Tag Archives: Glasgow Society of Musicians

Remembering Kenny Davern (1935-2006)

There can be few sounds as thrilling as clarinettist Kenny Davern cutting loose with one of his characteristically passionate and exhilarating solos – as anyone who heard the American jazz star during one of his countless visits to Scotland over the last 20 years of his life will testify. Davern was widely regarded as the foremost exponent of his instrument in the world; a musician whose sound was immediately identifiable and who brought a touch of class to everything he did.

Amongst regulars at the Edinburgh and Nairn Jazz Festivals, and at the former Glasgow Society of Musicians, Davern was also known as an intimidating character who did not suffer fools gladly, and who reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who tried to make him play in front of a microphone. Woe betide any sound engineer who hadn’t been alerted to Davern’s strongly held views on acoustics.

Similarly, festival organisers were known to vanish mysteriously when Davern went on the attack – and he never let anything like an audience get in the way of a rant. Indeed, he often treated his listeners with derision too: one trick was to ask for requests and then shoot them down with an acerbic comment.

However, the cantankerous clarinettist was a part he enjoyed playing. It wasn’t the whole story. The intimidating Davern was my first-ever interviewee. Forty-five minutes into the nerve-wracking session, the significance of the fact that the wheels on my borrowed tape recorder weren’t turning dawned on both of us: I had forgotten to lift the pause button.

After a terrifying five minutes, during which I was ready to jack in journalism for good, the unthinkable happened: he softened. At 11.30pm, as I tried to make a break for the door, he offered to start the interview again. Not only did the second version turn out better than the original, but, years later, I learned from mutual musician friends that Davern was dining out on the story of how he launched my career in journalism.

The soft centre shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Davern was a player of great warmth and passion. He routinely sent shivers down the spine and made hair stand on end when he broke out of his hitherto controlled solos and let rip. There was absolutely nothing like it when he soloed, exploding unexpectedly into the upper register and then swooping back down again.

Playing ballads or blues tunes, he had a seductive style, coaxing the sound from the horn the way a snake charmer would draw the reptile from a basket. His playing embraced extreme musical characteristics in the same manner as his personality was, by turn, intimidating and charming. His sound was sweet, fluid and polished one minute; thrillingly spiky, raw and plaintive the next. It is impossible to think of his signature songs – especially Sweet Lorraine – without hearing him playing them.

Born in Huntington, New York, the self-taught Davern began his jazz career at the age of 16. He played with many older greats, including Jack Teagarden, and despite flirting with avant-garde jazz during the 1950s, his primary influence was always Louis Armstrong. In the 1970s, he and fellow clarinettist/saxophonist Bob Wilber formed the super-group Soprano Summit. Davern then formed The Blue Three with pianist Dick Wellstood, before operating as a touring soloist after Wellstood’s death.

He leaves an impressive, though not vast, legacy of recordings. He once told me: “Just to record for the sake of being in a studio is masturbatory.” He is survived by his wife, Elsa, his two step-children and four step-grandchildren.

* Kenny Davern, jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, born January 7, 1935; died December 12, 2006.

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Paris Blues & Highs

I was down in London yesterday to interview the mysterious jazz singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux whom I last interviewed by phone in 2005, just as her cultish CD Careless Love was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream (it topped the charts in August of that year).
One of the main subjects we chatted about was Peyroux’s time as a busker in Paris. Turns out she was there, singing and working as the “hat passer” for a group of street musicians in and around the Latin Quarter at exactly the same time as I was bunking off my 12-hour week as an English language “assistante” to go and watch old movies in the Latin Quarter – the cinemas in the rue des Ecoles, to be precise. (I do have a vague recollection of listening to a group of jazz-playing buskers at the St Michel fountain – and I may have bought a tape of them…)
I probably saw more old movies on the big screen during that year than in the rest of my life: they showed seasons devoted to the Marx Brothers (and you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Duck Soup in the company of like-minded strangers), Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Astaire and Rogers, Frank Capra. This was where I saw Love in the Afternoon the one and only time ever, and ogled William Holden up close (in Sabrina) for the first time…
That year in France was one of abject poverty – until I got myself a summer job. But despite having no money, I did alright in the jazz stakes. During a trip back to Glasgow, I went to a concert at the late, lamented Glasgow Society of Musicians, a cavernous club, reeking with history (I think that’s what it was, anyway) behind an anonymous, speakeasy-style door on Berkeley Street. There I heard the American cornettist Warren Vache who struck up a conversation with my father and me. Upon learning of my imminent return to Paris, he told me to contact a pal of his, the trumpeter Alain Bouchet. And so I found myself at my first Parisian jazz club, nursing one Perrier (shared with my pal Siobhan) from 10pm-2am and then having to stay awake in the Pub St-Germain-des-Pres until the first RER train back to the suburbs at 6am. (Taxis were not an option – they cost money.) These were the lengths I had to go to back then to get my jazz fix.
I almost overdosed a couple of months later when, at the height of the Parisian summer, I crossed the city to attend the jazz festival at La Villette, the old abattoir, which, for one magical night, played host to the Newport All-Stars (with Warren, Scott Hamilton, etc) and the Re-birth of the Cool band, led by the great Gerry Mulligan – whose Glasgow concerts four years earlier had converted me from dabbler to devotee of this music….
* Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, Bare Bones, is out now on Decca/Rounder – and my interview with her should be in The Herald Magazine on Saturday May 9th…

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