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Klook's The Man

Klook is indeed the Man - our repertoire is drawn specifically from sessions he played (a few as leader but most as sideman) for a couple of reasons: first, his presence on so many great bop recordings (except for much of the well known Charlie Parker "canon"); and second, as a tribute to his work and overall musical "philosophy" (of which more below).

A major innovator, Clarke pioneered the use of the ride cymbal to keep time rather than the hi-hat (or "sock cymbal"), complemented by the snare, tom-toms and bass drum for irregular accents ("dropping bombs"). Brian Priestley, UK jazz critic, summarised Clarke's personal style rather neatly: “Although originally prized as the founder of bebop drumming in the early 1940s, Kenny rapidly became the embodiment of straight-ahead playing. Even his sometimes-insistent snare-drum commentary was essentially supportive, just as his bass drum helped to underline rather than dictate. […] Perhaps the greatest joy of his playing, most clearly audible on small group recordings, was the pulse of his cymbal work, so marvelously alive yet effortless that fellow musicians called it his ‘heartbeat’.” A short sample :)

His contribution both to drumming and to jazz overall is captured in his own words in this genial "career retrospective" interview with fellow drummer Ed Thigpen (35 years ago, the year before Clarke's death).

And this thoughtful review of the compilation album "Klook's The Man" (ref. post image), covering the same reference period as The "Bohemia After Dark" project, helps explain the reasons for Clarke's relative neglect compared to his peers Max Roach and Art Blakey.

Finally, the following collection of comments from both other jazz drummers and musical associates highlights Klook's signature qualities - an unfailing ability to swing, his legendary "cymbal beat", beauty in simplicity and his consummate musicality as an accompanist. He was also, it seems, one of the most liked and respected figures in the business.


Clarke, about himself: “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.” Explaining the origins of his approach to Horace Silver during a concert break: "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."

“Clarke's right hand was truly blessed. Playing on a relatively small ride cymbal - very likely a 17" Zildjian - set flat, he made magic with his wrist and fingers, and the time unfolded as naturally as a flower in spring.” - Burt Korall, drummer and author of "Drummin' Men, The Bebop Years"

"Clarke knows his harmony, melody, and has a million ideas." [...] "I've been partial to Clarke. He doesn't borrow; you don't hear the way he plays anywhere else. It's not African or Afro-Cuban; it's unique." - Max Roach

"Kenny Clarke influenced me enormously. He totally revolutionized the world of the drums. [...] When I heard him play, I was so knocked out that I didn't sleep at night. When I listened to Kenny I had the impression of being in the presence of the gods; that's how impressed I was when I saw him play. We lived together in New York for a time and that was a great opportunity for me. Kenny was my mentor. Max Roach and Art Blakey also expressed great feeling on the drums - and there are other great drummers like Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes. But not like Kenny Clarke. Even Max, great as he is, doesn't touch me as much." - Philly Joe Jones (1985)

"Which drummers do you admire? - Dave Tough impressed me a lot, and Sid Catlett. Chick Webb I’ve only heard on records. Max Roach I admire very much as the great technician, and Roy Haynes is very fast. And you mustn’t forget Philly Joe. But there is one man who is really my hero – Kenny Clarke. Kenny has everything these other drummers have and something more besides. I don’t know quite how to put it in words, but he brings out the human element in his drumming – his warmth as a person comes through. He is the perfect accompanist, too, he knows exactly when to bring it up and take it down." - Elvin Jones (Jazz Journal, 1971)

"When I was first starting out I used to hear Kenny Clarke play a certain way. He could play a little splash cymbal and it wouldn’t splash because he had such a good touch on the cymbal. So I just kind of fell into that. I didn’t just play four quarter notes; the little [swung] note was just soft. But I guess people only heard the quarter notes. Now it’s a little different; I dance with it a little bit on the cymbal, but it still has that same feeling. [...] I had to have the beat somewhere, so I concentrated on making it heard on the cymbal. I always liked the way Kenny Clarke played the cymbal—nice and quiet, but definite and killing—and I got some stuff from him.” - Jimmy Cobb

