Kenny Davern

'Hot' jazz clarinettist
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The Independent Online

John Kenneth Davern, clarinettist and saxophonist: born Huntington, New York 7 January 1935; married 1970 Elsa Lass (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Sandia Park, New Mexico 12 December 2006.

"Louis Armstrong can say something with one note, but then there are others who take an hour to rev up and wind up with a fart in a bathtub," Kenny Davern once said. Although Davern became one of the most effective jazz clarinettists of the last 50 years, he always regarded a trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, as the wellspring of his inspiration. Unusually for a clarinet player, Davern had a forceful attack, almost as though he were playing the trumpet. He played the instrument with great fire and probably more passion than any other clarinettist playing today.

"When I was a kid we'd go to Bop City and Birdland to listen to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell," he recalled.

Bird was a great musician but his points of reference were different from mine . . . I thought the real jazz was Louis Armstrong and I still do.

I can listen to "Jubilee" by Louis Armstrong and know that good will triumph after all and that there's justice in the world.

Self-taught, Davern was given an old Albert system clarinet when he was 11. Three years later, he acquired a more conventional Boehm system instrument. He began playing professionally when he was 16 and three months after he left high school auditioned for the big band led by Ralph Flanagan.

When I got there, there were about 10 guys ahead of me, but I went up to the manager and said "Let me play, I gotta be somewhere, I have an appointment . . ." Then Flanagan went over to the piano and we played two choruses of "Muskrat Ramble" and that was it.

In the Flanagan band he was required to play alto and baritone saxophones as well as clarinet. He stayed for a year, leaving because he couldn't stand life on the road.

Perhaps he was fortunate in being a New Yorker, for all his formative work was in the city, often playing with the jazz greats of earlier years. "To be on the bandstand with a Roy Eldridge or a Buck Clayton is an honour and a privilege not granted to everyone," he said.

Making harmonious music with such people in your formative years, you come away with something in your head. Call it tradition if you must, although it's a word I hate - maybe because I overreacted to it by playing revival music at one time.

Back in New York he rejoined Flanagan on a temporary basis. One of the saxophone players asked him how he'd like to play with Jack Teagarden. "I was gassed," he remembered.

I joined the band at the Meadowbrook, played a couple of tunes and got off the stand. Teagarden hadn't said anything so I went over to him and asked how I'd done. He smiled and said "Where've you been?"

After Teagarden, with whom he recorded in 1954 when he was 19, Davern freelanced in New York and led his own band, which he called his Washington Squares. It included his friends and contemporaries Dave Frishberg and Johnny Windhurst. He worked with Ruby Braff, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Bud Freeman and for Eddie Condon at Condon's club. He also appeared in the play Marathon 33 on Broadway. The play starred Julie Harris and the band, which stayed on stage throughout, included Davern's long-time colleague and pianist Dick Wellstood.

An avant-garde band that Davern helped to run in the Fifties that included Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd and played arrangements by Carla Bley and Cecil Taylor inspired the remark at the beginning of this piece. Davern also appeared along with Rudd in the film The Hustler (1961).

Following a jazz party in 1973 where he and his fellow clarinettist Bob Wilber played together, they formed the band Soprano Summit - two soprano saxophones and a rhythm section. The band lasted until 1979 and recorded several albums. The soprano sax is a difficult instrument and Davern became bored with it and returned to the clarinet after a couple of years.

When the band broke up, he worked in small groups and led a trio with Dick Wellstood called the Blue Three. He and Wellstood worked together until the pianist's death in 1987. Davern frequently worked with two other pianists, Ralph Sutton and Dick Hyman. He toured Europe with the New York Jazz Repertory and the successful Kings of Jazz and appeared regularly on jazz cruises and at European jazz festivals. He worked in Australia and New Zealand in August 1988.

A concert of his with Humphrey Lyttelton was recorded in 1982 and they recorded again in 1985. He was described by Lyttelton as "Fluent, hot and with as original a slant on traditional clarinet as you'll find anywhere."

In the Nineties, Davern became much involved with the Arbors record label, where he was given a free rein to record what he liked by the sensitive director Mat Domber. Last year he put a band together for a one-night appearance at Tavern on the Green in New York by an old friend, the film star Billy Crystal. He visited Britain last summer with the Statesmen of Jazz.

Davern could have had an alternative career in stand-up comedy. He hated microphones, preferring to play acoustically, and in clubs would always turn them off if he could, sometimes to the annoyance of the audience. He answered complaints that his announcements couldn't be heard with "I'm not saying anything. Just passing the time." He would elicit requests for tunes, to which members of the audience would respond with everything from early New Orleans marches to, say, Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet". "I'm not going to play any of them," Davern said. "I just want to know where your heads are at."

Steve Voce

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