From Thigpen's introduction:
It's understandably difficult for a young drummer to imagine that the various components of the drumset were ever utilized in a manner unlike the way they are today. In actuality, the approach was, at one time, considerably different, and Kenny Clarke had a whole lot to do with changing it all. His drumming led the way towards usage of the bass drum for accentuation as well as timekeeping; the establishment of a jazz-time rhythm for the ride cymbal, and freedom from a strictly metronomic role, forcing the bassist to share in the responsibility of timekeeping. Kenny Clarke can also be credited with freeing the left hand so it could interact with the soloist—the obvious reason why thousands of young student drummers still sweat over Jim Chapin's Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer...
To say that Kenny Clarke was "important,"or "influential, "or even "a key musical figure, "does not do his contribution justice. To state, unequivocally, that he was drumming's all-time Great Emancipator, a man to whom every jazz drummer who's ever lived owes a debt of gratitude, is perhaps a much more honest appraisal.
On the prevailing style of playing early in his career:
I never liked that style of playing; that heavy, rolling type of drumming. It took too much time. [...] But through all of it, I was always thinking, there must be another way, you know. To "dig coal" all night long, man, you got so tired that you couldn't pick up your bag the next morning. I used to say, "There must be an easier, simpler way to get the same effect and keep the band together without straining your arms." I thought about it for many years. I was still basically playing the old way, but every once in a while I'd go up there and do that cymbal thing. Ding-ding-a-ding. The other guys would say, "What are you doin', man? Get back on the snare drum."
Acceptance of time played on the cymbal:
ET: After you got to New York, and you were playing with swing bands more, I imagine it was acceptable to be playing that ride rhythm on the cymbal, right?
KC: No, not in a big, organized band. They didn't go for it even up to 1937 or 38. When I went to Europe with Edgar Hayes, I was playing a mixture.
ET: But it was still mostly on the snare drum?
KC: Yeah, and I'd say, "Oh man, I gotta do something to drive out the monotony." Some guys would say, "Yeah man, pretty hip." I'd say, "Look man, I can't dig coal all night. I gotta do something." So I'd play the figures with the brass, but then I'd have to start diggin' that coal again. I was always trying to get away from that.
ET: Those press rolls?
KC: Yeah. You see, we didn't really have a ride rhythm. I was trying to perfect that. I figured if I could perfect it, it would be a feather in my cap.
ET: When did the ride rhythm finally become more or less acceptable?
KC: It wasn't accepted until we went up to Minton's in 1940. I had gotten everything I was trying to do together by that time and my style was pretty well set.
Development of the bop style and influence on other drummers:
Well, when I was at Minton's, nobody had really caught on to what I was doing with the instrument. I remember Sid Catlett came up one night, and he listened and listened. Finally he said, "Are you still playing the bass?" I said, "Yeah, but I make the accents off the four beats." I couldn't give that up and play with no bass drum. The accent wouldn't have come in right. Big Sid said, "Yeah, that's it." I looked around, and he and Jo Jones were both playing like that. Of course, Jo was a hihat man. But, I couldn't make that hi-hat thing. I wanted my arms free.
ET: So you moved over to the ride cymbal.
KC: Yeah, I just moved over from the hihat to the ride and played the same thing that I'd been playing on the hi-hat. The hihat then became another instrument! could play with my left hand. It opened up the whole set, you know. Before that, cats didn't use the cymbal except for accents, endings and stuff like that. I wanted to use it all the time. But, I was always getting fired. (...) Oh, I did believe I was on the right track; that what I was doing was right. If nobody else liked it, the hell with them. I'd just keep playing like that anyway.
They used to come to Minton's. I'd look out there and it would be all drummers. Art Blakey used to hang out there a lot and he got the style down real good. And Max too.
But it took a long time to figure out what to do with my left hand. A lot of cats helped me. They saw it was a usable style coming into action. Jim Chapin, cats like that, would hang around all the time. He'd never leave me to see what I was doing with my left hand.
