Getting a Feel for the Clave in Jazz

Finn Smith is a 2021 Junior Fellow at the Library. He is a student at Vassar College studying philosophy and studio art, and is rumored to play (and sometimes teach) music of all sorts. 

If you’re familiar with Cuban music, you’ve likely heard of the “clave,” a word which refers both to a rhythmic pattern and a percussion instrument. The rhythmic pattern is a central feature of Afro-Cuban music, and it is traditionally played on a pair of wooden sticks called “claves” that produce a distinctive “click” sound when struck together. The clave rhythm is directly descendant from African rhythmic traditions, variations of which were brought to Cuba during the country’s (significantly long and brutal) history of slavery. You can see what claves look like in the portrait of Afro-Cuban jazz pioneers Machito and Graciella Grillo (below) from the Library’s Prints and Photographs division. Graciella Grillo is holding a pair of claves.

Portrait of Machito and Graciella Grillo, Glen Island Casino, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1947. Photographer William Gottlieb. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To get a sense for the clave, listen together to these recordings of “Merce” and “Guabina” (brief commentaries on both of which can be found here) from the Library’s Florida Folkife from the WPA collection. The claves make their entrances at about 00:18 and 00:25 respectively and continue throughout each song. As you listen together, you might have kids try to tap or clap along to the clave rhythm until it feels familiar and comfortable in their hands and ears. These recordings are good examples of the traditional clave sound, but the clave is not always played on claves, and sometimes it’s not even fully adhered to as a rhythmic pattern! In the hands of jazz musicians (where it often finds itself), the clave can take on a new, more interpretative character.

The origins of Afro-Cuban jazz can be traced to the early-to-mid-1940s when jazz musicians Francisco “Machito” Grillo (whose manuscripts/compositions are housed in the Library’s collections) and Mario Bauza took the clave-based rhythms of traditional Afro-Cuban music and used them as a foundation atop which to play jazz improvisations. This initial musical alchemy (particularly the duo’s collaboration on the 1943 recording of “Tanga”) set the stage for later bebop giants like Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and others to further experiment and carve an important place for Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz within the broader jazz genre.

In April 2021, the Library hosted jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington for a virtual concert and a series of shorter educational videos. One of these videos, titled “Jazz and Clave” is an exploration of how the clave can be reshaped in a number of different ways and refitted to a modern jazz context, while still remaining rooted in and conscious of its rich musical origins. In this video, Carrington discusses two clave patterns, the standard “son clave” (discussed and heard in the recordings above) and the “rhumba clave,” in which the last beat falls slightly later than it would in the standard clave rhythm (00:45). She goes on to demonstrate some ways in which the clave can interact with other rhythmic patterns (01:15) to create much more dense and complex rhythms, and concludes with some really fun demonstrations of how the clave can be subtly stretched and reshaped to fit into odd time signatures (03:26).

At the end of the video, Carrington notes that while all of these variations take the clave on a journey that winds pretty far afield from its original place of musical habitation, the distance is traveled with a “great love and respect” for the clave’s origins and roots. As you watch this video together, you might have kids try to identify the moments where the clave Carrington plays sounds like the rhythm from the more traditional recordings above, and the moments where it ventures off into new territory.

For folks with some musical background and/or an interest in jazz drumming, the other videos in this educational series offer a lot of educational content about jazz drumming topics, such as brush techniques and triplet patterns, and are definitely worth exploring. These videos, along with a full virtual concert and interview with Terri Lyne Carrington, can be found here.