© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Of all the rhythm section instruments, the drums are the most difficult to learn from books and even records. With drums, you have TO BE THERE … one has to see and feel the music, more so than for other instruments whose techniques could more easily be assimilated by studying available recordings … .”
- Dave Liebman, Jazz saxophonist and composer
‘He had one cymbal; it wasn't very big. We used to call it the magic cymbal because when somebody would sit in on drums and use his set, it would sound like a garbage can. But when he played it, it was like fine crystal. He kept the cymbal level like a plate and played with a short, side-to-side wrist motion. It was a very graceful thing to watch.”
- Dick Katz, pianist
“Kenny Clarke virtually invented modern jazz drumming, as the first player to use the ride cymbal for timekeeping and the left hand and right foot for accents, as early as 1937 when he was with the Teddy Hill band.
One of the top figures in be-bop's development, he is responsible in some way, shape and form for the way every percussionist plays today.
- Dr. Bruce Klauber
“What he did made the most complex things sound simple. This was his genius. He was an absolute monster. I loved him to death.”
- Grady Tate, drummer
For those of you with a literary bent, the “Flashman” allusion in the above subtitle does not refer to the Rugby bully in Tom Browne’s School Days, nor to the fictional continuation in the novels by George MacDonald Fraser of what may have happened to Tom after he was expelled from Oxford in disgrace.
Rather, it refers to Kenneth Spearman Clarke, who is almost universally acclaimed as the father of modern Jazz drumming.
In Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years ,Burt Korall noted in summarizing a key element of Kenny’s style:
“… the Clarke-Boland Big Band albums – a laudable legacy – contains some of his most inspiring performances. Playing softer than most drummers in a large ensemble, feeding the surge, doing the work of the great accompanist he has always been, Kenny Clarke consistently proved that flash is totally irrelevant.
My early years in the World of Jazz drumming were pretty much as described by Dave Liebman in the opening quotation: full of observations and an incessant flow of questions to any drummer I could get within two feet of.
I mean, you gotta be young and very naïve [stupid?] to pump Stan Levey full of questions. Stan was a bear of a man who hated, and I mean absolutely hated, to talk about technique, basically because he was self-taught and very self-conscious of the fact that he was limited in “drum-speak.”
He shouldn’t have been because what I found out later from many other teachers who were a lot more conversant with the language of drums was that Jazz drumming can be learned, but it really can’t be taught.
Not surprisingly, as a young drummer, I was caught up in the flash associated with the instrument.
I mean, faster was better, louder was better. My motto became: “Play every lick you know in the first four bars of every tune.”
It got so bad that one night I inserted Art Blakey ‘s famous press roll after the 4th opening note of the ballad, Laura, coming down with a cymbal crash on the 5th. It was a trio gig and the piano player got up and walked off the bandstand!
The man who saved me from myself and from inflicting any more of this kind of pain on others my first drum teacher. He lived in a modest little house in Santa Monica. I drove down to his place, set-up my drums and turned on the “flash.” After a few minutes, he signaled me to stop and to listen to an LP that he had on his turntable.
I didn’t touch the drums again that day.
The album was Walkin’ The Miles Davis All-Stars [Prestige P-7076;OJCCD-213-2].
After we the opening track, a 13:26 minute version of Richard Carpenter’s Walkin’, my teacher asked me what I had heard in drummer Kenny Clarke’s playing and I responded that “He hadn’t played anything; he just kept time.”
He loaned me the LP and also his copy of Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Giants [Prestige P-7150; OJCCD-347-2] and suggested that I try to spend as much time as possible listening exclusively to them.
He specifically suggested that I concentrate on Kenny Clarke’s ride cymbal beat.
Thanks to him, Kenny Clarke changed my life [and probably saved it, too, from irate piano players].
It was almost as though my teacher had become a Zen drum master who had imposed a insoluble intellectual problem for me, kind of like the “What’s the sound of one hand clapping” or “What was your true nature before your mother and father conceived you” koans or riddles that Zen is famous for.
The quest to find a way to solve the riddle of Kenny Clarke has continually been with me since my drum instructor first posed it and I have taken great delight over the years in finding how others have explained what makes Kenny’s drumming so special.
It does begin with Kenny’s ride cymbal beat which many have tried to copy, but very few have mastered.
