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Kenny Clarke: Finding the Back Beat in France

by admin on April 9, 2017

Dubbed “Klook” for the sound of his unique style of playing, Kenny Clarke was a drum pioneer who changed modern jazz and influenced bebop. Clarke developed a new way of approaching timekeeping as a drummer. Most drummers during the time were relying heavily on the bass drum to keep time for the band. This included using a “four on the floor” approach to the bass drum which often crowded out the sounds of other instruments. Clarke experimented with using the bass drum sparingly and keeping time with the ride cymbal. He developed the sound that some musicians call the “Spang-a-lang.” Technically, this allowed Clarke to swing at very fast tempos compared to his other counterparts. In addition, he placed bass drum beats at irregular intervals—evoking the suddenness of “dropping bombs” for jazz spectators. This sound heavenly influenced the sound of modern jazz as we know it. Clarke started his professional career as a musician by playing with local big bands when he was in his early 20’s (even playing with Louis Armstrong at one point), and came to play with many jazz pioneers during his time as a working musician, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell.

Clarke refined his unique style of playing at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City where he played with artists such as Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. These experimental nightly jam sessions gave birth to bebop. During his time in the Army, from 1943 to 1946, bebop records were cut while he was overseas, becoming popular without him. This is thought to be one of the reasons why he lacked the renown of the other bebop pioneers during this time.

After being discharged, Clarke joined up with Gillespie and —later—the Modern Jazz Quartet. Clarke spent many years touring with the Modern Jazz Quartet until his decision to move to France, where he resided full time. Clarke’s experience as a GI and musician in France influenced his decision to move there. Like many African musicians during that time, Clarke received greater respect and admiration in France than he did in the United States. The stereotypes and oppression he experienced in the United States was not as evident in France (using some source from class would help you here). While in France, He played with a variety of groups including French musicians and other traveling American jazz musicians. In 1961, Clarke formed The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band with help from Belgian Pianist Francy Boland. This kept him busy in France and indeed throughout Europe. Clarke continued for the remainder of his years being an educator in the jazz world (specifics?)..

Clarke continued to live in France until his death in 1985. His innovative style on bebop drumming and modern jazz drumming changed the styles as we know it today. We have much to thank “Klook” for.

By Kaleb Owens



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Makena Mambo April 25, 2017 at 11:01 am

Clarke’s originality with shaping a new jazz form though bepop drumming is just another example of African Americans influential artistic talent that moved the genre. His drumming adaptation continued to define the dance/movement elements heavily incorporated in AA music and the modernist ideal of keeping things fresh and experimental. Being able to thrive in France where his talent, among many other Black musicians, were highly recognized and adored, Clarke is a reminder that being radical and inventive in jazz music proves that the characteristics behind the genre is ever-evolving .


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