Tom McClung, Amherst Piano Legend, 1957-2017

May 15, 2017

To local readers who knew Tom McClung, the news of his death on Sunday at age 60 at his home in Normandy is being greeted with a combination of shock and incredulity. The pianist was a fixture on bandstands throughout the Connecticut River Valley for over twenty years before he moved to Paris in 1997, primarily to assume a permanent role with the Archie Shepp Quartet. Tom's absence left a big hole on the local scene, but he helped us maintain a hope that he was gone only temporarily by returning home on a near annual basis to pay a visit and play a concert. These usually took place at First Congregational Church in Amherst, which given his parent's longtime ties to the congregation, made the concerts feel as much like relaxed gatherings of family and friends as they did formal undertakings. And that was Tom's way, for no matter where or when, he had a wonderful gift for playing deeply engaging music while seeing to it that people had a good time and an opportunity to say hello.

The last of Tom's hometown concerts with Wayne Roberts and Claire Arenius took place in 2014, by which time he'd been diagnosed with cancer. (He was back in 2015 for a concert with Archie Shepp at Amherst College.) Despite his valiant efforts and the good wishes and prayers of friends here and abroad, Tom's wife Anne Erle McClung, whom he married after moving to France, announced that he died on Sunday morning, May 14, in Moulins-la-Marche. Those of us who obsess over such details will note that Tom passed on the same day that Sidney Bechet died in 1959; May 14 was also Bechet's birthday. The New Orleans legend spent his last decade living in France where he died a national hero. Tom now joins him, and many other famous musicians, in that number of American expatriates who've gone on.  A memorial concert is planned for July 15 in Moulins-la-Marche.

McClung's longtime colleague Andy Jaffe, who flew over last week to be with Tom and Anne, acknowledged his friend  on Facebook yesterday: "For your incredible dedication to the music, for your mentorship, your incredibly unique pianistic and compositional voice; and let's not forget your terrific sense of humor, love and knowledge about all the stars and birds (and of course vin jaune) and mostly for being my best friend ever. There aren't any words even remotely adequate to describe your genius, soul, wit, and heart, or my love for you."

In 1998, Jaffe and McClung recorded an album of piano duets entitled Double Helix. In addition to original compositions by the principles, the album features works by three of the most important influences on these Amherst soulmates, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. Double Helix starts with "Nutty," the Monk original that's best known as one of the three tunes the pianist recorded with his quartet featuring John Coltrane. "Nutty" also appears on Tom's 1991 debut album, Locolypso.

McClung was born in New York City in April 1957 and was raised in Amherst. It was there where his connection with Archie Shepp, who's now a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, began. Tom struck up a friendship with Archie's son Pavel when they were Amherst High School classmates and members of the school's jazz combo. Tom said it was another classmate, the late saxophonist Fred Ho, who first ventured over to Archie's classes at New Africa House and brought back "what he picked up," and soon Tom was hearing the man himself. In an interview with UK Vibe, he told Erminia Yardley, "Archie's music, while associated with the avant-garde, always keeps a strong link with the tradition of Afro-American music, especially the blues. I was struck by how his music touched me so viscerally and I try to bring that urgency and emotion into my own playing."  

For the UK Vibe interview, Tom recalled his early discovery of music. " Most importantly I had kind and loving parents. They enjoyed making and sharing music every day. Dad played piano and mom sang and played the ukulele. Every evening before dinner they would play popular songs and show-tunes from the 20s, 30s and 40s. They both played by ear, though dad could read a little as he had studied classical piano in his youth. They would often lead sing-alongs at their church or the senior centre...I heard the piano everyday, and of course I wanted to try. I started messing around on the piano when I was about five, picking out tunes and making things up. I began lessons at six. Later I also studied trumpet and baritone horn, which I played in the high school concert band. It was the piano that spoke to me the most: it was a self-contained orchestra – and all the different styles it could handle! Bach, Bartok, the Beatles!"

Indeed, it was his curiosity and openness to virtually anything musical that shaped Tom as a player of extraordinary versatility. As he told UK Vibe, "In meeting and playing with a variety of different musicians, we learn something new each time and we play differently to fit the context. When I was growing up, it was important for me to be a free-lancer and accept all the gigs that came along. Along with forming my own groups to play my own music, I played in rock, blues, country, salsa, and trad jazz bands, accompanied singers of all styles, in clubs and for weddings and bar-mitzvahs. I considered this like an apprenticeship. I learned about functional music, for dancing and merry-making, and I always try to keep some of this spirit in my music. I’m happy when someone says, 'I don’t know anything about jazz, but I like what you play'."

But for all his experience and ease at adapting to different genres, Tom was  first and foremost a jazz musician, and it was his deep knowledge and command of styles ranging from Dixieland to bebop to post-modern, with special emphases on Ellington and Monk, and a comprehensive knowledge of songs and standards, that distinguished him. In the interview with Yardley, he credits his experiences playing with Shepp, Marion Brown, and Yusef Lateef, all of whom he recorded with, for helping him appreciate the "importance of having a unique, personal voice...Archie says, 'Music is not just notes,' and similarly, Yusef would say, 'A note is 20% note and 80% attitude'."  

