Kenny Clarke

It’s sad in a way, yet the fact remains that most drummers under the age of 25 probably aren’t all that familiar with the name Kenny Clarke. The truth of the matter is, Kenny Clarke is perhaps more responsible for the evolution of modern jazz drumming than any other single individual. The man is, in fact, the ultimate pioneer.

It’s understandably difficult for a young drummer to imagine that the various components of the drumset were ever utilized in a manner unlike the way they are today. In actuality, the approach was, at one time, considerably different, and Kenny Clarke had a whole lot to do with changing it all. His drumming led the way towards usage of the bass drum for accentuation as well as timekeeping; the establishment of a jazz-time rhythm for the ride cymbal, and freedom from a strictly metronomic role, forcing the bassist to share in the responsibility of timekeeping.

Kenny Clarke can also be credited with freeing the left hand so it could interact with the soloist—the obvious reason why thousands of young student drummers still sweat over Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer, a classic text which captured the elements of “bop-style” drumming and documented it for us all. Most importantly, Kenny Clarke is primarily responsible for giving jazz drummers an opportunity to fully express themselves on the instrument, and un leashing the chains that bound them up to that point.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1914, Kenneth Spearman “Klook” Clarke began his career as a swing band drummer, enjoying a moderate degree of success with the likes of Roy Eldridge, Claude Hopkins, and The Edgar Hayes Orchestra. However, dissatisfied with the relentless press roll, and four-to-the-bar bass drum style so prevalent at the time, Clarke began to venture off in new directions, often losing gigs as a result of these daring rhythmic experiments. That is, until 1940, when he took his jazz drumming concepts to a place called Minton’s, a smoky little club on 118th Street in New York City. The rest is history, for it was here that the new style of drumming began to mesh with the musical ideas of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Thelonius Monk and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in the formation of a new music soon to become known as “bebop. “It was a drumming style which would have an immediate impact on people like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tiny Kahn, Stan Levy and Shelly Manne, a group of young drummers who would ultimately take the style to even greater heights.

To say that Kenny Clarke was “important,” or “influential,” or even “a key musical figure,” does not do his contribution justice. To state, unequivocally, that he was drumming’s all-time Great Emancipator, a man to whom every jazz drummer who’s ever lived owes a debt of gratitude, is perhaps a much more honest appraisal.

ET: I’d be interested to find out how you started. Did you start on drums?

KC: Well, not really. My father played trombone and my brother was also a musician. I was in a school where they had all kinds of instruments. We had a little parade band, and we used to parade all the time, sometimes for the Masons if they wanted a band. I actually started on peck horn. That was the easiest way, you know. Then I started playing the baritone horn, which was a little bigger, and then the trumpet. My mother also started me on piano and she taught me how to read music. She really instilled a love of music in me. In high school, I studied piano, trombone, vibes, theory and finally drums. I was working gigs in and around Pittsburgh as a drummer when I was in my teens. After I finished high school, I started hanging out with all the people who were in bands, and learning to improvise and spread out a little bit.

ET: What happened after that?

KC: I went to Cincinnati. We had a very hip band with Leroy Bradley. The young cats were so hip in that band. We were using stock arrangements, but sometimes we would invent things. I also worked the Cotton Club in Cincinnati and played all the shows.

ET: You once mentioned that, in order to play shows in those days, you had to play all the percussion instruments. Drummers really had to be percussionists in order to get work.

KC: Oh yeah, sure. And bass players had tubas; a big tuba sitting right on the stand. I had vibes; I always had vibes.

Anyway, on the weekends, all of the great big bands would come in: Duke, Don Redmond, Earl “Fatha” Hines. And that’s where I got to meet all of the great musicians of the day. After that I worked for a short while with Roy Eldridge. Roy was really chief of the trumpets at that time, you know. He could blow everybody out. Man, he was fantastic.

When I came to New York, I started working in the Village with some small groups, and then I got the opportunity to go to Europe with the Edgar Hayes band. We toured Finland and Sweden—all over—and I made my first recording with that band.