Here are some descriptions of how other musicians perceived it.
Jake Hanna [drummer]: “It sounds like a straight line—"1-1-1-1." But the skip beat is in there—but very light. The Miles Davis records with Kenny Clarke were the first things I heard where the rhythm section sounds as if it's airborne, Nobody's doing anything. Kenny puts his left hand in his pocket; the bass and piano also are into a sparse thing. And they're off the ground.”
Burt Korall [drummer, author]: “Clarke's right hand is truly blessed. Playing on a relatively small ride cymbal—very likely a seventeen-inch Zildjian—set flat, he makes magic with his wrist and fingers, and the time unfolds as naturally as a flower in spring.”
Dick Katz [pianist, author]: “I didn't really pay much attention to Kenny Clarke until one day in 1953 or 1954. I was riding in the car and a record came on the radio—a tune from one of the first MJQ albums. I damn near fell out of the car. I had never heard a cymbal beat like that in my life.
When we worked together at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village in 1955, I got a chance to see just how Kenny played on the cymbal. He held his arm straight, horizontal over the cymbal, and used this side-to-side wrist motion. The way he used his left foot also was quite unusual.”
Ed Shaughnessy [drummer, percussionist]: “A good deal of the time, Kenny closed the hi-hat lightly, four beats to the bar. accenting "2" and "4" slightly. He was very skillful. It took quite a bit of control of the left foot to make it work just right. Kenny's time technique was in direct contrast to what most of the other drummers were doing. They closed the hi-hat hard, on "2" and "4," to push the pulse along. What Kenny did was quite sophisticated—remember, it was the 1940s.”
Interestingly, Georges Paczynski begins the second volume of his prize winning Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz with a feature on Kenny Clarke under the subheadings - L’Histoire de la Cymbal Ride and Un Art de L’accompagnement – two phrases which neatly sum up Kenny Clarke primary role in Modern Jazz drumming.
Kenny Clarke’s approach to drumming was marked by “clarity, economy and unity of conception [Burt Korall].” Kenny didn’t play the drums, he accompanied others on them.
Since so much of what was Kenny Clarke’s style of drumming was encapsulated, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to honor the memory of this pioneering musician with a series of short quotations by other Jazz players who worked with him over the years about what they considered to be his significance.
Perhaps, the place to start would be with the manner in which Kenny viewed his own approach to Jazz drumming.
“I never was a soloist. I thought it was stupid. I concentrated on accompaniment. I always thought that was the most important thing. I stuck with that. And I think that's why a lot of musicians liked me so much, because I never show off and always think about them first.”
Jimmy Gourley [guitarist based in Paris for many years]: “I had a seventeen-year tenure with Kenny. He got a beautiful, musical sound on the instrument and played for the music, the soloists. He was the best drummer I ever heard or worked with. Just about everyone performed on a higher level when he was back there on drums. He locked in behind you, and his tempo remained unchanged from beginning to end. That's tough, believe me. You could count on him in every circumstance.”
John Lewis [pianist, on Kenny with Dizzy Gillespie’s 1948 big band]: “Clarke's head was really in the music, his senses very much alive. He hit hard with the band, enhancing its sound and impact. He danced and decisively punctuated on the bass drum. Openings in each arrangement were imaginatively filled. His conception and execution of what was central to each arrangement made for rare performance unity.”
As a participant in one of three influential Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions for Capitol, he played with a memorable nine-piece group — a miniature of the Claude Thornhill band — on Gerry Mulligan's "Venus de Milo," John Carisi's "Israel," John Lewis's "Rouge," and the Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration "Boplicity." Clarke's work on this project — and many others during this period — brought together, in appropriate ratio, intelligence, emotion, and instinct. He quietly gave the music a sense of design and swing.
John Carisi [trumpet player, composer-arranger]: “The most important thing that Kenny Clarke did was to involve himself in the color aspects of drumming. Another thing. Kenny’s time was really something; you could sit on it! Keeping your own time wasn’t necessary. You just stayed with him.”
Walter Bishop, Jr. [pianist, composer]: “His name was one that rang among drummers. I was impressed by the way he conducted himself on and off the bandstand. He was my role model when I was coming up. There was something classy and very likeable about Kenny, his deportment, his image. Bebop and all who played it were struggling with image.”
