All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Serving jazz worldwide since 1995
All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Extended Analysis

Kenny Clarke: Klook's The Man

By Published: April 18, 2007

Clarke wasn't a virtuoso. He didn't have the technique that Max Roach had - but he could make the band swing more

Kenny Clarke
Klook's The Man
Proper Records

Of the three great African American drummers whose work in the early and mid 1940s shaped the contours of bop—Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Art Blakey—it was "Klook" Clarke who lit the first and fattest fuse: taking timekeeping away from the bass drum and onto the ride cymbal, freeing up bass and snare drums for dialogue with soloists and establishing a paradigm which became one of the new music's defining characteristics.

Roach developed the new style, and Blakey and others recalibrated it for hard bop, but history relates that Clarke made the first moves. In Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff's Hear Me Talkin' To Ya (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1955), Clarke says he began the process in the Teddy Hill band "about 1937," and that it reached full flower when he was playing with Roy Eldridge "around 1940." Whatever the precise dates, by the time he was recorded at New York's Minton's Playhouse in 1941, with fellow bop pioneers guitarist Charlie Christian and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Clarke had the key elements of the style fully down.

Despite this revolutionary innovation, and other seminal activies including membership of the original Modern Jazz Quartet, Clarke's own-name recordings, including five magnificent albums he made for Savoy in 1954 and 1956—each of which is included in Proper Records' lovingly put together, 4-disc retrospective Kenny Clarke: Klook's The Man—have in recent decades been only sporadically available, while those by Roach and Blakey have continued to prosper.

Quite why this is so is a mystery, until you factor in Clarke's emigration from New York to Paris in 1956—for back in the intensely US-centric 1950s, an American jazz musician who moved to Europe rapidly went off radar. Many of Clarke's peers who made the same journey ultimately returned to the US and "rediscovery," but Clarke went out on a one-way ticket and continued to live and work in Paris until his death in 1985. That Clarke's reputation has continued to suffer from American self-absorption into the present era is evidenced by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns' Jazz: A History Of America's Music (Knopf, 2000). Clarke gets his propers until his departure for France (to which, incidentally, the authors ascribe the wrong year), and then, nothing—he simply ceases to exist. It's an omission shared by many other jazz histories.

Another reason for Clarke's sidelining lies in his life long aversion to drum solos. Unlike the technically virtuosic Roach or generally assertive Blakey, Clarke saw his role as supporting soloists while avoiding the limelight himself. Compared to Roach or Blakey, there are few solos in Clarke's recorded output, and despite an early propensity for dropping "bombs" (from which the nickname Klook derived), even fewer high volume fireworks—instead, Clarke concerned himself with delivering thoughtful, engaged, joyous and utterly irresistible swinging propulsion.

Whatever the cause of his declining profile, Kenny Clarke: Klook's The Man (the title comes from fellow drummer, the late Billy Higgins' appraisal of his predecessor's legacy) is hugely welcome. Spanning the years 1938-56, the set includes in their entirety the five aforementioned Savoy albums—Telefunken Blues, The Ernie Wilkins/Kenny Clarke Septet, Bohemia After Dark, Klook's Clique, Kenny Clarke Meets The Detroit Jazzmen—and, from late 1956, Kenny Clarke's Sextet Plays Andre Hodier, the first album Clarke made as leader in France (after 1956 the 50-year copyright law kicks in and Proper have to hit the pause button). The Savoy albums take up most of discs 2, 3 and 4, with disc 1 acting as a sampler of Clarke's early recordings—inevitably a sketchy one, for 26 tracks from the years 1938-1950 can't dig deep.

The first disc omits the Minton's recordings—which are documented on Proper's Charlie Christian: The Original Guitar Genius and elsewhere—in favour of more obscure releases. They couldn't get much more arcane than the opening four tracks made by Clarke's Kvintett—featuring the leader on xylophone (there's no drummer)—in Sweden in March 1938, towards the end of a four month tour of Europe with the Edgar Hayes Band. An overly mannered mix of chamber swing and Tin Pan Alley, featuring strict tempo vocalist James Anderson, the sides possess a certain period charm, but little else of note.

From Sweden the disc fast fowards to New York, 1946 and four sides recorded by Kenny Clarke & His 52nd Street Boys—including trumpeters Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, pianist Bud Powell and the Christianesque guitarist John Collins. Raw, energised and still licensed to thrill, the tunes include the early bop battle cries "Epistrophy" (co-written by Clarke with pianist Thelonious Monk), "52nd Street Theme" and "Oop-Bop-Sh'Bam."

Then it's back to Paris for the rest of the first disc (prior to his 1956 emigration, Clarke lived in the city 1948-50), and some solid, if unspectacular, recordings with a mix of visiting US musicians, including the towering swing-to-bop baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, and local players, including bassist Pierre Michelot, both of whom loom large later in the collection (Payne on The Kenny Clarke/Ernie Wilkins Septet, Michelot on Plays Andre Hodier).

The second disc opens with the two 1954-55 sessions which comprise Telefunken Blues, having skipped Clarke's well documented years with the Modern Jazz Quartet and its forerunner the Milt Jackson Quartet (and another 115 or so New York sessions he made as a sideman 1951-55).

