First, some comedy. The last time I saw Kenny Davern in action was at Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party — only a few months before his death. At the dinner for musicians and friends the night before the party started, Kenny took a napkin off one of the tables, draped it over his arm, and transformed himself into an elderly, mournful New York Jewish waiter, asking each table, “Is anything all right?”
Then, in the middle of a set, he told one of his many jokes.
Jake always wanted to be a professional actor and appear on Broadway, but the fates are against him. Finally, his agent gets so tired of Jake’s begging, whining, and pleading that he arranges — as a favor — for Jake to have a one-line walk-on in a production far from Broadway. Jake’s line? “Hark! I hear a cannon roar!” Jake is thrilled and spends every minute before the production practicing in front of the mirror. “HARK! I hear a CANNON roar!” “Hark . . . I HEAR a cannon ROAR!” The big night comes, Jake is pinned into his costume and stands muttering his one line in the wings. He’s pushed out on stage; the cannon fires a thunderous blast, and Jake says, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”
But Davern was much more than a comedian, although his timing was impeccable — combined with his mobile face, his vocal inflections.
The Davern we remember is the peerless clarinetist, with a heroic top register and a lustrous chalumeau sound — with plenty of “grease and funk,” to quote Marty Grosz, in between. Luckily for us, a great deal of Davern’s best playing is documented on Arbors record sessions. (One of my favorites is EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, with a front-line of Dan Barrett and Joel Helleny.)
Even though at times I thought I knew what Kenny was going to play next — what variation on a Jimmie Noone passage he was going to use for those particular chords — he never coasted, even on the thousandth version of A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID.
I had seen him several decades earlier — in the very early Seventies — when his partnership with Bob Wilber was beginning. Soprano Summit was a high-intensity group, and when its two horns got going on the closing ensembles of something like EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY they had the force of the great Spanier-Bechet Hot Four. I also remember Davern as a regular member of the Sunday jam sessions put on by Red Balaban in 1972 — when Kenny was primarily playing the straight soprano with operatic (if not dangerous) focused intensity. I remember his overwhelming less assertive trumpet and trombone players — as if saying “Get the hell out of my way, if you please.”
Courtesy of Bob Erwig, here is Kenny’s performance of TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE from the 1989 Bern International Jazz Festival — backed by Howard Alden, Milt Hinton, and Gus Johnson — where Kenny is ardent without being shrill, powerful while playing quietly. No wonder John L. Fell, who knew about such things, called Davern “the Coleman Hawkins of the clarinet.” We miss him.
And one more Davern-sighting. In 1972, friends and I saw Kenny and company at a Sunday afternoon jam session at Your Father’s Mustache and we then went downtown to The Half Note where Ruby Braff was leading a quartet — possibly with Dill Jones, George Mraz, and Dottie Dodgion. The door opened during a set break and Davern walked in. I was excited and envisioned a wonderful jam session. My exuberant college-age self got the better of me, and I greeted Davern with an enthusiastic “Kenny!” then realized that I had perhaps overstepped myself and retreated into a quieter, “Mister Davern.” With his usual glint of a half-smile, he looked at me and murmured, “Oh, pardonnez-moi,” and turned away. I’m still decoding that one.