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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 21, 2000. All rights reserved.
Kenny Davern & the Great American Songbook
Call him a jazz purist, even a snob, but jazz clarinetist
Kenny Davern believes in playing the standards: Tunes by George Gershwin,
Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, what some
people call "the great American songbook" titles. Davern also
believes in playing them without the aid of a vocalist. His tone is
so pure and his phrasing so gifted, he is recognized as one of the
world’s great clarinet players.
The 65-year-old musician appears at JazzFest 2000, the New Jersey
Jazz Society’s two-day annual festival on three stages this Saturday
and Sunday, June 24 and 25, at Fairleigh Dickinson University. But
as he sits for this interview he is still reflecting on an award bestowed
upon him in May, an honorary doctorate of music at Hamilton College
in Clinton, New York. "Considering I just squeaked through high
school, it was quite an honor," Davern says from his house in
Manasquan, on the Jersey shore.
Another recent honor for Davern was his 1997 induction into the American
Jazz Hall of Fame. While he’s grateful to be getting these awards
while he’s alive, Davern, ever the perfectionist when it comes to
his own playing and the sound of his band on a stage, isn’t so sure
he deserves them.
"As I understand it," he says, "since 1983, when the Hall
of Fame was established, more than 130 musicians have been inducted,
or indicted," he adds, laughing heartily. That’s one thing about
Davern: as seriously as he takes his music, which is firmly rooted
in the blues tradition of long-gone clarinetists like Pee Wee Russell
and Jimmie Noone, there’s always room for his humor, on and off stage.
Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, Davern adds he’s not so sure he should
be inducted into a club that would have him as a member.
Despite the praise heaped upon him by jazz critics and his international
stature, Davern instead prefers to focus on his own improvement as
a clarinetist. "I don’t really make records until I have an absolute
urgent, burning desire to make a statement. To do it haphazardly is
not for me."
Davern, who has performed at a number of past Jersey Jazz Festivals,
says, "I find them for myself, musically edifying. I am at least
able to say who I want to play with. When the musicians are from a
potpourri of styles that don’t mix, train wrecks can occur."
Davern’s latest recording is a 1998 release for Arbors Records, "Smiles."
His other releases on the Florida-based Arbors include "Breezin’
Along," (1997) and "Kenny Davern and the Rhythm Men,"
a 1996 release with Bucky Pizzarelli. In 1999 the label released a
collaboration with cornetist Ruby Braff, "Born To Play." All
will be available at the record tent at the New Jersey Jazz Society’s
"Unless I’ve moved to a new place musically or wish to make a
new or different statement, I don’t see the point of recording another
album," Davern explains.
"The material is unimportant," he continues, "it’s how
you add to it and reinterpret and contribute to the collective whole,
and extend it. I mean, Louis Armstrong could take `Three Blind Mice’
and turn it into a masterpiece."
Davern was born in Huntington, Long Island, in 1935 and shuffled through
a maze of foster homes in Brooklyn and Queens. He began playing clarinet
when he was 11. Dixieland jazz grabbed him by the ear when he was
11, via the radio. He heard Pee Wee Russell playing "Memphis Blues"
with Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtimers. Right then and there, he decided
he wanted to spend the rest of his life playing this music. In retrospect,
Davern has no regrets.
"I think the earlier you find that out, the better off you are,"
he says. "Sometimes when one comes back to music later in life,
the muse has turned its back on you."
Davern started playing clarinet and then switched to saxophone for
a time in high school. He found that girls would be impressed when
he played a saxophone solo. But he never dropped the clarinet, and
focused his efforts there. Right out of high school, he joined pianist
Ralph Flanagan’s big band in the early 1950s. Flanagan had a big hit,
"Hot Toddy," in 1951 and ’52.
"I remember, I was just about to get out of high school, and there
were about 40 guys auditioning for his band. I just went right up
to the manager and said, `Look, I’ve got another date, so I’d like
to do this audition as soon as possible.’ And I got the gig!"