The five Savoy albums from Telefunken Blues to Meets The Detroit Jazzmen—which together make up the bulk of discs 2, 3 and 4—find Clarke playing the unpretentious, and generally sunny, blend of supple, swinging bop and hard bop which he majored on during the rest of his bandleading career. Made in the company of some of the most lyrical improvisers of the era—see Personnel details below for the key players—the albums are the apotheosis of Clarke's US output.

If I had to choose just one Savoy to take on a desert island, it would be the elegantly soulful Bohemia After Dark, featuring the just-out-of-Florida Adderley brothers, alto saxophonist Cannonball and cornetist Nat, who together wrote four of the six tracks, plus tenor saxophonist and flautist Jerome Richardson, trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Horace Silver and bassist Paul Chambers. But The Ernie Wilkins/Kenny Clarke Septet, distinguished by Count Basie arranger Wilkins' sumptuous little-big-band charts featuring Cecil Payne, runs Bohemia a close second—as does Meets The Detroit Jazzmen, made with a quintet featuring another awesome baritone saxophonist, Pepper Adams, and guitarist Kenny Burrell.

The fourth disc closes with Plays Andre Hodeir (Philips, 1956), a singular and gravely undervalued set of standards and originals arranged, and in some cases essentially re-composed, by the Third Stream-leaning Hodeir. The lineups included two French stars in the making, pianist Martial Solal, who shines quirkily and brilliantly throughout the generous solo space given him, and bassist Pierre Michelot, plus another fine baritone player, Armand Migiani. Europeans outnumber Americans on all three sessions making up the album, which is as assured and enduring as any which came out of the US at the time.

In his biography, Klook: The Story Of Kenny Clarke (Quartet, 1990), author Mike Hennessey quotes the composer Steve Reich: "(Clarke) had an extraordinary sense of time, but wasn't a virtuoso. He didn't have perhaps the technique that Max Roach had—but he could make the band swing more." That is indeed the essence of Clarke's voodoo, and it's at full power throughout the four wonderful discs making up this box set.

Tracks and Personnel

Tracks: CD1: I Found A New Baby; Once In A While; You're A Sweetheart; Sweet Sue; Epistrophy; 52nd Street Theme; Oop-Bop-Sh'Bam; Rue Chaptal (Royal Roost); Confirmation; A La Colette (Cheryl); Jumpin' There (Listen Here); Jay Mac; Algerian Cynicism; Laurenzology; Doria; I'll Tell You In A Minute; Working Eyes; Stuffy; The Man I Love; I Surrender Dear; Love In The Sun; Iambic Pentameter; Assy Panassy; Robbins' Nest; I'll Get You Let; Be Good, Girl. CD2: Sonor; Strollin'; Blues Mood; Skoot; Klook's Nook; Inhibitions; Baggin' The Blues; Telefunken Blues; Summer Evening; Oz The Wizzard; I Dig You The Most; Pru's Blooze; Plenty For Kenny; Cute Tomato; Now's The Time. CD3: With Apologies To Oscar; Hear Me Talkin' To Ya; Willow Weep For Me; Bohemia After Dark; Chasm; Late Entry; Will Wail; Volcano; La Poria Thority; I Hear A Rhapsody; Yesterdays; Play, Fiddle, Play. CD4: Cottontail; Your Host; Tricotism; Tom's Thumb; You Turned The Tables On Me; Afternoon In Paris; Apothegm; 'Round Midnight; On A Riff; When Lights Are Low; Oblique; Jeru; Eronel; Tahiti; Bemsha Swing; Blue Serge; Swing Spring; The Squirrel; Cadenze.

Personnel: Kenny Clarke: drums, xylophone. CD1: Clarke's Kvintett (1-4); Kenny Clarke & His 52nd Street Boys (5-8); Kenny Clarke Sextet (9-12); Kenny Clarke Orchestra (13-16); Michel De Villers Et Son Orchestre (17-20); Hubert Fol Et Ses Be-Bop Minstrels (21-24); Kenny Clarke & His Orchestra (25,26). CD2: Kenny Clarke All Stars (1-4); Telefunken Blues (5-8); Kenny Clarke/Ernie Wilkins Septet (9-15). CD3: Kenny Clarke Septet (1-6); Klook's Klique (7-12). CD4: Kenny Clarke Meets The Detroit Jazzmen (1-7); Kenny Clarke's Sextet (8-10); Kenny Clarke & His Sextet (11-19). Featured musicians: Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd: trumpet; Nat Adderley: cornet; Henry Coker: trombone; Sonny Stitt, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Frank Morgan: alto saxophone; James Moody, Frank Wess, Ernie Wilkins, Jerome Richardson: tenor saxophone; Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Armand Migiani: baritone saxophone; Milt Jackson: vibraphone; Bud Powell, Gerald Wiggins, Hank Jones, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Martial Solal, Rene Urtreger: piano; Paul Chambers, Pierre Michelot, Percy Heath: bass; others.

comments powered by Disqus