Clarke was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1914. Coming from a musical family, he studied multiple instruments, including vibes and trombone, as well as music theory and composition, while still in high school. As a teenager, Clarke played in the bands of Leroy Bradley and Roy Eldridge. He toured around the Midwest for several years with the Jeter-Pillars band, which also featured bassist Jimmy Blanton and guitarist Charlie Christian. By 1935, Clarke was more frequently in New York, where he eventually moved. He worked in groups led by Edgar Hayes and Lonnie Smith, and began developing the rhythmic concepts that would later define his contribution to the music.
While working in the bands of Edgar Hayes and Roy Eldridge, Clarke began experimenting with moving the time-keeping role from the combination of snare drum or hi-hat and bass drum to embellished quarter notes on the ride cymbal, the familiar "ding-ding-da-ding" pattern, which Clarke is often credited with inventing. This new approach incorporated the bombs, or syncopated accents on the bass drum, developed by Jo Jones, while further freeing up the left hand to play more syncopated figures.
Under Roy Eldridge, who encouraged this new approach to time keeping, Clarke wrote a series of exercises for himself to develop the independence of the bass drum and snare drum, while maintaining the time on the ride cymbal. One of these passages, a combination of a rim shot on the snare followed directly by a bass drum accent, earned Clarke his nickname, "Klook", which was short for "Klook-mop", in imitation of the sound this combination produced. This nickname was enshrined in "Oop Bop Sh'Bam," recorded by Dizzy Gillespie in 1946 with Clarke on drums, where the scat lyric to the bebop tune goes "oop bop sh'bam a klook a mop."
Clarke himself claimed that these stylistic elements were already in place by the time he put together the famous house band at Minton's Playhouse, which hosted Monk, Parker, Gillespie, Russell, saxophonist Don Byas and many others while serving as the incubator of the emerging small group sound. The combination of the improvised accents on the snare and bass drum, and the sonority of the ringing ride cymbal carrying the time revolutionized the sound and dynamic of the jazz combo. As producer Ross Russell summed up the role of the ride cymbal:
"The vibration of the cymbal, once set in motion, is maintained throughout the number, producing a shimmering texture of sound that supports, agitates, and inspires the line men. This is the tonal fabric of bebop jazz."
Clarke's innovation set the stage for the development of the bebop combo, which relied heavily on improvised exchanges between drummer and soloist to propel the music forward. For this, "every drummer" Ed Thigpen said, "owes him a debt of gratitude."
While playing at Minton's, Clarke made many recordings, most notably as the house drummer for Savoy Records. When the musicians from the Minton's band moved to different projects, Clarke began working with a young pianist and composer John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. With the addition of bassist Ray Brown, they formed the Modern Jazz Quartet, or MJQ. The group pioneered what would later be called chamber jazz or third stream, referring to its incorporation of classical and baroque aesthetics as an alternative to hard bop, the bluesier successor to the bebop combo sound which emerged in the mid-fifties. Clarke stayed with the MJQ until 1955, when he began contemplating a move to Paris, where he eventually relocated in 1956. Clarke had toured Europe numerous times going all the way back to a stint in the Army during the mid 40's. He was undoubtedly attracted to the better pay he could earn in France: "Why not stay here?" Ira Gitler quotes him as saying, "I earn a good living, a very good living." It is also possible that, like many African American expatriate musicians and writers, he was attracted to the better social treatment he received there. As soon as he moved to Paris, he regularly worked with visiting American musicians in, as well as forming a working trio, known as "The Bosses", with Bud Powell, also a Paris resident, and Pierre Michelot.
Later in 1961, with Belgian pianist Francy Boland he formed a regular big band, The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, featuring leading European and expatriate American musicians, including among many others, Johnny Griffin and Ronnie Scott on tenor saxes. The big band, which had been the idea of Italian producer Gigi Campi, lasted for eleven years.
After 1968 Kenny Clarke played and recorded with the French composer and clarinettist Jean-Christian Michel for 10 years.
Clarke continued recording and playing with both visiting U.S. musicians and his regular French band mates until his death. In 1988, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Clarke died in 1985 in Montreuil, France.
Kenneth Spearman Clarke (n. Pittsburg; 9 de enero de 1914 - f. París; 26 de enero de 1985), baterista estadounidense de jazz.
Músico altamente influyente que ayudó a definir la batería dentro del bebop. Fue el primero en cambiar el ritmo que controlaba la entrada y salida desde el tambor bajo hacia el címbalo, una innovación que ha sido copiada y utilizada por un número incontable de baterías desde principios de la década de 1940.
Durante su etapa escolar, Clarke tocaba el vibráfono, el piano y el trombón, además de la batería. Tras tocar con Roy Eldridge (1935) y la Jeter-Pillars band, Clarke se unió a la Big Band de Edgar Hayes (1937-1938). Hizo su grabación de debut con Hayes y demostró ser uno de los baterías con más swing de la época. Una gira europea con Hayes le proporcionó a Clarke la oportunidad de liderar su propia sesión. Siguieron colaboraciones con las orquestas de Claude Hopkins (1939) y Teddy Hill (1940-1941) y después dirigió la banda del Minton's Playhouse (en la que estaba Thelonious Monk).
Las legendarias sesiones after-hours estuvieron llenas de bop y fue durante esta época que Clarke modernizó su estilo y recibió el apodo de "Klook-Mop" (más tarde abreviado como "Klook") debido a las 'bombs' irregulares que tocaba más allá de los solistas. Batería flexible, Clarke tuvo todavía la posibilidad de participar con las orquestas tradicionales de Louis Armstrong y Ella Fitzgerald (1941), y con los combos de Benny Carter (1941-1942), Red Allen and Coleman Hawkins. También grabó con Sidney Bechet. Sin embargo, tras su servicio militar, Clarke se centró en el campo del bebop, trabajando con la big band de Dizzy Gillespie y dirigiendo su propia sesión moderna. Co-escribió "Epistrophy" con Monk y "Salt Peanuts" con Gillespie. Clarke trabajó a finales de la década de 1940 en Europa, estuvo con Billy Eckstine en Estados Unidos en 1951 y fue miembro original del Modern Jazz Quartet (1951-1955).1 No obstante, se sintió demasiado atado a su música y abandonó el Modern Jazz Quartet para trabajar de forma libre, participando en multitud de grabaciones durante 1955 y 1956, sobre todo con Miles Davis.
En 1956, Clarke se marchó a Francia donde se asentó, colaboró con todas las estrellas americanas que se acercaron de gira a Europa y tocó con Bud Powell y Oscar Pettiford en un trío llamado The Three Bosses (1959-1960). Clarke fue co-líder con Francy Boland de una legendaria big band, el Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band, formada por grandes estrellas (1961-1972). Después de 1968, Kenny Clarke trabajó durante 10 años con el clarinetista y compositor francés Jean-Christian Michel.