Connie Kay

What Do You Know About…

Connie Kay

Clad in his trademark bow tie and tux, he set the bar for elegant, sensitive swing with the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the longest-running successes in music history. But did you know about his seminal role as a gritty rock ’n’ roller?

by Jeff Potter

Widely admired for his long tenure with the influential Modern Jazz Quartet, Connie Kay made equally important contributions as a house drummer for Atlantic Records in the early 1950s, when he laid down a long list of historic tracks that helped to bridge the transition from R&B to early rock ’n’ roll. In fact, depending on where you fall in the debate regarding the true inception of rock, these recordings actually were the beginning of the style.

A choice group of record aficionados are aware of Kay’s alter-ego accomplishments. In a 1987 MD interview at his home in New York City, the drummer laughed when recalling an encounter with such a fan. After watching a set by singer/pianist Dr. John, Kay approached the legendary New Orleans musician to express appreciation. “Hey, man, I know you!” Dr. John said. “I know about all those rock ’n’ roll records you made on Atlantic. You were the first guy to do hip shit on rock ’n’ roll records. You freed up the guys so they could do something!”

Conrad Kirnon was born on April 27, 1927, and later acquired the Kay moniker when the famous Birdland MC Pee Wee Marquette repeatedly announced his name incorrectly. “Just call me ‘K’!” Connie insisted, and it stuck.

As a teen, the self-taught drummer played a myriad of nightclubs in the Bronx, accompanying comedians, vocalists, and so-called dancers. The circuit exposed him to a broad musical base and a broad base of humanity. Playing bars with parental permission, Kay was warned by his dad to be careful. “And sure enough,” Connie told MD in 1987 (all of his quotes in this piece are from that interview), “one night while I was in there, a man got killed.”

At seventeen, Kay chanced to meet his drumming hero Sid Catlett on the famous 52nd Street and offered him a lift. The two became longtime friends. The only advice Catlett passed on to the fledgling pro was, “You should do more with your left hand.” “Other than that,” Kay said, “it was all osmosis and knowing him as a man.”

By the mid-’40s, Kay was drumming regularly at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem during the formative years of bop, backing featured artists including Miles Davis. A fortuitous opportunity came his way in 1955, when the Modern Jazz Quartet called. The group needed a quick cover for original drummer Kenny Clarke, who had departed abruptly. Kay jumped on the seat, thinking it was a “filler” gig. It turned into a lifelong journey.

By the late ’50s, the MJQ was playing large concert halls and festivals, enjoying a wide crossover appeal. The group’s melodic, intricate mix of jazz and classical music became the archetype of the style known as chamber jazz. Kay remained with the band until its 1974 “farewell concert.” After a much-ballyhooed 1981 reunion, he continued traveling the globe with the MJQ on a part-time schedule, until his death at age sixty-seven on November 30, 1994.

On key albums such as Fontessa (1956), European Concert (1960), and Live at the Lighthouse (1967), Kay graces the band with his touch, swing, and restraint, while adding color to the intricate arrangements with an array of percussion instruments suspended from his kit and mounted nearby. Beyond the MJQ, Kay performed and/or recorded with an enormous roster of jazz icons, including Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Tommy Flanagan, Roy Eldridge, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Randy Weston, Gerry Mulligan, and Red Norvo.

While the MJQ represented the apex of Kay’s refined side, the drummer’s Atlantic recordings, made just prior to his MJQ career, brought out the raw. As a regular player for the label, he was constantly on call in a hands-on environment. “Atlantic was on 56th Street at that time,” Connie recalled. “The studio wasn’t any bigger than this living room. In fact, in the daytime, it was their business office. The sessions all started around eight at night, after office hours. Then we would go in there and put one desk on top of another, stack the chairs together, and push the sofa in the corner. They made a lot of money in that room.

“They had just advanced from acetate to tape recorders,” Kay went on. “Everything was mono. There wasn’t any four-track or laying down of tracks for the singer. If a cat goofed or a singer forgot the words, we would have to do it again.”

In the early ’50s Kay toured the South with the hard-honking R&B tenor sax player Frank Culley, an Atlantic session man who had a hit in 1949 with “Cole Slaw.” “He was kind of a wild dude,” Kay said. “He was one of the forerunners of guys like [R&B sax player] Big Jay McNeely. He would run around with the sax and walk on the bar.”