What to do with the left hand:
...Joe Garland, a tenor player with Edgar Hayes, would write things for me. He'd write out a trumpet part, and he'd leave it up to me to play whatever I felt would be most effective. I'd play the figures over the regular beat. That's how I first got the idea to play that way. Then I developed the idea further with Roy. Most of the guys who'd played with Roy didn't do anything with their left hands. Almost everybody was just copying Jo with that hi-hat thing. I was looking for something new. When I started to play that way, the guys in the band would always kid me about not playing the hi-hat like Jo, but I didn't want to copy anyone. I wanted to be an original.
About the bass drum:
I thought that approach would give the soloists more freedom, rather than fencing them in with, "boom, boom, boom, boom." Actually, the bottom never changed. I just put it up on the cymbal to kind of ease the weight of the bass drum which I played very softly. It was always four beats, but I would syncopate the bass drum. Whatever accent the band was playing, I would make it, but they could always feel it. I'd just say to the guys, "Put the time in your head and play. Don't listen for the drums because the drums are not working for you. They're working for everybody." The best thing to do was to feel the beat and not listen for it, you know. Once they got it in their heads, then I went upstairs to stay. I played ding-ding-a-ding up there and it gave my left hand freedom to do other things.
It was another way to play. I wasn't trying to be hip, but I wanted to make it easier than diggin' coal all night. I was just figuring it out for me.
[...] But they all still wanted to hear the bass drum. They'd stop playing if they didn't and there would be all kinds of confusion. I'd say, "Why don't you just feel it the way I want to play?" They'd say, "No man, we have to know where the beat is."
Most of them were slap bass players until Jimmy Blanton came on with Duke. Sonny Greer's drumming was mostly for color, more or less. Jimmy carried the pulse. That was his job. When I started playing up on the cymbal, the bass players would say, "Man, when I hear that bass drum going all the time, I can't concentrate on my solo. Just play that cymbal." So I started playing the bass drum real soft and just making accents. The four beats were there, but it was real soft. I still play like that today. When I played with Oscar Pettiford, I would be in the background going dingding-a-ding with a real soft bass drum, and he'd get out in front of that mic' and shine. He'd say, "Man, just keep that rhythm on the cymbal and that soft bass drum, and everything will be cool." So I began to practice with just a cymbal—no bass drum. I just played from hand to hand. Oscar would say, "That's it. That's what I want!" I had to work with him all the time because no other drummer played like that. Then I started playing it with the big bands. The cats would say, "Yeah man, that's hip." I remember one time with Mingus' band, I sat down and started to play. The whole reed section stood up and said, "Yeah!" So I figured I was on the right track.
ET: Years ago, when I first saw you, you used a big, thick felt beater.
KC: Well, that's because I was trying to play very soft. I knew if I played soft, I could just say "Boom," and it would be loud. I didn't have to go too far to play loud. But if I played, "BOOM, BOOM BOOM, BOOM," there wouldn't be any accents. The accents would have to be louder and that would mess up the whole band. I'd play soft for the most part, and the accents would come out better.
I always tell people, don't slough off the technique. I mean, it's important, but only when you need it. You don't really need a whole lot of technique to play drums. As far as soloing goes, if you hum the melody, the solo will come to you automatically. You have to learn how to use your technique and how to apply it to the music. It's like those people who walk into a million dollars. Okay, you've got a million dollars. Now, your next problem is you have to learn how to spend it wisely. It's the same thing in music. You've got this technique, but you have to learn how to use it in places where it's going to sound beautiful. You don't just put it anywhere. You pick your spots.
ET: That takes a great deal of discipline.
KC: Yeah, that's right. But if you get the stuff down to where you play it at the right time, then it comes out beautiful. But, if you mix it in with everything, the people get tired of listening to it. It's not supposed to be like that. My idea of a drum solo is that you play like you sing. It comes from different things you listen to. And the beauty is always in the simple things.
Don't overdo it.
You have to bring it all together, make one thing out of it, and come to some conclusions about what this is supposed to do and what that's supposed to do. Don't just wander out in the fields, searching and searching. Put it all together and draw some conclusions.