Kenny Clarke Raised the Bar for Drummers

SKF NOTE: Kenny Clarke is a drummer I read about before I heard him play. Clarke is a founding father of Bebop, credited with moving timekeeping off the hi-hat and over to the ride cymbal. He did so, according to one account, because crossing his right arm over his left to play the hi-hat was awkward, and limited Clarke’s left-hand movement.

Clarke is also credited as a pioneer in expanding use of the bass drum. Not satisfied playing steady 1-2-3-4 timekeeping on his bass drum, he started playing bass drum accents.

I first heard Clarke play on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s 1946 big band recording of “Things to Come.” The skill necessary to play that tune was daunting and depressing. After listening to “Things” the first time I remember asking myself, “How are you ever going to be as good as that drummer?”

Hearing Clarke on a live ESP album with the Bud Powell Trio was equally impressive. Again, Clarke’s brush and stick work, his skill in the piano trio setting, raised the bar on my drumming.

Then, moving into the YouTube era, so many great videos of Clarke drumming are available. They are wonderful to watch. Seeing and hearing Clarke play is much different than only hearing him play.

Finding Clarke’s obituary yesterday in an old Down Beat magazine brought all these memories to mind. What a great drumming legacy.

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