Jan. 9 marks the 100th birthday of drummer Kenny Clarke. One of the founders of bebop, Clarke is less well-known than allies like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, but his influence is just as deep.
That thing that 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. Kenny Clarke used bass drum sparingly, often tethered to his 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-second timing. Clarke kicked a band along.
With those twin innovations, Kenny Clarke invented modern jazz drumming. His fleet new style had begun to evolve in the late 1930s, alongside other new developments that would blossom into bebop. The very fast tempos were easier to handle on ride cymbal than bass drum, and all the crazy accents let him do more with less. Plus, string bass' role was expanding, and Clarke wanted his bass drum out of its way. He explored his jittery new phrasing during legendary sessions at Minton's in Harlem in the early '40s, with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and guitarist Charlie Christian.
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 he never quite got his due. But he made up for lost time after the war. While Clarke 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, as in "Things to Come."
Gillespie's four-piece rhythm section with Milt Jackson on vibes eventually became the Modern Jazz Quartet; they were quite successful, but also too sedate for Kenny Clarke, who quit in 1955. He just wanted to swing in any setting, and not just using cymbals. He got the same smooth continuity with brushes on snare, and had plenty of other techniques and 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.)
Kenny Clarke recorded a lot in the early '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 U.S. cost him more recognition. But he worked steadily, sometimes with other expats like Dexter Gordon, Don Byas, Bud Powell or Sidney 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.
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.