Rudy van Gelder [recording engineer]: “I benefited from his expertise. He was so subtle, delicate, musical. He just knew how to hit the drums to make them sound beautiful and make life great for me.”
Billy Higgins [drummer]: “I really liked the sound Kenny Clarke got out of his instrument. He was not only an accompanist, he integrated the drums into music.”
Benny Golson [saxophonist, composer-arranger]: “The thing that was outstanding about Kenny Clarke was his ability to swing at any tempo. There are many drummers who are good time-keepers – but it’s not the same thing. I can’t conceive of Kenny Clarke playing and not swinging. It was an intuitive thing.”
Benny Bailey [trumpet player]: “He was a neat, clean player and if you hear him on record, you know immediately that it’s him. There are not too many drummers who are that identifiable.”
Ray Brown [bassist]: “As a drummer he was totally distinctive – you can always recognize Klook [Kenny’s nickname] immediately; his style and his sound were as personal as a human voice.”
Donald Byrd [trumpet player]: “Kenny was the bridge between swing and bebop. He was the first bebop drummer and a fantastic musician. … Kenny was the drummer who turned everything around. And his time was impeccable.”
Joe Wilder [trumpet player]: “The thing that impressed me most about Kenny was that he was one of the first guys I heard play a drum solo in which you could follow the melody; you could hear by what he was doing that he always had the melody in mind, and you could always tell where he was in the tune.”
Ronnie Scott [tenor saxophonist and club owner who performed with Kenny in the Clarke-Boland Big Band]: “It didn’t matter what the tempo was, he always swung. He had incredible poise and a marvelous sound. You can always recognize that cymbal beat.”
Horace Silver [pianist, composer-arranger]: “Way back when, during an intermission break I asked him – “Klook, how did you get your style, the unique way you play?’ And he said: ‘When I was living in Pittsburgh, as a young guy I used to practice all the time with this bass player who kept telling me to stay out of his way. That’s how I developed my style because he was always on my back about staying out of the way.
Kenny Drew [pianist]: “Kenny had a fantastic musical concept and was his own special kind of drummer. His swing and the lightness of touch were his own. He could make music swing like nobody else and he had a feel for the dynamics that gave a great lift to the music.”
Milt Jackson [vibraphonist]: He was one of the most swinging drummers I ever met. He had a perfect concept of swing – and that’s what Jazz is all about. When he played behind you it was inspirational – he made you play the best you possibly could.”
Pierre Michelot [bassist]: “I worked with Kenny regularly over a period of fourteen years. When we played together we achieved a kind of creative complicity that made it so satisfying. He would have this marvelous smile on his face and he would give a little wink from time to time to indicate – On est bien, on est heureux; tout va bien. [literally “It is good; it is happy; all is well;” figuratively “It doesn’t get any better than this.”].”
Shelly Manne [drummer]: “I can always recognize him, in whatever company, just by the sound of his cymbal. A true master.”
Gigi Campi [producer and organizer/sponsor of the Clarke-Boland Big Band]: “Father Klook – I called him that because there was always a reassuring, paternal element about his presence. He was so well-balanced – both as a man and as a drummer. He became part of the drums when he sat behind them. To me he was, by far, the greatest drummer ever. I don’t know anybody who could play the cymbal like he did.”
Francy Boland [pianist, composer-arranger and co-leader with Kenny of their big band]: “He was very special.”
Grady Tate [drummer]: “What he did made the most complex things sound simple. This was his genius. He was an absolute monster. I loved him to death.”
Over the years, my main observation of Kenny was that he was able to cut through the murky process by which a drummer and the horn players build a bond of mutual trust.
The currency of this trust is listening.
Jazz musicians need to believe that their drummer understands what they are doing, and that their drummer will do what’s necessary to help their individual efforts make a difference.
The drummer needs to live in the music, listen and contribute so that it feeds back into how the horn players hear each other.
While it can be awe-inspiring to watch technically gifted drummers spin their magic on the instrument, when it comes to laying it in there and making it happen, no Jazz drummer has ever done it better than Kenny Clarke. No flash, Man, indeed!
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is indebted to the following as the source for the above-referenced musicians quotations about Kenny:  the drummer world website,  Modern Drummer magazine,  Mike Hennessey, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke,  Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years,  Georges Paczynski Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz and Downbeat magazine.