I don’t consider myself a jazz expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d like to think that I’ve picked up a few things in the many years that have passed since I began enjoying it as a teenager. That’s why I was a little surprised when I first read about a 1960s jazz ensemble known as the Clarke-Boland Big Band, a group described as ‘legendary’ by many aficionados but a mystery to me.
As I dug deeper I realized that it wasn’t quite that simple. Turns out that the band was based in Europe, so it would have been less apparent to me in those days. And I was actually familiar with many of the stars who played with the band at one time or another — guys like Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane — even if I didn’t necessarily recognize the band named for its co-leaders, American drummer Kenny Clarke and Belgian keyboardist Francy Boland.
By the time Kenny Clarke relocated to Paris in 1960 the Pittsburgh native had already logged over two decades of musical excellence, beginning back in the big band era and continuing through bebop and modern jazz, and he had played alongside some of the best. By then he was recognized as one of the most talented and innovative drummers around, and he could also play piano, vibes, and even trombone, but he’d become a little disillusioned by the state of American jazz. He soon found a kindred spirit in young Belgian pianist and composer Francy Boland, and the two formed a sextet that was the beginning of more than a decade of success.
The Clarke-Boland Sextet later became an octet and eventually a full band, and along the way it provided a European home for some of the biggest names in jazz. In addition to those already named, alumni included Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Benny Bailey, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and countless others. By the time the band dissolved in the early 1970s it had created a solid list of outstanding records, but both Clarke and Boland had moved on — the former to continue pursuing his craft in Europe until his death in 1985, and the latter turning more and more to composing, arranging, and producing in his later years. He died in 2005.