Kenny Clarke Day

January 9, 1914 – January 26, 1985

The bebop pioneer is remembered

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Drummer Kenny Clarke was born on January 9, 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Clarke studied vibes, piano and trombone before settling on the drums.

He was active during the swing era, working with Leroy Bradley (1930-35), Roy Eldridge, the Jeter-Pillars Band, Edgar Hayes (1937-38), Claude Hopkins, and the Teddy Hill Orchestra (1939-40).

Clarke was hired to play in the house band of Minton’s Playhouse next to Thelonious Monk and during that period he developed his innovative style, moving the timekeeping role of the drums from the bass drum to the ride cymbal and using the bass drum to “drop bombs” behind soloists in unpredictable accents, essentially inventing bebop drumming.

Clarke, who also played with the bands of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Red Allen and Coleman Hawkins during the early 1940s and recorded with Sidney Bechet, would have received more acclaim for his innovations if he had not had to spend much of 1943-46 serving in the military.

After his discharge, Clarke worked and recorded with the who’s who of bop including Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

He was an original member of the Modern Jazz Quartet during 1952-55 but did not care for its musical restrictions, leaving the group in 1955 to continue his solo career.

Kenny Clarke moved permanently to France in 1956 where he worked with Miles Davis (during the trumpeter’s 1957 visit), Bud Powell’s Three Bosses, top European jazzmen and as co-leader of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band during 1960-73.

Clarke worked steadily throughout the remainder of his life including with Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, his own combos, and the Paris Reunion Band.

Here is Kenny Clarke playing drums on his “Just A Blues Riff” in Switzerland in 1966 with an all-star European band also including altoist Flavio Ambrosetti, trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti (Flavio’s son), pianist George Gruntz and bassist Isla Eckinger.

-Scott Yanow


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