After the tour, I moved on to work with Claude Hopkins and then Teddy Hill. I worked at the Savoy with Teddy’s band, and that was great because that’s when I first got the chance to work with Dizzy. Diz had already been with the band in Paris and that’s when I first heard him.

ET: Who do you remember as being your very earliest drumming influences?

KC: Well, there weren’t that many really good drummers then. There was a guy named “Honeyboy” who did all kinds of tricks and stuff, but he wouldn’t settle down and keep the thing together. He’d be playing and singing, and sparks would be flying. He was a fantastic showman.

But there was one cat who taught me everything about cymbal playing. His name was Jimmy Peck. He was a pilot and he had fought in the Spanish-American War. Later he became one of the directing engineers at Bell Aircraft in Philadelphia. He was mean, baby—a smart player.

Of course, there was Baby Dodds, and though I had heard about him, I never got a chance to see him because he never came to my town. Anyway, I never liked that style of playing; that heavy, rolling type of drumming. It took too much time. I didn’t like it, but I played it to get into the clique. But through all of it, I was always thinking, there must be another way, you know. To “dig coal” all night long, man, you got so tired that you couldn’t pick up your bag the next morning. I used to say, “There must be an easier, simpler way to get the same effect and keep the band together without straining your arms.” I thought about it for many years. I was still basically playing the old way, but every once in a while I’d go up there and do that cymbal thing. Ding-ding-a-ding. The other guys would say, “What are you doin’, man? Get back on the snare drum.”

ET: You were actually moving the time feeling up to the cymbal.

KC: Yeah, yeah. I figured you could hear it better than on the snare drum. “Diggin” coal” would cover it all up.

ET: You once mentioned that you were quite tuned in to melody and harmony, and it seemed as though you wanted to complement that more.

KC: Sure. A lot of people said, “Klook, when you play drums, it sounds like a melody.” Well, that’s just what I was trying to do. When they’d say, “Take a solo,” I’d just hum “Sweet Sue” and keep on playing. And it would always come out right. They all knew when I’d taken a chorus. You knew when the 32 bars were up. That was my little trick for solos.

ET: After you got to New York, and you were playing with swing bands more, I imagine it was acceptable to be playing that ride rhythm on the cymbal, right?

KC: No, not in a big, organized band. They didn’t go for it even up to 1937 or 38. When I went to Europe with Edgar Hayes, I was playing a mixture.

ET: But it was still mostly on the snare drum?

KC: Yeah, and I’d say, “Oh man, I gotta do something to drive out the monotony.” Some guys would say, “Yeah man, pretty hip.” I’d say, “Look man, I can’t dig coal all night. I gotta do something.” So I’d play the figures with the brass, but then I’d have to start diggin’ that coal again. I was always trying to get away from that.

ET: Those press rolls?

KC: Yeah. You see, we didn’t really have a ride rhythm. I was trying to perfect that. I figured if I could perfect it, it would be a feather in my cap.

ET: When did the ride rhythm finally become more or less acceptable?

KC: It wasn’t accepted until we went up to Minton’s in 1940. I had gotten everything I was trying to do together by that time and my style was pretty well set.

ET: Tell me about the scene at Minton’s during those great days.

KC: Oh man, those were the days. When Teddy Hill became the manager at Minton’s, he turned the whole back room over to the musicians, and we could pretty much do as we pleased. I organized the first house band for the place with Monk, and Joe Guy on trumpet. All the great musicians in town would show up to sit in. That’s where the bebop movement was born. Teddy never told us what to play, or how to play. We just played whatever we felt. Work was pretty scarce at that time, so Teddy just wanted to do something for the guys who had worked for him.

Cats used to come from all over to listen to what we were doing and to sit in. Musicians from all over the country—Dizzy, Hot Lips Page, Georgie Auld, Roy Eldridge, and even Lester Young—would come around a lot. Lester loved what we were doing. All the musicians from whatever bands were working in town would come up after work. Jimmy Blanton, Duke’s bass player, was always dropping in. There was a lot of sitting in.

