Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Clarke, Kenny "Klook" (Kenneth Spearman)

"That man is modern!" exclaimed Louis Armstrong in 1940 when drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke joined his band. But Clarke was not just modern, he was revolutionary. When he moved the beat from the hi-hat, which swing drummers like Jo Jones played with crossed hands, to the ride cymbal, he unleashed the drum kit's creative potential. With his left hand now free, he played off-beats and "bombs," or bass accents, with his foot. This made jazz more flexible, and every drummer who followed him more eloquent.

Clarke's uncluttered approach to rhythm empowered fellow modernists Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lennie Tristano and Thelonious Monk to phrase with freedom. It also made him an accompanist of choice for Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet,Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Benny Carter in a career which spanned five decades. A prolific composer and teacher, he was a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) then moved to France, where he became a father figure to many expatriate jazz musicians.

Kenneth Spearman Clarke was born in Pittsburgh on January 9, 1914 to Charles Spearman and Martha Grace Scott. Martha was a pianist, and she gave Kenny lessons as a child. When Clarke was only six and a half years old, his mother died, and his father left the family. Kenny and his older brother Chuck were then sent to the Coleman Industrial Home for abandoned children.

At Coleman, Clarke's interest in music flowered, and he learned to play the snare drum, trombone and vibraphone. Around age seventeen, he began to work professionally in Pittsburgh with bands led by Leroy Bradley and George Hornsby; Hornsby's band was later taken over by Pittsburgh natives, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and his brother Joe on violin and saxophones, as the Eldridge Brothers' Rhythm Team. In 1933,with Bradley, Clarke also toured West Virginia and worked extensively at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati. That is where he got to observe national acts such as the bands led by Ellington, Lunceford and Calloway.

In 1934, while in Cincinnati, Clarke ran into members of Andy Kirk’s band, including pianist Mary Lou Williams, who were stranded when Kirk disbanded his group for lack of work. Impressed by Clarke, Williams suggested Clarke audition for the Jeter-Pillars band in St Louis. Williams and drummer Ben Thigpen then drove Clarke to St. Louis on their way back to Kansas City, and he got the job.

The Jeter-Pillars band was one of the Midwest's most important incubators of swing rhythms in the 1930s. Based out of the famous Plantation Club, the band was co-led by saxophonists Jimmy Jeter (alto) and Charles Pillars (tenor). At the time Clarke joined, it included George Hudson on tenor saxophone and pre-Basie, bassist Walter Page, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. Jimmy Blanton, Charlie Christian, Sid Catlett, and Jo Jones also played in the band at different times.

After a few months, Clarke tired of the band's repertoire of show music, and worked in Cincinnati. Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster was one of the notable musicians who passed through Cincinnati, and he urged Clarke to move to New York. Clarke made the journey in 1937 with pianist Call Cobbs, and they were later joined by Clarke's younger brother Frank, a Blanton-influenced bassist, who relocated from Kansas City. The three then worked as a trio in Harlem. The trio broke up when Cobbs got a job as an assistant to pianist Art Tatum, but the Clarke brothers stayed together, and worked with tenor player Lonnie Simmons' band at a club named the “Black Cat” in Greenwich Village. The band also featured Bobby Moore on trumpet, Fats Atkins on piano, and Freddie Green on guitar. Frank Clarke played bass and Kenny Clarke played both drums and vibes.

Simmons' band developed a kind of an underground following among elite New York musicians, and attracted the attention of Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Harry James, William "Count" Basie, Teddy Wilson and producer John Hammond, among others. Clarke later asserted that this band influenced the sound of the famous "All-American Rhythm Section" of Count Basie's band, as Green joined Basie's band later that year.

Clarke, too, left Simmons later that year to join the Edgar Hayes big band, again playing both the drums and the vibes. With Hayes, Clarke made his first recordings, which included an early recording of “In The Mood,” which later become a huge hit for trombonist Glen Miller. Clarke also made a handful of quintet recordings under his own name at this time.

In Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop, tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson recalled that once while he was playing with pianist Earl Hines's band, the Hayes orchestra blew them off the stage in a battle of the bands in Dayton, Ohio and he remembered Clarke was already making unusual accents with his bass drum at this time. Clarke also toured Europe with the Hayes band in 1938. Clarke later said that his rhythmic ideas began to flower during with his time with Hayes.

After the Hayes band returned to the United States, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was hired to play an engagement with the band at the Apollo Theater in New York. Gillespie took notice of Clarke's impeccable time and creative ideas, and persuaded pianist Teddy Hill to hire the drummer, after a Clarke served a short stint with Claude Hopkins.

Hill gave Clarke freedom to develop his rhythmic ideas, and his style flourished while playing with the equally rhythm-minded Gillespie. One evening with Hill, on the uptempo arrangement of “Old Man River,” Clarke decided to switch time-keeping from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal on his right side. This not only freed up his left hand, it created a lighter and more buoyant sound from the rhythm section. While they were with Hill, Clarke wrote out some of these rhythms and would practice them with Gillespie. He also studied the brass parts, to identify where he could insert bombs and accents to give the arrangements some lift.

