Born on January 9, 1914, in Pittsburgh, PA; died on January 26, 1985, in Paris, France.

In The Jazz Exiles, Bill Moody called Kenny Clarke "the man who changed the course of jazz drumming." In MusicHound Jazz, Clarke is described as "probably the most important figure in the transition from swing to early bebop drumming." In any survey of jazz from the 1940s through the 1960s, Clarke is omnipresent: he is at New York's legendary Minton's Playhouse, fomenting bebop alongside Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker; he is present ten years later at the Birth of the Cool recording sessions, shifting bebop into more formal structures alongside Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. In the late 1950s he joined the mass emigration of jazz musicians to Paris, joining such luminaries as Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon. Clarke's name appears as composer on two of the most famous tunes in jazz: Monk's "Epistrophy" and Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts."

Kenny Clarke is probably the most famous jazzman the public has never heard of. Unlike his friend and rival Max Roach, Clarke cultivated anonymity. As quoted in Scott DeVeaux's Birth of Bebop, Clarke once told an interviewer: "I always concentrated on accompaniment. I thought that was the most important thing, my basic function as a drummer, and so I always stuck with that. And I think that's why a lot of the musicians liked me so much, because I never show off and always think about them first." While Clarke's drumming made him a perfect accompanist to the likes of Gillespie and Parker, it stood out like a sore thumb in the swing bands he played with early on in his career. A widely circulated story told in DeVeaux's book has a trumpeter for Teddy Hill's big band complaining to the bandleader, "Man, we can't use [Clarke] because he breaks up the time too much." Clarke was fired shortly thereafter.

It wasn't that Clarke couldn't keep time; indeed, he had been a reliable swing drummer all his life. Clarke was born on January 9, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While details of his early life are scarce, it is known that he studied all manner of instruments in high school, from the vibraphone to the piano. He got his start playing drums in local big bands as a teenager, eventually graduating to the touring bands of Roy Eldridge and Lonnie Simmons, both 1935, Claude Hopkins, and the Edgar Hayes Big Band, which gave Clarke his first recording session and the first of many trips to Europe. But swing drumming consisted mainly of pounding out a 4/4 beat on the bass drum, adding the occasional accent on the cymbals. Clarke was searching for something new and was constantly engaged in behind-the-scenes experimentation. He told Nat Hentoff, editor of Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: "I was trying to make the drums more musical instead of just a dead beat ... with the drums as a real participating instrument with its own voice."

When Clarke joined Hill's band in 1939, he encountered a kindred spirit in fellow bandmate Dizzy Gillespie: "[Gillespie] got into everything!" Clarke told Down Beat. "He couldn't stay still; the man always was reaching out. I'd write out little things and hand them back to my man--Diz always sat right behind the drums. He would play them; then we'd play them together. We had the fire. There was an excitement inside us; we knew we were moving into something." One day, the dam finally burst, and Clarke inadvertently arrived at a rhythmic innovation, as quoted in The Birth of Bebop: "It just happened sort of accidentally....We were playing a real fast tune once with Teddy Hill-- 'Old Man River,' I think--and the tempo was too fast to play four beats to the measure, so I began to cut the time up. But to keep the same rhythm going, I had to do it with my hand, because my foot just wouldn't do it.... So then I began to think, and say, 'Well, you know, it worked. It worked and nobody said anything, so it came out right. So that must be the way to do it.'"

In other words, Clarke began keeping time on the ride cymbal and using the bass drum to provide accents, a practice that became known as "dropping bombs." Keeping time on the cymbal gave the music a much brighter, lighter, more propulsive feel. But Clarke's use of the bass drum was equally revolutionary. It wasn't just that he was using it for accents, it was where he was placing those accents. He dropped bombs to fill in gaps in the brass phrasing and to spur on soloists--nothing could have been further from the staid rhythmic style of big band swing. It was those accents, which Hill called "kloop-mop," that earned Clarke the nickname "Klook."

Although Hill fired Clarke, he respected him, and when his own big band failed in 1940, Hill hired Clarke to lead the band at the down-and-out Harlem nightclub called Minton's Playhouse. According to DeVeaux, Hill told Clarke: "Now Kenny, I'm managing this place. I want you to be the bandleader. You can drop all the bombs, all the re-bop and the boom-bams you want to play, you can do it here." The first musician Clarke hired was a then-unknown pianist named Thelonious Monk, and thus the bebop movement was born.

The jazz scene in New York in the early 1940s was studded with after-hours clubs, mostly in Harlem, where big-band musicians would go after gigs. At the clubs they would engage in "jam sessions" or "cutting contests," seeking both to prove and improve their instrumental skills. Given Monk and Clarke's peculiar rhythmic and harmonic predilections, the scene at Minton's rapidly became a laboratory for the new style. In Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns's Jazz: A History of America's Music, guitarist Danny Barker describes the first time he heard Clarke and Monk playing together: "Monk started. Klook fell in, dropped in, dived in, sneaked in; by hook or by crook, he was in.... You would look, hear the off-, off-, off-beat explosion and think 'fireworks,' and then the color patterns formed in the high sky of your mind."

