105 minutes with legendary Clarence “C” Sharpe

UPDATE (June 7, 2012): Bart Egers was so nice to send me a link to the Jazz Loft Project, where you can hear – amongst other interesting stuff from the W. Eugene Smith Collection – a minor blues  with Zoot Sims and Clarence Sharpe, saxophone; Dick Scott, drums; Vinnie Burke, bass, recorded in March 1964. Thanks!

On the internet you unfortunately  will not find a lot of of information about alto saxophonist Clarence “C” Sharpe  (1937–1990). But almost all pages that reference Sharpe use adjectives like legendary and underground.

Clarence “C” Sharpe at the “Tin Palace”, N.Y.C., April 8, 1980.
Photo by Otto Flückiger

Despite the fact that he was first  heard on a Lee Morgan LP for Blue Note (Indeed!, recorded  on November 4, 1956), Clarence “C” Sharpe never had much of a career.

Clarence “C” Sharpe’s first recording session was for
Lee Morgan’s Blue Note LP “Indeed”.

Tom Lord ‘s Jazz Discography just mentions four sessions: the one with Morgan, a session on August 26, 1969 under Archie Shepp’s name for Impulse (For Losers), one in 1984 with drummer Monky Kobayashi’s N.Y. Bebop Band for Paddlewheel. And finally one in January 1985 under pianist Freddie Redd’s name for Uptown.

Sharpe was born in St. Louis and grew up in Philadelphia where he played with people like McCoy Tyner and Philly Joe Jones. He probably already lived in N.Y.C. when he recorded with Morgan in 1956. It is not quite clear why nothing much happened for him after that – but several internet sources mention problems with drugs. For a while (when?) he mostly played in the subways of N.Y.C., at other times he had regular engagements with his own group or as a sideman.

In spring 1980 Clarence “C” Sharpe was playing with his quintet at the “Tin Palace” at 315 Bowery. My friend Otto Flückiger was there on the evening of April 8 (Guenti, were you also there?) and brought his tape recorder with him as well as his camera (click on photos to enlarge):

Lonnie Hillyer at the “Tin Palace”, N.Y.C., April 8, 1980.
Photo by Otto Flückiger

Otto made only one photograph of each band member, except pianist Walter Davis of which he took two and drummer Jimmy Lovelace (none). One of the Davis photos is not too good, so I am only showing the better one:

Walter Davis at the “Tin Palace”, N.Y.C., April 8, 1980.
Photo by Otto Flückiger

Ted Wald at the “Tin Palace”, N.Y.C., April 8, 1980.
Photo by Otto Flückiger

With his small equipment (probably a Walkman) Otto recorded (almost) two sets. As you see the evening’s program consisted of standards and tunes associated with Charlie Parker (on the cover of the tape it looks like Otto associated the wrong titles to these first and corrected them later):

I decided to put the whole 105 minutes Otto recorded that night up here. As you may have guessed, sound quality is so, so. And you will hear some conversations between members of the audience, a lot of tuning and talk on stage between the music. I have decided nonetheless to leave it all in, since I think this tape is a very important document.

Otto missed the beginning of the first track and it took him a few seconds to adjust the microphone. But the sound gets slightly better after that. The player below will give you the whole concert (click the arrows to skip).

You will hear the Clarence “C” Sharpe Quintet playing

1. Cheryl
2. Cherokee
3. The More I See You
4. Constellation
5. Embraceable You
6. Woody’n You
7. Three Little Words
8. A Night In Tunisia

New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous once (I would like to know when!) called Clarence “C” Sharpe ”the missing link between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman”. I think that this is a very fitting description of Sharpe’s truly personal style and I hope there are some people out there who enjoy this rare glimpse into a creative mind as much as I do. And don’t you forget to keep an ear on Lonnie Hillyer and the others!

41 Responses to “105 minutes with legendary Clarence “C” Sharpe”

  1. Alex Hoffman Says:

    This really means a lot to me and so many of my friends and colleagues. Thank you!

  2. David Schnitter Says:

    C-Sharpe..Giant!!(words can’t express the artistry of these unsung heros ..magnificent!)

  3. zaid Nasser Says:

    I am lucky to have been able to be around this great legend of the alto saxophone, Clarence “C” Sharpe. He was one of a kind.

  4. I don’t really hear really Ornette in Sharpe’s playing, other than wild intonation. He sounds like a pure Be-bopper. I played with Ted Wald for years when I was quite young, right after Ted left NYC for Santa Cruz, California in the early 80’s. Ted would always talk about how Sharpe, but I never got a chance to hear him until now. Thanks a lot for this great recording.

