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October 13, 1994

Jazz musician's ties here result in biography from University Press

The essence of the man was apparent from their first meeting. The year was 1963. Nathan Davis, a professor in Pitt's music department, was a 24 year old saxophonist, fresh out of the Army and living in Berlin when the telegram arrived. A saxophonist was needed for an "Americans in Europe" concert in Koblenz, West Germany.

Already on the bill for the show were such jazz masters as Sonny Criss, Don Byas, Bud Powell, Herb Geller, Lou Bennett, Jimmy Woode, Benny Bailey, who had heard Davis play and recommended him for the band, and Kenny Clarke.

"They were all the heaviest cats living in Europe at the time," Davis recalls.

Awestruck by the talent around him, Davis kept to himself while the place descended into chaos. Shouts and complaints about the music seemed to be coming from everywhere. Don Byas even stomped off stage dragging his saxophone behind him.

Somehow, though, the show came off and afterward, Clarke approached Davis and told him: "I was watching you. I really like the way you handled yourself…You'll hear from me." A native of Pittsburgh who had been living in France since 1956, Clarke was the most famous jazz drummer in the world and someone Davis had admired for years. To have him promise a call seemed too good to be true to an unknown saxophonist. But a couple of weeks later a letter from Clarke arrived asking Davis to join a band he was forming in Paris.

Out of that invitation grew a friendship that was to last until Clarke's death in 1985. It would see Davis play with Clarke more than any other saxophonist and include a teaching stint by Clarke at Pitt and, most recently, the publication of "Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke" by the University Press ($22.50 paperback).

Written by Mike Hennessey, a former senior editor of Billboard magazine, "Klook" was originally published in England in 1990 and brought to the attention of former Press director Fred Hetzel by Davis. "There is a natural connection because Kenny was from Pittsburgh," Davis says about the publication of "Klook" by the Press. "Plus, when I went on a sabbatical in 1979, I had Kenny come over from Europe and fill in for me." Also, it was Clarke who convinced Davis to join the Pitt faculty. He did it by telling Davis how when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1920s there were almost no African Americans at Pitt. He could remember one black member of the band who was treated like a hero by local blacks and wildly cheered whenever the band marched in a parade.

"The idea of me being a teacher at this school was something he was just really proud of. That made my decision for me," says Davis, and then adds, "He was like my father. We were that close." Kenneth Clarke Spearman was born, according to most reference books, in Mercy Hospital on Jan. 9, 1914. Clarke's father, Charles Spearman, was "a trombone player of indeterminate skill but a ladies' man of some distinction" who came from Waycross, Ga. His mother, Martha Scott, was a native Pittsburgher and an accomplished pianist. He had one older brother, Chuck.

The family lived on Wylie Avenue in the lower Hill District where the Civic Arena now stands. One of Kenny's earliest memories was of being taught tunes on the piano by his mother. Although he would make his mark as a drummer, the piano and organ were his first loves. He played the organ in church and served as an altar boy with Billy Eckstine, the great jazz vocalist who died in 1993.

Charles Spearman abandoned his family when Kenny was still a young child. Sometime after his father left, his mother began a relationship with a Baptist minister Hennessey could only identify as George. Then, when Kenny was about 5 years old, his mother died and he and his brother were placed in the Coleman Industrial Home for Negro Boys.

Located in the Hill District, the Coleman home was an old, dilapidated house with two large bedrooms in which were housed 33 boys, ages 6 to 14. The only good thing about the home was that the teacher, a Mr. Moore, was an accomplished musician who spotted Kenny's aptitude for music.

After trying his hand at the trumpet, trombone, saxophone and other brass instruments and finding none of them to his liking, Moore suggested that Kenny try playing the snare drum. "It was probably around the age of 8 or 9 that Kenny Clarke picked up drumsticks for the first time," writes Hennessey. "If Mr. Moore did nothing else in his life, he at least qualifies for a place in history as the man who first put Kenny Clarke within striking distance of a drum." Kenny stayed at the Coleman home until he was 11 or 12 years old. Then he and his brother moved into a church apartment with the preacher George and began attending Washington School. There Kenny met Bernard Hilda, a French boy with a love of music, who stirred an urge in the drummer to expand his horizons and escape the painful life he had known in Pittsburgh.