Tom credited his move to France with helping him arrive at a deeper understanding of himself as a jazz artist. "The move helped me examine what it means to be an American, and especially an American jazz musician. This music has roots in slave songs, blues, gospel, marches, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley popular songs. So-called “jazz” has always allowed influences from all directions, but I’m a firm believer in, 'It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing'!"

I met Tom in 1981 when he played a date in Worcester with Lynne Meryl and David Wertman. I was back at the University by then and living in Northampton, and they were kind enough to let me squeeze in for the ride home. Over the next several years, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Tom, two friends with late night gigs who burned the midnight oil over drinks and cigarettes, listening to music, playing poker, and sharing a mutual love not only for the requisite masters, but for such personal favorites as Dave McKenna, Professor Longhair, and Otis Spann. I can’t recall if I turned him on to Spann, but I remember how much he dug my description of the great Chicago bluesman’s powerful keyboard attack as “jackhammer.”

I rendezvoused with Tom on a couple of occasions to hear McKenna playing local gigs on the Cape, and among the many shows we caught were appearances by Tommy Flanagan and Abdullah Ibrahim at Lloyd’s in Hartford. Tom was particularly enthusiastic about Flanagan’s performance of “Elusive” on his newly released Village Vanguard album, and when he requested the Thad Jones tune at Lloyd’s, Flanagan shrugged and said, “Why do you have to ask for the most difficult?” Then with trio mates George Mraz and Kenny Washington, Flangan negotiated its complex chord changes with blazing aplomb. Ibrahim was equally memorable, but for a dynamic just the opposite of Flanagan’s: the South African-born pianist played what was essentially one unbroken, hour-long work so quietly that Lloyd’s proprietor John Chapin had his wait staff stop serving food and drinks. It's probably the only time I've ever been in a nightclub where you could hear the proverbial pin drop.

For all of our personal time together, I spent even more time listening to Tom on area stages and bandstands. For a decade-plus, he played weekly gigs (Thursdays at the Depot, Sundays at an Amherst brunch) with the Paradise City Jazz Band, the traditional jazz group that Tom helped steer in a post-modern direction with his fresh new arrangements of "Blues in Thirds," "Sweet and Pungent," and other tunes by Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Earl Hines. Tom displayed his considerable blues chops on many of the Monday night jams that the late drummer Kenny Johnson led at Sheehan’s, and he was there on the night when James Cotton sat in. At the Hotel Northampton, he moved over on the bench to play four-hands piano with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) after the New Orleans legend had completed a show at the Iron Horse. Mac is the most renowned of Professor Longhair’s proteges, but Tom’s love for 'Fess and James Booker made him an excellent exponent of NOLA-style too.  Speaking of which, Tom was at the piano when Aaron Neville filled the hotel with his sublime voice after a local concert by the Neville Brothers.

Along the way, Tom played gigs with everyone else in town. Marion Groves, Tim Moran, Don Abrams, Jake Epstein, Dave Pinardi, Jim Fryer, Richard Downs, Claire Arenius, Dave Shapiro, Whitney Cronin, Jeff Holmes, Steve McCraven (who helped pull him to France to join him in Shepp’s quartet), Tony Vacca, Avery Sharpe, Art Steele, Ed Vadas, Roger Salloom, Frank Laidlaw, Mike Marcus, Dave Boatright, Ricky Alfonso, Steve Sontag, Draa Hobbs, Dar Williams, the Valley Big Band, and countless others. Tom recruited many of his colleagues for what stands as one of the finest concerts I’ve ever attended in the Valley, his tribute to Thelonious Monk at the Center for the Arts.  It’s already the case that whenever I think of Tom I recall that show, and I expect that will remain my most enduring memory of him on a concert stage. Tom loved Thelonious, and he knew how to approach his music from a unique range of perspectives with reverence, humor, and conviction. (Here he is in 2013 playing Monk's "Reflections.)

Another of Tom's most vital collaborators was the guitarist Jay Messer. Yesterday on Facebook, Jay wrote, "Last night I lost my best friend, my musical compatriot, my hero, my brother!" Tom and Jay worked together in Marion Brown's Quintet in the early '90s and recorded a pair of excellent albums (Offering and Offering II) with the saxophonist for Venus Records in Japan. When Tom returned home for a visit in 2003, he and Jay played a concert in Easthampton that included this brilliant performance of the Herbie Nichols composition, "45 Degree Angle." 

Lastly, here's Tom at the Sunside Club in Paris on March 26, 2015, playing a set of tunes with the trio (bassist Matyas Szandai and drummer Mourad Benhammou) that appeared with him on his 2014 release Burning Bright. The songs include "Funny Peculiar," which Tom introduced in 1991 on Locolypso. It's followed by Tom's original, "Terra," the great standard, "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "La Manzana," a calypso-flavored original of Tom's that also appears on Archie Shepp's Gemini. Tom's name may not have been prominent in the jazz polls, and his records weren't made for major labels, but as you'll see here, and as most of us knew already, he was a complete player who fulfilled the great challenge of finding his "unique, personal voice" in the music.  Why, he even got more selective about the gigs he played, telling UK Vibe, "I still enjoy playing as a side-man with other musicians...but I’m less interested in playing for someone who needs “a piano player” than playing for someone who wants Tom McClung." And to think that for so many years, we knew Tom in these parts as the first call local hero. Rest in peace, old friend.