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Sons of Miles
KENNY CLARKE: Dropping Bombs on Paris.
by Mike Zwerin
2 July 1998


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."

Clarke - 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).

He 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 money."

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."

One 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."

Klook 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 terms.

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.

One year 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.

Kenny Clarke

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 again."

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").

During 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.

Despite 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.

French 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."

And 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.

With 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."

In 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 live here.

"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."


Photo: Kenny Clarke
Credit: Christian Rose

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