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  • Kenny Clarke and the Desire for More Inclusive “Black Music”
  • Rashida K. Braggs1 (bio)

Kenny Clarke was a master drummer, who kept time for greats like Miles Davis. But few have heard of him. Clarke helped invent the bebop style of jazz in 1940s Minton’s Playhouse. Introducing distinctive “klook-mop” counter rhythms, he supported Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. But his contribution has faded in jazz histories. Despite this lack of recognition, however, Kenny Clarke was instrumental in disseminating jazz throughout Europe and teaching others to play in bebop and swing styles.

In this essay, I explore the role Kenny Clarke played in migrating the music and thus prompting a shift in perceptions of jazz from an authentically black music to a more inclusive music. Throughout his career in the United States, France, and Germany, Kenny Clarke guided this transition as a teacher, mentor, and collaborator; still, his strides toward musical integration occurred alongside persistent racialized difference.

Jazz and Racialized Difference

“How did it happen that the white musician ended up with the black man’s music? Kenny felt the integration was the worst thing that could have happened. Segregation was a ‘blessing’ because black people had their own business.”2

In 1956, Kenny Clarke was done with the jazz business. He was bitter over how the jazz industry was always controlled by white people, and he was particularly frustrated by white appropriation of black music. At least with [End Page 155] segregated services, he saw a way to rise, but in the current power exchange black musicians were performing but not getting credit or money for their accomplishments.3 So Clarke quit. Rather than work in an industry that financially empowered whites, Clarke chose to stop playing, declining even the requests of Miles Davis.4 He was looking to escape not only a system that ignored black achievement but also a social environment where racism was rampant.

This was not his first attempt to avoid limitations and dangers of racial prejudice. When Clarke was drafted into the army during World War II, his treatment in the Deep South led him to go AWOL (Away Without Leave) during his military service in Alabama.5 Later, believing that the Christian faith was not inclusive of blacks,6 Clarke converted to Islam and changed his name to Liaquat Ali Salaam at a time of popularity for groups like the Nation of Islam. However, while he identified in part with the political movements of Malcolm X and black Muslims, he did not promote a political agenda.7 Instead, Clarke’s conversion supported his view of life and he became devout in his daily prayer rituals. Conversion to Islam was also a way of resisting the hypocritical Christian world’s treatment of blacks.8 His decision to change his name to a Muslim name may have also helped him to further resist racial prejudice. Mike Zwerin writes that showing an identification card with a Muslim name could help African Americans negotiate a foreign status; with this code switching came greater cultural capital that was too often denied African Americans.9 All of these life events were signs that Kenny Clarke was frustrated with the racism that so strongly shaped his life and work, and saw escape from the United States as his only way of resisting racialized differences and seeking equality.

The promise of a contract with Michel Legrand in France would lift Clarke from his musical funk.10 After his wartime tour in Europe, Clarke had been impressed by the European lifestyle, saying, “I promised myself that I would return as a civilian some day and spend some time there. In fact, the whole European way of life appealed to me. The tempo of life is slow and easy, and the people are not so superficial.”11 From 1956 until his death in 1985, the people would keep him in Europe just as he would bring people together through his music. For Clarke’s move to France was not escapism; rather, his move prompted more diverse, inclusive interactions.

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