Kenny Clarke

ET: I’d be interested to hear what you recall about some of the pioneers of the movement who would come up to Minton’s to sit in, like Charlie Christian, for example.

KC: Charlie was a very quiet, very reserved little guy, and we used to really look forward to him coming up. He usually came in every night after he finished working downtown with Benny Goodman. Charlie talked about the place and what we were doing so much that even Benny came up once in a while. He sat in too.

Charlie contributed a tremendous amount to the new music and we were always swinging hard when he came up. He wrote some really great tunes as well. At the time, we didn’t even have a name for the music we were playing. It wasn’t even called “bebop” at that time. We just called it modern music.

ET: Dizzy?

KC: Diz was the most advanced of all of them as far as harmonies and rhythms went—very progressive. Roy Eldridge and Diz would always have these cutting contests, and at the time, Roy was always the favorite. People understood what he was doing more. But as time went on, the musicians started to catch on to what it was Diz was doing, and after a while, everybody kind of forgot about Roy. Then Diz became the trumpet player at Minton’s. But Roy never stopped coming up, though he never really did change his style. I owe a lot to Roy actually, because he always encouraged me when I was working out my ideas for a new style of drumming.

ET: Tadd Dameron?

KC: Tadd really impressed all of us. He was using flatted fifths in chords back as early as 1940, and though it sounded very odd to us at first, he was definitely a forerunner of the movement. He was also one of the first people to play full, 8th-note patterns in that real legato style.

ET: Charlie Parker?

KC: Bird first came to New York with Jay McShann’s band. He was working at a place called Monroe’s. The sessions were always either at Monroe’s or Minton’s. Well, Monroe’s used to open up after Minton’s closed, about four in the morning. So, we’d leave Minton’s and then go there.

We first went to hear Charlie at Monroe’s because the word was out that he sounded like Pres. Actually, Pres was the pacesetter at the time, so everyone was really interested to see what this young cat named Charlie Parker was doing with the music. Well, when we first heard him, we realized that this was a man with a whole lot more to offer. He’d play things that no one ever heard before—incredible stuff.

Bird was a very, very quiet guy. He was not talkative at all. He’d never talked much about what he was doing with the music. He’d just get up there and do it. I don’t think he ever realized himself the changes he was bringing about.

ET: What about the drummers who would come in?

KC: Well, when I was at Minton’s, nobody had really caught on to what I was doing with the instrument. I remember Sid Catlett came up one night, and he listened and listened. Finally he said, “Are you still playing the bass?” I said, “Yeah, but I make the accents off the four beats.” I couldn’t give that up and play with no bass drum. The accent wouldn’t have come in right.

Big Sid said, “Yeah, that’s it.” I looked around, and he and Jo Jones were both playing like that. Of course, Jo was a hi-hat man. But, I couldn’t make that hi-hat thing. I wanted my arms free.

ET: So you moved over to the ride cymbal.

KC: Yeah, I just moved over from the hi-hat to the ride and played the same thing that I’d been playing on the hi-hat. The hi-hat then became another instrument I could play with my left hand. It opened up the whole set, you know.

Before that, cats didn’t use the cymbal except for accents, endings and stuff like that. I wanted to use it all the time. But, I was always getting fired. I knew after the first night that I was out, so I would just pack up and move out. The boss would come over and say, “Look, we’ve got to get another drummer for tomorrow night.” And I’d say, “Okay man, I was just leaving. I’ve got my stuff packed.” And I’d split.

ET: But you persevered, which is what an innovator has to do.

KC: Oh, I did believe I was on the right track; that what I was doing was right. If nobody else liked it, the hell with them. I’d just keep playing like that anyway.

ET: Well, fortunately, not everyone closed their ears to what you were doing.

KC: No. They used to come to Minton’s. I’d look out there and it would be all drummers. Art Blakey used to hang out there a lot and he got the style down real good. And Max too.

But it took a long time to figure out what to do with my left hand. A lot of cats helped me. They saw it was a usable style coming into action. Jim Chapin, cats like that, would hang around all the time. He’d never leave me to see what I was doing with my left hand. And, of course, he wrote the book on it. He wrote down all the stuff we did. But I didn’t care. As long as it got to the cats, I was happy.

