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Drumming up national attention

Jazz studies professor Colleen Clark tapped for late night gig

woman stands in a room filled with drums

Colleen Clark’s career as a jazz drummer almost didn’t happen.

As a youngster in Colchester, Connecticut, she wanted to play drums in the elementary school band, but the band director thought as a girl, she would prefer something more like the flute.

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

With a push from Clark’s father, the band director relented and let Clark pursue her passion.

“If it wasn’t for Dad holding up the drop-off line until my elementary band director agreed to let me play drums, I really don’t know what would have been in store for my future,” says Clark, an assistant professor in the School of Music’s jazz studies program. “He really was a girl-dad before it was hip and trending.”

That is why Clark’s father, Thomas Clark, will be in the audience — along with her high school band director Thomas Kessler — when Colleen Clark joins the 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers for four nights beginning Jan. 29.

The invitation came in part because of Clark’s drum set clinic for The Percussive Arts Society International Conference in Indianapolis last November, where she was spotted by Late Night with Seth Meyers producer Eric Leiderman.

“All professional musicians can of course ‘play’ but seeing their style and musical choices in the flesh sets the tone for their success on the show,” Leiderman says.

In addition to performing with the band, whose leader is Meyers’ fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen, Clark will write music and rehearse with the band before each night’s show. The show has been inviting guest drummers to sit behind Armisen’s drumkit since 2015.

“The invitation is a great opportunity in my career,” Clark says. “I am thrilled to be able to represent the University of South Carolina on the national stage.”

Since those early days of having to convince her teacher to let her play drums, Clark has been driven to further her education and to use her platform to get more young women into jazz.

In 2019, she became the first woman — and first drummer — to earn a doctorate in jazz performance from the University of North Texas, which is known for its jazz program. She taught at the City University of New York's Borough of Manhattan Community College and was a lead teacher for the ChiCa Power program at Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey, before coming to USC in 2021.

At USC, Clark leads the Jazz Girls Day program that invites middle and high school girls to campus for a day of learning, playing and performing with a goal of helping them prepare for auditions. The idea is not only to welcome girls to start or continue playing jazz, but also to encourage music educators to support girls playing jazz.

The program is expanding across the state and has a goal of hosting a Jazz Girls Day in all 50 states by 2030.

It is the kind of support Clark says she got from her father and her high school band director as well as other mentors along her journey.

“Mr. Kessler continues to be a huge influence not only in my life but in the lives of thousands of students,” she says. “He understands that student success doesn’t always mean a career in music, it means being a caring community member. He is so excited for the little wins, the big wins, the family wins, the careers wins. I wouldn’t be the person and musician I am today without him in my life.”