The Clave in Jazz

The tresillo, habanera and cinquillo rhythms contributed to the Spanish tinge in early jazz. Songs with these rhythms feature coexisting duple and triple pulses that create a productive rhythmic tension for dancers and instrumentalists alike.

This tension is also present in the Cuban son clave, a rhythmic organizing principle that is described either as 3 – 2 or 2 – 3, depending on whether the measure with three strokes, or the measure with two strokes is played first:

3 – 2 son clave


2 – 3 son clave


Clave is a rhythmic 'key' or timeline that helps organize all of the other instruments, from percussion to horns and vocals. It serves as the backbone for music like mambo and salsa that features tight, interlocking polyrhythmic layers. Salsa trombonist and ethnomusicologist Chris Washburne summarizes how clave functions as more than just a beat. If a musical phrase is "in clave," generally it follows these guidelines:

1. Accented notes correspond with one of all the clave strokes.

2. No strong accents are played on a non-clave stroke beat if they are not balanced by equally strong accents on clave stroke beats.

3. the measures of the music alternate between an "on the beat" and a "syncopated beat" phrase or vice versa, similar to the clave pattern.

4. A phrase may still be considered in clave if the rhythm starts out clashing but eventually resolves strongly on a clave beat, creating rhythmic tension and resolution.

In his article "The Clave of Jazz: A Caribbean Contribution to the Rhythmic Foundation of an African-American Music," Washburne gives several examples of how jazz tunes often have sections that are in clave. Within the jazz idiom, lots of tunes go into clave, and then out again into a swing rhythm. This contrasts Afro-latin genres such as mambo and salsa where playing in clave throughout the tune is standard, and dancers rely on that regularity.

He found that in jazz, rhythmic breaks and other transitional points in an arrangement are a frequent place where clave appears.

The drum break introduction to Louis Armstrong's "Tiger Rag" is an example of this.

Also, certain "comping" patterns or accompaniment by the rhythm section feature clave.

The piano comping on Miles Davis' "Two Bass Hit," which follows the tresillo rhythm without the last beat, is an example of this.

In some compositions, the actual melody is in clave.

The first eight measures of Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, and Henry Nemo's superlative "Skrontch" is an example of this.

Also, "Rhythm-a-ning" by Thelonious Monk is great for hearing the contrast between playing in clave and outside it in a jazz setting, because the melody begins in clave and then falls into a jazz swing rhythm for the second half of the A section and the entire B section.

The main melodic figure from "Salt Peanuts" by Dizzy Gillespie is also in clave.

Finally, there are examples of certain artists' versions of standard tunes rhythmically "transpose" the composition into clave.

Louis Armstrong's version of "All of Me" is an example of this.