Clarke played with the Teddy Hill band at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 opposite drummer Chick Webb’s band, and Webb encouraged Clarke to keep developing his rhythmic ideas. Not all swing musicians, however, appreciated Clarke's experiments – Hill's trombonist, Henry Woode, persuaded the bandleader to fire him when he complained that Clarke had gone too far in "breaking up" the beat behind the band.

After Webb’s untimely death on June 16, 1939, Clarke briefly took over as the drummer in Webb's band, which stayed together until 1942 under the leadership of its young star singer, Ella Fitzgerald.

Clarke worked as a freelancer around New York and often traveling with, as well as subbing for Jo Jones with Basie, until drummer "Big Sid" Catlett tipped him off that he was leaving Louis Armstrong's band to play with Benny Goodman. Catlett coached Clarke in Armstrong's style, and the trumpeter was surprised not only by Clarke’s modernism but by how well he knew the music.

Armstrong took an immediate liking to Clarke, and nicknamed him “Little Gizzard.” Armstrong's manager, Joe Glaser, however, desired a drummer with a higher profile, and dumped Clarke while on tour in Georgia, hiring O’Neil Spencer to take his place. At their farewell Armstrong, with tears in his eyes, gave Clarke an autographed photo, and Clarke treasured the tear-stained portrait.

In 1940, Teddy Hill became the manager at Minton’s, an after-hours club in Harlem where musicians came to jam, a practice that was normally frowned upon by the Musicians' Union. Hill hired Clarke to lead a band there, and gave him free rein to develop his own style. “You play all the Reebopping, Boom Bombs you wanna play," Hill told him. "You can do it here.”

Clarke's nickname, "Klook," emerged around this time from one of his signature moves. An off-beat rim shot on the snare followed by a bass drum "bomb" was referred to by the bebop musicians onomatopoeically to as a "klook-mop." Gillespie later wrote an homage to Clarke, "Oop Bop Sh'Bam," with the scat refrain, "Oop bop sh'bam, a-klook-a-mop."

Kenny’s group at Minton's included Nick Fenton on bass, Thelonious Monk on piano, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Joe Guy, and guitarist Charlie Christian as an unofficial member. Together, the group experimented, and laid the foundations of the music which later came to be known as bebop, a term Clarke disliked. According to Clarke, the musicians at Minton's just called themselves “modern,” and the term “bebop” was not used until after World War II.

Sid Catlett was one of the many Swing Era stars who checked out the action at Minton's. “The little cat is modern if you listen to him,” he said when he heard Clarke's playing there. This affirmation was all the younger drummer needed to hear to continue his experiments, and over time nearly every drummer in New York made their way to Minton’s to hear it for themselves.

Among the drummers Clarke recalled seeing at Minton's were Art Blakey, Max Roach, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn and Davey Tough. Bandleaders who visited Minton’s included Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Artie Shaw.

On a May, 1941 bootleg recording made at Minton's of “Stomping at the Savoy," we can hear for ourselves what all the excitement was about. Unlike later bebop, the ensemble is still very much rooted in dance rhythms. This can be heard not only in Clarke's playing, but also in the way Christian plays Freddie Green-inspired rhythm guitar behind Joe Guy’s solo.

Clarke’s playing at this stage in his development can be described as a busier version of the swing rhythms pioneered by Jo Jones. Clarke was only three years younger than Jones, and had recorded with Basie in the same month as the Minton’s recording. The connection between the two can be clearly heard in the way Clarke plays many accents with his left hand, while playing the hi-hat behind the piano solo. He switches to the ride cymbal behind Christian, and interjects more with the bass drum. His accents tend to fall in the spaces at the end of the soloist's phrases as well as areas that outline the form.

You can hear that Clarke is not only pushing the rhythm section with his “bombs," but also listening closely to accompany the soloist. At this stage Clarke plays most of his punctuations on the snare drum, moreso than the bass drum. His bass drum does revert back to playing four beats when not dropping bombs. Clarke never did away with playing four on the bass drum entirely, as many believe, but he did minimize this later on.

Over time, the young modernists from Minton's made their way to 52nd St., and Clarke played there with Benny Carter and he also worked at Kelly’s Stables with a group he called Kenny Clarke's Kansas City Six, with Thelonious Monk and Ike Quebec. This group came up with the composition “Mop Mop,” named for another of Clarke's signature moves. The band later featured tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

Clarke was drafted into the Army in 1943. As a result Clarke was unavailable to record on the earliest “Bebop” recording dates made Hawkins, Parker and Gillespie, including their rendition of Clarke's composition "Salt Peanuts," which later became Dizzy's signature tune. Dizzy also instructed his drummers to play in Clarke's style. In 1944, Clarke married singer Carmen McRae while she visited him on an Army base in Alabama, and their marriage lasted until 1956.

Like many jazz musicians, Clarke didn't much like Army life, and went AWOL for over three months, during which he managed to gig with Dinah Washington and Cootie Williams. While serving in the Army, he met Jaki Byard, James Moody, Joe Gayles and John Lewis.