About the same time, preacher George caught Kenny going through his desk. Kenny said he was looking for a picture of his mother, something to help him remember her, but George did not believe him and beat him. When his brother Chuck intervened, both boys were thrown out of the house.

Chuck went to live with the family's physician, John Buse, while Kenny was placed with a foster family named Dunsmore. He remained with the Dunsmores for about a year, until he turned 16 and the city refused to pay the family any longer.

Left on his own, Clarke found a job at a soda fountain on Center Avenue at Patrick Street. The owner allowed him to live in a room above the shop. It was there that he began dreaming of becoming a musician and at night would venture out to sit in with bands playing downtown nightclubs. It was then, too, that he heard his first jazz recording. "It was the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra playing either 'Black Bottom' or 'Mahogany Hall Stomp,'" he would later recall. "I couldn't keep still! And from that point on I started listening to all the records I could get my hands on: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith…" Among the drummers whom Kenny met in the nightclubs was Joe Watts. A city firefighter, Watts would have the 17-year-old Clarke sit in for him when he could not get away from the fire station. Those stand-in jobs were followed by Kenny's first regular engagements with a trio led by Gene Jenkins at a cabaret called Derby Dan's and the Leroy Bradley band, which played at the Club Mirador in Homestead and was one of the first bands ever to be broadcast by KDKA radio.

At the same time, Clarke also began playing at clubs in Ohio and West Virginia, engagements that provided him with both valuable experience and a wider audience. He was playing in the Cotton Club in Cincinnati when the Cab Calloway band came in for a show and its drummer, Ben Webster, heard him and urged him to come to New York.

In late 1935, Clarke took Webster's advice. Soon he was a regular in Harlem clubs, where he met and played with such jazz greats as Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, to name just a few.

It was in New York, too, while playing with the Teddy Hill band, that Clarke picked up his nickname. Hennessey writes: "Teddy Hill, who was ready to accept new ideas and rebel against routine, nevertheless preferred not to break completely with the established swing traditions. He would say impatiently to Kenny, 'What is this klook-mop stuff you're playing?' And that is how the new movement was first baptized, before it became rebop, then bebop, then bop. And that is how Kenny Clarke became 'Klook.'" Drafted into the Army during World War II and stationed in England and France, Clarke continued to play every opportunity he got. Among those in the audience during one Paris performance was another famous Pittsburgher, the author Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas. After the show, Stein told Clarke, "My God, what beautiful music! How on earth can you find time to play and sing so wonderfully with this terrible war going on?" Back in the United States after the war, Clarke became more and more angry over the racism he saw all around him. He joined the Black Muslims and then, in 1956, moved to Paris. He did not end his self-impose exile until 1979, when Davis convinced him to return to Pittsburgh and teach at Pitt. That was after he had turned down an invitation to teach at Yale.

"This is the man who is credited with starting the style of jazz drumming that exists today," says Davis, still clearly proud that he was able to bring Clarke to Pitt. As explained in "Klook," "Kenny was the first drummer to produce the con continu – keeping the cymbals and the hi-hat ringing and punctuating the sound with 'bombs' from the bass drum and accents on the snare drum." Davis says Clarke told him he developed his style because the bands he played with did so many shows the musicians were wearing out and losing the beat. By loudly keeping time with the large cymbal, or "crash" cymbal, so called because it was once used only to punctuate jokes, and dropping "bombs" with the bass drum, Clarke helped the musicians know where they were in a song.

"He was the easiest cat to play with, but it sounded so complicated," Davis says. "People who've come behind him try to do all this complicated stuff and the whole thing falls apart.

"His logic was simple," he adds, "but out of his simplicity grew great things." Kenny Clarke died of a heart attack at his home in Paris on Jan. 26, 1985. He was 71 years old.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 4

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