Clarke was born January 9, 1914 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While still in high school, he studied multiple instruments as well as music theory and composition. He also played in the bands of Leroy Bradley and Roy Eldridge.
By 1935, Clarke moved to New York City where in the early 1940s he was the house drummer at Minton’s Playhouse. From 1951 to 1955, Clarke was a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1956, Clarke permanently relocated to France where in 1961 he formed the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. That band was together for eleven years. Recordings by Clarke as bandleader include “Telefunken Blues” (1955), “The Golden 8” (1961), and “Pieces of Time” (1983).
Clarke was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor that the United States bestows on a jazz musician, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 and posthumously inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988.