Kenny Clarke - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


          As the drummer in the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in the early Forties, Kenny Clarke virtually invented the bebop percussion style, with rhythmic innovations that included a cymbal beat with off-beat accents on the snare and bass drum. Clarke continued to be in the forefront of musical developments throughout the decade and into the Fifties, when he performed with the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” nonet and became a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1956, he left for Europe and lived there for the rest of his life. He co-led a big band with Belgian arranger and pianist Francy Boland, while continuing to play in small groups and with visiting musicians.


            Kenny Clarke was born on January 9, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a musical family, and studied trombone, vibes, drums, and music theory in high school. His first professional gigs were with George Hornsby’s big band when he was still in his teens. By the time he was twenty, he was playing supper clubs with Leroy Bradley’s group. He later joined trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s band, and gained more experience playing in the East and the Midwest with a number of groups. By the late Thirties, when he’d relocated to New York, Clarke’s new rhythmic ideas were developing. The key was moving the main beat from the bass drum to the ride cymbal. The shift achieved an immediate lightness of tone, and it freed the bass drum to play accents, or “dropping bombs,” as it was known at the time. The largely self-taught Clarke wrote out a series of exercises that helping him develop the independence of the bass and snare drums. One particular combination, a rim shot followed immediately by a bass drum accent, earned Clarke his nickname, “Klook,” short for “Klook-mop,” in imitation of the sound. Clarke was always clear about his role in a band. As he 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."


            A year after being fired by bandleader Teddy Hill in 1940 for dropping one bomb too many, Clarke was contacted by Hill, now managing Minton’s in Harlem. He wanted Clarke to play in the house band, along with Thelonious Monk on piano. Guitarist Charley Christian, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker sat in often, along with a host of other musicians. Not everyone was ready for the new rhythms or chord changes. Clarke told Rebecca Clay Haynes in March 1982 that “Some musicians weren't quite up to par. We used to play very difficult harmonic changes that they couldn't grasp and we'd do that on purpose and they would have to leave. So that was our nice way of...maybe it wasn't too nice...but we didn't have the time and we weren't teachers...we had to keep our thing going anyway, whether they comprehended it or not. That was a way of cleaning the house out.”


            Clarke was in the military between 1943 and 1946, stationed in Europe. After discharge, he returned to New York. He later told Michael Zwerin that he was “sort of disgusted with everything. I didn't know what to do. I didn't feel like playing. Dizzy talked me into playing again.” Clarke’s first recording date in 1946 was backing Billie Holiday. He was soon in the studio and on stage with such stars as Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Fats Navarro. Clarke and Miles Davis were both playing with the Tadd Dameron group in the spring of 1949 when Davis was putting together the “Birth of the Cool” nonet. Clarke played on one of the sessions in late April before traveling to Paris with Davis and Dameron to appear at the Festival International de Jazz in early May. The drummer stayed in Europe for the next couple of years, working with Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Zoot Sims, and James Moody. Back in New York in 1951, Clarke recorded with Charlie Parker on Verve before joining vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s group in the summer. By 1952, the Jackson group with Clarke, pianist John Lewis, and bassist Percy Heath was rechristened the Modern Jazz Quartet. Over the next few years, in addition to his MJQ duties, Clarke was heard on record with Parker, Davis, J.J. Johnson, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer and many others.


            By 1955, Clarke was working constantly, often for Savoy Records. That summer alone, he recorded with Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McRae, Gene Ammons, Ernie Wilkins, and Hank Jones, among others. He also made his own Bohemia After Dark album for Savoy with Cannonball and Nat Adderley. But he knew something was wrong when he found himself avoiding Miles Davis. He told Zwerin that "Miles 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.” Later that year, he spotted conductor Michel Legrand on a live New York television broadcast. Getting together with Legrand after the performance, Clarke confessed to being tired of New York, and how he’d like to get out. Legrand responded with an offer to get him work with a big band in France. As Clarke told Zwerin, “I was ready. The following September he sent me a first-class ticket on the Liberté and I left with everything I owned.”

            His first European recording was with pianist Martial Solal for the Swing label in September. Clarke quickly became the drummer of choice for European and visiting American jazzmen alike, including Hawkins, Bechet, Don Byas, and Zoot Sims. Clarke played again with Miles Davis on the soundtrack for Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1957), and he wrote music for the films On n'enterre pas dimanche (1959) and La riviere du hibou (An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge) (1961). Between 1959 and 1962, Clarke was a member of the Bud Powell trio, along with bassist Pierre Michelot. Known as The Three Bosses, the trio played concerts and club dates across the continent and recorded numerous times. From 1960 to 1973, Clarke co-led an octet and a big band with pianist and arranger Francy Boland. Personnel over the life of the group included Sims, trumpeters Benny Bailey, Idrees Sulieman, and Dusko Goykovich, and saxophonists Sims, Johnny Griffin, Sahib Shihab, and Ronnie Scott. In the Seventies, Clarke was also heard on record with Hampton Hawes, Dexter Gordon, Al Haig, and Howard McGhee.


            Although his health began in fail in the early Eighties, Clarke remained active teaching drumming at schools and conservatories in Europe, with occasional appearances at the popular Paris jazz club Le Dreher. Clarke’s final recording was also one of the most unusual dates of his careers, a percussion quartet with Milford Graves, Famoudou Don Moye, and Andrew Cyrille on Pieces Of Time (1983 - Black Saint). A pioneer of bebop and one of the most important drummers in jazz throughout the Fifties, Kenny Clarke died in his adopted home town of Paris on January 26, 1985.

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