The Kenny Clarke Band performs his composition "Just A Blues Riff" in Switzerland in 1966 featuring Flavio Ambrosetti (alto sax), Franco Ambrosetti (trumpet), George Gruntz (piano), Isla Eckinger (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).
Clarke was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 9, 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 made many recordings playing at Minton's in New York, 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-1950's. 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 1940s. 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, including Miles Davis on the legendary score to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, a classic film noir directed by Louis Malle. Clarke also formed a working trio, known as "The Three Bosses", with pianist Bud Powell, another Paris resident, and bassist Pierre Michelot, who had played on the Davis soundtrack too. In 1963 The Three Bosses recorded the classic album Our Man in Paris with tenor saxophone great Dexter Gordon.
In 1961, with Belgian pianist Francy Boland, Clarke 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 clarinetist Jean-Christian Michel for the next ten years.
*Clarke continued recording and playing with both visiting U.S. musicians and his regular French band mates until his death on January 26, 1985 in Montreuil, France.
*In 1988 he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.