  5. I sent Ted Wald a link to this recording and this was his reply:

    Salaam Aqui,
    First thank you, thank you, thank you.  I miss those guys.  I am the only one left.  Maybe Sharpe didn’t know anybody was recording us because for a long time people were begging us to record and Sharp was not about doing it because he didn’t have any teeth.  (He had portable ones which used to come flying past me in the second tune whenever we played.)  I spoke to a piano player, Tardo Hammer, who said to me, “Man, Bird Lore, (the C-Sharpe Qunitet) was bad.  Maybe the baddest in New York at the time.”  I saw some blurb on the tube about some critic named Parsells who made it his business to hear that band in ’79 or ’80.  I do have a tape somewhere in my belongings.  I had others but Elaine Bagelman swung with a tape of Sharpe, Walter Davis, Jimmy Lovelace and myself playing
    “Pennies from Heaven”.  I do appreciate what you sent.  Peaceful, peacheful. Blessings, thank you for living.
    Ted (Said Khalid)
    P.S.  Also Thanks to Stanley Crouch for ever booking us.  Sharpe was mostly surviving tutoring and teaching at the University of the Streets.  Mostly he was a living legend and my friend.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I played with all these guys except Lonnie and Walter of course, who was a good friend. This was a time in NY when bebop still had a strong foothold. So many great personalities (giants) of this music were alive and kicking. You had to go through THEM to establish yourself on the scene. These guys were real INDIVIDUALS.

  7. Ted Wald? You are really still breathing in and out? I was told years ago that you had passed, out there in California. Khalil did so last week, May 22–he was 89, our son is 32. I went over to Barry Harris after C left us and I’ve been there ever since. I still think of you every time I do “Detour Ahead.” We did some nice music those couple of years in that underground spot! Hope you are well.

    • Ted Wald Says:

      Ted Wald
      I’m still here and live in Port Townsend, Washington with my wife, Gin. Thank you for living Connie.

      • What a beautiful thing to say! Sounds like you’re happy–the eagle must have finally landed.

      • Connie MacNamee Says:

        Ted– I was just thinking about that kid Sean, who played the guitar and was the son of Stan Levey and that nice American Indian lady who came by to our little place on Bleecker Street and sang “Social Call” and “Dearly Beloved.” Remember? He had a younger brother who would show up from time to time. I wonder what became of him–he had so much talent. You know who I run into on the street: Smitty, who mostly plays the flute these days, and his “old lady” JoAnn, who moved back to Milwaukee but comes by Barry’s class. They’ll be happy to hear you’re still here!

  8. This tape must have been made a good 2 years after you brought C down to our little place. I remember you told Khalil and me that you had been playing with a guy who sounds just like Bird (and you should know, because you played with Bird). The Hip K was of course a hard sell, but he came around when he heard him. I did an announcement of the guys in the band, got rattled, and called Curly Walker “Curly Russell,” which C picked up on and appreciated right away. We played all the good tunes in all my weird singer keys. I played with C in my own gig for a couple of years in the end of his life, got very involved with him musically, platonically, and went just about daily to the hospital on Roosevelt Island where he died. I couldn’t sing for two years after that without hearing myself crying in the middle of the tone. New York musicians revere him now.

  9. This is awesome! I missed the Tin Palace days but was fortunate to hear him play during the late 80’s every Monday night at Zanzibar on 3rd Ave. near. 36th St and needless to say he was truly “one of the cats”! Thanks so much for the blog.

    • Gavin Walker Says:

      A great document from an unrecognized giant…..Bird’s concepts live through “C”, Lonnie, Walter and the others. What a wonderful discovery! Thank You very much!

  10. Jim Coleman Says:

    Bebop Forever !!!

  11. I hung out with “C” quite a bit in 83-85, we did some playing at Jerry Thomas’ loft in Brooklyn (with Steve Grossman and Sonny Fortune) and also at Barry Harris’ JCT and the Star Cafe. We also hung out a bit with Tyler Mitchell and Dennis Charles down on the lower east side. Pretty amazing guy, he saved me from a lunatic in front of Barry’s place one time with an impressive display of street skills. He lived in an SRO just southeast of Times Square, I went up there once and met his wife. Anyway, thanks for sharing this. I had a cassette of the Jerry Thomas session for years but it’s gone now.

  12. This is great. My father is playing trumpet. C Sharpe would come our apartment occasionally; Charles Mc Pherson, Leroy Williams, and other cats would, too, over those years. You should try to take some these tunes to someone to clean it up and release it, I’m sure it may have crossed your mind; I know it costs money, but it’s just a suggestion. I think I have the recordings going over this of this without Sharpe, now that I think about it, though I’m not sure if was for this gig; check http://www.myspace.com/lonniehillyerjazzmusician. Thank you so much for this!

    Peace!

    • Thanks for your comment, Lonnie. Unfortunately I think the sound quality of this stuff is just not good enough to bring it into a releaseable form. I would be glad to deliver the original tape if someone lifts his hand and says: I know how to do this.

