To say Clarence Penn is a prolific jazz drummer would be an understatement. With multiple Grammy Awards under his belt and a discography boasting several hundred studio albums across a wide range of jazz expression, his talents have taken him across the nation and around the world on tour.
“At first, I started out as a classical percussionist,” shares Penn. “After meeting Wynton Marsalis, I became interested in what he did, which was to play classical music and jazz. I came to learn that in jazz music, there was more room for self-expression.”
This semester, Penn joined the UCF Department of Music as an assistant professor of jazz percussion, having previously taught with the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Saint Louis College of Music in Rome, Italy and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Intensive Jazz Institute. His decision to become an educator was informed by his travels as a touring musician and the desire to share his knowledge about the aspects of working as a musician that are not often covered in university classes, such as booking venues and touring.
“After touring for 30 years, I often came across students who weren’t as prepared for real-world experiences,” explains Penn. “I wanted and felt the need to share with them my experiences, things that I’ve learned through my travels. I feel that students need that more than ever; they need to learn from people that have done it, as far as touring the world and playing different venues.”
Despite only being with the UCF School of Performing Arts for a few months, Penn has already made a substantial impact. In early October, he was awarded a $40,000 Jazz Road Creative Residencies Grant from South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization dedicated to empowering artists and communities and increasing access to arts and culture in the South, for his newest project: the American Patchwork Quartet.
“They accepted 400 applications, and 52 of those were chosen to receive up to $40,000 for their project,” says Penn. “I hoped that they would find this project important enough to be awarded, and lucky for us, it was.”
In addition to his work as an educator, Penn has been part of a myriad of bands throughout his career, including Michael Brecker, Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Dave Douglas, Luciana Souza, and Stanley Clarke. With the American Patchwork Quartet, he and his bandmates are on a mission to reclaim the immigrant soul of American roots music by reimagining classic songs from the country’s past in new arrangements.
“[The American Patchwork Quartet] showcases America’s dynamic presence by combining the diverse talents of four U.S. citizens, each with a unique cultural background,” says Penn. “In this group, old songs are made new through creative arrangements that highlight the exceptional and well-honed skills of each member.”
As part of the Jazz Road Creative Residencies grant, the band will engage 60 students at an Asheville, North Carolina high school for master classes and rehearsals. The quartet will also perform for an audience of 6,000 at the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and record an album.
“Once we have the project recorded, we can share it with the world, and that to me is very exciting,” shares Penn. “Even though we’re playing old American folk songs, the music is informed from all of the immigrants that came to America, so in a way, it’s sort of world music.”
Whether he’s helping to reimagine American roots music, playing on stage or inspiring the next generation of jazz drummers in the classroom, Penn’s personal motto inspires his expression as a jazz drummer:
“When people hear my name, I want them to think, ‘I don’t know what band he’s playing with tonight or what he’ll be doing, but it’s going to be good, it’s going to be musical.’”