Kenny Clarke, Inventor Of Modern Jazz Drumming, At 100 The drummer known as "Klook" was a founder of bebop — and a man endlessly open to possibilities.



This is FRESH AIR. One of the founders of the modern jazz style called bebop, drummer Kenny Clarke, was born 100 years ago today. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Clark, who was nicknamed "Klook," is less well-known than allies like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, but his influence is just as deep.

Kevin has an appreciation. Here's Clarke on drums in 1954, with Milt Jackson on vibes.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: That thing Kenny Clarke does there that all jazz drummers do - that ching-chinga-ching beat on the ride cymbal, like sleigh bells? It gives the music a light, airy, driving pulse. Clarke came up with that, and that springy shimmer came to epitomize swinging itself.

Before him, jazz drummers kept time lightly on the bass drum.

...Clarke came up with that and that springy shimmer came to epitomize swinging itself. Before him, jazz drummers kept time lightly on the bass drum. Kenny Clarke used bass drum sparingly, often tethered to a snare, for dramatic accents in odd places. What jazz folk call dropping bombs. He drew on his playing for stage shows, where drummers punctuate the action with split section timing. Clarke kicked the band along. Here he is with Charlie Parker.


WHITEHEAD: With those innovations, Kenny Clarke invented modern jazz drumming. This fleet style had begun evolving in the late 1930s alongside other new developments that would blossom into bebop. The very fast tempos were easier to handle on ride cymbal and bass drum and all the crazy accents let him do more with less. Plus, string bass's role was expanding and Clarke wanted his bass drum out of its way.

He explored his jittery new phrasing on legendary sessions at Minton's in Harlem in the early '40s, with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and guitarist Charlie Christian.


WHITEHEAD: Clarke was drafted in 1943 and was still in uniform two years later when the first bebop records got cut in New York. His absence from those early bop sessions is one reason Kenny Clarke never quite got his due. But he made up for lost time after the war. While he was away, bebop had broken through as jazz's next wave. In trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 "Big Band," everyone had mastered those tricky new rhythms.


WHITEHEAD: Dizzy's four-piece rhythm section with Milt Jackson on vibes eventually became the modern jazz quartet. They were quite successful but too sedate for Kenny Clarke, who quit in 1955. He just wanted the swing in any setting and not just using cymbals. He got the same smooth continuity with brushes on snare and had plenty other techniques in colors at hand. Clarke was known for the beautiful sound he coaxed from the drums and singers adored the lift he gave them. He backed his ex-wife, Carmen McRae, on her 1954 debut.


CARMEN MCRAE: (Singing) You got me flying high and wide on a magic carpet ride. Full of butterflies inside. Want to cry, want to croon, want to laugh like a loon. It's that old devil moon in your eyes. Just when I think I...

WHITEHEAD: Kenny Clarke recorded a lot in the '50s, with Miles and Monk and Mingus and many more, but he craved a change. He'd always gotten a warm reception in France as a GI or visiting musician, and he resettled in Paris in 1956. That second, much longer absence from the States cost him more recognition.

But he worked steadily, sometimes with other expats like Dexter Gordon, Don Byas, Bud Powell, or Sydney Bechet. For 11 years he and pianist-composer Francy Boland co-led the Clarke-Boland Big Band that made plenty of room for their crack international soloists - and for the drums.


WHITEHEAD: Kenny Clarke stayed in France, made a family there and taught a lot of students. He recorded less often in his final decade, after a 1975 heart attack. On one of his last sessions, in New York in 1983, he made up a percussion quartet with avant-garde drummers Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves and Famadou Don Moye. To the end, Kenny Clarke stayed open to new possibilities for the drums.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new memoir about making a big change after becoming an empty nester. This is FRESH AIR.

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