizons Band. My wife and I were at the symphony sometime around 2000 and we met Lew Sbrana and Lew said, “When you retire, come and see us.” A few months later I got a retirement offer from the phone company. One of the first things I did was get a tuba out, oil it up, and come down and play. I retired on a Thursday and on Tuesday I was at Band. There were two tuba players already but they liked having another player. And Kazoo was there playing his bass clarinet.
Now I do a lot of gardening. I was president of the local Tradjazz organization. And we’re involved in a Scandinavian organization. I volunteer at church. And through these jazz organizations I do gigs at retirement homes.
I love being part of this Band. I love the support, the friendship. I like the people, their attitude; there is no backstabbing. It is a supportive community and as you know, in the work world it isn’t always like that. And there’s always something to laugh about, to smile about.