“Bassist Ernie Farrow got me listening to Kenny Clarke during the early 1950s. I had a lot of respect for Ernie, so I listened to Kenny Clarke really well. I mean, I listened my buns off; I was paying attention. And that’s how I developed my cymbal beat, listening to Kenny Clarke so much.” - Louis Hayes, drummer, among others, for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet (1959-1965)

"Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated. But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this. This is a little bit too difficult. I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.” It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke. “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.” I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table." - Ben Riley

[About the Miles Davis album Bags’ Groove] "It was Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, and how sparingly he played: he could always find the cracks in the music. When he did something, it was always a lift. Some drummers get carried away and stop listening, maybe because we are doing four or five things at the same time. You want to see if things will work or not, but you’re not really paying enough attention. We think we need to make everything happen, but it’s not true; everything is already happening, all you need to do is find your place. Kenny Clarke was a master of that. He had that ride cymbal beat… I haven’t figured it out yet. When I hear it today I still say, “Damn, man! Is it a triplet feel or a sixteenth note feel?” It is so distinct. When you listen back it is so different than other drummers. Max and Art Blakey had completely different cymbal beats. That was the identity during that time. The influence of Tony Williams and Elvin Jones has shifted the emphasis away from the ride cymbal to the orchestration of the drum kit. It’s a bigger sound instead of the light swing with a few accents. Guys now can do some pretty amazing stuff. Drummers are off the page! We all need to keep listening, though." - Albert "Tootie" Heath

“It sounds like a straight line—"1-1-1-1." But the skip beat is in there - just 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, and yet 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.” - Jake Hanna

“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

“Klook was a great, old-fashioned, modern player, I don’t know how else to put it. He had one of the best cymbal beats of all time, definitely. He had tremendous feel. He always swung.” - Mel Lewis

“I can always recognize him, in whatever company, just by the sound of his cymbal. A true master.” - Shelly Manne

“I really liked the sound Kenny Clarke got out of his instrument. He was not only an accompanist, he integrated the drums into music.” - Billy Higgins

“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 [in the 1940s]. They closed the hi-hat hard, on "2" and "4," to push the pulse along.” - Ed Shaughnessy


"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

"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.” - Milt Jackson, vibraphonist

“As a drummer he was totally distinctive – you can always recognize Klook immediately; his style and his sound were as personal as a human voice.” - Ray Brown, bassist

"Kenny was a wonderful person to know, to talk with. He charmed me. One night, right after we met, we went out to play with my small group. He was the most incredible drummer I had ever heard. I haven't heard anything like that since. What Kenny did had nothing to do with swing playing, or Jo Jones, or anything or anyone I had come across before. But it was all so right!" - John Lewis, pianist

"When I was working with Miles in the 1950s, I was completely flabbergasted by Kenny's playing - the way his time just rolled and glided along - yet there was a lot happening. His rhythm - the sound and smoothness of it - was all I could think of. It really knocked me out!" - Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophonist

“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.” - Donald Byrd, trumpeter

“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 Golson, saxophonist

“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.” - Walter Bishop, Jr., pianist

“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.” - Rudy van Gelder, recording engineer

“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.” - Joe Wilder, trumpeter

“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.” - Kenny Drew, pianist

“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.” - John Carisi, trumpeter, composer/arranger

"Kenny was a prince of a guy. As gentle as could be. He was one of my best friends. His drumming was impeccable. I heard him play with Dizzy Gillespie's big band and he swung it right off the stage. He would go into more intimate, reflective patterns than other drummers." - Dick Collins, trumpeter

“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.” - Jimmy Gourley, guitarist based in Paris

“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.” - Pierre Michelot, bassist

“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.” Ronnie Scott, tenor saxophonist, member 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.” - Gigi Campi, producer/organizer of the Clarke-Boland Big Band

"Klook plays drums just like I would play them if I played drums. He's too much." - Dizzy Gillespie, after recording again with Clarke in the mid-1960s.

Sources: Ira Gitler "Jazz Masters of the Forties", Modern Drummer, Drummer World, Downbeat, Jazz Profiles (blog), Mike Hennessey's "Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke", Burt Korall's "Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Bebop Years", others.


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