ET: Your whole approach has always been from the standpoint of playing the drums as a musical instrument.

KC: Yeah, it was to integrate them into the music. I thought that approach would give the soloists more freedom, rather than fencing them in with, “boom, boom, boom, boom.”

Actually, the bottom never changed. I just put it up on the cymbal to kind of ease the weight of the bass drum which I played very softly. It was always four beats, but I would syncopate the bass drum. Whatever accent the band was playing, I would make it, but they could always feel it. I’d just say to the guys, “Put the time in your head and play. Don’t listen for the drums because the drums are not working for you. They’re working for everybody.” The best thing to do was to feel the beat and not listen for it, you know. Once they got it in their heads, then I went upstairs to stay. I played ding-ding-a-ding up there and it gave my left hand freedom to do other things.

It was another way to play. I wasn’t try ing to be hip, but I wanted to make it easier than diggin’ coal all night. I was just figuring it out for me.

ET: What other bands were you able to work with prior to the bebop era?

KC: Claude Hopkins, Teddy Hill. Hill was just beginning to accept my style of playing. But they all still wanted to hear the bass drum. They’d stop playing if they didn’t and there would be all kinds of confusion. I’d say, “Why don’t you just feel it the way I want to play?” They’d say, “No man, we have to know where the beat is.”

ET: What about the bass players?

KC: Most of them were slap bass players until Jimmy Blanton came on with Duke. Sonny Greer’s drumming was mostly for color, more or less. Jimmy carried the pulse. That was his job.

When I started playing up on the cymbal, the bass players would say, “Man, when I hear that bass drum going all the time, I can’t concentrate on my solo. Just play that cymbal.” So I started playing the bass drum real soft and just making accents. The four beats were there, but it was real soft. I still play like that today.

When I played with Oscar Pettiford, I would be in the background going ding-ding-a-ding with a real soft bass drum, and he’d get out in front of that mic’ and shine. He’d say, “Man, just keep that rhythm on the cymbal and that soft bass drum, and everything will be cool.” So I began to practice with just a cymbal—no bass drum. I just played from hand to hand. Oscar would say, “That’s it. That’s what I want!” I had to work with him all the time because no other drummer played like that. Then I started playing it with the big bands. The cats would say, “Yeah man, that’s hip.” I remember one time with Mingus’ band, I sat down and started to play. The whole reed section stood up and said, “Yeah!” So I figured I was on the right track.

ET: Years ago, when I first saw you, you used a big, thick felt beater.

KC: Well, that’s because I was trying to play very soft. I knew if I played soft, I could just say “Boom,” and it would be loud. I didn’t have to go too far to play loud. But if I played, “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,” there wouldn’t be any accents. The accents would have to be louder and that would mess up the whole band. I’d play soft for the most part, and the accents would come out better.

ET: Your time beat was almost like a straight four, but it wasn’t. It was right on top, almost like a 64th note, or closer, on the second and fourth triplet.

KC: Well, this cat I was telling you about, named Jimmy Peck, he just sat me down and said, “Look, if you’re going to play it up there, make it sound pretty. It’s all in here, in the wrist, and you kind of throw it out.” When you throw it out, it changes the sound. There are so many things you can do when you get the idea.

Actually, a guy named Joe Garland, a tenor player with Edgar Hayes, would write things for me. He’d write out a trumpet part, and he’d leave it up to me to play whatever I felt would be most effective. I’d play the figures over the regular beat. That’s how I first got the idea to play that way. Then I developed the idea further with Roy. Most of the guys who’d played with Roy didn’t do anything with their left hands. Almost everybody was just copying Jo with that hi-hat thing. I was looking for something new. When I started to play that way, the guys in the band would always kid me about not playing the hi-hat like Jo, but I didn’t want to copy anyone. I wanted to be an original.

ET: Could you trace your career after the Minton’s years?

