The Drummer Who Invented Jazz’s Basic Beat

It doesn’t take an expert to identify this sound as a jazz rhythm:

Musicians call it “spang-a-lang,” for obvious phonetic reasons, and it’s so synonymous with jazz, it no longer occurs to us that someone had to invent it. But someone did: a drummer named Kenny Clarke, who would have turned 100 today.

Spang-a-lang was only part of Clarke’s innovation. Marking time on the ride cymbal with his right hand — previously, jazz drummers employed the bass drum with the right foot — gave his left hand and feet the freedom and sonic space to play thundering accents (“dropping bombs”) at irregular intervals. The sound they made inspired another phonetic term: “Klook,” which became Clarke’s nickname.

“Clarke represents a tectonic shift,” drummer and educator Ralph Peterson says. “He is the patriarch of drumming in modern jazz.” Continue reading

The Odd Jobs Of Dave King

Among musicians, drummers are the explorers, the tinkerers, the polymaths. They don’t just play one instrument, but dozens at the very least.

With so many jobs to hold down at the same time, drummer Dave King — best known as a member of the trio The Bad Plus — recently spoke to me about his work life. He was on his way from Chicago’s Green Mill to play the Village Vanguard with trio mates Bill Carrothers (piano) and Billy Peterson (bass). NPR Music and WBGO will webcast the group on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

Is being a drummer a lot of work?

In the pantheon of instruments? As someone who plays piano and also composes music, I have to say it’s a hard job. It’s one of those instruments that seems infinite. There are always so many more things to work on and so many ways to become more musical.

Then why do I have an image of drummers that’s completely the opposite of that?

Ha! Do you? That’s, of course, both funny and serious. There’s a deep ignorance of drums beyond meathead rock s—. It’s very simple to start playing, but it gets infinitely complicated. So I’ll counter the drum jokes by telling you to ask any serious musician if a band can be good when the drummer isn’t. If your drummer sucks, you suck. Like if your goalie sucks, your hockey team sucks.

As a Minnesotan, you probably know a thing or two about hockey. But what are your points of comparison about how hard it is to be a drummer in terms of the other jobs you’ve had? Continue reading