Is Bebop Drummer Kenny Clarke's Surname "Spearman" or "Clarke"?

Kenny Clarke - Savoy.jpg


I'll begin at the end. I have no birth certificate for Kenny Clarke/Spearman.

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

I suspect an online birth record will be available for Kenny in several years.

The following information is documented either by Kenny Clarke's oral history recorded in 1977 for Rutgers' Institute of Jazz Studies, or primary sources including census records, military records, passport applications, marriage records, and death records.

The story is as follows:

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 (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 1918.

Charles and Mollie move to Yakima, Washington (1919 census), where Charles assumes responsibility of his aunt's apple apple orchard (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 (death certificate and oral history). She is listed as "single," Charles Spearman having abandoned the family approximately the same year Kenny was born: 1914.  Charles Spearman acknowledges his "first" family and they are listed in the Charles Spearman family tree, in conjunction with his "second" family. Note that only Martha, Charles and Kenneth are listed as members of the "first" family. This detail will become important as the story goes on.

Kenny and older brother Charles are sent to live with an uncle, Washington Childs, residing in Pittsburgh's Hill District (1920 census). Both boys are listed: Charles Spearman, age 11 and Kenneth Spearman, age 8.

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. (oral history). [NOTE: I can find no documentation of a stepfather. At Martha's death, she is listed as "single".]

I'll stop here, but add, like Louis Armstrong, Kenny's musical instruction, although begun with his mother, continues at the orphanage, "with many fine musicians". 

Asked by Phil Schaap...... "So where does Clarke come in?"

On all official documents, beginning in 1938, (passport applications, ship rosters, WWII enlistment papers, marriage to Carmen McRae), he is listed as Kenneth Clarke Spearman.

Listening to the oral history, a sentence caught my ear. Kenny mentions his good boyhood/school friend, Frank Clarke (oral transcript, p. 20). They met at Herron Hill School and were in the band together. Frank was a "wonderful bassist", both being taught by an exceptional teacher, Mr. Moore.

I emailed my Pittsburgh source Nelson Harrison. He response is below:

They had a trio in 1935 (Joe Westray- guitar/banjo, Kenny Spearman - drums & Frank Clarke - bass).
The Union was A.F. of M. Local 471 (the black local founded in 1908).  the white local #60 was founded in 1906 but it would not admit non-whites so #471 was founded to serve the black musicians.  It was a large Local and there was a large constituency in the black world where they worked.  It is referred to as the "Chittlin' Circuit."  Joe told me they traveled as far as Detroit occasionally.  Kenny was suspended from the union for smoking weed (which he continued to do until he died).  He and Frank Clarke looked so much like brothers they decided to change his name to Kenny Clarke and promote them as brothers. Kenny rejoined the Union as Kenny Clarke.
Local #60 & #471 merged in 1965.  Joe Westray was President of Local $471 at the time of the merger.  He and many others were against it, including me but were out-voted.  The Local #60 members then took all of our previous work and almost never called for any black players even when they were requested by name.  I found out in 1994 when Anne Feeney became president of Local 60/471 (the first and only woman to be elected) that they burned most of our records when they received them except for a tray of membership cards from which they pilfered cards of famous members like Garner, Brown Jamal & others........

Referencing the above, Kenny Clarke begins to speak of the Pittsburgh union in his oral history (page 28).

Interviewer Helen Oakley Dance: "Well, listen, what about the union?"
Kenny Clarke: "Well the union wasn't very - - - "
Handwritten on transcript: [End of Side 1]

Awful timing to run out of tape! The following reel doesn't continue with the union topic.

However, on pages 52 and 53 of Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop, Kenny Clarke recounts: 

I arrived in New York during the winter of 1935, and at that time I was the youngest drummer in the city. [Thelonious] Monk was still in school, Benny Harris and others were in college. At night I worked with others who were older than I was, but during the day I really felt alone. I started playing with Sonny White, Benny Harris, Thelonious Monk after school hours. Finally I founded a trio with my brother Frank, who played bass – he's dead; he was assassinated in 1949 – and a guitarist. I played vibraphone and drums. The trio became famous and known. I had offers from John Kirby because at that time in New York nobody played the vibraphone.
Frank and I started working on the problems of the rhythm section in 1931. We worked a long time to figure out how the rhythm men should "play together." At that time, drummers would "dig coal": they hit the snare drum like miners digging for coal. The bass players, including my brother, didn't like that. When Cozy Cole played he rarely hit his cymbal – five or six times a night. My brother liked Jimmy Blanton a lot, and he thought this style should be kept up by a light drummer who let the bassline be heard. That's how I started experimenting with the continuous cymbal line. 

