Tag Archives: Kenny Davern

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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Group of Groups

One of my favourite releases of recent months is the double Arbors CD of music by the 1970s supergroup Soprano Summit – much of it previously unissued. Browsing through the CD’s booklet this week, I realised that it’s 30 years since this small, but perfectly formed, outfit disbanded – though its members did get reunited in the 1990s and occasionally thereafter. Here’s a timely, 30th anniversary, tribute…

Soprano Summit was a band which, despite – or possibly because of – its lamentably short lifetime (seven years), has become something of a legend in the jazz world. Certainly, its albums became collectors’ items almost as soon as they were issued. Its conception – at a jazz party organised by enthusiast Dick Gibson over a holiday weekend in September 1972 – became a tale that the late clarinettist Kenny Davern and fellow founding father, saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, enjoyed telling.

By day three of the party, audiences were suffering from ear fatigue and Gibson decided that he needed something to wake everyone up. According to Davern, Gibson turned to Wilber and said in his Alabama drawl: ”Now, I wan’ you and Kinny to get together and play a duet”. The two, who had rarely performed together, quickly talked through a head arrangement of Duke Ellington’s moody and magnificent The Mooche for two soprano saxophones – a combination, amazingly, never before used in a working jazz band.

”We got a rhythm section together – by a fluke Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden, and Milt Hinton were all there – and we got up and did the number. We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and to our amazement people just rose up in applause – 650 folks just screaming with delight – and it was then that we realised that we had something different.”

In December 1972 the infant Soprano Summit cut its first album, the only difference in personnel being that busy bassist Hinton was replaced by George Duvivier. Then, after a follow-up LP, the second incarnation of Soprano Summit was born.

The main reason for change was an economic one: as a six-piece band, Soprano Summit was an expensive package. The band also wanted to travel light, so the piano had to go. Rhythm guitarist Marty Grosz was signed up to replace Pizzarelli, who was tied up with studio work.

For Grosz, the invitation to join Soprano Summit was a lifeline – as well as a launchpad for the solo career he’s enjoyed ever since. “It was great for me because I’d been toiling in the vineyards – I’d been playing all the crumby jobs in Chicago and wondering if this was all there was in life for me,” recalled Grosz in a 1995 interview. “This band had a feeling of experimentation about it – and I love that.”

Grosz had already heard Soprano Summit on the radio and couldn’t wait to get to New York to take up his new job. “Soprano Summit was a sterling quintet, a peppy, interesting band sort of like the little Jimmie Noone Apex Club group with Jimmie Noone and Joe Posten on clarinet and Posten sometimes on alto sax.”

Grosz shared with Wilber and Davern a love for tunes that were off the beaten standard track. (He passed the test with Davern by being au fait with the Red Allen-Pee Wee Russell number Oh Peter.) Indeed, Soprano Summit’s basic groundplan was to be different and to make a feature of the fact that this was a working band with a varied working repertoire. In Grosz they also had ”a marvellous player who lent the band an entertainment factor with his singing and clowning”. Davern said: ”That was the basic sound of the group: two sopranos, or clarinet and soprano, and the guitar held it together like glue”.

The guitar was the icing on an already rather tasty cake, because the essence of Soprano Summit was the relationship between its two frontmen. Davern put it down to the fact that they grew up on the same music but both have their own views on how it should be played. ”Our differences lie in how to approach the godhead, so to speak. We’re all descendants of classic jazz. Bob has his idea of how it should be interpreted and I have mine. But together, it works.”

In a typical Soprano Summit number they would bounce the melody backwards and forwards between them like a football, with one taking a step back to play the obbligato and create a space for the other to lead the way with a solo. Then several rounds of musical jousting would take place, with each front man vying for musical supremacy – especially, remembered Marty Grosz, on their “big, next-to-closing number, Song of Songs,” a schmaltzy tune that Sidney Bechet used to play. “They way they did it, they’d uilt and build and build it – and people loved it.

“They would build up a head of steam and it would bring the house down.I don’t think either of them would have the horn out of his mouth during the whole number. They’d egg each other on, and try to outdo each other. Then, when they ran out of gas, they’d pass it on to me – and I’d be like a drowning man struggling to keep his head above water..”

There was always a balance between the arranged and the spontaneous, and the only clue to the planned nature of the programme was the fact that they had music in front of them. Indeed, Grosz pointed out: “They were the only band I ever came across who could somehow surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts. I thought it was good that they had little arrangements – otherwise if you don’t play together for a long time, every night in the same club with the same bass player and drummer, then you’re going to end up playing common denominator tunes. This was a chance to do out-of-the-way material.”

Bob Wilber was modest about the way he and Davern worked. “A lot of it was intuitive. We would find out what worked by trying it, and then incorporate it into our repertoire.” Their intuition about one another’s direction also meant that they complemented each other’s playing. Davern observed: ”Sometimes when the two of us play two notes, you can hear a third note present – a harmonic that suddenly appears, a richness.”

Although Soprano Summit split up in 1979, both Wilber and Davern, who thereafter played clarinet exclusively, continued to discuss their musical rapport in the present tense because following the recording of the Chiaroscuro album Summit Reunion (with their original line-up) in 1990, they increasingly found themselves being booked together for concerts, albeit with different rhythm sections. Indeed, plans were afoot for some Wilber and Davern concerts when Kenny Davern died suddenly in December 2006. As he had said, during a mid-1990s reunion, ”people still throw their babies up at this band, at this combination of instruments”.

Thankfully, there are plenty of recordings of this near-mythic band to testify to its ability to give the hairs on the back of the neck a work-out, even three decades after its demise. As the recent Arbors CD of highlights from the tapes recorded by the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1975 demonstrate, the Soprano Summit sound is as fresh, exhilarating and downright thrilling as ever.

***

MARTY GROSZ remembers:

“I joined Soprano Summit in 1975 for a concert at the Carnegie Hall. There I was, with my knees knocking together. Somehow, playing the Carnegie Hall is an unnerving experience. I had to put one foot up on a chair to stop my knees from clacking like castanets while I played the guitar and sang the Milenberg Joys.

“Around that time, we did The Today Show a couple of times. One time we were doing The Today Show and I was singing How Can You Face Me, and Kenny started mugging, pulling his fingers at the corner of his mouth and making all kinds of faces and obscene gestures. It was all I could do not to just give up in the middle of live television and crack up.

“I like that kind of thing in a band. I’d much rather they’d come out with water pistols and soda water bottles than those deadly bands where everybody sits there like zombies and the leader comes out and makes one of those deadly earnest announcements. In this band, we had a chance for craziness like Theatre of the Absurd, which I personally am a fan of.

“Soprano Summit was the only group I ever played with who managed to read music on the stand and not have it have a negative effect on the audience. Usually, when you have a little combo – especially – and the musicians have their eyes down at the paper, you lose contact with the audience. But, for some reason with Soprano Summit, they could surmount the fact that they were reading from these charts.

“We had these little orchestra stands and I sat in the middle – I was the guy who stopped Kenny and Bob from killing each other at times. Kenny was the outspoken one, and Bob was quiet – always thinking about the music; about arrangements.

“Soprano Summit was the band I actually looked forward to playing with. I’m really sorry it had to come to an end. Sometimes when Kenny and Bob were wailing away full tilt, and the rhythm section was boiling, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. And I’m an atheist.”

* The Soprano Summit in 1975 and More (Arbors Records ARCD 19328)

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