Kenny Clark, having defined the standard for modern jazz drumming, is one the most influential drummers in music history. He invented a new style of drumming and new rhythms. Before Kenny Clark trap set drummers were time keepers who stamped out a steady 4-4 beat on the bass drum. Clark changed the trap set into a more musical instrument by moving the steady 4/4 beat to the ride cymbals freeing the bass and snare drums to be used for call and response pattern, sudden dramatic accents and independent counter-rhythms. This allows drummers to lay down polyrhythmic backgrounds to support improvisational solos by other instrumentalists. His innovative drumming style was crucial to the development of Bebop. Kenny Clarke along with Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, and Thelonious Monk is recognized as one of the founders of BeBop. Clark was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and the Downbeat Hall of Fame.
“To say that Kenny Clarke was "important,"or "influential, "or even "a key musical figure, "does not do his contribution justice. To state, unequivocally, that he was drumming's all-time Great Emancipator, a man to whom every jazz drummer who's ever lived owes a debt of gratitude, is perhaps a much more honest appraisal.” – Ed Thigpen Modern Drummer Feb. 1984
Kenny Clarke made more than 300 recordings and recorded with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly, Roy Eldridge, Dextor Gordan, Bud Powell Charlie Christian, and dozens other of jazz greats. Recording with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool album he was part of the beginning of cool jazz. He was a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the first jazz quartet to record with a symphony. He cowrote the song "Salt Peanuts" with Dizzy Gillespie and "Epistrophy" with Thelonious Monk.
Kenny Spearman Clarke, born in Pittsburgh in 1914, grew up on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District. His mother Martha Grace Scott, a pianist, gave Kenny lessons as a child. Martha died was Clarke was six and a half years old. When his father abandoned the family Kenny and his older brother Chuck were sent to the Coleman Industrial Home. At Coleman an accomplished music teacher taught Clarke play brass instruments, the vibraphone, and the snare drum. Clarke played the drum in the Coleman Home's marching band until he left at age 12. He attended Westinghouse House High School while living with foster parents until age 16. Mentored by Carl McVicker at Westinghouse High School, Clarke studied music theory and composition, composed music, and played in the Westinghouse swing band.
Clarke began performing professionally in Pittsburgh at age 17 drumming with Leroy Bradley's band for five years. With Bradley’s band Clarke toured West Virginia and performed at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati. In 1934 Clarke played in trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s Pittsburgh based band, the Eldridge Brothers' Rhythm Team, with Joe Eldridge on violin and saxophones. In 1934 on a trip to Cincinnati, Clark met Pittsburgh pianist Mary Lou Williams who was touring with Andy Kirk. Mary Lou convinced Clarke to travel to St. Louis to audition for the Jeter-Pillars band. Pittsburgh Clarke toured the Midwest for several years with the Jeter-Pillars band.
Clark settled in New York City where he performed and recorded with the Edgar Hayes Big Band from 1937 to 38. After touring Europe with Hayes he was a member of the Claude Hopkins Band in 1939. Clark worked with Teddy Hill during 1939 and 1940. While working with Hill he performed at the legendary Minton's Playhouse after-hours sessions jamming with Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Bud Powell, and Roy Eldridge. Clarke's nicknames “Klook” and “Klook-mop” were given to him at these sessions as he hit an off-beat snare drum rim shot followed by a hard base drum accent bombs that were named ("klook" and "klook-mop"). In 1941 and 1942 Clarke performed with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins, and Sidney Bechet.
After a military tour of duty in Europe from 1943 to 1946 Clark returned to the U.S. recording with Dizzy Gillespie,Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, and many others. He married singer Carman Macrae in 1946, but the separated in 1947 and divorced in 1949. During this period he co-wrote the song "Epistrophy" with Thelonious Monk and "Salt Peanuts" with Gillespie. Clarke spent the late touring '40s in Europe and was a member of Billy Eckstine band in the U.S. Clarke and Milton Jackson formed the Milt Jackson Quartet, the forerunner of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1951. He played the MJQ until 1955.
In 1956 Clarke moved to France working there for the remainder of his life. Touring with several groups he became a superstar on the European jazz scene. He toured with Bud Powell and Oscar Pettiford in a trio called the Three Bosses during 1959 and 1962. He was co-leader with Francy Boland of an all-star big band from 1961 through 1973. Beginning in 1986 Clarke played and recorded with the French composer and clarinetist Jean-Christian Michel for 10 years. He made occasional concert tours of the US but spent more of his life performing, recording, and teaching in Europe until his death at age 71 in 1985 at Montreuil, France.