  13. As a passionate jazz fan, I’ve purchased many, many recordings of lesser audio quality than what I’ve just listened to here and this is a pretty historic document. Walter Davis, Jr. is just amazing on this recording, too…as is Lonnie Hillyer and the rest of the folks. There’s way too little of C Sharpe out there – I hope someday someone can put it out after paying the estates of Lonnie, C, Walter and Jimmy Lovelace and paying Ted, too. Resonance and Uptown Records have been putting out some incredible stuff and I sure think they’d at least want to hear this and see what they could do…Uptown recently released “Mobley 1953,” Hank Mobley (in fact, also with Walter Davis, Jr.) at a club in Newark, NJ and I think this is of similar quality. Resonance did just about the same with some early Wes Montgomery recordings and they were released because of their historical importance – this recording fits right in there. Marla

  14. This is beautiful to hear; thank you so much for posting this information. Like David, I used to play with Ted Wald in California. Hearing his bass again brought back so many memories! What a sound. No amp just that strong stroll that could carry through any rhythm section. He always talked about C Sharpe, so it is very special to finally hear this alto player. I think I can get the Ornette thing in his playing–yeah his intonation isn’t spot on, but like Ornette, at least how i hear Ornette, he’s going for the shape of his line. But as always, comparisons usually tend to fall short–C Sharpe sounds like he was a force to be reckoned with! Beautiful vitality in all of the music here–thanks again,
    Jayn

    • Wow, Jayn! You know I was just thinking about you not even five days ago. Wondering what you were up to.

      • Hey David! Yeah seeing your post brought back a lot of memories of that Santa Cruz scene…hope all is good with you; I’m just keeping up with long tones and trying to learn how to play the horn properly! A life long project to be sure. I bet you’re sounding great! Love to hear you sometime..

      • I have lots of live recording posted on my blog:

        http://davidvaldez.blogspot.com

        That was a great scene. We were pretty lucky to be coming up at that time/place. Let me know if you ever make it up to PDX. You always have place to stay Jayn.

  15. Peter Whitford Says:

    You are so kind posting these sounds here ! The cats in Australia are listening to Professor Sharpe. This is the most exciting music that I have heard since hearing recordings of Bird. The whole outfit is swinging. This music has to be preserved and continued for future generations of devotees. Thank you kindly
    bop251@iprimus.com.au Peter Whitford

  16. Hi, I just came across a cassette of a session I took part in, at Jerry Thomas’ loft, in 1983. I was seventeen at the time and very much in the thrall of Steve Grossman who was also at the session. C Sharpe and Sonny Fortune played alto, Hakim Jamil (bass) piano….don’t remember but he was playing well. Anyway the recording is very basic but captures the sound of C’s horn really well considering. That was quite a party, as you can imagine. I am digitizing it right now, maybe you would like to post some of it.

  17. [...] after I out up some music featuring legendary alto saxophonist Clarence “C” Sharpe in this posting,  canadian born multiinstrumentalist Phil Dwyer contacted me, writing that he found a tape [...]

  18. I made a record with Mr. Sharpe , back in 1988. Endless jazz.
    Also involved is Denis Charles, Frank Wollny Lisle Ellis , A.r. Panck.
    Great guy, great musician.

    • Yes, fascinating LP! I’ve enjoyed your work, Mr. Aalberts. It’s interesting that “Endless Jazz” is not in the Lord discography… released on Music Corporation/Penck A 0031. Compositions are “Endless Jazz” and “After 997″ (the latter w/o Sharpe).

  19. Randy Cole Says:

    I just met Ted Wald. He is living here in Port Townsend, WA with his wife, and former spouse of Paul Butterfield, Virginia. Now about 84, and with failing health, he is sharp as a nail. I was so privleged to hear some stories from his time with Charlie Parker (Ted was with Parker the entire last month of his life.) Wow! What an F’n cool thing to have him as a neighbor.

    • Randy, please tell Ted that the guitarist I was asking him about, Sean Levitt, lived and played in Spain for the last years of his life, had heavy medical problems, is no longer with us, but is very well remembered musically.

  20. Gil Schwartz Says:

    thank you!

  21. Kim Mizuno Says:

    Thanks for posting this beautiful music. His solo on “Three Little Words” brought tears in my eyes. When I heard C. Sharpe first time in 83 or 84, my concept about jazz was completely changed. He was talking through his horn directly to my soul something so beautiful and meaningful.

  22. Adrian Cullen Says:

    Many thanks , beautiful music.

