Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In Memoriam: Michael Clifton (1956-2015)

Text, music, and photographs © Ekkehard Wölk. Can not be reproduced without the permission of the author.

By Ekkehard Wölk

The Berlin music scene mourns over the recent death of one of its best-known, musically distinguished jazz drummers of the past three decades: Mr. Michael Clifton who passed away on the 11th of December, 2015.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1956, Michael left his home country in the late 1970s and settled in Berlin at the time when the city was still divided. He loved Berlin and to him Berlin was "home".

From the time of his arrival in Berlin for so many years to follow, Michael, always incredibly energetic, was an undeniable presence in Berlin's music scene who enriched countless recording sessions, concerts and entertainment shows with his inimitable powerful style of drumming that was firmly rooted in the great tradition of jazz playing by such giants like Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach.

He himself became a vital part in the strongly developing Berlin jazz scene of American expats, playing with many famous artists from the States dropping by, like, among others, Jimmy Woode and Benny Bailey.

In addition to that, he put an irresistibly inspiring spell on many of the younger jazz musicians pouring into Berlin who were eager to become adept disciples of the authentic tradition of classical jazz improvisation and grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from such experienced musicians like Michael Clifton.

I was also very lucky to meet him personally in the late 1990s, being able to play a considerable  number of remarkable live concerts with him. Aside from that, we did some very fine trio recordings together that still belong to the very best and musically most exciting works in my own recorded output (to mention just two of these sessions: Tribute to Bud Powell, recorded live in 1999, and Seven Steps Across the Border, a collection of energetic original compositions which we fraternally did in Michael's own little self-built, basement studio in Berlin, Tiergarten in early 2001).

At that time, he already had started working as a drummer in big entertainment shows, especially at the famous Berlin cabaret Chamäleon, located at the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin, Mitte where he was doing his favorite juggling act, too, a discipline which he had started practicing many years ago, probably while still in the States.

Michael was not only one of the most powerful American jazz drummers active on the European scene but also an accomplished musical entertainer, filling audiences by way of his acts with exuberant enthusiasm on countless evenings dressed in funny costumes. In later years, he developed a special technique of 'body percussion', using a lot of percussion instruments fixed upon his body, intimately interacting with the joyful spectators. He was fond of getting the crowds roaring with sheer delight each evening he played, and he surely managed to give many people a great pleasure in his life through the incomparable energy, wit and vitality of his performances.

As an American, he possessed a natural affinity and deep affection also for rural folk traditions, profoundly admiring the work of Woody Guthrie, and himself reinterpreting a lot of Bob Dylan songs. He also wrote and sang a lot of funny slam poetry, including a very touching tribute to the late bass giant Ray Brown after his departure.

Michael himself was a convincing musical advocate of the 'common folks' everywhere. Far from believing in the idea of self-enclosed art, he was bringing improvised rhythmic music to the people in the streets, in the clubs and elsewhere in a very personal manner, communicating with them directly.

As for his American background, I will never forget the evening when with a couple of old friends, we went to the Arsenal cinema at Potsdamer Platz to watch The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by John Ford which moved us all deeply. Only a few days later, Michael gave me as present the original English paperback edition of John Steinbeck's acclaimed novel. This book seemed to be his own favorite novel at that time so he wanted his friends to know it as well. So was Michael's personality in general, giving love, dedication, feelings of friendship and his wonderful music away to strangers and acquaintances at any likely and unlikely time.

Sometimes during personal meetings, Michael aroused the idea of him resembling a character stepping directly out of a Kerouac or Ginsberg novel because he seemed to embody so much of the adventurous spirit of the late fifties and early sixties throughout his life and work.

During Michael's adventurous Berlin years,  there were the unforgettable summer concerts in the Englischer Garten (in Tiergarten) which Michael and his former wife had managed to organise for a long time. On these week-long occasions, they assembled an amazing variety of different bands and musicians from Berlin and also from all over the world, providing a stunningly beautiful surrounding in the green park for international musicians and audiences to meet each other and listen intently to 'all that jazz'!

It is beyond any doubt that so many of his close and not-so-close colleagues, relatives, friends, and club owners will never forget Michael Clifton's towering creative abilities as a drummer and showman, his warm humour and personal helpfulness and care for other people.

The painful loss we all feel after his untimely death would be too hard to bear if it was not for so many emotionally shining and communally joyful memories for his audience and his acquaintances who all feel grateful for having the privilege of having been musical associates and companions for a little while and being allowed to share a tiny part of his life road from time to time.

Thanks to THE JUGGLER for everything.

A playlist of various trio recordings by Michael Clifton and Ekkehard Wölk, personally selected by Ekkehard.

*All songs recorded by Wolf Blazejczak *

Michael Clifton (drums), Robin Draganic (bass), Ekkehard Wölk (piano)

Michael Clifton (drums),  Marc Muehlbauer (bass), Ekkehard Wölk (piano)

MISTERIOSO (Thelonious Monk)
Michael Clifton (drums), Johannes Fink (bass), Ekkehard Wölk (piano)

ISFAHAN (Billy Strayhorn)
Michael Clifton (drums), Johannes Fink (bass), Ekkehard Wölk (piano)

Michael Clifton (drums), Robin Draganic (bass), Ekkehard Wölk (piano)


  1. Michael! I'll miss cousin! My name is Eric Clifton. I visited my cousin Michael in Berlin in 2004. It was an amazing experience! We jammed and lived free!!!! I love you cousin :) here's my email if any of his friends want to email me

  2. Thank you Ekkehard for this really lovely article about our all loved MC. We miss him so much.