Omar Clay R.I.P.


Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, December 12, 2008

Omar Clay, a respected jazz drummer and teacher who recorded with dozens of
prominent musicians - among them Sarah Vaughan, Charles Mingus, Horace
Silver and Marian McPartland - died Dec. 4 in San Francisco of complications
from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 73.

A valued player on the New York jazz scene in the 1960s and '70s, Mr. Clay
was featured in master drummer Max Roach's all-percussion ensemble M'Boom,
playing marimba, tympani, timbales and xylophone. He was equally at home
working with singer Ernestine Anderson and hard-blowing saxophonists like
David "Fathead" Newman, Frank Foster and Gene Ammons. During the day, he
taught at New York's High School of Music and Arts.

"Omar was one of the great drummers," said fellow percussionist Eddie
Marshall, who praised Mr. Clay's clean playing and steady ride-cymbal beat.
"He was really a traditionalist. He was a total team player. He never showed
off. He didn't thrash, but he swung."

Pianist Larry Vuckovich, who played and recorded often with Mr. Clay in
recent years, put it this way: "Omar was one of the most serious, dedicated
drummer-percussionists, possessing a wide range of knowledge, not only of
jazz but of classical music, both of which he taught. His jazz drumming
roots came from the Kenny Clarke bebop style, but expressed a feeling beyond
the bebop era, including a strong affinity for Latin music and other world
music forms. On the bandstand, Omar held to a very high standard, and at the
same time was very supportive and tuned into the other musicians."

Born in St. Louis, Mr. Clay grew up in Steubenville, Ohio. He had a keen ear
for classical music, listening to the Russians Shoshtakovich and
Rachmaninoff. He got a scholarship to study music at Xavier University in
New Orleans but left after a semester to join the Army. He played drums in
an Army jazz band stationed in Germany, then got a bachelor of music degree
at the University of Michigan. He played and taught in New York for nearly
20 years, working in jazz clubs and in the Broadway pits orchestras for
"Raisin" and "Guys and Dolls."

Mr. Clay moved to California in 1979, first to the Monterey and then San
Francisco, where he performed with various groups and got a master's degree
in music education at San Francisco State University. He taught around the
Bay Area until becoming music director at Tamalpais High School in Mill
Valley, where he also coached the golf team for a spell. He retired in 2000
but continued to perform, tour and golf.

Mr. Clay is survived by his longtime companion, Barbara Chew of San
Francisco; his mother, Elnora Jackson of Akron, Ohio; and a daughter, Wanda
Davis of Hayward.

A memorial is being planned for January.

The family requests donations be made in Mr. Clay's memory to the Forbes
Norris ALS Research Center, 2324 Sacramento St., Suite 111, San Francisco,
CA 94115; the music department at Tamalpais High School, 700 Miller Ave.,
Mill Valley, CA 94941; or the VA Medical Center, 4150 Clement St., San
Francisco, CA 94121.

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