The American drummer is a one-man percussion orchestra.

Max Roach

This week, we’re looking at some of the artists that have kept the beat going over the years –  the mysterious figures behind the drum kits. You can’t stop these beats!

Kenny Clarke (1914 – 1985)

Kenny Clarke was born Liaqat Ali Salaam, and he was bebop’s first drummer. He was revolutionary in moving timekeeping to the ride cymbal at the expense of the bass drum. The bass drum then became saved for bigger moments or “bombs,” and it was these splashes of bass clef boisterousness that got Clarke his nickname of “Klook-Mop” and then finally “Klook.” With this, all of a drummer’s appendages were independent, and the drum set was liberated from its rather tyrannical marching band beginnings where the bass drum and snare were in lockstep.

Trained on drums, vibes and trombone, Clarke broke in with Roy Eldridge, Teddy Hill, and Claude Hopkins; however, it was the late nite post-gig jam sessions he led at Minton’s Playhouse that included Thelonious Monk that gave birth to bebop and changed the direction of jazz forever.

A drummer of great flexibility, Clarke could play in more traditional settings, with the likes of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, as well as creating his landmark work with the Modern Jazz Quartet. This ensemble, with pianist John Lewis, vibist Milt Jackson, and bassist Ray Brown (later Percy Heath), was arguably the most subtle ensemble ever to perform in the jazz medium. Their music was heady and soft and was a far cry from the fire found in the first bop ensemble that included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Clarke.

See how Clarke starts this tune out with a drum solo – and then comes back for more! Check out “Nervus”:

As a switch, check out a tune from his time with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Here’s “La Ronde Suite”:

Max Roach (1924 – 2007)

Max Roach was another great jazz drummer who helped give birth to modern set drumming by taking the contributions of Kenny Clarke and adding a more mature approach to playing that utilized more timbres on the kit than had been previously opted for (such as more use of the toms, brushes, gongs and silence). His solos had more of a direction to them than those of his predecessors, and he played with the forcefulness necessary for the new music called bebop.

At the age of eighteen, Roach was already playing in the rooms that gave birth to bebop in the early 1940’s; he was in NYC at Monroe’s and Minton’s with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. In that decade, he was on Parker’s recording of “KoKo,” the Miles/Evans seminal album Birth of the Cool, and he performed with Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington.

Check out the beat on “KoKo” (especially around 2:10!):

The 1950’s found Roach leading his own small group, first with Clifford Brown, and then, after Brown’s unfortunate early passing, with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Durham.

From the 1960’s forward, Roach was deeply involved in civil rights causes, and expanded his musical outreach writing and performing with symphony orchestras, rap artists, string quartets and outside jazz musicians.

Here’s a seemingly effortless drum solo followed by “The Drum Also Waltzes” (a piece that’s been studied by many a drummer):

Connie Kay (1927 – 1994)

After Kenny Clarke, Connie Kay became the longtime drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet, and for all but seven years when he took a “vacation,” Kay steered the MJQ for forty years.

Kay first came into prominence as a member of the Lester Young Quintet (1949-1955), but he also performed with Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis during this time period.

He replaced original drummer Kenny Clarke in the MJQ in 1955, when his long tenure in the MJQ began, but he still performed on various other jazz projects with Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Jim Hall, Jimmy Heath, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Benny Goodman, and Paul Desmond.

Here he is with the Modern Jazz Quartet playing “La Ronde”:

From his work with Paul Desmond, here’s “A Taste of Honey”:

Kay also performed on some early rock and roll records and is the drummer on “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Later, he was on Van Morrison’s famed album Astral Weeks and can be heard on two other Morrison recordings.

Kay’s playing was very tasteful and often understated, and he was unique in his approach to timekeeping; he was responsible for adding other percussion instruments to the drum chair- including timpani, bell tree, African drums, and smaller cymbals- making his part even more interesting.