Kenny Clarke

This article is about the jazz musician. For other persons with similar names, see Kenneth Clark (disambiguation).
Kenny Clarke

Kenny Clarke in 1971
Background information
Birth name Kenneth Spearman Clarke
Born (1914-01-02)January 2, 1914
Origin Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died January 26, 1985(1985-01-26) (aged 71) Montreuil, France
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Drummer
Instruments drums
Associated acts Modern Jazz Quartet
Johnny Griffin
Dizzy Gillespie

Kenny Clarke (January 2, 1914  January 26, 1985),[1] born Kenneth Spearman Clarke, nicknamed "Klook" and later known as Liaqat Ali Salaam, was a jazz drummer and bandleader. He was a major innovator of the bebop style of drumming. As the house drummer at Minton's Playhouse in the early 1940s, he participated in the after hours jams that led to the birth of Be-Bop, which in turn led to modern jazz. While in New York City, he played with the major innovators of the emerging bop style, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell and others, as well as musicians of the prior generation, including Sidney Bechet. He spent his later life in Paris.

Early career

Clarke was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1914. Coming from a musical family, he studied multiple instruments, including vibes and trombone, as well as music theory and composition, while still in high school. As a teenager, Clarke played in the bands of Leroy Bradley and Roy Eldridge. He toured around the Midwest for several years with the Jeter-Pillars band, which also featured bassist Jimmy Blanton and guitarist Charlie Christian. By 1935, Clarke was more frequently in New York, where he eventually moved. He worked in groups led by Edgar Hayes and Lonnie Smith, and began developing the rhythmic concepts that would later define his contribution to the music.

After being discharged from the US Army, Clarke converted to Islam and took the name Liaquat Ali Salaam.[2][3]

Bebop and the ride cymbal

While working in the bands of Edgar Hayes and Roy Eldridge, Clarke began experimenting with moving the time-keeping role from the combination of snare drum or hi-hat and bass drum to embellished quarter notes on the ride cymbal, the familiar "ding-ding-da-ding" pattern, which Clarke is often credited with inventing. This new approach incorporated the bombs, or syncopated accents on the bass drum, developed by Jo Jones, while further freeing up the left hand to play more syncopated figures. Under Roy Eldridge, who encouraged this new approach to time keeping, Clarke wrote a series of exercises for himself to develop the independence of the bass drum and snare drum, while maintaining the time on the ride cymbal. One of these passages, a combination of a rim shot on the snare followed directly by a bass drum accent, earned Clarke his nickname, "Klook", which was short for "Klook-mop", in imitation of the sound this combination produced. This nickname was enshrined in "Oop Bop Sh'Bam," recorded by Dizzy Gillespie in 1946 with Clarke on drums, where the scat lyric to the bebop tune goes "oop bop sh'bam a klook a mop."

Clarke himself claimed that these stylistic elements were already in place by the time he put together the famous house band at Minton's Playhouse, which hosted Monk, Parker, Gillespie, Russell, saxophonist Don Byas and many others while serving as the incubator of the emerging small group sound. The combination of the improvised accents on the snare and bass drum, and the sonority of the ringing ride cymbal carrying the time revolutionized the sound and dynamic of the jazz combo. As producer Ross Russell summed up the role of the ride cymbal:

"The vibration of the cymbal, once set in motion, is maintained throughout the number, producing a shimmering texture of sound that supports, agitates, and inspires the line men. This is the tonal fabric of bebop jazz."

Clarke's innovation set the stage for the development of the bebop combo, which relied heavily on improvised exchanges between drummer and soloist to propel the music forward. For this, "every drummer" Ed Thigpen said, "owes him a debt of gratitude."

Modern Jazz Quartet and move to Paris

While playing at Minton's, Clarke made many recordings, most notably as the house drummer for Savoy Records. When the musicians from the Minton's band moved to different projects, Clarke began working with a young pianist and composer John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. With the addition of bassist Ray Brown, they formed the Modern Jazz Quartet, or MJQ. The group pioneered what would later be called chamber jazz or third stream, referring to its incorporation of classical and baroque aesthetics as an alternative to hard bop, the bluesier successor to the bebop combo sound which emerged in the mid-1950s. Clarke stayed with the MJQ until 1955, when he began contemplating a move to Paris, where he eventually relocated in 1956. Clarke had toured Europe numerous times going all the way back to a stint in the Army during the mid-1940s. He was undoubtedly attracted to the better pay he could earn in France: "Why not stay here?" Ira Gitler quotes him as saying, "I earn a good living, a very good living." It is also possible that, like many African American expatriate musicians and writers, he was attracted to the better social treatment he received there. As soon as he moved to Paris, he regularly worked with visiting American musicians, including Miles Davis on the soundtrack for Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, a classic film noir directed by Louis Malle. Clarke also formed a working trio, known as "The Three Bosses", with pianist Bud Powell, another Paris resident, and bassist Pierre Michelot, who had played on the Davis soundtrack too. In 1963 The Three Bosses recorded the classic album Our Man in Paris with tenor saxophone great Dexter Gordon.

In 1961, with Belgian pianist Francy Boland, Clarke formed a regular big band, The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, featuring leading European and expatriate American musicians, including among many others, Johnny Griffin and Ronnie Scott on tenor saxes. The big band, which had been the idea of Italian producer Gigi Campi, lasted for eleven years.

After 1968 Kenny Clarke played and recorded with the French composer and clarinettist Jean-Christian Michel for 10 years.

Later life

Clarke continued recording and playing with both visiting U.S. musicians and his regular French band mates until his death. In 1988, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.[4]

Clarke died in 1985 in Montreuil, France.

Personal life

In 1949, Clarke had a brief affair with jazz singer Annie Ross. This affair produced a son, Kenny Clarke Jr, who was raised by Clarke's family.[5]


As leader or co-leader

Kenny Clarke / Francy Boland Big Band (1962–1971)

As sideman

With Gene Ammons

With Kenny Burrell

With Donald Byrd

With Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin

With Lee Konitz

With Miles Davis

With Art Farmer

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Johnny Griffin

With Hampton Hawes

With Milt Jackson

With J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding

With Hank Jones

With John Lewis

With Carmen McRae

With Charles Mingus

With Thelonious Monk

With Jean-Christian Michel

With Phineas Newborn, Jr.

With Sahib Shihab

With Zoot Sims

With Idrees Sulieman

With Julius Watkins

With Ernie Wilkins


'Bebop' was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labeled the music. It was just modern music, we would call it. We wouldn't call it anything, really, just music.


See also


  1. "Kenny Clarke". NEA Jazz Masters. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
  4. "Clarke Honored Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1968". Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  5. Gavin, James (3 October 1993). "A Free-Spirited Survivor Lands on Her Feet". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 December 2011.
  6. Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 130. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
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