Connie Kay, Drums and Cymbals Master

Apr 27, 2017

Lately I've grown accustomed to hearing Joe Lovano and other bandleaders introduce drummers as players of "drums and cymbals." Connie Kay, a cymbals master who was born 90 years ago today, qualified for that delineation decades ago.

Conrad Henry Kimon was born in the Bronx on April 27, 1927. By the time he succeeded Kenny Clarke in the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1955, he told Whitney Balliett, "I could get a job with anyone. My main asset was I could keep good time. I had made a whole lot of rock-and-roll records for Atlantic. I was with Lester Young off and on for five or six years. Lester and I were like buddies. When I joined him, I already knew him, but he didn't know I was joining him. I met him down in Penn Station and asked him what he was doing and he said, 'I'm waiting for the drummer, Lady Kay.' which is what he always called me. 'Well, I'm the drummer,' I said. 'What, you're a drummer?' And he fell out. He was a sweetheart to me."

In 2006, All About Jazz posted a feature by Rob Mariani in which he recalled seeing Kay with the Modern Jazz Quartet on the Steve Allen Show, and Connie's cymbal work impressed him deeply. "In all music, I don't think there's ever been anything quite like Connie Kay's cymbals. You could detect the ping of his ride cymbal out of a thousand—dry and metallic with just a hint of sizzle...He must have used very special drumsticks, too, because they added a slightly hollow, "woody" timbre. His cymbal sound was so full, he could play chorus after chorus and barely touch his snare drum, making it all work immaculately with just his hi-hat and ride cymbal."

Kay solidified the MJQ's personnel and it remained steady until the drummer's death in 1994. Strictly speaking, the group stopped touring for a few years when Milt Jackson left it in 1973, but it reunited often for concert tours and recordings. Here's the MJQ during one of its reunion tours in London in 1982 playing a standard they'd first recorded on Connie's debut album with the group, Concorde.