Fantastic history, BUT does Clarke mean familial brother or collegial brother?! 

I can find nothing to connect the two as brothers. Unfortunately, no birth or death certificates can be found for Kenny or Frank. Kenny Clarke articles and biographies commonly identify Frank as Kenny's younger brother. Kenny's mother died in 1919 and is listed as "single," Charles Spearman having abandoned the family approximately the same year Kenny was born: 1914.  Charles Spearman acknowledges his "first" family and they are listed in the Charles Spearman family tree, in conjunction with his "second" family. Only Martha, Charles and Kenneth are listed as members of the "first" family.  Frank Clarke and his mother Alonia are listed as mother and son, in both the 1930 Pittsburgh census and the 1940 NYC census. She is identified as "widow." Both she and Frank are listed as having been born in Texas. 

What we do know is Kenny and Frank were very good friends, beginning with their mutual musical involvement at Herron Hill High School. In fact, when Kenny Clarke recalls his musical teen-pal Frank, he never refers to him as his brother.

When the trio job ran out, Frank got the group a gig at the Black Cat in Greenwich Village. 

After the "Black Cat" engagement (circa 1939), the band broke-up and Frank Clarke went with the Buddy Johnson Orchestra (oral history).

Brian Rust lists bassist Frank Clarke on the following Buddy Johnson recording dates: 

May 1, 1941 (also listed is Kenny Clarke, drums)

Nov. 6, 1941 (no Kenny)

Jan. 26, 1942 (no Kenny)

After Frank Clarke left the Buddy Johnson band, he landed in California. By the mid-1940's, he had recorded extensively with Jack McVea. (A special thanks to Jan Evensmo for his Jack McVea solography.) From 1945 until Dec. 1947, Frank Clarke is listed as bassist on 14 record dates, one motion picture (Sarge Goes To Washington, Monogram Pictures, 1947), and an AFRS Jubilee recording (#225/226). He also recorded with T-Bone Walker, as noted in the Mosaic box set booklet. With the exception of the Jubilee recording, all the recording dates were in Los Angeles.

Dance Band Diaries (British?) reports in Volume 14, August-September 1949:

American bassist, Frank Clarke who has played with Teddy Hill and Buddy Johnson, is murdered in California.

I found a California obit for a Frank Clark (NOTE: surname is without the "e"), dated May 1949, San Francisco. I'm unsure if this is the "our" Frank.

However, George Hoefer wrote in his "Hot Box" column (down beat, Feb. 1 1962) that "...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."

I've checked all my available resources for an LA homicide/deaths and have reached a dead end.

I've exhausted all searches for Frank's mother "Alonia."  She and Frank appear on the 1930 Pittsburgh census and the 1940 New York census. Census data indicates Frank and Alonia were both born in Texas. I can find no Texas birth certificate or death certificate (PA, NY or TX) for Alonia and no Texas birth certificate for Frank. The San Francisco death certificate for Frank remains in question. Alonia is listed as a widow in the both 1930 and 1940 census.

While Kenny Clarke articles and biographies commonly identify Frank as Kenny's younger brother, there is simply no substantiating evidence. Nor is there evidence to support Pittsburgh musician Joe Westray's account of the Spearman-to-Clarke name change because the union headquarters being destroyed and all records lost.  

To reiterate – 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). I can find no Pittsburgh professional documentation (preceding his move to NYC) that uses the name "Clarke". Nelson Harrison indicates the Clarke usage was for Kenny's reinstatement in the Pittsburgh Musicians Union. Nelson, also, indicates the early records from Pittsburgh's Black Union were destroyed. 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 the 1940 NYC census, 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. (Speculation: Could this be a continuation of "Clarke" as a means to provide consistency among the union rosters and/or a convenient ruse to avoid an allegation of  "stacking"?)

A Kenny Spearman's birth certificate will become available in several years and I'm confident his name will appear as "Spearman." 

I, also, am confident Frank Clarke is "Frank Clark" of the SF obituary.

The only question remaining is Kenny's reference to Frank as his stepbrother (Ira Gitler "From Swing To Bop"). I have no explanation and can find no documentation linking the two as anything but friends. Pittsburgh Jazz historian/musician, Nelson Harrison, hears no inconsistency in the remark, indicating the term "brother" as integral to the love and bond within the African American community.  

To conclude, though lacking a birth certificate, I'm satisfied Kenneth Spearman is Kenny Clarke's birth name.

I, also, might bet the union story is true.

– Melissa Jones, member of the Unilateral Hot Club of Morristown, 2018

Melissa Jones