But the new musicians had no name for what they were doing; they simply called it "playing modern." As the movement began to build, audiences became more and more familiar with the opening count. In Jazz Gillespie is quoted as saying that for most tunes, "we just wrote an intro and a first chorus. I'd say 'Dee-da-pa-da-n-de-bop.' And we'd go into it. People, when they'd want to ask for one of those numbers and didn't know the name, would ask for 'bebop.'" As bebop caught on, Clarke's looser, more "modern" style began to affect drumming as a whole. Suddenly more conventional gigs were opening up, and Clarke played with Louis Armstrong and His Big Band and behind such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins.

In 1943 Clarke was drafted into the Army, which brought him back to Europe, where he met future collaborator John Lewis. By the time he returned to New York in 1946, bop and its self-appointed spokesperson Dizzy Gillespie were famous; the music had become a national movement, and change was once again afoot. In a midtown basement, Gil Evans was conducting a jazz laboratory of his own, one that attempted to harness the harmonic and rhythmic energy of bebop to more formal, classical structures. In Jazz, Miles Davis, a regular at Evans's sessions, is quoted as saying "Bird [Charlie Parker] and Diz were great, [but] if you weren't a fast listener you couldn't catch the humor or feeling of their music. Their music wasn't sweet and it didn't have harmonic lines that you could easily hum with your girlfriend trying to get over with a kiss." Evans and Davis and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan were striving for a more balanced feel, where the soloists would somehow be integrated with the ensemble, and the ensemble playing would have the freedom and eloquence of soloing. The outcome of these sessions was the Miles Davis Nonet, which in 1949 recorded the classic Birth of the Cool, with Kenny Clarke playing drums. Cool Jazz, a bebop movement characterized above all by its restraint and formal sophistication, had been born; once again, Kenny Clarke was there.

He was there, too, at the birth of another exemplar of Cool Jazz, the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1948 Clarke had gone on tour with Gillespie's big band, which, like Evans's, was struggling to find a way to integrate formal ensemble structures with the vibrancy of bebop. The effort left Gillespie's trumpeters so exhausted that halfway through the set, drummer Clarke, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown, and pianist John Lewis would play together for 15 minutes as a sort of intermission. After leaving the big band, the four stayed together as the Milt Jackson Quartet, playing Lewis's careful, contrapuntal arrangements. The four decided early on to abandon the concept of a bandleader, and they changed their name to the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were as far as could be from the hepcat, bohemian image of the jazz musician: they played sober, they wore tuxedos onstage. While musicians like Parker were giving their compositions primitivist titles like "KoKo" or "Ri-Bop," Lewis wrote tunes with arty, European-sounding titles like "Vendome." Ted Gioia has noted in his History of Jazz that the Modern Jazz Quartet is the "quintessential cool band remarkable for its longevity and popularity, as well as its consistently high musical standards," but by 1955, Clarke had had enough.

Indeed, he had had enough of life in the States, period. He told Zwerin, "Economically everything was all right, but there was something I had to clear up in my mind. You know people look for different things in life, but all I wanted was peace and quiet--and money." He told Mike Zwerin of the Culturekiosque website that he began turning down gigs: "Miles [Davis] knocked on my door, so I told the little girl I was with to tell him I'm out. He just kept knocking, said 'Klook, Klook, I know you're in there.' I just didn't feel like going on that gig. I'd been recording for Savoy Records almost every day. I was tired, man." Unsure of what to do, Clarke moved to Paris, the city he had fallen in love with in 1939 while touring with the Edgar Hayes Big Band. He was not alone. Dexter Gordon had already moved there, Stan Getz and Bud Powell would do so shortly. Paris was a city legendary for its love of American jazz.

When Down Beat's Burt Korall travelled to Paris to interview Clarke in 1963, the drummer had only good things to say about his adoptive country. Clarke's exile did not separate him from other American jazz musicians, who traveled through Paris frequently. With pianist Powell and French bassist Pierre Michelot, Clarke founded the Three Bosses, who backed legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon on his classic Blue Note recording Our Man in Paris. The Down Beat interview, however, also revealed a deepening conservatism, expressed in criticism of such next-generation jazzmen as John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. This conservatism was perhaps also expressed by Clarke's return to the music he grew up on: swing. In 1960 he co-founded the Clarke-Boland Big Band with arranger Francy Boland. Conservative though it may have been, according to Zwerin, they "created some of the fattest, most swinging big band sounds ever, and almost single-handedly kept the genre in the public's ears--at least the European public." Clarke died on January 26, 1985, in Paris, France; as Moody puts it in Jazz Exiles, Clarke had become "an elder statesman for the ... jazz exiles."

by David Levine

Kenny Clarke's Career

Played drums in touring big bands as a teen; played with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian as bandleader at Minton's Playhouse, beginning 1940; played on classic Birth of the Coolsessions with the Miles Davis Nonet, 1949; founded Modern Jazz Quartet with John Lewis and Milt Jackson, 1951; emigrated to Paris, formed Three Bosses with American pianist Bud Powell and French bassist Pierre Michelot, 1955; Three Bosses recorded classic Our Man in Paris behind Dexter Gordon, 1963; co-founded Clarke-Boland Big Band with Belgian arranger Francy Boland, 1960.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 14 years ago

stay clean kenny clark!