Written by: 
Katie Neumann
Photography by: 
Loren Wohl

In the rhythmic world of jazz, Colleen Clark ('19 D.M.A.) stands tall as a pillar of inspiration and empowerment. As the first woman and drummer to earn a doctorate in jazz performance at UNT, she continues to create meaningful impact within music and education.

In January 2024, Clark appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She spent four nights with the Fred Armisen-led band on the NBC talk show -- sitting behind the legendary 8g Band drum kit.

The invitation came after Eric Leiderman, a producer on Late Night, saw her performance for The Percussive Arts Society International Conference 2023 in Indianapolis.

"Being on 'Seth Meyers' is now a foundational moment in my life," Clark says. "They gave me the gig because they knew I could do it and because they understand the complexity of providing opportunities for female musicians."

Drumming Against the Odds

Clark grew up in the small town of Colchester, Connecticut. From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a drummer. Her father, a musician, encouraged her to learn music. She started piano at age 4 and was given her first drum kit at age 8.

But her music path could have turned out differently. In elementary school, the band teacher had assigned her a flute, but she knew deep down that she wanted to drum. The next day, her father held up the drop-off line at school to convince that teacher to let her switch instruments.

"The short version of the story is that I was upset about being given the flute and my dad had pleaded with him to give me a chance with the drums," she says.

From that moment, her dedication to percussion was unwavering. Her journey to UNT started at a jazz summer camp she attended in 8th grade. This was the first time she met Ed Soph, the illustrious Regents Professor Emeritus of drumset who inspired her then and for years to come.

After receiving her bachelor's from Ithaca College and her master's from Purchase College, both in New York, she returned to UNT with passion and excitement to study under legendary performers. Clark credits the late John Murphy, Soph and Steve Barnes for mentoring her along the way and helping her thrive.

"Without these people, I would not have understood my purpose as deeply as I do now," Clark says.

Her favorite things to do at UNT were to eat at Mean Greens Café and walk the halls of the music building.

"The jazz area is one of the most active areas on campus," she says. "As you walk through the halls, you are listening to professional musicians who are teenagers -- not many places have that."

Performance to Pedagogy

In 2021, she became an assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches drum set studio, jazz history and research courses and also coaches ensembles.

She created and founded USC's Jazz Girls Day, a program designed to get more women and girls involved in jazz. The group has events filled with master classes, connections, concerts and jam sessions.

Since 2021, they have had more than 240 participants at nearly a dozen Jazz Girls Days. Clark's goal is to host a USC Jazz Girls Day in all 50 states.

"It's about uplifting girls and letting them know that it's cool to play jazz," she says. "If someone tells them they shouldn't be doing it, I want them to stand up for themselves. I'll use this program as an example of why they should be doing it."

Clark's journey from a determined young girl wanting a place behind the drum kit to a professor and advocate for women in jazz is a testament to her passion.

As the first woman to hold a doctorate in jazz performance from UNT, she reflects on this title and what it means to her.

"It's become an integral part of my bio, but it needs to be known that I am the first and only woman to do that and it's been 75 years," Clark says. "We should never be satisfied with what we're doing because we can always get better."