KC: Well, I went on to work with Louie Armstrong, and then Ella Fitzgerald’s band. I spent a year with Benny Carter in 1942, and then I worked with Henry “Red” Allen in Chicago. I came back to New York right after that and went into the Army in 1943. I was in Europe during the war.

When I came out in ’46, I was a little fed up with the music business and I was actually considering doing something else, but that idea didn’t last very long. I went with Dizzy’s band later in ’46 and stayed for a year before joining Tadd Dameron’s band. I went back with Diz in ’48 for a tour of Europe, and I stayed on in Paris after the tour to do some teaching and recording. Then I came back to the United States in ’51 to tour with Billy Eckstine.

ET: Just to backtrack for a moment, didn’t you once spend some time with the great composer, Darius Milhaud, in Paris?

KC: Oh yeah. That was in 1949. A trumpet player by the name of Dick Collins was living in Paris and he was a student of Milhaud. He told him about me and Milhaud wanted to meet me. Well, Dick and I played for him, and he was taking notes. He’d stop us and take notes. Then we’d play again and he’d stop us again. He was very interested in the ride cymbal beat and in what I was doing with my left hand. He really knew a lot about jazz and he was very enthusiastic.

Kenny Clarke

ET: Many people don’t realize it, but you were involved with the original Modern Jazz Quartet before you moved to Europe permanently.

KC: We did that in 1952. That was with John Lewis and Milt Jackson. That was some quartet; made a hell of a racket. It was so beautiful, you know. And Bags, he could hear around the corner. He had the power to do anything he wanted to do.

ET: Before you moved to Paris permanently in 1956, you did a lot of recording in New York.

KC: I did most of the work for Savoy, and I also worked as an A & R man for them. We recorded people like Cannonball, Donald Byrd, Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano.

I went to Paris in ’56 to work with this big band over there. The band eventually broke up, but I stayed on in Paris. I did some work with Quincy Jones and I worked at this club in a rhythm section that backed up most of the great American jazz players that came through. I also did a lot of studio work. I liked it better over there. It was a peaceful life, and I could always work. I’d always say, “I’m gonna go back home,” but I never got around to it.

ET: In 1960, you were co-leader of the Clarke-Boland Big Band, until it disbanded in ’73. How did that come about?

KC: Oh, that was weird. We started out with a duo—piano and drums—just Francy [Boland] and me. Gigi Gryce had an ice cream parlour in Cologne, and he would clear the tables in one part of the place so Francy and I could play. Then, Jimmy Wood came in, and he looked up and didn’t see any bass. So he went out and got his bass. Then we had a trio. And that’s the way it went. The band just kept growing and growing.

Then some cat from Blue Note came over and we recorded it. We were eight pieces at the time. Well, the record sold so well that we decided to make another one with 13 pieces. We added the saxes and we started recording again. Gigi would record everything when we got together. We did the Jazz Is Universal album with 13 pieces, and it turned out pretty fair.

ET: That was an international band, wasn’t it?

KC: Oh, yeah. We just picked cats up from everywhere.

ET: You had two drummers there for a while; you and Kenny Clare.

KC: Well, what happened there was, I had an engagement in Morocco for the Moroccan Red Cross, and I had booked it months in advance. Gigi had a transcription date in Cologne, so Ronnie Scott said, “I’ve got a good drummer to bring in. He can fill in for Klook.” So they brought in Kenny Clare. When I got back from Morocco, they played the tapes for me and I said, “When did I do that? I don’t remember doing that.” It sounded like me all through the thing; sounded like everything I did. They said, “Kenny Clare did that while you were away.” I said, “Who is this guy? Bring him over.” There was no use in him being over there and me being here when we played alike. So we brought him to Cologne and tried a couple of tunes. He would always follow me. He’d say, “Klook, you’re the leader.” When I’d take sticks, he’d take brushes. He didn’t want to get in the way.

ET: He’s very simpatico, isn’t he?

KC: He’s a great drummer—a fantastic player.

ET: It’s very difficult to get two drummers synchronized properly in one band.

KC: Well, we started getting things together, you know. We’d play different patterns, because if we both played them, it would be too pronounced. But we figured out the patterns and it worked out.