  23. Burt Eckoff Says:

    The “missing link” comment by Peter Watrous relates to the N.Y.Times review of a concert at the Knitting Factory on July 2. 1988. I was the pianist on that concert along with Hal Dodson, bass & Leroy Williams, drums. While “C” was not particularly pleased with the comparison to Ornette, Mr. Watrous probably meant that “C” was able to interpret the ideas of Charlie Parker in his own unique style. ( I do have a tape of that concert in my possession ).
    I met “C” in 1963 when I arrived in NYC ; I often performed in the East Village area with “C” & his wife China Lin Sharpe, a fine vocalist. Other pianists that worked with C Sharpe in the 60’s were Richard Shrobe & Lamont Johnson ( who later worked with Jackie McLean ).
    Blessings,
    Burt Eckoff
    burte2@aol.com
    http://www.cdbaby.com/burteckoff

  24. i heard c sharpe several times and even sat in on piano once at zanzibar and grill on 2nd ave, nyc. he played sunday nights with some friends and musical colleagues of mine – greg hutchinson (drms), ari roland (bs) and william ash (gtr). i believe ari and william met sharpe at the barry harris jazz cultural theater jam sessions. junior cook, tommy turrentine, gilly goggens and tardo hammer were among those who would frequent the zanzibar gig and sit in. many others i’m sure. all of those gigs were recorded by william ash’s father, a major jazz fan. this was late 80’s / early 90’s, right before c’s passing. i was told that he couldn’t play for a long time before then due to refrigerator accidentally falling on him. i consider myself immensely fortunate to have caught a glimpse of his genius. for having overcome physical injury, having no teeth (zero) and probably not the easiest or forgiving of lives, sharpe played more powerfully, beautifully and brilliantly in his final years than i understand he ever had before. it’s a different level from his initial lee morgan recording. i transcribed a couple of his solos and it helped me to understand much about music, as does bird, diz and the greats. he was the real deal. every note, every phrase, harmony, rhythm, sound, feeling, pure bebop poetry. he indeed carried bird into our age. i know c sharpe was also a fan of sonny rollins and he may have known john coltrane. so there were other elements in his playing from contemporary influences.

    jimmy vass, who was from philly and played often at the university of the streets, was a disciple of c sharpe. i got to play and talk with jimmy a lot. i looked up to him as a teacher and was drawn to him because he sounded like c sharpe. he talked much about improvising truly in the moment – not relying on licks / devices you practice. he loved ornette, trane and c sharpe. he attended the interstellar space studio session and would talk about that. the language and spirit of c sharpe definitely lived through jimmy vass. he passed away in 2006. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/jimmy-vass-mn0000223192/biography

    it’s been great reading these posts. thanks everyone!

    jason lindner

    • Sonny called him in the hospital and they kicked it for some time, C calling him “Klook”or whatever the sports guy’s name was that Sonny was supposed to resemble. I let Jimmy Vass copy a video I have of Sharpe at the gig he did with me, Ari, William, and Warren Smith, with a few cuts with Vernel Fournier and Zaid Nasser. There’s an audiotape of C with us all and Junior Cook, floating around somewhere– I know they used to have it at Smalls.

  25. c sharpe also recorded on a beautiful album by pianist freddie redd called lonely city.

  26. Thanks so much for posting this about C. I was just going through some boxes of old flyers and newspaper clippings that I’ve accumulated over the years and of course I found my folder on C Sharpe, including Mary Gaitskill’s article “Notes from Underground” which appeared in the VIllage Voice 1/11/1983 (really need to scan this stuff as the paper is deteriorating).

    I met C about a year later at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre and we would occasionally play gigs together. I remember a funny conversation one night at the Beaten Path when we on break sitting at the bar. I’d been listening to a lot of Dolphy and C said “where your from Stone? Transylvania?” (he wasn’t to fond of Dolphy). About a year later, he introduced me to Jimmy Robinson who was putting together a band to play Sunday nights at University of the Streets and I became the regular guitarist with that band for a couple years. C was often part of that group and I used to drive him home to Brooklyn after the gigs.

    After he got sick, I made a point to give him a ride home from Connie MacNamee’s Sunday night gig. The last night I saw C was in the Fall of 1989 and I think it might have been the last night that he spent out of the hospital. I stopped by the Saturday late night jam at University of the Streets and he was there sitting on the bench in the hall looking very emaciated. I took him to the B&H Dairy Restaurant and got him to eat some soup (the cancer was making him lose his appetite and he hadn’t been eating). I drove him back to Pat’s and he could barely walk. I offered to help him, but he refused saying “I can’t show weakness” (there were a lot of crack heads in that neighborhood at the time). He said he was going to get some Shiatsu massage and make it to Connie’s gig, so I showed up at the Sunday night gig figuring that if he was there, he’d really need some help getting home. But Junior Cook was there that night and I learned that C had been admitted to the hospital.

    I felt bad that I never got to visit him in the hospital those last couple months, but we had a 1 year old baby at home, I had a day job, was working on my Masters Degree, and sometimes time just gets away from you. I miss C Sharpe . . . . . .

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