Over the past few months, I’ve been attempting to assemble a portrait, words and music, of Kenny Davern. He’s been the subject of an extensive biography, JUST FOUR BARS, by Edward Meyer, but I wanted to talk to musicians who had known and played with him while everyone, including me, is still around. This first part is a wonderful reminiscence of Kenny by his friend and ours, trumpeter Danny Tobias, who looks and sees, hears and remembers. At the end there’s music that will be new to you. And Part Two is on the way.
He had a reputation of being crabby, and he was all that, but he liked me, and he liked the way I played — most of the time — if he didn’t like it, he let me know . . . there was no bullshit. If I did something dumb, he would say it right there. If I screwed up an ending, he would say, “Why did you do that?” and I would explain, and he would say, “Don’t do that.” So I learned a lot from him. He didn’t pull any punches, but he genuinely liked the way I played. Once he told me I was a natural blues player, and that meant the world to me. I had a feel for it. When he said something nice, it meant a lot to me.
He introduced me to the music of Pee Wee Russell. He knew who was on every record. He’d say, “Did you ever hear those Red Allen records or the Mound City Blue Blowers from —– ?” and I’d say no, and he’d come in the next week with a cassette. Then, after the gig, we’d go out to the car, and he would smoke his Camels, and we would listen to a whole side of a tape! He was also very much into Beethoven, into classical music, in particular the conductor Furtwangler. He’d say, “Check this out,” and I’d get in his car and he’d play a whole movement from one of the symphonies. And then I started collecting recordings, mostly so I could talk to him about it. And if I heard anything, I could call him and say, “Do you know this record?” and “What do you think of this?” When he died, that was what I missed most — being able to call and ask him about this record or that record.
I’m still picking up recordings of Kenny I never heard before. Dick Sudhalter put together a concert of Kenny and Dick Wellstood at the Vineyard Theatre. It was terrific. I still get thrilled by these recordings.
I got to play with him, for about ten years, at a hotel in Princeton called Scanticon, If he wasn’t on the road, he could have that gig if he wanted it. He was there a lot — maybe half the Saturday nights. Here’s what I don’t regret. Some people say, ‘I wish I’d appreciated the time I spent with _____,” but I appreciated every night I spent with Kenny. I was in seventh heaven playing next to him.
The things I take away from him that I try to incorporate . . . He could build a solo. If he was playing three or four choruses, there was a growth. It was going somewhere. Everything would build. The tune would build. If you were in an ensemble with him, it was going forward. When I play now, he’s not here, but I try to keep that thought: build, build, build.
The other thing about him, and it’s a treasure — these aren’t my words, but somebody said he could play the melody of a song with real conviction. It would be unmistakably him. No hesitation. If he played a wrong note, it wouldn’t matter. He played with total conviction. And that’s kind of rare. I can hear other people getting distracted — it didn’t happen to him much, because he played with that sureness.
And he had more dynamic range than any clarinet player I’ve ever heard. He could play in the lower register, and I’d hear Jimmie Noone — he did that so well — in the middle register I could hear Fazola in his sound, and a thing he could do that I don’t hear anyone else do, he could soar. In an outchorus, he could play a gliss, it was the biggest sound you’d ever heard. And not just loud, but a big wide sound. Not a shrill high sound. It’s a thing I haven’t heard anyone else do. Irving Fazola had that same kind of fat sound. Who knows where that comes from? It’s a richness, I guess. Not loud, but big, Round.
He taught me how to play in ensembles. He said, “In an ensemble, don’t just leave space, but musically — ask a question and wait for the answer.” Play something that will elicit a response. And there’s nothing in the world more fun than that. You have a real dialogue going on. He’s the first person who explained that to me. People are afraid to talk to each other on the bandstand, we don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, but he’s the first person who said, “Do that,” and it made playing in ensembles so much more fun. I can get responses from other players by setting something up. Being the lead horn player, you have to set that up. It doesn’t just happen.
He had such varied interests. He would read all kinds of books. I don’t know where he got the time. I don’t think he slept. Not just music. He would read novels. A lot of it was over my head. He was all self-taught. He could speak really good German. He could communicate really well in several languages. I always wanted to be like him, to get a touring schedule and go here and there, because it seemed very exotic to me, in my thirties, and I’m sure it wasn’t as exotic as I pictured it. He complained about everything, but I think he loved it.
On a gig, Kenny would talk to the audience . . . he would just tell stories — how he just got back from Scotland and how everything was awful, the conditions were awful, how he had to spend a night in a hotel and couldn’t use the bar. He would go on diatribes — funny, acerbic. I remember one time he was playing at Trenton State, where I went to college. I went to hear him, and he was playing in the student center, talking about the architecture and how bad it was. The audience was laughing but the administrators were a little uncomfortable. He would talk as if he were in a conversation rather than just announcing songs . . . as if he was letting you in on the inside dirt.
He really loved the final group he had, with Greg Cohen, and Tony Di Nicola, and James Chirillo. He’d been to all the jazz parties and festivals, and so on, but he got to the point where that was he wanted to do. If you hired him, he wanted to be there with his band. He was happier being the only horn. And he loved guitar — you know, after Wellstood . . . I mean he loved playing with Art Hodes and with John Bunch, but in that group he liked guitar. In that group, it was freer for him. The piano can pin you in to certain harmony rules; it can be too busy. With the guitar, he got real freedom: he could play whatever he wanted. If he wasn’t with a great piano player, he would cut them out when it was his turn to play. He didn’t like extraneous stuff. I felt bad for them sometimes, but Kenny could just play with the bass and the drums. And sound great, of course.
He had a reputation for making fun of things, but he was so good to me. He went out of his way to introduce me to records he thought I should listen to, he put me on bands where I was in over my head a little bit, and he got me playing with great guys. He couldn’t have been nicer to me.
The music: Davern, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano; Butch Hall, guitar; Van Perry, string bass; Eddie Phyfe, drums; Tommy Saunders, cornet; Bill Allred, trombone; Mason Country Thomas, tenor saxophone. I WANT TO BE HAPPY / WABASH BLUES / SWING THAT MUSIC. Thumbscrews, no extra charge.
We miss Kenny Davern.