Discharged from the Army in 1946, Clarke became disillusioned with the music scene. He converted to Islam, and took the name Liaquat Ali Salaam. Aside from Gillespie, few knew Clarke was now a Muslim. Gillespie convinced him to join the big band he was forming. This band became a showcase for bebop, and their repertoire included compositions by Tadd Dameron, such as Things to Come, Cool Breeze and Our Delight, Gillespie's Algo Bueno (Woody n’ You) and Oo Bop Sh' Bam, and 'Round Midnight.

Clarke decided to leave the Gillespie band in 1946 and was replaced by fellow Pittsburgh drummer Joe Harris. He freelanced steadily with Tadd Dameron’s group and others. Clarke rejoined Gillespie's band in December of 1947 for an RCA Victor recording session which showcased the talents Dizzy's latest find, Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, on tunes such as "Manteca." The band then toured Europe in January of 1948, and Clarke decided to stay: during this European layover, he did some teaching in Paris and recordings on the Barclay label.

Clarke returned to New York in the summer of 1948, and his services remained in high demand until 1956, when he returned to Paris for good. He played on well over 100 record dates during this period, including Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool, Walkin', and sessions with Thelonious Monk. “Venus De Milo” and “Rouge,” from the Birth of the Cool sessions, was later cited by Clarke as a highlight of his musical career.

The improved recording technology of the era allows us to evaluate Clarke's mature abilities. It is clear that he possessed one of the finest cymbal beats in jazz, yet in many ways, he was an old-fashioned modernist: his rhythms were never jarring and he always made musicians comfortable by staying out of their way. His solo work remained primarily on the snare drum, and on many record dates he never brought his toms.

On Miles Davis’s April, 1954 recording of “Walkin',” we hear a clear example of Clarke’s immaculate cymbal beat. he is able to drive the entire ensemble with a sole ringing cymbal which sounds almost like even quarter notes. The relaxed swing feel creates a broad comfort zone for the soloists, and there is an enormous lift to the ensemble, when Clarke switches from the hi-hat to the cymbal. Clarke's playing may sound spare, but the amount of forward momentum he provides without rushing is a rare quality few drummers achieve.

In 1951, Clarke joined pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown, all fellow veterans of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra's rhythm section, to form the Milt Jackson Quartet, which later became the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). He stayed with the group until 1955, and also recorded frequently with Miles Davis during this period. He also worked as a talent scout for Savoy Records, and served as an unofficial house drummer for the label on many recordings.

In the fall of 1956, Clarke was offered a gig in Paris by pianist Michel LeGrand. What began as a short break from the New York scene turned into a love affair with Paris which lasted until the end of his life. He never returned to the United States as a resident.

Clarke's presence in Paris quickly became a focal point for jazz in Europe. There, he played on Miles Davis’s soundtrack for the 1957 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud. In 1961, he formed a big band with Belgian pianist Francy Boland. Bankrolled by entrepreneur Gigi Campi, the band recruited many of finest expatriate and European jazz musicians became perhaps the first European band to rival the best American ensembles. Ironically, one of the band's stalwarts was bassist Jimmy Woode, the nephew of the trombonist who once got Clarke fired for his modern sounds.

He formed a trio, "The Three Bosses," with pianist Bud Powell and bassist Pierre Michelot, which backed Dexter Gordon on his 1963 album “Our Man in Paris.” In 1967, he opened the Kenny Clarke Drum School, where he taught beginners as well as established drummers such as Arthur Taylor.

Clarke settled in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois. In 1962, he married a Dutch woman, Daisy Wallbach, and the couple had a son, Laurent, in 1964. On January 26, 1985, Clarke died of a heart attack, his second, at home. He is also survived by his first son, Kenny Clark Jr. (Liaquat Ali Salaam Jr.), born in 1950 to Clarke and singer Annie Ross.

Select Discography

1937- Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra, 1937-1938; Chronological Classics

1940-Charlie Christian/Dizzy Gillespie, After Hours; Original Jazz Classics

1946-Dizzy Gillespie, Showtime at the Spotlite; Uptown

1948-Fats Navarro/Tadd Dameron, the Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings; Blue Note

1949-Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool; Capitol

1951-Charlie Parker Swedish Schnapps, Verve

1952-Miles Davis, Vol 1; Blue Note

1953 to 55-MJQ, Django; Original Jazz Classics

1954-Miles Davis, Walking; Original Jazz Classics

1955-Thelonious Monk, Monk plays Duke; Riverside

1956-Kenny Clarke Meets the Detroit Jazzmen; Savoy

1956-Hank Jones , Relaxin at the Camarillo; Savoy

1957-Miles Davis “Ascenseur Pour l”Echafaud”; Fontana

1961-Clarke Boland Big Band, Jazz is Universal; Atlantic

1963-Dexter Gordon, “Our Man in Paris”; Blue Note

1983-Pieces of Time with Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves and Don Moye; Soul Note


"Mop Mop" (with Ike Quebec)

"Epistrophy" (with Thelonious Monk)

"Salt Peanuts" (with Dizzy Gillespie)

"Algerian Cynicism"



Contributor: Hyland Harris