Kenny Clarke, born Kenneth Spearman Clarke (nicknamed "Klook" and later known as Liaqat Ali Salaam) on January 9, 1914 in Pittsburgh, PA, was a jazz drummer and bandleader, best known as a major innovator of the bebop style of drumming.
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 ("ding-ding-da-ding" or "spang spang-a-lang" 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. Roy Eldridge had encouraged Clarke with this new approach to time keeping, which prompted Clarke write out a series of exercises for himself to aid in the development of independence between the bass drum and snare drum — all while maintaining the time pattern on the ride cymbal. One of these licks, 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 himself claimed that these stylistic elements were already in place by the time he put together the famous house band at Minton's Playhouse in the early 1940s, which hosted Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Curly Russell, saxophonist Don Byas and numerous others while serving as the incubator of the emerging small group sound. The combination of the improvised accents on the snare and bass drum, and the sonority of the ringing ride cymbal carrying the time revolutionized the sound and dynamic of the jazz combo.
Clarke's innovation set the stage for the development of the bebop combo, which relied heavily on improvised exchanges between drummer and soloist to propel the music forward. For this, "every drummer" Ed Thigpen said, "owes him a debt of gratitude."
Throughout his musical career, Kenny performed and recorded with the likes of Gene Ammons, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Johnny Griffin, Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Hampton Hawes, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, John Lewis, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Jean-Christian Michel, Phineas Newborn, Jr., Zoot Sims, Idrees Sulieman, and Julius Watkins.
As a band leader or co-leader, Clarke record such albums as Special Kenny Clarke 1938–1959 (Jazz Muse), Telefunken Blues (Savoy, 1955), Bohemia After Dark (Savoy, 1955), Jazzmen of Detroit (Savoy, 1956), Plays André Hodeir (Philips, 1956), The Golden 8 (Blue Note, 1961), Americans in Europe Vol. 1 (Impulse!, 1963), and Pieces of Time (Soul Note, 1983).
Spending his later life in Paris, Kenny Clarke died in Montreuil, France on January 26, 1985.