KENNY DAVERN: JUST FOUR BARS

Readers accustomed to novels may find most jazz biographies only intermittently satisfying.  Lives, of course, cannot be arranged into dramatic arcs worthy of Trollope or Faulkner — but, just the same, the chronicle of the life and music of your favorite musician often has all its drama in the beginning: attempts to find a personal style, to become proficient, to be recognized. 

Once the musician is reasonably successful, the narrative might become a listing of gigs, concerts, recordings.  Some musicians aid a biographer (unintentionally) by having dramatic or melodramatic lives — drug use, illness, marital and economic strife — but a comfortable musician with a spouse, family, regular income and housing, might offer a biographer a challenge.

It’s a pleasure to write that Edward N. Meyer’s biiography of Kenny Davern’s life and music, JUST FOUR BARS, published by Scarecrow Press and available through Amazon, is a triumphant book on all its many levels. 

Meyer, best-known in the field for his bio-discography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES, was the logical one to write about Davern, and although Davern said at first he did not want a biography, he eventually told his wife that Meyer would be his choice. 

Meyer’s coverage of the facts of Davern’s musical life couldn’t be better.  With diligent accuracy, he chronicles appearances, recordings, gigs satisfying and frustrating, the bands Davern led and was part of for more than fifty years. 

If a reader might weary momentarily of the data from Davern’s date book, it should be said that the biographer is writing for two audiences at once — people like me who saw Davern and for whom he is a living presence still, and the Future — those readers for whom it will be crucial to have all this data properly arranged and assessed in one place.  The result is satisfying throughout, especially because Meyer interviewed Davern — making one wish that Davern had written more on his own, for his voice is salty, witty, and precise.  Also invaluable are the voices of Davern’s friends and colleagues: Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, Dave Frishberg, Warren Vache, James Chirillo.    

Where Meyer is even more fascinating is in what he has uncovered of Davern the private man: the child (the painful twists and turns of his childhood are too complicated to be retold here, but they would have ruined a more fragile person), his development as an adult, husband, father, grandfather. 

In his conversations with everyone who knew Davern on and off the stand — including candid passages from his wife and children — Meyer has shown us the man we didn’t know.  And that man is an enthralling study, because the public Kenny was often comically irascible in ways that felt dangerous to onlookers.  But the private man was erudite, deeply-interested in a variety of subjects, generous, and introspective — genuinely lovable and deeply loved. 

The record of Davern’s musical life is equally detailed and rewarding.  We read of his musical apprenticeship with big bands (which he hated), with Jack Teagarden, Phil Napoleon, musical maturity alongside Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, Dick Hyman, and his later quartets and quintets.  And through it all we see a man always striving for something beyond the heights he had already scaled — subtlety, emotional connection, mastery of the horn and the idiom.  His life’s goal, he said, was to be recognized in “just four bars.”  And he did just that, and more. 

Meyer’s biography of Kenny Davern is wide-ranging, analytical as well as enlightening, generous to its subject as well as to readers, now and in the future.  It made me want to revisit my Davern collection, and it brought up memories of seeing the great man plain — for which I am grateful.

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3 responses to “KENNY DAVERN: JUST FOUR BARS

  1. Kenny Davern.. One of those clarinet players that stood out from the rest…Like Pee Wee Russell. A giant in his field, and I love hearing him play. It is so sad to think that what music we have of Kenny’s is priceless… there won’t be any appearances, or new CDs by him. I am one of those to have quite a bit of his music, and I treasure it.

  2. I was fortunate enough to see & hear Kenny Davern in concert & on Caribbean jazz cruises (where I told friends that the only high seas I wanted to experience were the high C’s the virtuoso hit on his clarinet). For many years in the ’90s & early part of this century, Davern led the annual Fallcoming jazz concert at nearby Hamilton College. Fans appreciated not only his musicianship but also his wry re-namings of standards: “Lover Come Back” was “Lover Back Up to Me” & “Sweet Lorraine” was “Sweet Latrine”. He last performed at the college in October ’06, 2 months before his unexpected death from a heart attack at age 71. The previous year, he called me from his new home in New Mexico to thank me for photos I had taken of him lighting up the octagonal performance space in the Fillius Events Barn on campus with the warmth of his mellifluous tone on his difficult instrument & the warmth of his wit. He’d be glad to know his frequent collaborator, pianist Dick Hyman, carries on the tradition. Your engaging review should win readers for Edward Meyer’s bio & listeners for Davern’s dozens of recordings.

  3. Recording Kenny was “an experience” as the saying goes. He was known for giving engineers a hard time, and not intentionally; he was in some ways his own worst enemy. I was surprised to learn he was a fan of the recordings of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (or was it Mengelberg?). I was also surprised to hear some very early recordings which showed how influenced he was by clarinetist George Lewis. I guess I’ll have to get the book.

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