REPORT ON THE LEGAL/ACTUAL SURNAME OF LEGENDARY JAZZ DRUMMER KENNY “KLOOK” CLARKE -- SPEARMAN
July 13, 2018 by Phil Schaap and Melissa Jones
The depth and documents to this report come from Jazz Expert Melissa Jones and her most determined research into the matter. My own public comments based on a trail of evidence I uncovered and the questions that arose from that my discoveries, inspired Ms. Jones to pin down what could be finitely verified.
During my work in the late 1980s on the Dean Benedetti field recordings of Charlie Parker, I retrieved and restored a 7” reel-to-reel (paper based!) that allow us to hear Bird’s greatest band, the Charlie Parker Quintet of 1947 -1950, on Saturday night July 10, 1948. That night a female singer sat in with the unit and sang lyrics to Parker’s “Yardbird Suite”, a tune still best known 70 years later as an instrumental. Charlie Parker actually composed this piece before he was nicknamed and he conceived it as a number with lyrics, his own words!, under the title “What Price Love?”.
The female singer that 1948 Saturday night sang Yardbird’s words penned when he was only 17.
On Dean Benedetti’s tape, Charlie Parker is heard introducing the singer as Carmen Spearman and, also, as “Miss Spearman”. My ears told me that the singer was Carmen McRae and my knowledge of her marriage to Kenneth Spearman Clarke (as he is listed in most Jazz reference works) informed me that by 1948 practices, she was Mrs. Not Miss: either Mrs. Clarke or Mrs. Spearman.
Even in this digital age, it goes all but unnoticed that Carmen McRae made her first recording on May 17, 1946 with Duke’s son, Mercer Ellington, and his orchestra on a selection, “Pass Me By”. This was issued contemporaneously on the Musicraft label on the 78RPM disc catalog number 379. On the label, Carmen McRae is credited as “Carmen Clarke”.
Carmen McRae had just turned 26 (most references list her birth year as 1922 and not 1920) and she had married “Klook” in 1946.
I was confused why it was Carmen “Clarke” on May 17, 1946 but Carmen “Spearman” on July 10, 1948. At that time, I accepted that Klook’s full name was Kenneth Spearman Clarke and, therefore, assumed that Carmen McRae was Mrs. Kenny Clarke. Rooted in that acceptance, I created a theory that on July 10, 1948 she had used her husband’s middle name, meaning here Spearman, to mask the connection to Klook. The point was that Carmen was not looking to gain bandstand authority on her husband’s fame. But over time I rejected that conjecture and I came to the conclusion that Spearman was Kenny Clarke’s actual and legal last name; that for some reason, he preferred not to use it as such and that Clarke had some familial connection helping facilitate his using it as his surname.
Basically, my surmises contain the truth of the matter, but they failed to explain it. Enter Melissa Jones. Here is what she found out:
Kenny was born, January 9, 1914, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
A brother, Charles, precedes Kenny’s birth, born in 1911.
NOTE: Pennsylvania online birth certificates, after 1912, are unavailable unless the request is from a family member or a verified research organization. I searched for brother Charles online, (b. 1911). The entry reads:
Name: Spearman, Charles
Mother’s Maiden Name: Scott, G
Place of Birth: Pittsburgh
Date of Birth: 9/22/11
All available records, albeit no birth certificate, indicate:
Kenny Clarke’s father: Charles E. Spearman
Kenny Clarke’s mother: Martha Grace Scott Spearman (d. 1919)
Oldest brother: Herald, dies in infancy (1910)
Older brother: Charles, (b. 1911, d. 1977)
Kenny’s legal documents use the name Kenneth Spearman (1920 census, marriage to Carmen McRae), Kenneth Clarke Spearman (passport/passenger ship rosters) and Kenneth C. Spearman (military).
Klook explained in interviews (including an extensive one with Helen Oakley Dance) that his mother died
when he was 51/2 years old and that she had already taught him to play the piano.
He and his brother were sent to live with his uncle (as per Clarke/it also coincides with 1920 census).
Soon afterward, his uncle placed both boys in the Coleman Industrial Home which, according to Clarke, had excellent musicians. His teacher was Mr. Moore. Klook told Dance that his stepfather came and got them from the “Coleman”. Luckily, Helen Oakley Dance, showed keen insight and pursued the questioning. She questions “stepfather”. He says his father is Charles Spearman who abandoned the children and went to Yakima, Washington, where he began growing apples. (Charles Spearman is documented in Yakima.)