ET: I’d like to touch on your activity in education for a moment. I have the original series of books that you and Dante Augustini collaborated on. Both of you worked seven years on developing the Dante Augustini Methods, didn’t you?

KC: Yeah. I had the ideas and he had the bread. He paid for everything. He was very quick with transcribing. He could write almost as fast as you could play. Then we’d go over it and see if everything was correct. He had all these connections and a printer. He knew everybody, so he took care of all that.

ET: You know, I’m still working with these things. It’s such a wealth of stuff.

KC: Unlike most syncopation studies, everything swings so hard; there’s so much stuff that just swings. We even had the things we worked out with drumset choirs.

Kenny Clarke

ET: I’ve written some suites off some of the things you’ve done in those books with five or six drummers. I understand that he had things with up to 15 drummers.

KC: Yeah. We’d check out the best students— the hippest students. Dante would be on one side and I’d be on the other to kind of keep things together. It was beautiful, man.

Some cat from television caught wind of it, and he called to ask if we would do something on one of the big shows. So, we picked out the best students who could really make it, and we did a hell of a TV show. People were asking, “When are those drummers coming back?”

ET: Well the things are so musical. It’s amazing what you can do with drums; the limitless possibilities. What’s your feeling on technique as it relates to musicality?

KC: I always tell people, don’t slough off the technique. I mean, it’s important, but only when you need it. You don’t really need a whole lot of technique to play drums. As far as soloing goes, if you hum the melody, the solo will come to you automatically.

You have to learn how to use your technique and how to apply it to the music. It’s like those people who walk into a million dollars. Okay, you’ve got a million dollars. Now, your next problem is you have to learn how to spend it wisely. It’s the same thing in music. You’ve got this technique, but you have to learn how to use it in places where it’s going to sound beautiful. You don’t just put it anywhere. You pick your spots.

ET: That takes a great deal of discipline.

KC: Yeah, that’s right. But if you get the stuff down to where you play it at the right time, then it comes out beautiful. But, if you mix it in with everything, the people get tired of listening to it. It’s not supposed to be like that. My idea of a drum solo is that you play like you sing. It comes from different things you listen to. And the beauty is always in the simple things.

I see young musicians with all kinds of equipment up there who hardly know how to play half of it. If you’re going to take all the stuff, then learn how to use it all. I never used more than two cymbals throughout my entire career.

Most young drummers I hear play too much. I say, just play what’s required of you; whatever’s necessary for that piece of music. Don’t overdo it. You have to be sensitive to the situation you’re in at the moment. If you really know your instrument, you can fit in with anybody.

ET: What’s your feeling about how the drums have evolved over the past 40 years or so?

KC: Well, the innovators always change the direction. Jo, Max, then Elvin, and then Tony Williams turned everything completely around. Now Jack DeJohnette is going on even further.

If you can reach a point where you can say, “Yeah, I found it,” then you’ll be able to show someone what you’re doing. You have to come to some conclusion. It’s like writing a piece of music. It has to have an ending. You can write a million pages, but it has to come to a conclusion. At some point, you have to say, “Well, this is what I’ve reached; this is my conclusion.” Then somebody can take it out and say, “Okay, let’s look over it.” Not that you’re running back every ten minutes saying, “Yeah, but I got this too.” No man, this is what you’ve contributed. Now give us a chance to study it and figure it out. Then you can go on further with it, because now we know what you’re doing.

You have to bring it all together, make one thing out of it, and come to some con clusions about what this is supposed to do and what that’s supposed to do. Don’t just wander out in the fields, searching and searching. Put it all together and draw some conclusions. You put it all in the sack and go on to work, you know. But, if the cats keep “jig-jagging” around, they will never get to the idea of why they’re doing it.

My idea was to make drumming easier for me. I didn’t like the way other drummers were playing. I wanted to be able to say, “Look, this is the way I play. Here it is.” I had to get it down to fine points, and it took a lot of work. I wanted something I could use all the time, no matter where I was, so I could do my gig. That’s what I was working on—something for me—something conclusive.