If you read the freeze-dried accounts of American popular music history, this music had been dead for thirty years, when “the Swing Era” expired. But how wrong that oversimplification is, proven by these eight minutes. A very lively corpse, no? This segment is from the Merv Griffin Show (Merv was a big-band singer before he became a talk-show host, television producer, and real-estate mogul, among other attributes) featuring musicians I won’t have to identify — Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Jimmie Rowles, Bucky Pizzarelli . . . you can figure out who Jack Six is and what he is doing by process of elimination, if you don’t already know him. The two songs chosen are a very mellow AS LONG AS I LIVE, harking back to the Sextet recording with Charlie Christian and Count Basie, and then — quite rare in “modern times,” I GOT RHYTHM played as itself. Beautiful playing from everyone — inspired and inspiring:
HOWARD KADISON: Sunday nights, I’d sometimes go with Davern to Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant on Second Avenue. The waiters were noted for their abrasiveness and truculence. Kenny would bait them: “How are the blintzes?” “They’re always good.” “I didn’t ask about always, I asked about NOW!” And so it would go, ending in a generous tip.
DAN BLOCK: Kenny had a mind like an encyclopedia. His knowledge not only of jazz, but archival classical recordings was amazing. My last memory was hanging out with him in New Orleans after he played in a bookstore with Bob Wilber. He held court with three or four of us for about an hour and a half. It was unforgettable.
KEVIN DORN: Something he said to me, sitting at the bar of the Cornerstone: “It’s one thing to come up with your own sound in a style that’s brand new. But to come up with your own sound in a style that’s older, that was there already, is a different and difficult challenge.” I always thought that was a deep observation and something he certainly achieved.
JAMES CHIRILLO: Every note he played had a sound as big as a house, no matter the register, and every note had an intensity that said: “This is how it’s supposed to go.” I still miss him.
MIKE KAROUB: I was playing bass in Jim Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band and we played opposite Davern at a show at the University of Chicago, some time between 1990-92. He might have been there with Butch Thompson or his own group. (Butch had Franz Jackson also.)
I checked into the Blackstone Hotel. Never having met Davern, I saw him outside. I walked up to him in my trench coat – Kenny looking tough in a leather coat — and said, “Uncle Ken, I need a Lucky Strike.” (Or I may have said, “Kenny, give me a Lucky Strike,” but you get the idea.) He said, “OK, man,” and handed me one. He instinctively knew I wasn’t a real hood. We chatted for a second, then later, probably at the intermission. Strangely, I don’t recall if there was a closing number with massed bands, “all hands on deck,” so I have no recollection of playing with him!
I know that when we were teenagers, I told my dear friend Jon-Erik Kellso, “If I ever meet Davern, I’m going to wear a trench coat like the Detroit mafia and demand a Lucky Strike.” I think he was bemused by our. 25 year old impetuous behavior.
Ten years later, at the Atlanta Jazz Party, after my set with Banu Gibson, I went to catch Kenny’s set and sat in front. He waved, and after the show he came down to me. I said, “Uncle Ken, I brought us some Luckies.” He had exhausted his supply (he was very dedicated) so I was in like Flynn.
“Michael, my nephew, I am so glad you could make it.” He sat down, ordered us coffee, and told stories about being on the road with Jack Teagarden.
I have no idea how he knew who I was unless Jon-Erik tipped him off (although I barely saw Jon, who was a floating “all star”) or saw the program or remembered me from Chicago. I believe he smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes (unfiltered Camels his second choice). In any case, he acted like it was the biggest deal that I came to his show. And I was really some long lost relative. I was kept too busy for the rest of the festival to see Uncle Ken. Again or ever again, as it turned out. Ordinarily, I’m not that forward but. something told me this was a once in lifetime deal and to seize the day.
MICHAEL STEINMAN: I saw him a few times when I was still in college and shy (complicated by my attempts to record every note on some variety of tape). One Sunday, I’d seen him in the late afternoon at a Your Father’s Mustache Balaban and Cats session, and then my friend and I went down to the Half Note to hear Ruby Braff. Kenny walked in, I saw him, and exuberantly said, “Kenny!” and seeing his amused expression — part “Who the hell are you?” and part suppressed hilarity, I remembered my place in the cosmos and said, “Mister Davern . . . ” and he looked at me and said, in mock-hauteur, “Oh, pardonnez-moi,” gave me a satiric look and walked away. When I saw him for the last time, in Denver, October 2006, I thought it prudent to leave that incident in the past.
And now for some delightful rare music.
The tape that follows (audio only) isn’t from my collection, but the dropouts vanish after three minutes. Recorded by Dave Frishberg, It’s the only evidence I know of Kenny Davern’s Washington Squares, a band he loved, performing at Nick’s in 1961. The repertoire is ancient; the inventiveness and energy are startling. It’s Kenny, clarinet; Johnny Windhurst, cornet; Cutty Cutshall, trombone; Dave, piano; Jack Six, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums. I read in Edward N. Meyer’s biography of Kenny, JUST FOUR BARS, that Buzzy Drootin was the chosen drummer (imagine a world where your sub on the job is Cliff?), that Buzzy recommended Frishberg, and that Frishberg brought along Jack Six. Unusual and uplifting partners for such a band, but everyone is in exceptional form.
Don Robertson pointed out this video on Facebook: perhaps it is new to you, as it was to me.
Nothing complicated: Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich playing together for the first time in thirty years, with Jimmy Rowles, piano; Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; Jack Six, string bass — on the Merv Griffin Show in 1979. The songs — nothing complicated there, either — AS LONG AS I LIVE and I GOT RHYTHM. The “Sextet”: someone’s math was off that night.
Benny is in splendid form; Buddy, grinning wildly, offers masterful support and heroically beautiful brushwork throughout; Bucky and Jack are indispensably generous in their swing-pulse.
But what draws my attention throughout is Jimmy (I think he preferred “Jimmie,” so I apologize to him) Rowles. Once you’ve heard / seen the video once and admired the Stars, I beseech you to go back and listen solely to the piano.
THAT may not be the only way to play the piano — I am not going to be narrowly didactic here — but Rowles so beautifully fuses the worlds of 1940 Lester, Basie, Duke, and Ben, with the later worlds of Miles and Bird, Dizzy and Roach. And he always sounds like no one else.
Initially, you might say of a Rowles phrase or accent or voicing, “What is he doing?” and then it becomes both inevitable, perfectly right, and a choice only he could have made. It is the very opposite of formulaic playing; listening to him provides us with a series of lovely small gifts — “How did you know that was exactly what we wanted?” I miss Jimmie Rowles. I do.