Asked about traveling with Flanagan’s band in 1953 and
1954, Davern was typically succinct. "I learned that one-nighters
will kill you! We did 60 one-nighters in 90 days. But he made the
most money of any bandleader at that point. I was making $119.25 a
week. And that was enough to save money, would you believe. A meal
was a buck and a half. A hotel room was $3.75."
Like any focused musician, Davern devoted a long time to his apprenticeship.
He collaborated with trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeters Henry
"Red" Allen and Buck Clayton, and drummer Jo Jones. He didn’t
think about leading his own group until he was past 40 and had been
playing professionally more than two decades.
Throughout his long career, Davern has always been steadfast in honoring
those who came before him. Besides, the clarinet doesn’t easily lend
itself to bebop jazz, which came along in the early ’50s, surpassing
the once-popular big bands. Then, in the early ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll
came along too, eclipsing the popularity of jazz music in general.
"The problems with purveyors of some of this music is that when
you’re trying to recreate things, sometimes it’s just another copy
of the Mona Lisa," he argues. "The idea is to take the music
from that period and continue on and add your voice to it, your personal
stamp. You do this so it doesn’t crystallize and it doesn’t become
Davern moved to Manasquan from New York City in 1965, renting a number
of places before purchasing a house. Rock ‘n’ roll had already taken
its toll on countless of his jazz musician friends, and he knew the
economics of jazz would not furnish him with a lavish lifestyle. Until
a few years ago, he spent upwards of 230 nights a year on the road.
He has curtailed his traveling more recently. But Garden State residents
can find him performing a stone’s throw away in places like the Cornerstone
in Metuchen or the Shanghai Jazz Restaurant in Livingston, every month.
"Let’s put it this way," he explains, "I like music that
makes me feel good. I like to listen to it when I play it, and most
of that music was played by people who happened to be born around
the turn of the century."
Davern considers himself fortunate to have met and sat in with some
of these pre-bebop jazz stylists in the late 1940s in Manhattan. "It’s
much more refreshing for me to be able to confront a tune like Earl
Hines’ `Rosetta’ nightly, or George Gershwin’s `Lady Be Good’ nightly.
I find that much more challenging than playing cliches of tunes that
are based on those tunes," he explains.
Tradition has always been a big part of where Davern’s head is at.
Even at some large jazz festivals, he insists on playing without amplification,
unless his band is in a tent. And while some jazz fans can’t fathom
his fascination with music of the 1920s and ’30s, for him the challenge
lies in playing the classics in his own way, without altering the
basic spirit of the original tune. He notes that W.C. Handy’s blues
tunes had different little turns and quirks in them, "and you
just don’t bury it by playing a 12-bar blues or making substitute
chord changes. `Beale Street Blues’ is different from `Memphis Blues’
which is different from `St. Louis Blues,’" he argues.
Good blues is very difficult to play, Davern admits, "and to me,
unless you can play blues, you shouldn’t be playing jazz music."
That mindset is a big part of what drives Davern. It’s what led a
New York Times jazz critic to call Davern the world’s greatest jazz
clarinet player. Still, Davern admits the tunes he specializes in
are, frankly, quite old. Nowadays, the lyrics often strike younger
and even some silver-haired listeners as maudlin. "That’s why
I don’t deal with the lyrics. I don’t back singers for that reason,"
he says. "The lyrics may be corny, but the tunes are not. And
the tunes will survive."
— Richard J. Skelly
Fairleigh Dickinson, Madison, 800-303-NJJS. The annual festival on
three stages also features the Billy Taylor Trio, the Lou Donaldson
Quartet, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, Houston Person and Etta Jones,
the Junior Mance Trio, the Beale Street Jazz Band, and Bucky Pizzarelli.
$30 per day; or $55 weekend. Saturday and Sunday, June 24 and 25,
noon to 6 p.m.
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