As a summary to this point:
Martha Grace Scott was married to Charles (Charley) Spearman.
The 1910 census (conducted April, 1910) shows an address of 149 Webster Ave. (Hill District), Pittsburgh. A son, Herald (b. July 19, 1909) is included, but later documentation shows Herald Spearman dies, Dec. 10, 1910.
Charles Spearman abandons the family (Kenny Clarke, oral history). Charles Spearman and Mollie Jane Ross wed. Mollie is listed as wife and 1st of kin on Charley’s WWI draft registration card, dated 1917.
Charles and Mollie move to Yakima, Washington, (census documentation,1919), where Charles assumes responsibility of his aunt’s apple orchard (KC/oral history). They raise a huge family. As an adult, Kenny Clarke is aware of the family.
Kenny’s mother, Martha Grace Scott Spearman dies May 10, 1919 (documentation through death certificate and KC’s oral interview). Kenny and older brother Charles are sent to live with an uncle, Washington Childs, residing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, (documentation, 1920 census). Both boys are listed: Charles Spearman, age 11 and Kenneth Spearman, age 8. [PS notes: would they not have been 9 and 6, respectively?]
The children do not stay with the uncle and family for a lengthy period of time. Almost immediately they are sent to the Coleman Industrial School (orphanage), where they reside for several years until a “stepfather” opens his doors.
This is a loose end: Kenny’s “mysterious” step-father.
Kenny’s mother was listed as “single” when she died. Her father, Johnson Scott, is listed on the death certificate as witness/relative.
Kenny (oral archive) indicates his stepfather was “around” for about 4-5 years before his mother died (1919). The stepfather took custody of Charles and Kenny from the orphanage about 5 YEARS after they were admitted (1920). Kenny indicates they began to live with their stepfather when he was about 11 years old. The stepfather was a Baptist minister. Checking available resources, there is no information that Martha Grace Scott Spearman, Kenny’s mother, remarried to “the minister” or anybody else.
The known family names are: Childs, Ross, Scott and Spearman. Assuming that the Baptist minister’s last name was not Clarke: where does the “Clarke” come in?
From Klook’s interview with Helen Oakley Dance of September 1, 1977 for the Jazz Oral History Project (JOHP) a federally funded program housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newark:
Kenny Clarke: “I was just about 17, you know. I didn’t have a job or anything. So there was a friend of mine in school named Frank Clarke, who was a wonderful bassist, you know and well, we had a wonderful band at Herron Hill …
Clarke continues: “Well Frank Clarke, this bassist I was telling you about, who began bringing the instruments home. Mr. Kelly, old man Kelly.
He was a professor at Herron Hill High School. He could play all the instruments, but bass was his favorite. That’s why we have all those great bass players in Pittsburgh.”
Oakley- Dance continues: “What about your friend, Frank? Did he play tuba, too?”
Clarke: “Oh yeah. Double bass. He would sit it up on the stand with one hand and then play the bass, then put the bass down and play the tuba. Oh, yeah. Musicians were—oh, yeah—-I guess they were much more aware of music, of being a musician than they are today.” ….
Oakley: Did I ask you how to spell Frank’s last name?
Clarke: Yeah, Clarke? The same.
Oakley: With an “e”.
Any acknowledgement of Kenny’s early Pittsburgh professional career identify him as Kenny Spearman, (Pittsburgh Courier). Kenny Clarke (the name “Spearman” not used) first appears on a legal document in the 1940 NYC census that shows him residing at 720 St. Nicholas Ave. He is living with Alonia Clarke and Frank Clarke. Both Frank and Kenny are each identified as son/lodger. Klook is documentable as embracing his close friend and musical associate, Frank Clarke, as hisactual brother. This assertion is contained in some of Klook’s statements. Ira Gitler in Gitler’s book “Swing To Bop”, citing as his source the Institute of Jazz Studies, states that they were stepbrothers.
The dropping of Spearman as his last name and replacing it with Clarke, at least for professional purposes, is fully in place by the mid-to-late 1930s. Nelson Harrison, prominent in today’s Pittsburgh Jazz circles indicates that the embracing of the family name “Clarke” occurred earlier and in Pittsburgh and was made as a subterfuge for Kenny’s reinstatement in the Pittsburgh Musicians Union. A Pittsburgh musician, Joe Westray, is the source of a complex membership disagreement between Klook and the union that resulted in Kenny becoming Clarke. Nelson also indicates the early records from Pittsburgh’s Black Union were destroyed. There is no printed documentation of Klook using Clarke as his last name in Pittsburgh during his earliest professional and student career.
