Edward Meyer has written the definitive biography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES: THE LEGACY OF DICK WELLSTOOD (1999), and an even more extensive book on Kenny, JUST FOUR BARS: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF KENNY DAVERN (2010), both published by Scarecrow Press.
When it came to his friends, Kenny Davern was a generous man who loved to share the things that gave him pleasure. One Sunday afternoon, I had driven down to Manasquan to talk with Kenny about the Wellstood book. Elsa was away and he wasn’t working that evening, so he wasn’t pressed for time. After we finished talking about Dick, we went out for pizza, after which we went back to his house.
He was in a talkative mood that night and we schmoozed about a number of things and people – not many of whom were connected with jazz. Several hours passed. I had to get up and go to work the next day and was facing a 60+ mile drive back to my apartment in Manhattan in Sunday night traffic. But, just when I was ready to leave. the conversation turned to Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kenny passionately believed that Furtwangler had never gotten the recognition due him and that he was far better at getting the best out of the musicians in his orchestra than Arturo Toscanini. who led the NBC Symphony. I had no views on the subject – mainly because I knew little about classical music and even less about the skills of either man – but that only spurred Kenny into his role as teacher.
He left the room and came back with two recordings of the same piece – one by Furtwangler and the other by Toscanini. “Listen to this,” he said, and played about five minutes of the Furtwangler recording. “Do you hear how Furtwangler brings out the individual sound of each horn? Now listen to this.” And he played about five minutes of the Toscanini recording. “Do you hear the difference?” Fool that I was, I said that I couldn’t really tell.
That was clearly the wrong answer because we went through the exercise again. By this time, it was about 10:00 p.m., and although I was no better informed at the end of the second round of recordings than I had been before, when Kenny asked if I could tell the difference, I nodded my head vigorously. And, before the demonstration could progress any further, I stood up and said that it was time for me to go home. And I left.
I saw him about a week later and as soon as he had a free moment he came over and gave me a short handwritten list on which he had jotted down the titles and numbers of a few Furtwangler CDs. He thought that I might like them.
Years later, I learned that my experience was not unique. If one of his friends liked something that Kenny had, Kenny would make, or buy, a copy of for him, or lend it to him, or tell him where and how to get one for himself. This didn’t jibe with Kenny’s public image: but then, very little did.
The musical portion of this remembrance was created at the Grande Parade du Jazz, June 10, 1978, in a program called “JAZZ CLASSIQUE,” featuring Wallace Davenport, trumpet; Freddy Lonzo, trombone; Orange Kellin, clarinet; Olivia Cook, piano; Frank Fields, string bass; Freddie Kohlman, drums — with Kenny joining them for the last two songs, BLUES and CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN.
I asked Orange if I could post this video and he graciously wrote, The memories came flooding back. I played a lot with Wallace’s bands in those years and we were on the George Wein festival circuit frequently. We got to play with all sorts of guest stars and Kenny was one of those. This was our first time meeting. I don’t think he knew of me, but I was very well aware of him and very impressed by his playing. I was nobody and apprehensive, to say the least, to play with the clarinet star. Kenny sounded fantastic.
He always did. Kenny performed and recorded for more than fifty years. It doesn’t seem enough. We miss him.
May your happiness increase!