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New faculty spotlight: Colleen Clark

Music professor paves path for women in jazz

When Colleen Clark was in elementary school in Colchester, Connecticut, she decided to play drums in the school band. It was an easy choice, as she’d already been playing drums with her dad in a family rock band.

But when the band director handed out instrument assignments, she was directed instead to play the flute.

“Just because I was a girl, I was assigned the flute,” she recalls. “That's not okay. I had a true passion to play the drums — so why would someone try to change that?”

In Clark’s case, it worked out. Her dad knew the band director and pleaded her case; the director relented. But the experience points to a larger issue. “There's still a gender-assigned instrument situation going on, which is unfortunate,” Clark says. “Thankfully, I had an advocate early on, but so many people don’t.”

In 2019, Clark went on to become the first female — and first drummer — to earn a doctorate in jazz performance from the University of North Texas, which is known for its jazz program. She has since taught at the City University of New York's Borough Manhattan Community College and was a lead teacher for the ChiCa Power program at Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey. Starting this fall, she is assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of South Carolina.

High on Clark’s list of priorities is attracting new students and making sure that women in particular feel welcome. Research shows that the number of girls who show an interest in pursuing music tapers off as they transition from middle school to high school, and again between high school and college.

“And even more so in jazz,” Clark says.

At South Carolina, Clark wants to connect with young women who are transitioning to college and tell them, “Hey, come be part of this.”

Though new to South Carolina, Clark is wasting no time in implementing her vision. On Oct. 25, she will perform with her brand new, all-female band CC and the Adelitas in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. at the Johnson Performance Hall in the Darla Moore School of Music. In addition to the performance, the band members will conduct masterclasses with music students.

Clark’s related field of study at North Texas was ethnomusicology and Mexican music in particular, whereas her main area of study was jazz and jazz history. “Adelitas” were women who took up arms during the Mexican Revolution, and the term has come to represent the strength and resilience of women more generally. CC and the Adelitas perform jazz versions of works by Mexican singers and songwriters, exploring gender, race, identity and culture in the process. The songs will be sung in Spanish.

At South Carolina, Clark wants to connect with young women who are transitioning to college and tell them, “Hey, come be part of this.”

“The music, the lyrics, how it’s set — it’s incredible,” Clark says of her love for Mexican music. “If you think about the history of bolero, ranchera, Norteño music — everything, every type of music that's coming out of Mexico is very distinct. And it just really speaks to history a lot of the times.”

History is close to Clark’s heart. In addition to being a drummer and bandleader, she is a composer, researcher and jazz historian. In class, she wants to make sure students understand the tradition they are joining.

“I always do it through the lens of Louis Armstrong,” she says. “Louis Armstrong is the true American idol. You can still ask children nowadays who Louis Armstrong is, and some of them will know.”

Armstrong becomes a jumping-off point for Clark’s interest area of pre-bebop, which includes the swing era and earlier. Learning about how jazz has evolved compositionally and stylistically helps prepare students for today, she says.

“My role here, I feel, is that I'm opening up ears and playing abilities,” she says. “And listening, so that they can better understand jazz history, how they fit into jazz history, because we are all creating jazz history. The more knowledge you have, the better decisions you can make playing-wise. You're going to be a much more informed musician, which puts you at a higher level than most.”

Clark knows how tough it is to make it as a musician — and she wants her students to be ready to put in the work.

“If you work hard, I'll give you everything I’ve got,” she says. “But you know, you’ve got to want it. You’ve got to work for it.”

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