Upon Kay’s return to New York, a serendipitous studio event caught Atlantic’s attention: The beat that Dr. John had praised came to light. “You see,” Connie explained, “instead of playing 2 and 4, I used to play on 2, leave the space, and play a bass drum pattern in the space. The 2 and 4 stayed in the hi-hat.

“I’ll tell you how that beat evolved: When we got back, Atlantic wanted Culley to do a demo record with a group from Washington called the Clovers. We went to the studio, and the bass player never showed up. So I tried to fill in the parts on the bass drum that the bass would have played, along with one beat on the snare. They liked it, and after that everybody wanted it. Every time I went in the studio, they would tell me, ‘We want the Clover beat.’ All the other record companies were asking, ‘Who’s the drummer on that record?’ because nobody knew what the hell I was doing.”

Modern Jazz Quartet
The Modern Jazz Quartet, from left: John Lewis,Percy Heath, Connie Kay, and Milt Jackson.

While working at the label, Kay also gigged regularly with tenor giant Lester Young’s band, where he could ply his jazz chops. Switching hats at the Atlantic studio, Kay maintained the right temperament for a session musician. His understanding of a sideman’s role was clear: “The leader has hired you for the way you play, but it is still the leader’s band. If you don’t dig it, you can either do it or quit.”

When the MJQ came knocking, the commitment brought an end to Kay’s prolific Atlantic years. As he explained with a chuckle, “You would be surprised how many session drummers were glad I got the gig with MJQ!”

But Kay’s career would intersect with rock history yet again in the late ’60s. Bass great Richard Davis was slated to oversee the band for Van Morrison’s second solo album. Davis took Kay on board. He’d often cited Connie as one of his favorite players, nicknaming him “the security officer” for his solid and supportive style.

Morrison communicated little with the band, simply telling Kay to play whatever he felt like playing. The result was Astral Weeks (1968), a quirky, personal, and spontaneous mix of folk rock, blues inflection, and jazz. Rolling Stone named it the best album of the year, and it’s a frequent contender in critics’ all-time-greatest lists.

Kay was recruited again for Morrison’s Tupelo Honey (1971), drumming on four songs including the hit title track, which became one of the singer’s signature tunes. Another song from those sessions, “Listen to the Lion,” ended up on Morrison’s following LP, Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972).

A more surprising chapter in Kay’s connection with rock royalty involved a revelation that rocked Beatles disciples. Shortly after George Harrison’s 2001 death, MJQ bassist Percy Heath confirmed that he and Kay had recorded several hours of tape with Harrison for an intended album back in 1969. Surprisingly, it was an instrumental jazz session. Harrison initiated the project when the MJQ, which was signed to the Beatles’ Apple label at the time, was in London recording an LP. The collaboration was never released, and the tapes’ whereabouts remain unknown, leaving Fab Four archivists forever flustered.

Ultimately, Connie Kay’s dual-world career shouldn’t surprise. Whether he was playing jazz, blues, R&B, or various shades of rock, Connie valued the common thread of solid time, judicious restraint, color, and a supportive foundation. As he told MD, “You should be able to get some kind of groove no matter what you play.”

Rocking Around The Clock
Atlantic RecordsIn addition to cutting most of the Clovers’ Atlantic hits, including signature tracks such as “One Mint Julep” (1952) and “Good Lovin’” (1953), Kay drove the rollicking Big Joe Turner classics “Sweet Sixteen” (1952), “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1955), and “The Chicken and the Hawk” (1956), with the middle song considered a defining example of early rock ’n’ roll.

Kay also backed the prolific hit machine of Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, tracking such charters as “Such a Night” (1953), “Honey Love” (1954), and “What’cha Gonna Do” (1954). The fiery sound of one of Atlantic’s greatest acts, Ruth Brown, was sparked by Kay as well; Connie is heard on “5-10-15 Hours” (1952), “Wild Wild Young Men” (1953), and the torrid classic belter “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1952).

When the young Ray Charles jumped ship from Swing Time Records, Kay played on his first Atlantic session, which produced “The Midnight Hour” (1952). Other hits followed, including “Mess Around” (1953) and “It Should’ve Been Me” (1953). And the raucous, rocking LaVern Baker also hit pay dirt with Kay at the helm, with “Tweedle Dee.” Many more tracks bear Kay’s groove imprint, most of them callously uncredited.

Kay’s great R&B/early rock ’n’ roll tracks are available in a myriad of compilations, and also as individual downloads from services like iTunes. Perhaps the best source for these cuts is the remarkable eight-CD box set Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947–1974, which itself is a collection of seven previously released compilation LPs spanning the label’s historic output.