Alonia Clarke and son Frank (b. 1915) turn up on the 1930 Pittsburgh census, BOTH born in Texas. Alonia is listed as “widow”. Texas records have no records for either. I’ve checked for them in Texas and have come up empty; birth certificates and census. The 1940 census also indicates that son Frank and Alonia were both born in Texas and that Alonia Clarke is a widow. The 1950 census is still unavailable but Frank Clarke would not be in it as the reader will soon understand.
Bassist Frank Clarke had a significant career beyond his association with Klook. [Frank Clarke was the bassist at The Black Cat in Greenwich Village along with Freddie Green and Kenny.] Bassist Clarke played with Buddy Johnson in the early 1940s (Klook is on one Johnson date for Decca while Frank was in the band) and extensively with Jack McVea from the end of World War II. Frank Clarke is the bassist on the original “Open The Door, Richard” with McVea. Frank Clarke is in one motion picture, “Sarge Goes To Washington”, Monogram Pictures 1947. He also recorded with T-Bone Walker.
Kenny Clarke told Ira Gitler, as quoted in “Swing To Bop”, that Frank Clarke was “assassinated” in 1949.
Frank Clarke was, indeed, murdered.
“Dance Band Diaries” reported in Volume 14, (August-September, 1949): “American bassist, Frank Clarke who has played with Teddy Hill and Buddy Johnson, is murdered in California”. Oddly, in that it was over a dozen years later, George Hoefer wrote in his “Hot Box” column in “Down Beat” in its Feb. 1, 1962 issue: “That while a member of Jack McVea’s west coast band, bassist Frank Clarke was shot to death on the porch of his rooming house, during an argument over the absence of hot water facilities.”
Whether an “assassination” or more simply a murder, the death of Frank Clarke in 1949 in California is most difficult to trace in existing homicide records.
We owe much to Melissa Jones and her more than extensive research. In fact, her efforts and discoveries have produced many more documents and realizations. The edited version above, however, provides enough for a summary to our main point. I, too, have extensive research on young Kenny “Clarke” not best suited for this report’s purpose.
That main point, arguably of marginal consequence, is that the legendary percussion virtuoso and founding father of BeBop drumming, was not named Clarke. He was born and remained legally named for his entire life KENNETH SPEARMAN. Drummer Spearman used the diminutive Kenny rather than his full given name. Kenny’s nickname was “Klook” derived from “Klook-a-Mop” or “Klook Mop” an onomatopoeia attributed to Teddy Hill dating back to the end of the 1930s. There is no documentation of a middle name. Klook’s use of ‘C’ as his middle initial first cited in his military service during World War II is a masked reference to his having embraced the name CLARKE, the surname of Frank Clarke who Kenny had been extremely close with since high school and was living with at the age of 29. A line in the 1940 census suggests that he, as with Frank, were sons of the widow Alonia Clarke and that they were both living with their mother. On occasion and for public consumption Klook allowed that he and Frank Clarke were, in fact, brothers. Kenny Spearman had adopted the last name Clarke professionally no later than early 1937 and made his first records as a leader in Sweden (!) as KENNY CLARKE on March 8, 1938 – though his passport said his surname was Spearman. In this early period, he was already employing Clarke as a middle name. At some point, no later than 1955 and probably a decade or more earlier, his last name, Spearman, was offered as his middle name and his last name was always Clarke. The Encyclopedia of Jazz lists him as Kenneth Spearman Clarke and its 1960 edition, prints that his Islamic name – at some point, apparently, he had converted – was Liaqat Ali Salaam.
The main point made, and amazingly researched by Melissa Jones, gains some biographical substance when explained.
Klook, though aware of his father’s existence, did not know him. Charles E. Spearman had abandoned the family very soon after Kenny’s birth and left Pittsburgh for the apple orchards in the State of Washington. Pere Spearman had started a new family no later than 1917 when Kenny Spearman was three. Interviews do not convey an overwhelming dislike for his father, but allow us to realize that there was some resentment and that Kenny certainly had little use for his father or their last name. Klook, in contrast, was profoundly close to Frank Clarke and to some unmeasurable extent Frank’s mother Alonia. Given the checkered and largely parentless childhood that Kenny Spearman endured, that he would embrace Frank Clarke and the Clarkes as his actual family makes perfect sense. So that’s what he did: he became KENNY CLARKE.