Kenny Clarke, the father of bebop drumming,
first came to Europe with the Edgar Hayes Blue Rhythm Band in 1937;
about the same time as those other backwards stake-claimers; Coleman
Hawkins and Ben Webster.
"We played Brussels and I just
came down to see what Paris was like. I liked it right away."
Clarke laughed: "I even liked Brussels."
or Klook, as he was known - was born in 1914 and had been living in
France so long he could even laugh about liking Brussels (the French
tell Belgian jokes, which are sort of like Polish jokes).
settled in Paris in the 1950s because he wanted "a certain
quality of life." It was not a matter of money; on the contrary,
he had been busy in New York - too busy: "Economically everything
was all right, but there was something I had to clear up in my mind.
You know people look for different things in life, but all I wanted
was peace and quiet" - there was a twinkle in his eye - "and
Clarke knew something was seriously wrong when
he found himself hiding from Miles Davis, who was offering him work.
Miles always wanted only the best, and he knew where to look for it: "Miles
knocked on my door, so I told the little girl I was with to tell him
I'm out. He just kept knocking, said 'Klook, Klook, I know you're in
there.' I just didn't feel like going on that gig. I'd been recording
for Savoy Records almost every day. I was tired, man."
evening in 1955 he turned on his tv to watch a Maurice Chevalier
spectacular and recognized the back of the conductor's head: "When
he turned around, sure enough it was Michel Legrand. I called up the
station and we got together that night at Basin Street East. I was
working there with Phineas Newborn.
"I told him how
tired I was of New York. He said he could get me on his uncle Jacques
Helian's big band, 'a real jazz band' he called it. I was ready. The
following September he sent me a first-class ticket on the Liberté
and I left with everything I owned."
Klook came back and
recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet; their first album. The MJQ's
leader John Lewis wanted Klook to play with them. The MJQ turned out
to be extremely successful. Asked if he ever regretted leaving that
gold mine just before it panned out, Clarke answered without
hesitation: "Not for one minute. Well, I've thought about that.
Someone said: 'Klook, you should have stayed here and made all that
money.' But money's only good when you need it."
had nothing against money. He was in fact known to be a hard
negotiator, and he did well in Europe. But he was someone who followed
his own inclinations; who wanted to take life, and music, on his own
Back in the late 30s he got tired of playing like
Buddy Rich - boom boom boom boom on the bass drum. He took the main
beat away from the bass drum and put it up on the ride cymbal. The
beat became lighter. The bass drum was then used only for kicking
accents. "Dropping bombs" it was called. In 1940, Teddy Hill
fired Clarke for dropping bombs with his big band.
later Hill called Clarke and asked him to organize a band for
Minton's, a club he was managing on 118th street in Harlem. He hired
the eccentric and then unknown pianist Thelonious Monk. Dizzy
Gillespie ("a saint," said Clarke) sat in regularly; as did
Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker ("a prophet"). And
that's how bebop was born.
After a three-year spell in the Army, which brought him back to
Paris ("I made a lot of friends, real friends"), he returned
to New York; "sort of disgusted with everything. I didn't know
what to do. I didn't feel like playing. Dizzy talked me into playing
Fate continually pushed him to Paris. He was back again in 1948
with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie big band ("One night in Sweden
the band was swinging so hard, Dizzy jumped up on the piano").
the early '50s a lot of African American musicians began taking Moslem
names. In the terrible, up-tight Eisenhower 50s, before the Civil
Rights Movement, there was a practical as well as a religious reason.
On police cards they could be listed as Moslem instead of "colored."
As silly as this may seem, some keepers of segregated hotels were
persuaded that they were visiting Arab dignitaries. Clarke called
himself Liaqat Ali Salaam.
Klook followed his own vision.
American musicians who settled in Europe tended to be more open, more
interested in life's variety, more interesting than average. These
people were non-conformists in a metier known for non-conformism.
their concertizing in major halls by then; playing the White House and
teaching in universities, jazz musicians retained their outlaw side.
Europe still appealed to it. It was hard for the computers to keep
track of people who were working in three countries in a week, some of
them behind the Iron Curtain, and getting paid cash to-boot.
residence, a Dutch wife, Danish plates on their Swedish car and plenty
of work in Germany - it was tailor-made.
In his book "Notes
and Tones," the drummer Arthur Taylor quoted Clarke as saying in
1972: "To organize, you must be organized within yourself first.
Because otherwise it turns out like the trade unions, in other words
gangsterism. The Black Panther, for example, that's all gangsterism."
commenting on the Afro hairdo craze: "I think it's a whole lot of
needless work. The time it takes them to keep their hair in an Afro
could be spent reading." These were not terribly politically
correct things for a black man to say at that time. But Europe gave
Clarke his own perspective.
In the early '70s, when big bands
were about as dead as they would ever be, Clarke co-led, with the
Belgian arranger-pianist Francy Boland, one of the best of them. This
all-star Euro-Americano aggregation created some of the fattest, most
swinging big band sounds ever, and almost single-handedly kept the
genre in the public's ears - at least the European public. Americans
were concentrating on electricity. "Fusion," they called it.
electronic jazz, form beat content. How music was reproduced or
amplifies, the quality of the sound reproduction, tended to be
considered more important than its stuff. While Herbie Hancock
traveled with a big pile of computer magazines, and George Duke's
table talk was more like an engineer's than a musician's, Klook said:
"You shouldn't become wrapped up in technical things as far as
music is concerned, because music comes from the heart."
other words, lifestyle comes first: "That's it. If music can help
me along the road, so much the better. There's a difference in the
mentality here. People are not afraid to walk around their
neighborhood, to become friends; socially you feel adjusted. As a
black man, as a musician - as a person, I've been lucky to be able to
"I found a little house in Montreuil [a Paris
suburb] about four years after I got here. Things were going good, so
I just bought it. And when I bought the house I said, "Well, here
I am. This is home."